The currency of transition: how large institutions really change

By Martin Stewart-Weeks

Thursday July 28, 2016

Set of Railway points with blue toning

In the first two instalments of this essay, the paradox of sophisticated failed states (lots going on, nothing happening) led to contradictions in government and how they make it harder for tough, necessary and ultimately unavoidable reforms to be acknowledged and executed.

So this is inevitably where we find ourselves as we search for methods and modes of public work that escape the increasingly tired habits and fraying instincts of a previous more predictable and stable era to engage a world of rising complexity, intensity and volatility.

“It is rarely elegant work, but perhaps we should stop expecting it to be … ”

We seek more evidence-based policy at the same time that we disenfranchise the most important source of deep policy knowledge — frontline staff in delivery agencies and customers themselves. We systematically discount, or even deny altogether, the critical policy knowledge they have painstakingly garnered from long and sometimes bitter experience and the “moments of truth” in which the link between policy intent and impact is forged. Structurally and culturally, we have spent 30 years entrenching many of the divides between “doing” and “thinking” which have hobbled our policy making systems.

We’ve witnessed the almost indecent haste with which the tools and language of design thinking, including the alluring legitimacy of co-creation, have been pressed into the service of strategies ostensibly for reform and service improvement.

Too often, it feels like co-design is fine so long as it’s mostly design and not too much “co”.

The point about co-design, if it is to touch an authentic impulse to equalise power, control and accountability in the search for a better way to think, design and do, is that you almost invariably end up somewhere else from where you thought you’d end up when you started. As design agency IDEO point out:

“Every design project extends beyond the brief. No matter how straightforward and discrete a project seems at first, it will unfold in the context of a complicated, networked, and messily human organization.”

For many of those whose instincts are to maintain control and predictability in all things at all times, this is uncomfortable territory. Time and again, the evidence comes in from the experiments at the edge that, to make things better, control has to be dispersed. And time and again, the centre is slow, or fails, to respond. It’s hard to credit an impulse to reform which relies on the same instincts and ideas which at least partly caused the problems in the first place.

Those occupying the commanding heights of control and direction have to become familiar with new modes of power in distributed, complex and networked systems of people, ideas and institutions. It turns out this is a skill and a set of instincts as stubbornly rare as they are increasingly necessary.

An unfair criticism

Although I think the Techau paradox is on to something, perhaps it discounts the serious, difficult and complex work that is actually going on for deep, systemic change but which isn’t always either especially elegant or visible. As he admits, “the sheer difficulty of governing complex, highly diverse societies should not be underestimated.”

This is work that invariably confronts entrenched interests and complex, clashing values and expectations. It tends to be work whose underlying assumptions, and the vision for a better outcome, are heavily contested. And it’s the kind of work that calls forth the art of judgement, persuasion, pragmatic coalition building and occasional bursts of rat-cunning. It is rarely elegant work, but perhaps we should stop expecting it to be, and then using those unrealistic expectations as a measure against which, unfairly, to assess apparent performance.

This is inherently tough and messy work. It usually involves big institutions and high transaction costs in terms of change and reform — think of work on climate change, superannuation reforms, the junior doctors strike in the UK. And it’s certainly work which requires, almost by definition, patience and persistence and will often show very little outward signs of improvement or change for quite some time.

The NDIS initiative in Australia might be another example.

Obviously it is a tough and fraught venture, replete with continuing policy, funding and operational risks that might still derail its original vision and mandate. But it can’t be argued that, despite those challenges, Australia is squibbing a piece of reform in the disability space that goes well beyond just doing things to really get something big done.

On a slightly smaller scale, check out the creativity and agility employed by the Childstory team in the NSW Department of Family and Community Services in the design and procurement of a whole new suite of digital tools and platforms to support and accelerate child protection reforms.

Back in the UK, the emergence of What Works centres appear to be sparking a more energetic and systematic engagement with the vexed issue of impact and outcomes in a whole bunch of areas — wellbeing, health and social care, educational achievement, crime reduction, local economic growth and improved quality of life for older people.

It is possible to find outbursts of purposeful and promising activity which seem to give the lie to the more pessimistic implications of the paradox. At least in some places and in some circumstances, government can and does work.

Maybe it’s a matter of judgement and perception and perhaps too a function of where you stand in the process of reform.

Not working, Jan

The question is whether these contradictions suggest a system that is simply not working anymore and indeed incapable of working in a set of conditions and in the face of mounting performance pressures that it just wasn’t set up to deal with. Or are the contradictions, and their consequent frustrations, a function of a big transition in our conception and expectations of public work?

The truth is this is how large institutions and processes change shape and seek new sources of relevance in the face of a “big shift” in the operating environment driven largely by digitally infused volatility, speed and complexity. This is how an outdated obsession with “scaleable efficiency” is gradually replaced with a new set of instincts and practices that privilege “scaleable learning”.

This is the insight from work by John Hagel and others examining the new foundations for institutional success in a world characterised by digital speed, fluency and volatility for which they are, for the most part, poorly equipped.

If the new work for our governing systems is increasingly the work of puzzles, not pieces, then learning at scale seems like a promising new operating model.

In the fourth and final instalment, the essay concludes with some suggestions about what might lead our systems of public work and governance out of the paradox of pieces and make it more likely they can engage the bigger puzzles we need to solve.

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