Contradictions of government and its impossible standards

By Martin Stewart-Weeks

Thursday July 21, 2016

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The paradox of sophisticated failed states made me think of similar paradoxes or contradictions which increasingly characterise the dilemmas of modern governing.

Why is it that the more we hear about the push for citizen-centric approaches, the more it feels as though big systems, and their steep and unbending hierarchies, are more in control than ever?

The harder we try to put clients at the heart of how we conceive of, design and then construct the programs and services which are meant to have an impact on their lives, the more apparent it is how change stumbles. The big institutions and systems can’t seem to get out of their own way and free up the space, and control, to see necessary changes stutter beyond promising prototypes. The mainstream seems happy to launch a thousand experiments, so long as it can keep them safely at the embroidering edge.

“We’re instinctively obsessed with learning and improving … yet evaluation is systemically starved of funding and leadership.”

Here’s another contradiction.

We exhort public servants and their agencies to innovate so long as it comes risk-free and doesn’t produce any nasty surprises.

And another.

We expect policymakers to engage the long term while we reward quick fix solutions that privilege short term impact and instant political and bureaucratic dividends. We appear to have reached the point where, despite the best efforts of a few relatively lonely voices and institutions, we’re too busy to think about the long term.

There are reasons for that conundrum.

Geoff Mulgan explains in his 2006 thesis on good and bad power that this kind of work “in the service of the future” requires mental models very different from those needed for quick decision-making.

“They require openness to the unexpected, the time it takes to become immersed in and conversant with a complex system, familiarity with many disciplines, and the mental toughness needed to escape the tyranny of the status quo. They require counterbalances to the tactical and contingent – the fear of leaks that crushes honest debate, the insecurity that prevents rigorous self-scrutiny and the wishful thinking that prefers not to contemplate unpleasant possibilities.”

There are plenty of other examples.

As the insistent rhetoric exhorting more collaboration becomes almost unbearable, the evidence keeps pointing to persistent, and sometimes accelerating fracture and fragmentation.

Determined and usually well-meaning silos of disconnected expertise and knowledge are too busy to slow down to connect up, down and across complex systems which no one seems to understand or know how to lead or operate.

In this case, the real dilemma is that we’re so busy honing the efficiency of the pieces that we’ve failed to work out how to put the puzzle together or work out what the puzzle is or should be.

And that’s a problem because more and more of the risks and opportunities we’re calling on our governments and civil servants to deal with can’t be solved in pieces.

It’s possible to characterise the Techau paradox — everything’s working, but nothing gets done — as the “paradox of the puzzle”. We work like mad on the pieces, failing to invest the time, effort and leadership capital, at all levels, in the puzzle. We’re not spending enough time unravelling their mysteries which might make our attempts to sort out the pieces easier, quicker and more effective.

We fund not-for-profit organisations to be flexible, responsive and innovative and then tie them up in impossible tangles of over-standardisation, micro-management and accountability. That suggests we’re fine with them doing their thing so long as their thing is our thing.

The expectation that public servants will offer “frank and fearless” advice meets, according to increasing numbers of war stories, with powerful instincts for political “spin and fix”. In the face of implacable demands for control and “management”, the tolerance for argument and debate appears to have dropped to somewhere between zero and not very much.

We ask our public sector leaders to lead with creativity, passion and innovation and, at the same time, burden them with intolerable expectations for control and compliance which seems to privilege automatons over autonomy.

We want our public sector agencies to innovate so long as nothing changes. We want them to be creative and surprising and, in the process, take no risks and brook no failure. We’re happy to launch a thousand pilots (more pilots than the Air Force, as someone once described it) so long as they don’t get to infect the mainstream programs, functions and services whose entrenched and predictable rhythms of power and accountability we’re anxious not to wrinkle, much less disrupt.

We exhort our public leaders to become more discerning and deliberative about the way they commission services and policy — think long term, weigh the evidence, test the knowledge and test and trial the options. At the same time, we freight the system with short term obsessions with simplistic procurement or narrowly-construed contracting out strategies.

We’re instinctively obsessed with learning and improving, following the trail from idea to impact, to see if it actually makes a difference. Yet evaluation is systemically starved of funding and leadership.

The almost indecent haste to move on and talk about something new crowds out the impulse to reflect and learn.

As a result, the rhetorical commitment to be smart and canny is routinely drowned out by the need to keep moving and (among other things) to escape the attention of an unforgiving and bloodthirsty media.

Too many of our agencies and political institutions champion the cause of devolution or even subsidiarity at the same time they give in to a deep cultural addiction to strenuous command and control and meddlesome direction from the centre.

In the next instalment of this series by Martin Stewart-Weeks, the focus is on the currency of transition as governments try to iron out the paradoxes which keep trapping good and largely well-meaning people and institutions in poor systems.

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Stephen Grey
5 years ago

I doubt if anyone will disagree with this. Will the next article speak of how things might really change, as opposed to pipe dreams? I think these pathological features of the public service have been recognised and discussed for some time, probably at least one generation of public servants.

Geoff Edwards
Geoff Edwards
5 years ago

The seeds of an explanation seem to be right there in your article, Martin.

“…too busy to slow down to connect up, down and across complex systems…”

This sounds like the result of years and years of efficiency dividends and budget cuts, especially where resulting in the loss of “middle managers”. I’m not as familiar with the situation in the Commonwealth’s public service, but in Queensland, the Coalition government of 2012-2015 made much of cutting only backroom staff and not “frontline services”. Yes, sometimes the backroom staff are a barnacle on progress, but they are also necessary for an organisation to know what it is doing, why, and how things might be better – that is, they are prerequisites for effective innovation.

“…which no one seems to understand or know how to lead or operate.”

This sounds like the result of years and years of outsourcing, competitive tendering and privatisation. The economic reform experts have praised the ability of markets to “coordinate” buyers and sellers without the suffocating hand of Soviet-style central planning. This characteristic of simple markets was more or less valid in a craft economy, but we haven’t operated a craft economy for a hundred years. The economic reform agenda of post-1983 has resulted in fragmentation, loss of corporate memory, weakening of a intelligent centre capable of coordinating between multiple players, and the promulgation of a worldview that all an economy needs to function is for government to get out of the way. These chickens are now coming home to roost.

Just look at the disaster in telecommunications and the disaster in the National Electricity Market. Competition was supposed to bring prices down, improve services and stimulate innovation. Now nobody in charge in either sector, consumers are gouged, government has lost control, the system is incapable of adapting to changing technology. I rest my case.

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