Over the past decade I have been involved in several efforts trying to make governments better. A key challenge I repeatedly see is people trying to change things without an idea of what they are trying to change to, trying to fix individual problems (a deficit view) rather than recognising and fixing the systems that created the problems in the first place. So you end up getting a lot of symptomatic relief and iterative improvements of antiquated paradigms without necessarily getting transformation of the systems that generated the problems. A lot of the effort is put into applying traditional models of working which often result in the same old results, so we also need to consider new ways to work, not just what needs to be done.
With life getting faster and (arguably) exponentially more complicated, we need to take a whole of system view if we are to improve ‘the system’ for people. People sometimes balk when I say this thinking it too hard, too big or too embedded. But we made this, we can remake it, and if it isn’t working for us, we need to adapt like we always have.
I also see a lot of slogans used without the nuanced discussion they invite. Such (often ideological) assumptions can subtly play out without evidence, discussion or agreement on common purpose. For instance, whenever people say smaller or bigger government I try to ask what they think the role of government is, to have a discussion. Size is assumed to correlate to services, productivity, or waste depending on your view, but shouldn’t we talk about what the public service should do, and then the size is whatever is appropriate to do what is needed? People don’t talk about a bigger or smaller jacket or shoes, they get the right one for their needs and the size can change over time as the need changes. Indeed, perhaps the public service of the future could be a dramatically different workforce comprised of a smaller group of professional public servants complimented with and a large demographically representative group of part time citizens doing their self nominated and paid “civic duty year of service” as a form of participatory democracy, which would bring new skills and perspectives into governance, policy and programs.
We need urgently to think about the big picture, to collectively talk about the 50 or 100 year view for society, and only then can we confidently plan and transform the structures, roles, programs and approaches around us. This doesn’t mean we have to all agree to all things, but we do need to identify the common scaffolding upon which we can all build.
This blog posts challenges you to think systemically, critically and practically about five things:
- What future do you want? Not what could be a bit better, or what the next few years might hold, or how that shiny new toy you have could solve the world’s problems (policy innovation, data, blockchain, genomics or any tool or method). What is the future you want to work towards, and what does good look like? Forget about your particular passion or area of interest for a moment. What does your better life look like for all people, not just people like you?
- What do we need to get there? What concepts, cultural values, paradigm, assumptions should we take with us and what should we leave behind? What new tools do we need and how do we collectively design where we are going?
- What is the role of gov, academia, other sectors and people in that future? If we could create a better collective understanding of our roles in society and some of the future ideals we are heading towards, then we would see a natural convergence of effort, goals and strategy across the community.
- What will you do today? Seriously. Are you differentiating between symptomatic relief and causal factors? Are you perpetuating the status quo or challenging it? Are you being critically aware of your bias, of the system around you, of the people affected by your work? Are you reaching out to collaborate with others outside your team, outside your organisation and outside your comfort zone? Are you finding natural partners in what you are doing, and are you differentiating between activities worthy of collaboration versus activities only of value to you (the former being ripe for collaboration and the latter less so).
- How do we scale change? I believe we need to consider how to best scale “innovation” and “transformation”. Scaling innovation is about scaling how we do things differently, such as the ability to take a more agile, experimental, evidence based, creative and collaborative approach to the design, delivery and continuous improvement of stuff, be it policy, legislation or services. Scaling transformation is about how we create systemic and structural change that naturally drives and motivates better societal outcomes. Each without the other is not sustainable or practical.
How to scale innovation and transformation?
I’ll focus the rest of this post on the question of scaling. I wrote this in the context of scaling innovation and transformation in government, but it applies to any large system. I also believe that empowering people is the greatest way to scale anything.
- I’ll firstly say that openness is key to scaling everything. It is how we influence the system, how we inspire and enable people to individually engage with and take responsibility for better outcomes and innovate at a grassroots level. It is how we ensure our work is evidence based, better informed and better tested, through public peer review. Being open not only influences the entire public service, but the rest of the economy and society. It is how we build trust, improve collaboration, send indicators to vendors and influence academics. Working openly, open sourcing our research and code, being public about projects that would benefit from collaboration, and sharing most of what we do (because most of the work of the public service is not secretive by any stretch) is one of the greatest tools in try to scale our work, our influence and our impact. Openness is also the best way to ensure both a better supply chain as well as a better demand for things that are demonstrable better.
A quick side note to those who argue that transparency isn’t an answer because all people don’t have to tools to understand data/information/etc to hold others accountable, it doesn’t mean you don’t do transparency at all. There will always be groups or people naturally motivated to hold you to account, whether it is your competitors, clients, the media, citizens or even your own staff. Transparency is partly about accountability and partly about reinforcing a natural motivation to do the right thing.
Scaling innovation – some ideas:
- The necessity of neutral, safe, well resourced and collaborative sandpits is critical for agencies to quickly test and experiment outside the limitations of their agencies (technical, structural, political, functional and procurement). Such places should be engaged with the sectors around them. Neutral spaces that take a systems view also start to normalise a systems view across agencies in their other work, which has huge ramifications for transformation as well as innovation.
- Seeking and sharing – sharing knowledge, reusable systems/code, research, infrastructure and basically making it easier for people to build on the shoulders of each other rather than every single team starting from scratch every single time. We already have some communities of practice but we need to prioritise sharing things people can actually use and apply in their work. We also need to extend this approach across sectors to raise all boats. Imagine if there was a broad commons across all society to share and benefit from each others efforts. We’ve seen the success and benefits of Open Source Software, of Wikipedia, of the Data Commons project in New Zealand, and yet we keep building sector or organisational silos for things that could be public assets for public good.
- Require user research in budget bids – this would require agencies to do user research before bidding for money, which would create an incentive to build things people actually need which would drive both a user centred approach to programs and would also drive innovation as necessary to shift from current practices Treasury would require user research experts and a user research hub to contrast and compare over time.
- Staff mobility – people should be supported to move around departments and business units to get different experiences and to share and learn. Not everyone will want to, but when people stay in the same job for 20 years, it can be harder to engage in new thinking. Exchange programs are good but again, if the outcomes and lessons are not broadly shared, then they are linear in impact (individuals) rather than scalable (beyond the individuals).
- Support operational leadership – not everyone wants to be a leader, disruptor, maker, innovator or intrapreneur. We need to have a program to support such people in the context of operational leadership that isn’t reliant upon their managers putting them forward or approving. Even just recognising leadership as something that doesn’t happen exclusively in senior management would be a huge cultural shift. Many managers will naturally want to keep great people to themselves which can become stifling and eventually we lose them. When people can work on meaningful great stuff, they stay in the public service.
- A public ‘Innovation Hub’ – if we had a simple public platform for people to register projects that they want to collaborate on, from any sector, we could stimulate and support innovation across the public sector (things for which collaboration could help would be surfaced, publicly visible, and inviting of others to engage in) so it would support and encourage innovation across government, but also provides a good pipeline for investment as well as a way to stimulate and support real collaboration across sectors, which is substantially lacking at the moment.
- Emerging tech and big vision guidance - we need a team, I suggest cross agency and cross sector, of operational people who keep their fingers on the pulse of technology to create ongoing guidance for New Zealand on emerging technologies, trends and ideas that anyone can draw from. For government, this would help agencies engage constructively with new opportunities rather than no one ever having time or motivation until emerging technologies come crashing down as urgent change programs. This could be captured on a constantly updating toolkit with distributed authorship to keep it real.
Scaling transformation – some ideas:
- Convergence of effort across sectors – right now in many countries every organisation and to a lesser degree, many sectors, are diverging on their purpose and efforts because there is no shared vision to converge on. We have myriad strategies, papers, guidance, but no overarching vision. If there were an overarching vision for New Zealand Aotearoa for instance, co-developed with all sectors and the community, one that looks at what sort of society we want into the future and what role different entities have in achieving that ends, then we would have the possibility of natural convergence on effort and strategy.
- Obviously when you have a cohesive vision, then you can align all your organisational and other strategies to that vision, so our (government) guidance and practices would need to align over time. For the public sector the Digital Service Standard would be a critical thing to get right, as is how we implement the Higher Living Standards Framework, both of which would drive some significant transformation in culture, behaviours, incentives and approaches across government.
- Funding “Digital Public Infrastructure” – technology is currently funded as projects with start and end dates, and almost all tech projects across government are bespoke to particular agency requirements or motivations, so we build loads of technologies but very little infrastructure that others can rely upon. If we took all the models we have for funding other forms of public infrastructure (roads, health, education) and saw some types of digital infrastructure as public infrastructure, perhaps they could be built and funded in ways that are more beneficial to the entire economy (and society).
- Agile budgeting – we need to fund small experiments that inform business cases, rather than starting with big business cases. Ideally we need to not have multi 100 million dollar projects at all because technology projects simply don’t cost that anymore, and anyone saying otherwise is trying to sell you something If we collectively took an agile budgeting process, it would create a systemic impact on motivations, on design and development, or implementation, on procurement, on myriad things. It would also put more responsibility on agencies for the outcomes of their work in short, sharp cycles, and would create the possibility of pivoting early to avoid throwing bad money after good (as it were). This is key, as no transformative project truly survives the current budgeting model.
- Gov as a platform/API/enabler (closely related to DPI above) – obviously making all government data, content, business rules (inc but not just legislation) and transactional systems available as APIs for building upon across the economy is key. This is how we scale transformation across the public sector because agencies are naturally motivated to deliver what they need to cheaper, faster and better, so when there are genuinely useful reusable components, agencies will reuse them. Agencies are now more naturally motivated to take an API driven modular architecture which creates the bedrock for government as an API. Digital legislation (which is necessary for service delivery to be integrated across agency boundaries) would also create huge transformation in regulatory and compliance transformation, as well as for government automation and AI.
- Exchange programs across sectors – to share knowledge but all done openly so as to not create perverse incentives or commercial capture. We need to also consider the fact that large companies can often afford to jump through hoops and provide spare capacity, but small to medium sized companies cannot, so we’d need a pool for funding exchange programs with experts in the large proportion of industry.
- All of system service delivery evidence base – what you measure drives how you behave. Agencies are motivated to do only what they need to within their mandates and have very few all of system motivations. If we have an all of government anonymised evidence base of user research, service analytics and other service delivery indicators, it would create an accountability to all of system which would drive all of system behaviours. In New Zealand we already have the IDI (an awesome statistical evidence base) but what other evidence do we need? Shared user research, deidentified service analytics, reporting from major projects, etc. And how do we make that evidence more publicly transparent (where possible) and available beyond the walls of government to be used by other sectors? More broadly, having an all of government evidence base beyond services would help ensure a greater evidence based approach to investment, strategic planning and behaviours.