|by Kent Aitken|
"Culture, as the saying goes, eats strategy for breakfast, apparently it also eats technology, and probably has a taste for deliverology as well."
- Thom Kearney [You can change culture now]
The culture-eats-strategy theme was thickly present at last week's Canadian Open Dialogue Forum, a direction-setting conference about citizen engagement in Canada.
Citizen engagement is messy. It's uncertain. And it's in the open. So naturally, in lockstep with the culture-eats-strategy theme was the question of whether government is prepared for risks (real or perceived) associated with citizen engagement and open government.
Former Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne Wouters spoke about culture and risk, asking "How can you do something as a public service employee if you feel 'I'm breaking a rule'?" He disparaged the stock answer to mistakes in the public sector, which is to create a rule to ensure that X never happens again.
The problem is that any system, no matter how reliable, will generate errors with enough repetition - a fact that's at odds with a previous Clerk, Paul Tellier, who called for "an error-free administration." As Deputy Premier of Ontario Deb Matthews lamented, “We’re not allowed a failure on version 1.0 in government.” Unfortunately, that's the culture that has stuck.
A couple stories
Last year, a handful of public servants wrote a letter of praise, intending to send it to the managers of a colleague who'd been doing an amazing job and who was really helping out the broader community through sharing information and advice. When asking for signatories, a number of people said this: "This could backfire - collaboration may not be universally seen as positive." That is, people were worried that drawing attention to an employee's collaborative, whole-of-government approach would diminish that person's standing in the organization.
Collaborative, networked, whole-of-government approaches are the strategy. Culture 1, strategy 0.
More recently. an NGO called In With Forward came to Ottawa to conduct a design lab with policymakers, exploring ways to support street-involved adults. From their blog:
We were testing what it would take to add ethnographic data to policy briefs. How could we give people in power direct access to the experiences of street-involved adults, and how could they use this information in the decision-making process? An oft repeated response was, “We can’t use stories. That’s not what we are asked to provide up the line. I wouldn’t even try to get it through the approval process.”
Design thinking, social innovation, and user research are part of the strategy. Culture 2, strategy 0.
What gives strategy something to chew on?
Ryan Androsoff and Xenia Menzies were exploring a possible hierarchy on Twitter throughout the conference:
structure > incentives > culture > strategy
Strategy, in this model, has somewhat of an uphill battle. The left side, if poorly aligned with strategy, represents "organizational debt" that has to be addressed before you can make investments and start gaining ground (see: Nesta on Innovation in the public sector: Is risk aversion a cause or a symptom?)
Simply telling people that it's okay to take risks only works on the margins. And, like in the letter example, I'd even argue that it can backfire, leaving employees conflicted between what they're hearing and what they're experiencing.
Structural and systematic biases - in this case, a bias against risk - need structural and systematic responses. Governments have done this with Official Languages and Employment Equity, but we're never going to have a Key Performance Indicator for risk tolerance. Governments can't have risk quotas to meet (I'd dread the reporting: "We undertook 100 activities this year and 5% of them were classified as high-risk.")
Which means we need to dissect the structure, incentives, and culture to figure out the DNA of why public sector employees and executives make the decisions they do.
That said, in the meantime I'd propose a natural starting point: risk and hierarchies don't play well together. Short of calling for removing layers, I'd suggest that we revisit the assumption that hierarchies and decision-making chains have to be the same thing. In Australia, for instance, policy directors send advice and briefs directly to Ministers; the senior executives focus on coordination and administration. There are alternatives.