An uncivil practice

February 24, 2012

My last day in Singapore on this trip, although I will be back at the end of March. It's been a busy week both with client projects and Cognitive Edge business. One of the regular features of my trips to Singapore is a meal and conversation with Peter Ho, formerly Head of the Civil Service although when I first met him he was Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence. Peter was behind iRAHS and many other initiatives in Singapore that had an international impact. He is probably one of the best known Singaporeans in Washington and London (based on my own contacts) and combines an ability to listen and interpret innovative ideas into a formal organisation. I've known a few, all too few, of these key boundary spanners in my life (Philip Oliver of IBM another) and without them I could have done little.

The conversation as usual went in various unexpected directions, but one theme stimulated me to write this post. Peter asked me why (with a legitimate air of concern and incomprehension) the UK government was closing (I know they say they are outsourcing, but lets call a spade a spade) its Civil Service College. He has long championed the Singapore equivalent as an importance aspect of governance. Not just to train the future generation of civil servants, but also to allow new thinking and ideas to emerge for the future.

Now I agree with Peter here, the idea that you can simply outsource training is just the latest in a series of commercial measures that have undermined the whole concept of a civil service. For many, the image of the civil servant and the relationship with power is epitomised by Sir Humphrey Appleton of Yes Minister fame and in my dealings with the British Government over the years I have encountered a few moments that would provide fertile material for the script writers, but that is for another day. The gentile satire of that programme still had it its heart the key concept of a tension between a permanent civil service and political needs. That tension has been a key aspect of British democracy for several centuries and the Singaporeans inherited it, maintained it and have also in some ways improved it with a large part of the elite of an elitist education system entering it. I personally think it contrasts favourably with the US approach in which key posts are political appointments that change with each administration, regrettably Britain is moving closer to that model.

Aside from the loss of a centre for training and understanding we have the increasing import of models from industry which are not even fully successful there and are heavily dependent on the context of markets. One aspect of this is outcome based targets and KPIs which focus people on measurable outcome, linking reward to predefined objectives. Now we already know that outcome based targets often suffer from the law of unforeseen consequences. My modification of Goodharts Law says that anything explicit will always be gamed, and that is all too true in government and industry. I have railed against this often and will continue to do so. In a complex system, and governments are always dealing with complex systems, the number of things where a successful outcome can be determined in advance are few. But the obsession with targets mean that teachers who are good at completing learning plans are better rewarded that those who inspire pupils to learn, nurses who care for patients suffer in comparison to those who complete shift reports etc. etc.

The other thing that this approach achieves is to destroy, in a uncivil manner, the idea of service to the people. Ok there were always exceptions, but the underlying cultural norm of the civil service was to enable good governance, not to gain personal reward. Security, a good pension etc were personal benefits, but achievement of commercial levels of reward but rarely part of a civil servants life. They joined, in the main from University and matured in a culture of service. Now they are just another bunch of middle managers. We really need to understand that intrinsic motivation is almost inevitably damaged by extrinsic reward, and that is a loss that if continued will be impossible to recover.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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