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Why government agencies forget


Organisational memory loss impacts negatively on the performance of government agencies. It can lead to weaknesses in policy, service delivery and the craft of the public servant. By understanding its causes, public sector organisations can reduce memory loss.

At a glance

In a paper for the journal, Governance, Alistair Stark (University of Queensland) discusses organisational memory loss in government agencies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. The article outlines four reasons leading to institutional amnesia: organisational churn, absorptive capacity, strategic forgetting and historical storytelling.

Why it matters

Organisational memory loss impacts negatively on the effectiveness of government agencies. It is:

  • defined as the ability and willingness of public sector institutions to access and make use of possibly relevant past experiences
  • associated with weaknesses in policy learning, service delivery, institutional reform, regulatory oversight and the craft of the public servant.

The study

The research involved an analysis of four case studies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Each case related to a public inquiry that investigated a crisis.

  1. The 2008 Pitt Review and the lessons learned around flood management in the UK – a response to the 2007 summer floods in England.
  2. The Canterbury Earthquakes Royal Commission which investigated why certain buildings in Christchurch’s Central Business District were unable to withstand an earthquake in February 2011 which killed 185 people.
  3. The Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission which investigated the official response to the “Black Saturday” bushfires of 2009 that took the lives of 173 Australians.
  4. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Royal Commission convened to examine the Ontario public health system’s response to SARS, which killed 44 citizens in that province.

The case research was accompanied by 100 interviews with ministers, policy officials, and public sector leaders involved in the cases. Four explanations for institutional amnesia emerged from the study: organisational churn, absorptive capacity, strategic forgetting and historical storytelling.

Organisational churn

The most common view of amnesia from interviewees related to the churn government agencies experience because of staff throughput and restructuring. Different types of bureaucratic organisations have different rates of memory loss.

Themes in the data related specifically to three organisational types:

  • The central agency which experienced significant churn due to fast streaming officials moving quickly through their ranks. The closer a department is to executive decision making, the more it attracts fast‐streaming officials and the less capacity it has to store memory.
  • A line department often has a slightly slower loss of memory because of its focus on a specific policy area and the need to invest more in understanding external stakeholders. These stakeholders create a form of external memory, particularly if interest groups maintain a consistent message across time.
  • The expert agency where memory is stronger. Officials are often from specialist professions and churn is reduced because they stay to develop their expertise. These specialist agencies also see the task of keeping memory alive as one of their core functions.

Absorptive capacity

This relates to the ability of an organisation to institutionalise change. When an organisation can hardwire new reforms into its pre-existing machinery, reforms do not get lost or stuck before they are embedded. The research identified two factors that can affect the ability of an organisation to implement new reforms:

  1. Complexity of pre-existing legislative frameworks: In complex frameworks such as planning regimes, new instruments can be lost and forgotten. Reforms relating to flood management (UK), bushfire safety (Australia), and earthquake vulnerability (NZ) had to deal with complex regulatory systems about planning and the built and natural environment. This was problematic and not all of those lessons have been properly absorbed. They are already being forgotten.
  2. Effective independent oversight mechanisms: These mechanisms and their oversight can prevent institutions forgetting. The Bushfires Royal Commission Implementation Monitor in Australia was cited as an one example where active on‐going monitoring made sure commitments were followed through.

Strategic forgetting

The research interviews identified two types of wilful amnesia:

  • A view that elected officials are incapable of holding memory because the institutional landscape of Westminster systems does not accommodate it. Electoral cycles, intense media pressure and the ups and downs of issue attention were all cited as examples as why some issues can be relegated while others prioritised.
  • Amnesia is encouraged for strategic reasons including applying appropriate policy settings in the aftermath of crises.

Historical storytelling

Institutional amnesia can be reduced when officials engage in storytelling about the “why” behind how things are done. The existence of storytellers—individuals who hold and communicate the story of each crisis and the lessons of each inquiry—was repeatedly defined as important in the case interviews.

Why it matters

Institutional amnesia can undermine the performance of public sector agencies in policy, service delivery and reform. Initiatives that can enhance organisational memory within government need to be a priority for public managers in order to prevent this memory loss.

Want to read more?

Explaining institutional amnesia in government – Alastair Stark, Governance, Volume 32, Issue 1

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