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Column: Tolerant of the Intolerable

Friday, March 26, 2010
Last week David Hume wrote a thought-provoking piece called "Is 'public policy' an out of date discipline?". Hume opens the article with a reflection:

Sometimes I wonder whether my chosen field, public policy, is running out of steam as a discipline.

David makes the argument that public policy challenges are cross-cutting and incredibly complex. That complexity requires that traditional policy wonks assume more of a brokerage role, and perhaps the value of public policy is shifting from the policy itself to the relationships that are forged in the fire of collaborative policy making. To quote David:

... in the future, wonkish expertise is going to be of lower value than the ability to leverage networks, cut deals, and align ideas, people and action behind the goals Ministers want to achieve.


I agree with David's line of reasoning, but would argue that it is applicable beyond the wonkish elite. In fact I would remix his conclusion as follows:

... right now, most traditional forms of public sector expertise is of lower value than the ability to leverage networks, cut deals, and align ideas, people and action behind the goals Ministers want to achieve.

David's conclusion and my redux drive to the core of questions around government as platform; namely:

(1)How does government itself become an open platform that allows people inside and outside government to innovate?

(2)How do you design a system in which all of the outcomes aren't specified beforehand, but instead evolve through interactions between the technology provider and its user community? (strikeouts added by me)

What I find fascinating is that our conclusions, while related to the phenomenon, are neither procedural (how-to) nor outcome-focused (innovate), but rather directed at the impact of the movement on public servants themselves. This, and please correct me if I'm wrong, is something that we the goverati haven’t spent a lot of time reflecting on. Yet understanding the impact of this shift on how public sector organizations manage themselves is critically important. Surely if the roles of wonks et al are changing, so too is the role of managing them, and most importantly leading them.

So I suppose the closing question is what type of public sector management regime, and what kind of leadership is required for an era of government as platform.

In my mind, management will need to be ruthless, and leadership bold.

To borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, the public sector will need to be far less tolerant of the intolerable.