For several decades, organizational development gurus and privatization advocates have been promoting the idea that the public sector should be run more like the private sector. Many public sector leaders, pressured to provide better services with stagnating budgets (in real terms), gobbled up the latest “flavor of the month” business tools (Kaizen, Customer-focus, Six Sigma, etc.) that promised greater efficiency, better public engagement, and good customer relationships.

Most of us cannot argue with the need to improve government services. This should be a given and continual focus – to a point. Unfortunately,  some of these tools/approaches have been taken too far, applied inappropriately, or were unintentionally focused on the wrong issue or problem. I have seen many instances where “continuous improvement” processes are applied to a program, without asking the most important question of all –should the existing program or approach be continued at all? Or, would a different approach be more effective? Instead, efforts are made to optimize or tweak existing systems rather than make the wholesale changes that may be needed.

Private sector solution strategies, as commonly practiced, can probably be most helpful when they are applied to simple or complicated problems. However, they are less valuable when it comes to addressing fundamentally complex human problems that challenge the public sector each and every day. Before I continue, let me take a moment to define these terms. Here, I am drawing a distinct difference between simple, complicated and complex problems:

  • Simple problems are ones like baking a cake from a mix. Success comes from following a recipe.
  • Complicated problems are ones like sending a rocket to the moon. Success often relies on formula and expertise, as well as the use of multiple people and teams to succeed. Unanticipated difficulties are frequent. Timing and coordination are always a concern. However, once you learn how to send a rocket to the moon, you can perfect the process and repeat it over and over again.
  • Complex problems are ones like raising a child. Unlike rockets which are fundamentally the same, no two children are alike. Each child is unique and has to be seen as an individual. Although raising one child may provide experience, it does not guarantee success with the next child. Expertise is valuable, but not sufficient. The next child may require an entirely different approach from the previous one and they may grow up entirely differently.[1]

Defining the Problem Correctly is Important

Complexity Science researchers tell us that things often go badly wrong when we treat all problems alike and apply the same kinds of solution strategies to everything. For example, leaders who order staff to develop “cookbook solutions” to complex problems, or ask them to condense/oversimplify data, regardless of the complexity of the situation, end up creating risks for themselves, their staff and the end-users of their products and services.

When faced with complexity, humans tend to want to break things into minor components and focus on solving the simple, logical parts of a problem. When we tackle simple or complicated problems, it can feel satisfying because we can see predictable, tangible results. However, having done that, it usually means we have very little time or resources left to address the actual root causes of that problem (usually complex, human-related causes). An example of this approach  is when we focus a great deal of effort on creating iron-clad technical reports, then leave it to chance regarding whether people will use them to solve real problems on the ground.

If we are to solve our remaining public sector problems (the complex, multi-faceted, interrelated ones), we will need to shift more time to addressing the problems that are inherently messy, complex, unpredictable and time-consuming. This will require having more public servants who can spend their time outside the walls of their organizations –building relationships and trust, connecting civic leader networks, and modeling more inclusive and just governing practices that can leverage the many talents and ideas of our citizenry. This approach will require different skill sets than have traditionally been valued in public service.

Out With Old, In With the New

Over the past several years, I have been encouraged by the fact that more and more public servants are seeing the need for a new kind of public service. Many who have worked in government a long time have a growing sense that traditional, expert-driven approaches have hit a wall and that there is a need to re-imagine their roles so that they can address increasingly challenging problems in collaboration with fellow citizens who are not in public service. This does not necessarily mean giving up existing authorities, but it should mean creating more meaningful governing roles for those caring citizens that want to come to the table to help. Courageous leaders in government are now needed who can help us to begin to make this transition.

[1] Complicated and complex systems: what would successful reform of Medicare look like?, S Glouberman, B Zimmerman – Romanow Papers, 2002.


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