How government is being reimagined

While 2020 has certainly been traumatic, it’s also taught us things we thought weren’t possible actually are, and that we can do them far faster than we could have imagined. And there is hope in that.

As Covid–19 surged, earlier this year, the ANZSOG and Centre for Public Impact were delivering a webinar series ‘Reimagining Government.’ The changes propelled by Covid-19 weren’t the sole focus of the series: but they were a consistent theme, as were the possibilities of co-design and systems thinking and the challenges posed by risk management and performance measurement. As an evaluator and someone involved in designing and developing social programs, here is what struck me most from the series.

From command and control to enablement

Practitioners and students of government will have seen myriad shifts in the role of government; from rowing to steering, and centralisation to decentralisation and back again (and again). This webinar series had a different take – underpinned by Thea Snow’s idea that now is the time for government to shift from a delivery to an enablement paradigm. In this paradigm, governments need to “create the conditions in which communities can thrive”. This is a tall order. It requires something more than what has come before: it requires a rethink of the way we perceive power and risk and failure.

The challenge of doing this, in a context where “failure” is seen to risk a front-page headline rather than to create a learning opportunity, came through strongly in conversations during the series. But, as Snow identified, in our current context, not taking empowered, decisive actions on the best evidence available carries a risk of failure at least as great as the more traditional, prolonged planning approach.

Reconceptualising risk was covered in the webinar on “reorienting to learning.” A successful reorientation to learning asks a lot of all of us—it requires governments to change how they talk about policy promises, the media to consider and cover policy promises differently, and the general public to hold realistic expectations of public policy in a complex world, where things often don’t go according to plan.

power sharing for true co-design

With the central focus on enablement, it is no wonder that the concept of co-design came up in the webinars. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a growing interest in co-design from government agencies, but this hasn’t always been accompanied by the understanding that co-design isn’t consulting on predetermined options to address a pre-defined problem. Co-design means listening to people with lived experience to understand their perspectives on what the problem is and then to their ideas for solutions.

This requires a redistribution of power and a fluency in power relationships. As Kelly Ann McKercher, author of Beyond Sticky Notes, put it in a recent Social Design Sydney webinar: co-design is more than a movement, it’s a method and a mindset. It requires those involved to check their privilege and ask themselves tough questions about whether they are the right person for the project, when they should step up, and when they should step back.

In the fourth ANZSOG and CPI webinar, New Zealand-based designer, Penny Hagen, took this further, suggesting that as long as it’s people at the centre deciding how much power to share, we aren’t genuinely sharing power. She and colleague, Angie Tangaere, at The Southern Institute are actively exploring broader approaches to power sharing than limited scope co-design initiatives.

Shifting Silos into systems

The concepts of power fluency and ‘sharing’ are congruent with a shift from siloed to systems thinking. The webinars highlighted that government social policies operate within complex adaptive systems. So it is not surprising that, when asked ‘What is the most important element of the enablement paradigm?’ nearly one-third of webinar participants said, ‘systems thinking’.

Complex systems are characterised by non-linearity, emergence, dynamism, co-evolution and uncertainty. We have little control of processes in complex systems, and we can’t predict outcomes in advance. Complexity requires us to think differently about how we plan, shifting our focus from optimising the parts to understanding the whole.

While hierarchies and silos make for neat organisational charts, they limit our ability to adapt and remain resilient. This makes me think of Team of Teams, in which General Stanley McChrystal argues we need to structure and manage our organisations differently. For organisations to adapt and thrive, we need to shift our focus from the parts to the whole, build trust and shared purpose, forge connections and share information, and grow the capability required for successful distributed decision-making. It means we need to work on ourselves as leaders, being willing to be humble and learn from failure.

The troubles with measurement

Dr Toby Lowe traced the culture of fear of “failure” and risk aversion back to outcomes-based performance management, suggesting that this incentivises gaming and fudging data rather than learning.

In a fast-paced, interconnected and complex world, scientific management’s ruthless focus on efficient delivery no longer works. Systems can’t be understood through reductionist metrics and focussing on outcomes can be problematic where these are emergent rather than predictable.

We’re holding onto how we measure success and criteria and how we choose what people can and can’t do, sometimes not based on what’s the best outcome for people, but around how we’ve decided to manage, track and measure. Penny Hagen

As an evaluator, I was particularly struck by the way conversations turned back to the need to change the way we think about measurement to support a reorientation to learning, power sharing systems thinking.

Evaluators know there are a range of approaches to measuring outcomes, which should be deployed with sensitivity to the context of an initiative and its stage of development. For example, we can use principles-focused approaches when initiatives are guided by principles, and participatory and empowerment approaches to engage stakeholders in defining what is of value and how we value. But a barrier remains in that some people still think that there is one gold standard of measurement: the randomised-control trial.

Scaling success

A final theme of the series was that while there are many positive examples of different ways of doing government, these tend to be smaller scale and localised. Suggestions for scaling success included strengthening the sharing of stories. I agree that stories have the power to shift hearts and minds, but also took note of Dr Toby Lowe’s advice that we spend more time building a coalition of the willing, than trying to convince the sceptics. When you’re an innovator trying to a shift system, early adopters will help build momentum.

You can find summaries of each webinar in the series on the Centre for Public Impact website. I look forward to continuing conversations with clients and colleagues about how we reimagine government for a complex world.

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