Three lessons from my MBA—some years ago now—still stand out. Two were from a subject on technology strategy run by one of the most decent people I know, Ron Weber. One was from managerial accounting, ‘organisational engineering’, run by the insightful Lyndal Drennan.
First, never outsource your strategic competence, and that which is critical to competitive advantage. Now, the public service doesn’t have to compete in the same way that a private sector company does—or so some may think. But it does: it competes for ideas and influence.
And it is losing, to the very competitors to whom it has outsourced its thinking, its strategic capability, even its accountability and decision-making.
The consequences are apparent: it’s not simply decisions effectively being made by others, but the mechanisms and means of informing the decision. Coupled with organisational amnesia, due to dysfunctional technology and churn, government is spinning its wheels.
Second, understand the structures and incentives that shape your organisation. In some cases that’s salary, performance bonuses and accounting frameworks. In others, it’s the behaviour that’s rewarded and punished.
Inside government, the scope for rewarding outcomes is limited, not least because policy-makers are often far removed, layered through bureaucracy, from the outcomes of their decisions. But also the policy process can be capricious, making attribution, blame and reward hard.
Still, it is the very effort to avoid attribution and deny or control risk that can shape the organisation. It will develop strategies to deflect criticism, reject change and delegitimise new information. All of which makes reform harder.
The last lesson is that some organisations are beyond rescue. The culture cannot be redirected. The systems cannot be repaired. Even the people—most of whom have been normalised to an often-toxic environment—cannot be helped, at least in that organisational environment.
In such circumstances, even heroic efforts at reform are most likely doomed, not least because the time, effort, political capital could be better spent elsewhere. Everything has an opportunity cost.
It’s easy to blame the public service—and it has indeed contributed to its current state. It can sometimes be hard to see what good looks like, inside, even as most are trying to do the best they can. (True, there’s something to ‘plus ca change, plus c’est meme chose’.)
But much power and decision-making authority has been accrued within ministerial offices, especially the PMO—without a willingness to engage with heavy lifting, including accountabilities and transparency, needed for a healthy public sector.
No government will be able to deliver what they intend without a professional, capable, well-functioning bureaucracy: it’s a core institution of democracy. Bludgeoning it into submission won’t deliver. Nor, ultimately, will making it a craven creature of partisan wants.
And we’ve reached that point. Government needs to reclaim its strategic capabilities. It needs to reset incentive drivers and structures. And in some cases—perhaps more than is comfortable—it may need to simply shut things down and exit staff so as to rebuild afresh.