Working in government should be empowering — not a punchline

By Adrian Brown

Monday February 15, 2021


Ronald Reagan famously remarked that the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Like many jokes, it reveals some important truths about our view of the world. Firstly, we think of government as powerful: “here to help” is funny because our assumption is that government can compel us if it chooses.

Secondly, we think of government as ignorant, both of its own limitations and its understanding of real people. So “here to help” is also funny because that “help” is likely to be anything but.

The fact the joke still works shows how little our view of government has shifted since 1986 when Reagan first said those words.

If anything, the pursuit of New Public Management in the intervening period has helped to solidify the view that good government is about command-and-control, albeit with the help of modern management techniques. “I’m from the government, I’m here to help and I’ve brought some Key Performance Indicators.”

Flipping the script

But now a new vision of government is emerging that will flip Reagan’s quip.

From Australia to Illinois there is a growing recognition that, to achieve the best results, governments should recognise the limits of their knowledge and share power with those better placed to promote positive change.

At the Centre for Public Impact, we’ve been speaking to hundreds of government pioneers around the world and have identified four patterns of behaviour that are reshaping the role of the State.

First, the concept of subsidiarity: the idea that decision-making should be placed at the lowest appropriate level. This means putting decisions into the hands of people or organisations with the greatest knowledge of an issue and helping them exercise this power as effectively as possible.

Secondly, our research points to the importance of embracing human complexity and diversity. Rather than seeking plain vanilla solutions with the “average” citizen in mind, we need more bespoke approaches, which require deep and trusted relationships — and giving individuals the power to shape services to their needs.

Thirdly, pioneers are exploring new forms of accountability. At its heart, accountability is about asking people to account for their actions. This requires far more local and participatory forms of decision-making than traditional line-management allows.

Lastly, technocratic solutionism is being replaced with a culture of continuous learning within teams and across different organisations. This implies a greater comfort with experimentation as well as recognising that failure is a necessary part of any learning system.

The end of managerialism

Together, these trends describe what we are calling the Shared Power Principle and we believe they offer a very different vision for effective government than the managerialism of recent years.

There are many examples of these principles being put into practice around the world, but I’ll highlight just one here.

Finland’s schools have long been lauded for achieving some of the best educational outcomes in the world. Delegation after delegation have beaten a path to the country in the hope of returning home with some new best practices that can be replicated and scaled. But the logic of the Finnish system is based not on spreading at the practice from Helsinki but on devolving more authority and autonomy to municipalities.

Teachers are trusted to plan their own curriculums and assessments, and state inspections have been abandoned.

Even Tony Blair, who perhaps did more than anyone to promote “deliverology” and top-down control in public services, now argues that “governments must be more experimental and decentralising, empowering teams across the public sector — who are often best placed to know what needs to be done — to set and achieve their own goals.”

The future is now

The good news is that Blair’s vision for the future of government is already a reality in pockets here and there, so we know it does work. We now need to put in the hard work required to make that change systemic.

If we are successful, and we are able to transform the prevailing mindset about the role of government, Reagan’s phrase will no longer be a joke but a powerful call to action. If power is truly distributed, government’s role inevitably shifts from being a controller towards being an enabler — helping to create the conditions from which good outcomes are more likely to emerge.

“I’m from the government, and I’m here to help”. The nine most empowering words in the English language.

This article is curated from Apolitical.


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