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Industrial best practice does not make for good Government

September 21, 2006

I ran a lecture/workshop for 170 civil servants in Singapore yesterday on the general theme of complexity and networked government as a part of what is wider field of interest for me. We are at the tail end of the World Bank/IMF meeting where Singapore has done a great job of hosting a massive influx of people while avoiding any terrorist outrage. They have suffered (I think unfairly) from the worlds press picking up on their stereotypes of Singapore society and amplifying them, while ignoring the reality of Singapore’s situation in a volatile region. Either way, in my view the Singapore Civil Service is one of the most progressive I know, which is not to say that it is perfect. It has a real opportunity to become a experimental centre for excellence in Government that the rest of the world would do well to observe.

I was picking up on the theme of networked government and made variety of points of varying degrees of controversy, one of which is encapsulated in the above title and on which I want to expand.

From a variety of reports I unearthed but also from common sense, it is obvious that the major challenge facing Government over the next 15 years or so is “How do do a lot more, with a lot less”. Now my view is that complexity (and more specifically what I would term a naturalising not an idealistic or normative to sense-making) is about one of the only options around at the moment that would allow this to happen. Examples like the Grameen Bank should be the inspiration here.

However Governments seem to be locked into a paradigm of managing on the basis of so called “Industrial Best Practice (IDP)” and use an economic model based on scarcity and top down allocation. Government procurement processes increase cost and reduce quality of delivery etc etc

Now the IDP argument annoys me as it normally means consultants selling government things that no longer sell to industry, as they have been there, done it and realised its limitations. In fact in at least two consultancy firms I know its more cynical. When Government buys you know something has reached the end of its life cycle, so package it up as a rigid recipe that can be executed by some of your junior or less able consultants. Move your bright consultants onto new things in terms of ideas, but let a few of them sell the recipe to generate cash from an audience that is seeking to imitate something they do not fully understand and whose regulatory mechanisms they do not share.

In practice Government does not have the self regulatory mechanisms of Industry, in which the need to generate cash and make profit act as a harsh evolutionary driver. Its noticeable for example that balanced score cards perpetuate themselves in Bureaucracies but a short life span in Industry as their utility did not survive a down turn in the economy. I use the phrase Bureaucracies deliberately as several large international companies, one of which I worked for represent this approach more than many a Government and have enough slack in their systems to support methods and tools that have outlived their utility. This means that methods and ideas that have outlived their utility can persist without an check or balance.

Introducing market forces can have some impact on this, but generally results in absurdities and the confusion or measurement systems with targets, the impact of which is far greater in Government than in Industry. It is at least arguable that one of the major causes of super bugs in hospitals is attributable to the the loss of control of hygiene by the Matron (another role often lost to re-engineering) by letting out cleaning to the lowest cost bidder. In effect seeing cleaning as a non-core process, when in fact it is part of the overall health eco-system (or to use a concept I am currently working on with others and anthro-system).

Related to this is the basic fact that civil/public servants have a sense of public duty and should not be (and generally are not) motivated by profit/growth etc. Government is a different system from Industry and has different needs. This sense of public duty still persists in my experience (UK, Australian, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada & Singapore to take examples of where I have worked with Government in the last two years) despite considerable abuse, poor pay and little respect.

It seems to me that Governments, as we move to a knowledge economy (and yes I still think that phrase has value) which has to be based on a philosophy of abundance not scarcity, need to lead, not follow. This question of abundance as against scarcity is one I have talked about before talked about before, and is an emergent them in many a subject, to take one example from this morning’s blog list: leadership in CoPs.

Governments need to create new ways of working, based on new insights from science, not follow IDP. The ultimate difference in context is that Industry assumes regular death and replacement of companies. I don’t know what the average life span of a company is these days, but its certainly less than government. I am of course assuming here a Commonwealth model in which the civil servants are not political appointments replaced on a patronage basis every four years

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