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To Govern is to Choose

Friday, July 19, 2013
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

That is the affirmation at the centre of an incredibly important report released by the UK House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in May; it's an affirmation I believe strongly in, but before telling you why I wanted to (again) walk you through a bit of the thinking behind how I got there.

Now, I know it seems like I've been recapping the ongoing narrative at every opportunity lately but the truth is that the ideas I put forward every week flow naturally from one another and - to be honest - my own thinking evolves from week to week. Recapping them helps both you and I understand where we are, how we got here, and where we are going.

If you've been following the narrative as it's unfolded than feel free to jump down past the recap header to the next one in bold below. If you haven't, then I suggest reading what follows, and re-examining some of the posts in this series should you feel the need to go deeper.

Recap

Which obviously brings me to the point I want to address today

Its a point that has always been in the back of my mind since starting this exploration; its a point I've already given away, but one that is - in my view - incredibly important and often lost in the shuffle: to govern is to choose. In my initial introduction I mentioned a report out of the UK. Not only is it worth reading but also citing verbatim; here's the executive summary in full (emphasis added):
In its plan for Civil Service reform, published in June 2012, the Government introduced “open policy-making”. This means engaging the public and experts from beyond the “Westminster village” in debates about policy and in the policy-making process itself, and establishing a new relationship with the citizen who becomes a valued partner to identify problems, discover new thinking and to propose solutions. It is a departure from more traditional approaches to public engagement, which have usually only occurred after the Government has already determined a course of action.  
To govern is to choose. Open policy-making should take debate outside Whitehall and into the community as a whole, but ultimate responsibility and accountability for leadership must remain with Ministers and senior civil servants. Once again, we emphasise the importance of leadership in Government; of effective strategic thinking, which involves choosing between different arguments, reconciling conflicting opinions and arbitrating between different groups and interests; and of effective governance of departments and their agencies. A process of engagement, which can reach beyond the “Westminster village” and the “usual suspects”, will itself be an act of leadership, but there can be no abdication of that leadership.  
There is great potential for open and contested policy-making to deliver genuine public engagement. There is also a risk of disappointment and scepticism amongst the public about the impact of their participation, and that Government listens only to the media, lobbying and “the usual suspects”. Ministers must commit sufficient time for public engagement to reach beyond Westminster. Digital technology and new media have a huge role to play. In time, the Government should be able to demonstrate that the citizen is able to contribute opinion, ideas and suggestions on an ongoing basis, if it is to be seen as moving away from old processes and embracing a new relationship with the citizen.
Ultimate responsibility and accountability for leadership must remain with Ministers and senior civil servants

There you have it. The conditions within which we operate may be changing but the accountability structures remain. Now, in the past I've written that I think that the balance of fearless advice and loyal implementation has shifted heavily towards implementation to the detriment of fearless advice (See: On Risk, Fearless Advice and Loyal Implementation) but now I'm not so sure. My original statements track well with the thesis presented in Wait: The Art and Science of Delay (which I enjoyed very much and recommend reading) but perhaps my position needs some refinement given what I've cited above.

First, the very notion of balance between fearless advice and loyal implementation may be false; there is a relationship to be sure, but balance, not necessarily. In fact, the very notion of balance may be a rooted in the cathedral model and thus not conducive to the bazaar. Remember, the bazaar is defined by complexity, while 'balance' is rather simple conceptual framework.

Second, the relationship between loyal implementation and fearless advice will likely be determined (negotiated?) by leadership on an issue by issue basis. A give here, a take there, a meet in middle elsewhere, and even perhaps the odd all out yelling match somewhere in parts unknown. There are no hard and fast rules here, its like any other relationship, it defies simple logic and point in time analyses. I think we struggle with this mostly because we (bureaucrats) tend to privilege the comfort of routine, protocols and machinations rather than the complexity of relationships (again, see: The Real Problem of Facelessness).

Third, there is an assumption that the shift in focus towards loyal implementation somehow diminishes the value of the fearless advice. But to be honest, the focus of implementation jives well with hierarchical organizational models that excel at incremental innovation (keep doing what we do, but do it faster, better, cheaper) and fall down when it comes to disruptive innovation (do something different that displaces old ways of doing things). I suppose what I am trying to get at is that I don't know that the value fearless advice is being diminished in so much as the context within which it is provided is changing and making it dramatically more difficult to deal with.

Finally, we can - as we do here - continue to offer our best and most fearless advice on a regular and sustained basis, but ultimately must resign ourselves to the fact that it is ultimately up to leadership to decide what to do (or not do) with that advice.

Quite simple, it's not our job to govern, at least not yet, and until then, our responsibility to leadership - Ministers and Senior Civil Servants - is to provide the best possible advice we can while affording them the trust and respect they have earned to choose what's in the best interests for Canadians.

In many ways, we have the easy jobs; we simply put forward the advice, whereas they have the at times unenviable responsibility of having to choose.


Postscript

Right now there are a number of interesting threads happening behind the firewall as a part of the Blueprint 2020 exercise; one tackles this precise issue, an issue that I weighed in on very carefully:
The conversation I linked to in the tweet above is shaping up to be an interesting one, as such, I'd encourage you to check it out.