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Organisation, execution and performance challenges

Tom Burton: This is the organisational challenge. This is one of your key themes, isn’t it?

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, once we think about strategy — what is it that we’re going to do, and how we’re going to do it — and we recognize these different types of organisational, jurisdictional knowledge boundaries, then how do we think about organising to actually address those challenges? How do we configure ourselves within government, but also with other sectors and other actors, to really deliver public services, or to try and devise new policy, new strategies?

And part of that is, how do you actually get that complex machine to work? And we do that whether we’re trying to collaborate with other government agencies, whether we’re working cross-sectorally to try and stitch together these pretty complex sets of relationships. We’re starting to see, of course, a greater role for individual clients and citizens in designing their own services that they want to achieve. What does that mean for how we think about the role of actors, managers, and leaders in that?

Tom Burton: So, very practical, both design and execution elements in that.

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, absolutely. So, how do you actually organise to achieve the goals, but how do you develop workforces that can do that? How do you design relationships? How do you develop the skills to manage across pretty complex portfolios of relationships?

We no longer expect of people who are leading and managing in that environment, for them to just be great contract managers, or to just be great at collaboration, or to just be great at community engagement. We expect them at different points in their careers to do all of that, and sometimes to do it simultaneously. And for me, that’s one of the great challenges for people working in that environment now. Understanding it intellectually, but also, how do you manage it practically? And weaving that together, I think, is what makes for a great—

Tom Burton: And again it’s a legacy framework of pretty tight hierarchies, bureaucracies, silos, is it?

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, one of the things that’s really fascinating when you look at the academic debate that’s happened around public sector reform is a lot of talk of smashing and breaking through bureaucracy, the introduction of markets. But when you dig away in sort of an archaeological way at what we’ve got, we have these layers of different ways of organising that are still there.

And fundamentally, our organising principle is still bureaucratic, and it’s still hierarchical. And we’ve wedded onto that different models of markets, different types of collaborative arrangements, and they’re all operating at once. We did not throw out bureaucracy, and we never threw out hierarchy. And being able to think about what works in what situation… how do you practically deal with the fact that all those models operate at the same time, creating what some of us use, a terrible word at the moment — it’s very popular — in terms of talking about hybridity. These hybrid models that are gelling together all these different parts. How do we manage that environment?

Tom Burton: And I suppose to segue from that into, okay, once you get that going, how do you articulate the performance framework for that, is that another obvious challenge?

Janine O’Flynn: Yeah, it’s one in the sense that it links way back to that start of, what is it that we’re trying to achieve? And once we can settle on that to some extent — and that’s very potentially turbulent and volatile in a political environment — how do we think about measuring whether we actually have done it? What are the different frameworks that we need to use? How do we confront the challenge of measuring outcomes?

That’s one of the big challenges that we’re seeing in practice now. How do we think about the potential disincentives, or perverse incentives, that might come from applying inappropriate performance frameworks for different types of work? How do you try and reward those who are achieving within organisations, and those that you’re working with outside?

But what is it that we’re trying to achieve? What might be the different types of performance regimes, metrics, measures that can help us do that? And we know, in fact, in much of the public policy world, that we design frameworks that aren’t about that. That we collect all the data, we do a lot of performance measurement, but we’re not quite sure what it’s for.

Tom Burton: Yes. So we have this sort of classic input, it took us x times to do this, result, output. Would I be right that there’s a little bit of a linkage here back to your strategic point, because if, from a performance perspective, you’re really managing outcomes, you’ve really got to have a clear view of what that outcome is, thereby the strategic piece becomes really important? It’s not just sort of slice and dicing.

Janine O’Flynn: That’s right. These are really interconnected challenges in a way. So if you have ambiguity around strategy and goals, which is of course common in a political environment for many good reasons — a few politicians don’t want to be pinned down too tightly to exact sorts of strategies, they might have a big grand strategy, but it’s quite often to get operational strategy very clear in that environment — then how do we think about that? What’s the basis upon which we want to design frameworks to do that?

And a lack of clarity there often leads to measuring for measurements’ sake. And that drives a whole set of incentives that we know, both in practice and in the empirical work now, can link to poor outcomes — can undermine, in fact, some of the goals that we try to achieve.

Tom Burton: Yeah. But conversely, you get it right then you hit the sweet spot of, this really achieves the result we’re trying to get, there.

Author Bio

The Mandarin

The Mandarin staff journalists.