On being and doing in government

By Adrian Brown

October 31, 2019

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“Practical people, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” ~ John Maynard Keynes

Much of the debate around government and public service reform is about what government should (or should not) do. For example how services should be structured, how performance should be tracked or how decisions should be made.

We spend much less time reflecting on how government should be, by which I mean the underlying principles, values and beliefs upon which action is based.

This is a shame because for organisations, as for people, it is impossible to fully understand and appreciate action without also understanding and appreciating intent.

Whereas the doing lens focuses on “what” the being lens focuses on “why” — and you need both to understand the full picture.

Doing describes “what” whereas Being explains “why”. Image by Alex Carabi

(Old) new public management

In public administration, a set of principles have underpinned much of our thinking for the past few decades — effectively providing an answer to the “why” question. But as the Keynes quote above alludes, we may not even realise it, much less time is spent on discussing whether those principles continue to be appropriate.

At its most basic level, this mindset has been about maximising efficiency based on the principle that government should not waste taxpayers’ money and the belief that the machinery of government can be optimised through better management techniques and smart use of the private sector.

There are a whole set of other beliefs and principles that come wrapped up with this thinking. See the vast literature on New Public Management (NPM) dating back to the 1980s for more details.

So persuasive and pervasive is this logic that it is difficult to point to a government in the world that has not absorbed it to some degree, but how many can explain or defend the underlying rationale? NPM has become Keynes’ “defunct economist” for the public sector.

New Zealand moved further and faster than most with NPM and their experience is instructive. While (some) efficiencies were gained, something vital was lost, and now they are asking questions about the “why” rather than just debating the “what”.

As New Zealand’s State Services Commissioner, Peter Hughes, has argued:

“Sitting behind the 1990s reforms was a very utilitarian view of the public service. It saw public service as the delivery arm of government — and a contestable one at that… but what we lost was a sense of being part of something bigger, with a higher purpose, with a moral purpose. In many ways, I think, we lost our heart.”

It turns out that viewing government as a machine to be optimised misses something very fundamental about public service. Rectifying this requires more than simply focusing on what government is doing. We must reflect on the being of government — the underlying values, beliefs and assumptions.

In New Zealand, this has led to a renewed focus on what Hughes calls the spirit of service drawing from a very different set of values such as putting the needs of others first, approaching problems with humility and having a higher purpose.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Carnegie Trust has been exploring what role kindness has to play in government and how an “infrastructure of kindness” could be built into the National Performance Framework.

Our own work at the Centre for Public Impact has explored the crisis of legitimacy that many governments are facing and highlighted the importance of behaviours such as empathy and authenticity in building trust.

Human positive government

What the thinking in New Zealand, in Scotland, and elsewhere, is pointing to is a shift in how we think government should be. And whilst using different language they are pointing in a similar direction — away from the more technocratic, managerial framing and towards a more human, empathetic one.

This approach starts with a recognition that the quality of the system as a whole is determined by the quality of the human relationships within it. As such, greater emphasis is placed on promoting trust, empathy, collaboration, shared understanding and continuous learning.

Disciplines such as ethnography, design, community organising and systems thinking form the intellectual underpinning rather than traditional economics, engineering and management. Indeed, those traditional disciplines are themselves being disrupted by radical new thinkers who are challenging the received wisdom along exactly the same lines.

In practice this means that rather than trying to manage systems so that they are as efficient as possible we are instead aiming to promote healthier, more human systems that can achieve better outcomes for everyone. Dr Toby Lowe from Newcastle Business School calls these Human, Learning Systems.

This doesn’t mean that we don’t care about efficiency and taxpayers’ money (just as NPM proponents also presumably care about empathy, trust and collaboration). The difference is the values, beliefs and assumptions we choose to place at the heart of the model upon which everything else is built. Indeed, if a human positive approach leads to better outcomes for the same inputs then it is, by definition, more efficient even if we didn’t target efficiency as a primary goal. (See John Kay’s thinking on obliquity for more examples of this effect).

It also doesn’t mean that we reject all the tools and approaches from the last 30 years. That would be confusing the being and the doing. Rather, the test as to whether something like target-driven performance management makes sense is whether it helps to increase the quality of human relationships in a given situation. To the extent it does, we should happily embrace it.

What it does mean is that many new approaches, that are currently in the early stages of maturity, will become more widespread. For example, encouraging new forms of deliberative democracy to enrich local accountability. Or exploring the potential of peer-networks to promote learning and share improvement ideas. We’ve explored these ideas and more at the Centre for Public Impact through our work on the Shared Power Principle.

I’m frequently in conversation with officials tasked with thinking about this kind of stuff and I’m usually cheered by their openness and eagerness to explore new ways of working. Usually, they, more than anyone else, can see the flaws of the current approach and the promise that a more human-centred approach can offer.

But then they say something like this (verbatim quote from a senior official).

“I don’t expect to see a major difference from government or politicians in the near term on trying to measure stuff and manage delivery. Everybody wants a dashboard… It’s probably the first thing any new senior asks for!”

Which brings to mind another Keynes quote.

“The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”

READ MORE: Why can’t policymakers take women’s needs into account? Because our design is made by and for men

The Centre for Public Impact is a not-for-profit founded by Boston Consulting Group. Believing that governments can and want to do better for people, we work side-by-side with governments  —  and all those who help them  — to reimagine government, and turn ideas into action.

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