National and Devolved Politics

14.08.17

Altered states

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 17

To tackle the challenges faced by our public services, we need to learn to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur, argues Ian Burbidge, associate director (public services and communities) at the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA).

How do we deliver 21st-century public services in a world characterised by growing complexity and uncertainty which generates a range of unpredictable consequences? Even if we put aside some of the more speculative futurist predictions, a society increasingly driven by technology will see continuous change in the economy, human relations and our sense of identity. In areas such as employment we have seen the loss of traditional manufacturing, the rise of knowledge work, and a rise of in-work poverty. Globalisation and migration continuously disrupt the meaning of geographical distance in our lives. And both shaping and being shaped by these trends we see a society where power, wealth and opportunity are overly concentrated. 

Compounded by deep social, economic and political divides, too many people feel they have lost control of their lives, something that is reflected in high levels of anxiety and alienation. Those who have experienced a sense of community in the past bemoan its loss. Meanwhile the state seeks both to withdraw entitlements and services while also being increasingly controlling in many of its relationships with citizens. The consolidation of power in the hands of public service experts and institutions reinforces disempowerment and a reduced sense of personal agency or control; people feeling that things are done ‘to’ them, not done ‘with’ them. The state is too hierarchical, the market too lopsided, and rich educational experiences are unevenly distributed.

Since the late 19th century, the theory and practice of public administration has failed to keep up with the pace of social change. Services that were originally conceived to tackle the issues of industrialisation and urbanisation through the professionalism and knowledge of public servants remain bureaucratic and hierarchical in their design and delivery. For thirty years, reformers sought to attack paternalistic and inefficient bureaucracy with the market-oriented tools of New Public Management. Its origins were in economic theory and the efficiency improvements that Frederick Winslow Taylor brought to manufacturing in the early 20th century by breaking the production process down into its constituent parts, controlling for variation and managing by numbers. This reform agenda used incentives, targets, markets and sanctions as their primary levers of improvement, underpinned by the assumption that citizens, as consumers, would act rationally in their own self-interest in response to a choice amongst providers. 

The evidence on that expensive and often demoralising global experiment is now pretty clear – overwhelmingly, it failed. For all that New Public Management was able to create a clearer output focus in public services, as a hierarchical and unyielding tool it reinforced silos of delivery, left professionals disempowered, created perverse incentives as targets drove organisational focus, and crowded out creativity and innovation.  

If the picture painted here is a reasonable reflection of a generally felt experience, are our governance arrangements and the policy that flows from them up to the task? The fear has to be that they are not, and for very good reason. They are not sufficiently responsive, adaptive or persuasive. The question for public administrators and policymakers remains: how to change their practices to effectively cope with the complex dynamics of the 21st century. 

A system view 

Complex societal problems have a number of features. They can be highly individual, such as frailty and loneliness, unemployment, mental health or imprisonment that may require relational support. They can be highly political, requiring important ethical or material trade-offs, and therefore the deliberation and mobilisation of legitimacy. For example, answering questions of where to locate new houses and roads, whether to preserve the green belt or whether to approve licensing applications. They can also be ‘wicked’, with multiple causes interacting in unpredictable ways – issues such as obesity, criminality and homelessness – which require the alignment of a broad set of actors to effectively address them. 

Complex systems exhibit nonlinear and often unpredictable change. Indeed, the insight of Edward Lorenz’s ‘butterfly effect’ is that it is hard to predict whether a small change in a complex system will have a big effect, no effect or something in-between. As retired general Stanley McChrystal states in his book about rules of engagement in a complex world, “attempts to control complex systems by using the kind of mechanical, reductionist thinking championed by thinkers from Newton to FW Taylor tend to be pointless at best or destructive at worst”. FW Taylor’s command and control thinking, translated into public sector institutions, fragmented service delivery and reinforced a hierarchical authority whose role, argues occupational psychologist John Seddon, was to “give instructions (specifications and targets), monitor, control, reward and punish”. 

Public services remain largely based on outdated models that assume a linear relationship between inputs, outputs and outcomes and that change is best achieved by pulling the big levers of central government – legislation, tax and spend, and earmarked funding streams. The legacy of this deeply ingrained thinking is the idea that if only we can properly understand an issue, and perfectly design a response, the problem will be solved. These responses are too rigid, path-dependent and pre-ordained, and consequently do not readily enable a systemic view of a particular challenging social issue to be taken. 

This is where decades of public service reform based on a New Public Management mindset has led. At its worst, it has compounded the problem of paternalism, the assumption that the professionals or bureaucrats know best, and therefore that the frontline staff and citizens should accept what they have to offer. Crucially, this failure to recognise that individuals are experts in their own lives raises the question of how we support effective engagement with people and communities in order to rebalance the provider-receiver power dynamic. 

Without a rebalancing, public services could well remain ill-suited and unresponsive to the complex and networked world we live in. In many places, public sector staff are actively trying to bring about this rebalancing whilst working within the constraints of an inflexible system. They are often those closest to the frontline and the most likely to recognise that these issues cannot be tackled by their own organisation working alone. As one local authority attendee at a recent RSA event said: “If you look at the projections for the next few years, I don’t think there is any other way than working as a system.” To be able to work as a system we must, therefore, think like a system; however, this alone is not enough if we are to make real change in the world. 

Mobilising for change 

At the RSA we have been adapting a framework based on anthropologist Mary Douglas’ cultural theory, which recognises that any change needs to take account of the different sources of power in any social setting. These are the power of the individual, driven by incentives to act; the power of the group, driven by solidarity based on shared values and norms; and the power of the hierarchy, driven by the policy and rules of those in authority. 

To be successful, any attempt to tackle a social issue, introduce a new policy or to reform public services needs to take account of these power dynamics. Our critique of New Public Management is that it tried rigidly to gear individual incentives to achieve hierarchically defined and imposed ends. In doing so it effectively crowded out much of the intrinsic motivation, personal agency and solidaristic value that many public sector employees share. Because the hierarchy was unable to see and understand the system adequately, the individual incentives prevented staff from responding entrepreneurially to the day-to-day challenges they face. As a result, the system focused on those particular challenges for which targets had been set. 

Although achieving change is difficult, there are points in time when it becomes more likely. An individual recovering from a heart attack due to an unhealthy lifestyle has an opportunity: to change habits or carry on as before. Do they respond to this incentive? A community reeling from a spate of muggings of older people has an opportunity: to mobilise collective action or turn away and ignore it? Does this challenge the community’s values sufficiently to lead to action? An organisation responding to acute service failure has an opportunity: to reform or to turn a blind eye? Does new leadership use their authority to drive change? 

At the RSA we call these ‘social moments’ – the point at which the existing balance between the power of the individual, the community and the hierarchy can be shifted to a new equilibrium. The challenge is that we need to be able to respond to this opportunity when it arises. It does not require a perfect plan; it does mean that in many instances we need to take a risk, to step out into the unknown and respond to what we find. To read and react positively to these moments, in our own lives, in our communities, in our institutions, is to be entrepreneurial. 

We see that achieving social change needs people who are empowered, persistent and flexible. They work as part of a collaborative, iterative and responsive process, not one that proceeds in an orderly, linear, staged fashion with a defined start and end point. Their ability to react to an opportunity to tackle an issue that was not on the radar, but that was important nonetheless, is pure entrepreneurialism. Where they are able to align actions by individuals, groups and hierarchies in response to the social moment they are most likely to achieve change that improves people’s lives and the communities in which they live. Anticipating, spotting, and reacting to opportunities when they arise is what we mean when we talk about the need to ‘act like an entrepreneur’.    

Future action 

Cause for optimism can be found in those places where we see new types of public administration starting to emerge, partly as a response to the failure of the old paradigm, and despite (or perhaps because of) the ongoing period of fiscal austerity. These institutions act as a convener and catalyst for change rather than administering top-down change, where individuals act with a humility that recognises they are only one part of a broader picture.

However we conceive, manage and deliver public services, we need to understand and appreciate the wider systemic perspective in order to be responsive to local needs and context. We do not expect – nor advise – anyone to take on grand societal challenges in their entirety. Instead, we would rather see people, teams and organisations develop an ability to identify opportunities for change and a capacity to react nimbly to them, rapidly prototyping and deploying possible responses.  

This is what we call the ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ mindset. It is an approach that we will be further testing and developing in an emerging RSA programme of work. It is, at its simplest, a practical theory of how to achieve change in a complex and uncertain world, something we believe is needed now more than ever.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Tw: @ianburbidge
W: www.thersa.org

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