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Transitions without Train Wrecks

April 18, 2011

After an uneventful flight from Heathrow I am back in Canada, a little jet lagged and still processing the last five days. My last set of reflections on innovation and public policy has to do with the role that public administrators might play as governments grope their way forward. The study tour in Europe prompted a question about how civil servants can facilitate large scale change in the delivery of government services, but from a personal perspective was can what we know about complex systems lead us to better decision support in broad policy reform. It is more than an intellectual exercise as we are likely to face a contraction in government spending in Canada in the coming years. Do we manage expenditure reductions? Or do we investigate completely new ways of doing the business of government?

Both the UK and Finland are at fairly early stages of their exploration. The UK is out of the gate with the government having announced significant and immediate cuts to virtually all departmental budgets (I will come back to the Finns in a moment). So the starting conditions for innovation are present though certainly not in the way that most public servants would want.

The early days are giving us a few important lessons. I am going focus on the social programs side of government as the shift in the provision of social services will likely have the greatest long term risks, both threats and benefits. The UK has a strong professional public service, a well-developed charitable sector, growing and important local governments, and a strong civil society. There have been over the last several years numerous important examples of social innovations. Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of the Young Foundation one of the recognized leaders in the field spoke to us as did researchers from the Institute for Government as well as a number of current and former public servants. The coverage is incomplete even if well informed and I offer that as a caution.

The question of purpose comes back to me here as what I heard a lot of from UK civil servants was the focus on the budget reduction side. The narrative was “more for less”, “better for less” and “less for less”. The impact is likely to be less. The Finns narrative is different and it is about the values of the system with a willingness to reconceptualise the how. The UK coalition government is advocating a Big Society (for more read Jesse Norman’s book of the same name) but even proponents feel that that may be a generation in the making so there is a “transition without a train wreck” challenge that must be dealt with. These are normative questions and political rather than public administration, but there is a real role for public servants to provide evidence, fearless advice, and, the implementation options that will achieve the cuts and manage the transition. The heuristic is if you are going to work on culture change you want to start with a real good sense of the culture. For the Finns this may be easier given the more homogeneous nature of their society but the rest of us are still on the hook. There may be an explosion in the field of narrative research.

There are two other thoughts on the role of public administration that can be drawn from complexity. The first is about the fact that the actions taken by the central government are likely to recast boundaries. There are two considerations that might be useful. Blur the borders and don’t recast them in any rigid sense to allow an adaptive approach. At the same time increase the porosity allowing greater inward inclusion of the other actors encouraging co-creation of public policy and service. This will be difficult for public servants who have for all the rhetoric been relatively insular.

The second and I believe most important dimension of potential public administration shift will be that of new forms of identity( I read George Akerloff and Rachel Kraton’s book Identity Economics which is good but dosen`t push sufficiently far into the institutional space). The last three decades with the advent of new public management have been about distinct institutional identity as a drive to clarity for the purpose of accountability was accentuated. A new frame is most likely to emerge from a totally new set of institutional arrangements that will be based less on the clarification of role and perhaps more around some other imperative driven by agreements on broad measures of impact such as citizen wellbeing and the investment share each player would be expected to make. To a large extent the players will need to feel pressure to go down this route and it is here that political mandate can play an essential role. That pressure if wisely exerted, meaning an experimental approach, may generate a new perspective of what the service is and how it is produced and delivered.

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