The public service and not-so-total recall

By David Donaldson

Thursday March 1, 2018

String tired around finger, selective focus, soft focus vintage tone

The public service could do much better at remembering the lessons of the past by recognising the ways people communicate and build systems around them.

In a political system built on periodically giving ministers the boot, public service memory plays an important role in making sure government avoids reliving past failures.

That’s easier said than done when staff turnover is high and, many argue, institutional memory has been lost from some parts of the public sector.

So how should government go about recording and learning from its own history?

A new paper in the journal Governance argues that keeping a few reports on file is not enough and that agencies need to foster a “dynamic” approach to memory.

This recognises that informal storytelling tends to lead to particular narratives growing up around past experiences, in turn shaping ideas of what’s possible. Designing record systems to facilitate access to varied perspectives and narratives alongside tools such as evaluation or audit reports can help improve the usefulness of such systems, say authors Jack Corbett, Dennis Grube, Heather Lovell and Rodney Scott.

Curing the public service’s memory loss

It’s common to hear that government’s institutional memory is in decline.

A couple of times recently senators have been told at estimates that there is no-one left at the department to answer questions about activities that have occurred within the previous few years.

There’s the ongoing debate about whether outsourcing, consultants and privatisation are undermining capability in general. Former departmental secretary Terry Moran said last year that “the APS is failing in areas of social policy because it has been stripped of specialist capability and service delivery experience. If it were a patient it would be in palliative care”.

Job cuts, regular machinery of government changes and the rise of the ministerial staffer don’t help either.

Plus there’s the fact that public servants tend to move between content areas over the span of their career, naturally leading to a dispersal of knowledge.

Regardless of whether things have gotten worse, better-quality information is always helpful. Often when ministers come into office the lobbyists know more about their portfolio than they do, making it imperative the bureaucracy is able to provide high-quality advice.

More than just archiving the facts

Memory in the public service is too often thought of as a process of collecting and filing away the relevant facts, the authors say.

This doesn’t reflect the full spectrum of how people communicate stories in reality.

The argument for building in a more dynamic approach is that we understand the world not through long lists of facts but narratives. While huge amounts of work are often put into recording previous experience, outlining useful tools and techniques for the future, often such reports go unread and the lessons unlearned.

In an environment where everyone is pushed for time, this often mean people pass on shorthand understandings through things like informal chats. Particular narratives tend to coagulate around interventions and ideas that may not reflect the full details of the case. This, in turn, influences what’s seen as possible.

Equally it’s about recognising there’s no one single truth. Dominant narratives should be approached critically and efforts should be made to capture different perspectives, both within and outside the department.

“These lessons can act to inform, to inspire, and to build shared understanding; however, they can also be limiting, as they provide a shorthand for discounting possible solutions or sticking to tried-and-true methods,” explains one of the authors, Rodney Scott of the New Zealand State Services Commission and UNSW Canberra.

And in today’s world of increasingly networked, outsourced and collaborative government, often much of the knowledge lies outside government.

“Public service organisations do not have a monopoly on how events can be remembered and what lessons should be taken from them,” Scott told The Mandarin.

The authors see approaches as existing on a continuum between “static” (archival, document-based, “factual”) and “dynamic” (living, shared, constructed/intepreted) institutional memory. These concepts can either be used as a diagnostic tool — to analyse how things are at present — or normatively — as an idea of how the public service should operate.

Static memory:

  • Is located in individual departments;
  • Is summative — end-of-project evaluation;
  • Is focused on the civil service;
  • Takes a material form: paper or digital files.

Dynamic memory:

  • Materialises through whole-of-government memory processes;
  • Is formative — an iterative conversation;
  • Is held in common across hybrids of actors;
  • Is about people: stored as “living” memory through a combination of fresh perspectives, individual agency and shared stories.

A better way

Scott and his co-authors suggest a range of mindsets and structures that could help improve how the public service remembers and learns from past experience.

  • Don’t just think about how files can store information about the past, but also consider how living memory can provide lessons that shape attitudes and decisions;
  • Take a deliberate approach to capturing lessons as understood by different actors;
  • Think about what lessons should be shared from an experience, and how these should be promulgated across a network of actors — how they can be translated into short, concise, evocative stories, and how those stories should be shared;
  • Hold forums where different voices can be heard and contribute to develop shared understandings transmitted through common stories;
  • Consider locating people together to allow stories to be shared — in “hubs”, “taskforces” or “steering groups” — for portions of the policy process;
  • Be deliberate about how storytellers fit into teams;
  • A combination of “old hands” and newer talent in the staffing mix can introduce new perspectives on “the way it’s done here” without compromising corporate memory;
  • Look for opportunities to combine static memory documents with dynamic living stories, for example, an internal Wikipedia-type system that combines a widely editable narrative with links to key public documents, making it easier to find evidence and a varied range of perspectives.

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