We created the system, and therefore we can reinvent the system: the urgency behind public sector reform

By Pia Andrews

Wednesday October 9, 2019

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THE PIA REVIEW: PIA ANDREWS This is a Public Sector Pia Review — a series on better public sectors.

I am driven by a sense of urgency, both to improve our public sectors and to reimagine the world as we know it. I’ve shared below the four 21st century paradoxes that most drive me, for discussion and interest. I believe they put us at a fork in the road where we can either choose to reinforce legacy outdated paradigms with shiny new things, or choose to forge better paths. To do the latter, we need to critically assess the systems and structures we built and actively choose what we want to keep, what we should discard, what sort of society we want in the future and what we need to get there.

I think it is too easily forgotten that we invented all this and can therefore reinvent it — if we choose to. To not make a choice is to choose the status quo.

This is not to say I think everything needs to change. Nothing is so simplistic or misleading as a zero sum argument :) Rather, the intent of this article is to challenge you to think critically about the systems you work within, whether they enable or disable the things you think are important, and most importantly, to challenge you to imagine what sort of world you want to see. Not just for you, but for your family, community and the broader society.

The four paradoxes are as follows:

  • Paradox 1: Although power is more distributed than ever, most people are still struggling to survive.
  • Paradox 2: Government is an important part of a stable society and yet is being increasingly undermined, both intentionally and unintentionally.
  • Paradox 3: Substantial paradigm shifts have already happened, but are not being integrated into people’s thinking and processes, let alone public policies or vision.
  • Paradox 4: We are surrounded by new things every day and yet there is a serious lack of vision for the future.

Paradox 1

Though power is more distributed than ever, most people are still struggling to survive

The Internet has become both an extension and enabler of equality and power by massively distributing both to ordinary people around the world. How has power and equality been distributed? When you consider what constitutes power, five elements come to mind: publishing, communications, monitoring, enforcement, and of course, property. It’s important to note I’m not suggestion these things are net positive or negative, but rather simply our new reality and worth considering.

Publishing — in times gone past, the ideas that spread beyond a small geographical area either traveled word of mouth via trade routes or made it into a book. Only the wealthy could afford to print and distribute the written word, so publishing and dissemination of information was a power limited to a small number of people. Today, the spreading of ideas is extremely easy, cheap, and can be done anonymously. Anyone can start a blog or use social media, and the proliferation of information creation and dissemination is unprecedented.

How does this change society? Firstly, there is an assumption that an individual can tell their story to a global audience, which means an official story is easily challenged not only by the intended audience but also by the people about whom the story is written. Individuals online expect both to have their say and to determine for themselves what is most credible. This presents significant challenges to traditional powers such as governments and public sectors in establishing an authoritative voice unless they can establish and maintain trust with the citizens they serve.

Communications — individuals have always had some method to communicate with individuals in other communities and countries, but up until recent decades, these methods have been quite expensive, slow, and controlled. This has meant that historically, people have tended to form social and professional relationships with those close by, largely out of convenience. The Internet has made it easy to communicate, collaborate with, and coordinate with individuals and groups all around the world, in real time. This has made massive and global civil responses and movements possible, which has challenged traditional and geographically defined powers substantially. It has also presented a significant challenge for governments to predict and control information flow and relationships within the society. It also created a challenge for how to support the best interests of citizens, given the tension between what is good for a geographically defined nation state doesn’t always align with what is good for an online and trans-nationally focused citizen.

Monitoring — traditional power structures have always had ways to monitor the masses. Monitoring helps maintain rule of law through assisting in the enforcement of laws, and is often upheld through self-reporting because those affected by broken laws will report issues to hold detractors to account. In just the past 50 years, modern technologies like CCTV have made monitoring of the people a trivial task, where video cameras can record what is happening 24 hours a day. Foucault spoke of the panopticon gaol design as a metaphor for a modern surveillance state, where everyone is constantly watched on camera. The panopticon was a gaol design wherein detainees could not tell if they were being observed by gaolers or not, enabling in principle, less gaolers to control a large number of prisoners who would theoretically behave better under observation. Foucault was concerned that omnipresent surveillance would lead to all individuals being more conservative and limited in themselves if they knew they could be watched at any time. The Internet has turned this model on its head. Although governments can more easily monitor citizens than ever before, individuals can also monitor each other and indeed, monitor organisations and even governments for misbehaviour. This has led to individuals, governments, companies and other entities all being held to account publicly, sometimes violently or unfairly so.

Enforcement — enforcement of laws is a key role of a power structure, to ensure the rules of a society are maintained for the benefit of stability and prosperity. Enforcement can take many forms, including physical (gaol, punishment) or psychological (pressure, public humiliation). Power structures have many ways of enforcing the rules of a society on individuals, but the Internet gives individuals substantial enforcement tools of their own. Power used to be who had the biggest sword, or gun, or police force. Now that major powers and indeed, economies, rely so heavily upon the Internet, there is a power in the ability to disrupt communications. In taking down a government or corporate website or online service, an individual or small group of individuals can have an impact far greater than in the past on power structures in their society, and can do so anonymously. This becomes quite profound when citizen groups emerge with their own philosophical premise and the tools to monitor and enforce their perspective.

Property — property has always been a strong basis of law and order and still plays an important part in democracy, although perspectives towards property are arguably starting to shift. Copyright was invented to protect the “intellectual property” of a person against copying at a time when copying was quite a physical business, and when the mode of distributing information was very expensive. Now, digital information is so easy to copy that it has created a change in expectations and a struggle for traditional models of intellectual property. New models of copyright have emerged that explicitly support copying (copyleft) and some have been successful, such as with the Open Source software industry or with remix music culture. 3D printing will change the game again, as we will see in the near future the massive distribution of the ability to copy exact or superior physical goods, not just virtual ones. This is already creating havoc with those who seek to protect traditional approaches to property but it also presents an extraordinary opportunity for humankind to have greater distribution of physical needs and wealth, not just virtual. Particularly if you consider the current use of 3D printing to create transplant organs, building materials, or the potential of 3D printing combined with some form of nano technology to reassemble molecular materials into food or other essential living items. That is starting to step into science fiction, but we should consider the broader potential of these new technologies before we decide to arbitrarily limit them based on traditional views of copyright, as we are already starting to see.

READ MORE: The policy futurist’s reading list. How speculative fiction can inform better public policy as our society changes and grows in response to new tech

By massively distributing publishing, communications, monitoring, and enforcement, and with the coming potential massive distribution of property, technology, the Internet has created an ad hoc, self-determined, and grassroots power base that challenges traditional power structures and governments.

But there are also systemic (and artificial) limitations on the distribution of power, most notably limited capacity, but also rising inequity. Increased busyness and living costs means most people have increasingly scarce time and resources and simply cannot participate fully in their own lives let alone in contributing substantially to the community and world around them. If we consider the impact of business and organisational models built on scarcity, centricity, and secrecy, we quickly see that normal people are locked out of a variety of resources, tools and knowledge with which they could better their lives. The cost and complexity of living is dramatically increasing and the quality of life is decreasing. We take publicly funded education, research, and information and lock them behind paywalls and then blame people for not having the skills, knowledge, or facts at their disposal. If a substantial challenge of the 21st century is having enough time and cognitive load to spare, why don’t we have strategies to free up more time for more people? What do we need to do systemically to empower more people to move beyond survival and into being able to thrive?

Paradox 2

Government is an important part of a stable society and yet is being increasingly undermined, both intentionally and unintentionally

The realisation here has been in first realising how important our public sectors (and democracy) are in providing a safe, stable, accountable, predictable, and prosperous society while simultaneously observing first hand the undermining and degradation of the role of government both intentionally and unintentionally, from the outside and inside. I have chosen to work in the private sector, non-profit community sector, political sector, and now public sector, specifically because I wanted to understand the “system” in which I live and how it all fits together. I believe that “government” — both the political and public sectors — has a critical part to play in designing, leading, and implementing a better future. The reason I believe this is because government is one of the few mechanisms that is accountable to the people — in democratic countries, at any rate. Perhaps not as much as we like, and it has been slow to adapt to modern practices, tools, and expectations, but governments are one of the most powerful and influential tools at our disposal, and we can better use them as such.

However, I posit that an internal, largely unintentional and ongoing degradation of the public sectors is underway in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and other “western democracies”, spurred initially by an ideological shift from ‘serving the public good’ to acting more like a business in the “New Public Management” policy shift of the 1980s. This was useful double speak for replacing public service values with business values and practices, which ignores the fact that governments often do what is not naturally delivered by the marketplace and should not be only doing what is profitable. The political appointment of heads of departments has also resulted over time in replacing frank, fearless, and evidence-based leadership with politically palatable compromises throughout the senior executive layer of the public sector, which also drives necessarily secretive behaviour, else the contradictions be apparent to the ordinary person.

I have seen the results of these internal forms of degradations. From workshops where people under budget constraints seriously consider outsourcing all government services to the private sector, to long-suffering experts in the public sector unable to sway leadership with facts until expensive consultants are brought in to ask their opinion and sell the insights back to the department where it is finally taken seriously (because “industry” said it), through to serious issues where significant failures happen with blame outsourced along with the risk, design and implementation, with the details hidden behind “commercial in confidence” arrangements.

READ MORE: CSIRO staff reveal struggles under APS staff cap

The impact on the effectiveness of the public sector is obvious, but the human cost is also substantial, with public servants directly undermined, intimidated, ignored, and have a growing sense of hopelessness and disillusionment. There is also an intentional degradation of democracy by external (but occasionally internal) agents who benefit from the weakening and limiting of government. This is more overt in some countries than others. A tension between the regulator and those regulated is a perfectly natural thing; however, as the public sector grows weaker, the balance between sectors is lost and public good becomes harder to maintain. I have seen many people in government take a vendor or lobbyist word as gold without critical analysis of the motivations or implications, largely again due to the word of a public servant being inherently assumed to be less valid than from the private sector. This imbalance needs to be addressed if the public sector is to play an effective role. Greater accountability and transparency can help, but currently, there is a lack of common agreement on the broader role of government in society, both the political and public sectors. So the entire institution and the stability it can provide is under threat of death by a billion papercuts. Efforts to evolve government and democracy have largely been limited to iterations on the status quo: better consultation, better voting, better access to information, better services. But a rethink is required and the internal existential crisis and systemic degradations need to be addressed.

Paradox 3

Substantial paradigm shifts have already happened but are not being integrated into people’s thinking and processes, let alone public policies or vision

The realisation here is that even if people are motivated to understand something fundamentally new to their worldview, it doesn’t necessarily translate into how they behave. It is easier to improve something than change it. Easier to provide symptomatic relief than to cure the disease. People often confuse iteration for transformation, or symptomatic relief with addressing causal factors, so perhaps there is also a need for critical and systems thinking as part of the general curriculum. This is important because symptomatic relief, whilst sometimes necessary to alleviate suffering, is an effort in chasing one’s tail and often perpetuates the problem.

One of the other problems we face, particularly in government, is that the systems involved are largely products of centuries-old thinking. If we consider some of the paradigm shifts of our times, we have moved from scarcity to surplus, centralised to distributed, from closed to open, analog to digital and normative to formative. And yet, people still assume old paradigms in creating new policies, programs, and business models. For example, how many times have you heard someone talk about innovative public engagement (tapping into a distributed network of expertise) by consulting through a website (maintaining central decision-making control using a centrally controlled tool)? Or “innovation” being measured (and rewarded) through patents or copyright, both scarcity based constructs developed centuries ago? “Open government” is often developed by small, insular teams through habitually closed processes without any self awareness of the irony of the approach. And new policy and legislation is developed in analog formats without any substantial input from those affected or those tasked with implementation, or consideration with how best to consume the operating rules of government in the systems of society. Consider also the number of times we see existing systems assumed to be correct by merit of existing. For instance, a compliance model that has no measurable impact. At what point and by what mechanisms can we weigh up the merits of the old and the new when we are continually building upon a precedent-based system of decision-making? If 3D printing helped provide a surplus economy by which we could help solve hunger and poverty, why wouldn’t that be weighed up against the benefits of traditional scarcity-based business models?

Paradox 4

We are surrounded by new things every day and yet there is a serious lack of vision for the future

One of the first things I try to do in any organisation is understand the vision, the strategy, and what success should look like. In this way, I can either figure out how to best contribute meaningfully to the overarching goal, and in some cases help grow or develop the vision and strategy to be a little more ambitious. I like to measure progress and understand the baseline from which I’m trying to improve but I also like to know what I’m aiming for.

So, what could an optimistic future look like for society? For us? For you? How do you want to use the new means at our disposal to make life better for your community? Do we dare imagine a future where everyone has what they need to thrive, where we could unlock the creative and intellectual potential of our entire society, a 21st century Renaissance, rather than the vast proportion of our collective cognitive capacity going into just getting food on the table and the kids to school. Once you can imagine where you want to be, only then can we have a constructive discussion where we want to be collectively, and only then can we talk constructively the systems and structures we need to support such futures. Until then, we are all just tweaking the settings of a machine built by our ancestors.

I have been surprised to find, in government, a lot of strategies without vision, a lot of KPIs without measures of success, a gap between policy and implementation, and in many cases a disconnect between what a person is doing and the vision or goals of the organisation or program they are in. We talk “innovation” a lot, but often in the back of people’s minds they are often imagining a better website or app, which isn’t much of a transformation. We are surrounded by dystopian visions of the distant future, and yet most government vision statements only go so far as articulating something “better” than what we have now, with “strategies” often focused on shopping lists of simple tactics 3-5 years into the future. The New Zealand Department of Conservation provides an inspiring contrast, with a 50-year vision it works toward, from which it develops its shorter-term stretch goals and strategies on a rolling basis and has an ongoing measurable approach.

Hopefully these paradoxes provide some food for thought, and encourage greater collective urgency for reforming the public sector to reflect the changing world and what sort of future we need and want as a society. Let’s all build the holistic, responsive, kind and values-driven public sector we need to thrive both individually and collectively, and not be content to create beautiful cogs in a broken machine.

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