Hope is not a strategy

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

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

There seem to be two themes in any discussion on public sector reform. One is that our systems and structures are broken and need repair - perhaps referring to procurement, policy development, accountability, and so on - and the other is that people's culture and choices need to change. The strongest versions of this take the form of “government needs to take more risks” or “people need to just do [X].”

With apologies, as I’m about to disagree with people whom I greatly respect, but I see little utility in calling for courage as a way to improve our public sector.

Here’s an analogy. If you run a website and people consistently, repeatedly click the wrong page when they’re looking for something in particular, the response is to interview visitors, generate hypotheses, and test alternatives. The history of the internet is full of examples where the people running a business guessed wrong at what would work best for people. It happens. But the real mistake it to react to how people are using your site with “But all users have to do is click there, then there, and they’d find it.”

Sure, they can. But a predictable proportion of them don’t. And we have - or should have - the data to prove it. It’s the responsibility of the website owner to design for what people actually do, just like it’s the responsibility of leaders to design for outcomes.

In the private sector, these metrics - drop-off rates on transactions due to misconceptions, or misleading language or navigation - can be converted directly into revenue gained or lost. In the public sector, the carrots and sticks are blurrier, but should be taken just as seriously.

What people actually do is the David to all of the good intention Goliaths of policy.

We hear things like “Procurement isn’t broken, people can write contracts for agile development now.” But do they? If not, or if less than they should, then procurement is as good as broken. Maybe the procurement policy is fine. But the procurement system is broken. The answer might lie in any combination of training, communications, management, oversight, or making the policy more explicit towards the desired outcomes. The theoretical possibility of desired outcomes is no consolation if they’re not being achieved.

To be fair to those who call for courage and risk-taking: in most cases, they’re speaking to audiences asking to be inspired, less so to those people pulling the levers of the machinery of government. Encouraging people to do their jobs well is perfectly warranted in those forums. And as individuals we should always be asking more of ourselves, working towards outcomes in whatever system we work within.

But that's not a get-out-of-jail-free card. Because many people have their hands on those levers. A manager’s policy interpretation will trump their staff’s courage in an instant. (Courage needs to win every day; authority often needs to win only once.) So it’s a message that’s as dangerous as inspiring, were we to let it seep in: that all we need to improve government is for people to suddenly start behaving differently. It sounds nice, but it’s too unreliable for organizations responsible for stewardship of the public good.

Understand people. Get the data. Design for outcomes.