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Deconstructing Risk Aversion

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

A year ago a friend joined a new government organization, and one of the things she was struck by was how frank, honest, and transparent the external communications were.

Since then, my friend started writing a lot of the deputy head’s speeches. Not as a part of a communications branch, but as a strategic planner. At which point one of the explanations for the frank communications became clear: after a first draft, she sits in the deputy head’s office and talks it out with them to make edits. Just the two of them, while the four layers of management in between do their jobs elsewhere. 

The public service is risk-averse, they say. And when these people - whomever they are - say it, they usually mean it in a bad way: as a barrier to innovation, as a bottleneck to information-sharing or stakeholder engagement, or as a tendency to opt for safe and uncontroversial policy options when a much better policy option carries some chance of embarrassment.

I’d like to add a boring and functional possible explanation for that, alongside the usual slate of media, watchdogs, auditors, and career protection. I’d suggest that risk-aversion is a borderline inevitable function of how we approve things.

Here’s the long story short:
  • The time demands on senior executives allow little flexibility
  • Everyone in an approval chain approves everything about a proposal: not just the content, options, and recommendations, but the grammar, font, and format, and who else approved it
  • It’s worse than just approval; layers of management have to both personally approve of a proposal, but also A) believe that the people above them will approve it, and B) believe that those people will believe that the people above them will approve it (see: Where Good Ideas Go to Die)
  • There is rarely if ever direct communication between layers of the approval chain more than two steps apart
  • The goal when sending recommendations and questions for approval is to have things go up the approval chain exactly once; there is no mechanism for exploring possibilities or asking clarifying questions (e.g., “If the parameters are X, I recommend action A; if the parameters are Y, I recommend action B.”)
  • This is exacerbated because of the time demands on executives and how direction can shift - things tend to get approved at the last minute which completely rules out any two-way interaction with the final approver
All of which creates powerful incentives towards boring, safe, and precedented recommendations and external communications. There’s no time or mechanism to explore options and explain complex rationale.

Getting back to my speechwriter friend, to draft a frank and honest speech in an approval-chain/game-of-telephone system, she’d either need to send recommendations up long before drafting the speech and get clear parameters that all approvers would abide by, or she’d have to send two versions of the speech: one safe and “approvable,” and one frank and honest. And no one has time for either approach.

Her example provides one of the possible solutions: connecting the subject matter experts and the decision-makers (in many places around government, this already happens). Which has its downsides, sure. Analysts would have to learn an entirely new bedside manner, and some would be better at it than others. But that’s just a learning curve. And there’d be a lot more subject matter expertise in the room when decisions are made - which I think is a better deal for both sides of the table.