Organising some thoughts on process and goals

22/11/2012 § 1 Comment

There is, in Wellington and elsewhere, a push to make government more innovative. The idea is that the private sector succeeds through innovation, so the public sector should follow suit.

Sometimes, the focus is on getting good feedback loops. If each policy initiative is viewed as an experiment of sorts, then bureaucrats should be collecting data from each experiment to determine what works. This is one of the messages of Adapt.

Sometimes, the focus is on being innovative for the sake of innovation, on challenging the status quo because it needs to be shaken up. Thus, I’ve heard that some Ministers have challenged their Ministries to ‘scare me’ or ‘surprise me’. Or, to rely on a cliche, to think outside the square.

Here’s a 2×2 matrix that’s helping me organise my thinking:

Private businesses have pretty clear goals. Mainly, they make money. They might also provide some intangible benefits — being master of your own destiny, steward of the land, conqueror of markets, etc. But mostly, the goal is pretty clear.

How they achieve that goal is wide open. They try stuff out, make big changes and incremental changes, keep what works and discard the rest. Once they figure out what works, that might get turned into codified knowledge. Businesses produce standard operating procedures and policy manuals of all sorts. Franchises are an example of making business processes regular and predictable.

Government, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have clear goals. It’s a bit about keeping people happy, keeping things ticking over, improving the living standards of some people while not harming others too much, responding to pressures from all sides. The goals are fuzzy and changing. The bureaucracy compensates by creating clear processes. When things go wrong, bureaucracies often defend their actions by saying, ‘we followed the correct procedures.’

The push for innovation puts government in a new quadrant. Now, bureaucrats are asked to challenge their own processes, to think continuously about how they can do better. The goals are still fuzzy — that’s the nature of governing — but now the process is, too. This quadrant creates a quandary: how are they to know what ‘better’ is?

Framing the problem with the 2×2 matrix leads me to three thoughts:

  • experimenting with governance is hard, as hard as research is to do well. Researchers are highly skilled, highly qualified, and relatively well paid. If we want good experimental governance, then we have to provide the necessary resources. Otherwise, it will be like research done by people without training or skills — think term papers written by undergraduates
  • to help staff, the senior managers should try to provide clear interim goals. This will allow staff to focus on experimenting with processes. Otherwise, staff will be experimenting with both goals and processes, which is a recipe for chaos
  • alternatively, setting up clear measuring and monitoring processes can allow experimenting around goals.

Graphically, I’m suggesting that Ministries shouldn’t stay in the upper left quadrant if they can help it. It’s difficult and expensive. Instead, they should create some clarity around either goals or processes (move right or down), and then experiment around whatever is left.

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