The truism “digital is changing everything” is no less true for the public sector than for just about any other part of the economy.
But while the digital revolution will fundamentally change public sector communications and service delivery, it won’t change the fundamental principles of privacy, transparency, restraint and permanency that are much less relevant in other sectors. Particularly the free-flowing, risk-hungry and sometimes ephemeral entrepreneurial world.
Notwithstanding these cautions, a digital revolution is set to sweep through the public sector and whether we like it or not. Well-established practices will and must change.
Despite the almost diametrically opposed approaches of the entrepreneur and the traditional public servant, there may still be much to be learned about digital reform by the latter from the former. Pursuant to this, here are seven classic characteristics of the entrepreneur and what digital reform inspirations the public sector might glean from them …
1. Creativity, inspiration, vision and spontaneity
For entrepreneurs, new and better methodologies are constantly found by the practitioner and there is a consequent reduced need for traditional change management. In the public sector, this could potentially be reflected in increased positional freedom for individuals to pursue alternative procedures.
2. Strategic flexibility
While the term “fail fast” is quickly becoming hackneyed, there is no doubt the entrepreneur experiences lower risks associated with failure. For the public sector, perhaps the inspiration could be to review traditional program assurance approaches and to take an individual “citizen focus” on the benefit of programs.
3. Action orientation
One of the exciting things in the world of the entrepreneur is that things happen (often suboptimal ones it should be said). Continuing cautious moves away from a focus on process towards outcomes could be a sensible inspiration for public sector managers.
4. Determination and dedication to work
There’s no doubt the entrepreneur has her heart and soul in her work — not surprising considering the direct financial incentive. However, even for the public servant, greater connections to outcomes and whole-of-life engagement with work processes neatly correlate with the philanthropic nature of most in the sector.
5. Connection to both risk and reward
The entrepreneur has the freedom to be flexible and a drive towards satisfying rather than maximising in the short term (“perfect is the enemy of good” being a regular refrain). Moves towards performance pay in the public sector, if correctly managed, will be a great translator. More to the point, community attitudes may need to change to accept occasional public sector failures for the greater good.
6. Strategic partnering
The entrepreneurial sector partners broadly, even with competitors (giving rise to such awkward Americanisms as “co-opetition”). The public sector is already a leading advocate of strategic partnering in the intergovernmental sense, along with the community sector — although there is much room for development in partnering with the private sector.
Almost by definition, an entrepreneur is always looking for the next generation of leadership (if sometimes only to increase the potential to sell a venture) and rewarding it well. The public sector is a great leader in this field and might even consider secondments to entrepreneurial ventures to further develop leaders.
The entrepreneurial sector represents no panacea for the digital challenges facing government. Indeed, in many ways it represents the opposite of what is achievable or sensible for the sector. However, in a dynamic and fluid period of digitally-driven change, entrepreneurs provide some subtle but important pointers to new and improved approaches.
There is certainly much to be learned.
This article is an extract from Justin Di Lollo’s presentation to the Yellow Edge Trusted Advisor public sector leadership development session in Canberra in June (video summary above)