Agile Government: A Pipe Dream?

The finest hour of any organization — is in its time of crisis. It may not feel like it at the time, but it is the greatest opportunity to see what emerges, when the best is needed.

Enter Kirk Rieckhoff and J. R. Maxwell, the author’s of McKinsey article, “How the public sector can remain agile beyond times of crisis.”

Having supported government clients in times of crisis, much of Rieckhoff and Maxwell’s experiences resonates. Here are some of my thoughts based on the article.

Please note: all quotes below are from the linked article

What is the reality of the public sector within the context of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity?

Whether it be the information overload, changing consumer/citizen preferences and/or severe partisan politics, agencies are charged with being mission-driven, while not necessarily having the tools, resources or support to get the job done.

Today’s public-sector leaders feel pressure to do more with less, to address a complex and ever-expanding range of issues, and to address them more quickly than ever before.

There are groups of stakeholders — each has its influence on the policies, the rules & regulations, and the funding. By the time a budget passes or a policy comes to fruition, the agency implementing the solution is usually “behind the eight ball.”

From the point of funding, the policy needs to be operationalized, and the corresponding technology needs to be created to support the operations. This is no small task.

Let’s think about this effort a moment:

  1. Federal, State and/or City Elected Officials determine the Policy, Legal and Budget Process
  2. The specific-agency determines the specifics of the policy details
  3. The specific-agency will need to
  4. operationalize via a complex planning effort — e.g., what existing operations and infrastructure can the programs be tied to?
  5. development the technology to support the operations

With a multi-stakeholder and competing priorities, this effort is complex and time consuming.

Don’t Waste a Crisis:

A crisis creates the context to throw fear to the side, and get the job done — including, making mistakes. Why? Because lives of fellow human beings are at stake.

In times of crisis, the people within agencies take leaps of faith, try new ideas and simply “make it work.” There is an iterative nature to the job, and no one is faulted for trying their best to serve when others are in need.

The cultural aversion to sharing information across agencies and acting in concert was replaced by an urgently felt need to collaborate.

Policy, Operations and Technology work together to serve those in need. However, when there is no crisis or no pressing need, then according to Rieckhoff and Maxwell, agencies regress to:

  1. a cultural aversion to risk
  2. functional silos
  3. and, organizational complexity

A cultural aversion to risk? Or, simply a complex risky environment?

Government officials, for example, worry about being wrong, angering superiors, and alienating other agencies more than they become excited about proposing new programs, developing faster operating models, or piloting new partnerships.

To a large extent there is a lot of truth to this above statement, but I am uncertain whether this is simply a public sector challenge — or, a leadership and communication issue.

In my view, these belief systems around what can or cannot be done is the true challenge to progress. Whether it be at a fortune 500 company, or within government, I have seen the individuals who have taken the extra step to be unsung leaders to find champions behind ideas and to help get things done.

Is this a profit-motive issue?

Without an imperative to act (such as the profit motive in the private sector), it’s rational to seek ever more information, to conduct additional analyses, to await permission, or to optimize for the interests of the “tribe” rather than the organization as a whole.

This is a reductionist and subjective correlation of what compels individuals and organizations to act: IF X, THEN Y.

If profit-motive, then action….If crisis, then action.

The binary view is helpful, but it is in the gray areas that there are some insights. In the gray areas, we can find countless examples of public and private organizations that went above and beyond to serve others.

There in lies the opportunity: servant leadership to have the tough conversations; to facilitate discussions on shared values; and, to rally organizations to get things done.

The ultimate currency of an organization is communication.

Originally posted on Karma Advisory’s medium page here.

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