Friday, January 27, 2012

That fundamental change we've been talking about

Visual notes taken by @Prugelmeister at #goc3
Wednesday I attended Collaborative Management Day.  The highlight of the day for me was watching the Clerk of the Privy Council listen intently and respond genuinely as a handful of public servants from across the country asked him questions, sought his support and even expressed their frustrations.

The man has a tough job, and carving out time is obviously difficult.  I think having the Clerk participate in a dynamic exchange rather than simply swooping in and delivering prepared remarks was a stoke of genius and speaks volumes to the man's integrity and openness.

The most important thing he said

Looking back, I think the single most important thing he said was (and I am paraphrasing a bit, see tweets below for alternative/complimentary interpretations) that while austerity and uncertainty can be paralysing we must recognize the opportunity to fundamentally rethink our business models.  The statement obviously resonated.

In a recent contribution to Metaviews I offered a similar argument, saying that:
We need to cut through the noise of ‘greater efficiency through greater collaboration’ and the rhetoric of ‘doing more with less’ and focus instead on doing things fundamentally differently. Given the profound impact of digital communication technologies on our society, I think that doing things differently starts with cultivating a better understanding of how digital is reshaping what citizens expect from their public institutions and how public institutions can best respond to those needs.
But understanding is one thing, and moving beyond the rhetoric requires more concrete action(s).  What kind of action?  Doing things fundamentally differently, at least in my view, requires disruptive innovation, innovation that breaks traditional trade-offs and establishes entirely new operational models.

But can disruptive innovation actually exist in the public sector?  While many public servants I speak with agree that fundamental change is required most of them look at innovation as process improvement and gaining efficiencies rather than at more disruptive approaches to innovation. In their view, and I tend to agree with them, there simply isn't much support for a more radical approach to innovation.

Disruptive innovation through market mechanisms?

Having just read Public Sector, Disrupted, I think I have a better understanding as to why there is so little support for more disruptive approaches to innovation.  The report hinges on the idea that:
Creating the conditions for disruption will first require policymakers to view government through a different lens. Instead of seeing only endless programs and bureaucracies, the myriad responsibilities and customers of government can be seen as a series of markets that can be shaped in ways to find and cultivate very different, less expensive-- and ultimately more effective — ways of supplying public services
The report goes on to describe that in many cases the (United States) government enjoys significant buying power; buying power that, if shifted could topple slow moving incumbents and favour innovative upstarts.  My reading of this, and feel free to jump in here, is that disruptive innovation within this context requires not only that policy-makers apply a market lens to their analysis but that they actually become far more active in those markets themselves.  In my view, this approach quickly enters the realm of partisan politics, a place where even the largest proponents of disruptive innovation dare not follow.

Furthermore, while this approach may work for large national governments like the US government, I seriously doubt it would work for smaller municipal governments like that of say the City of Ottawa.

Check out the report and circle back here with your comments; I'm particularly interested if we can unearth some more tangible (e.g. using policy / regulatory levers) ways to disrupt the public sector, and finally achieve that fundamental change we've been talking about.

Originally published by Nick Charney at
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