There is increasing talk of replacing the classic ”hard” reform tools such as regulation and inspections with “soft” tools such as involvement, support and facilitation. But this is not an either-or situation: the challenge lies in finding the right balance of reforms between top-down and bottom-up.
At a seminar last year with Danish experts and public decision makers, the British writer and advisor Charles Leadbeater used the power station as a metaphor for municipal reform. His argument went along these lines:
When ministries, authorities and municipal departments carry out reforms, they do so by channeling energy from the centre outwards towards local institutions and actors. The reforms are directed uniformly at all interested parties, and at the central level, one gets a pleasant feeling of control. But a large amount of that energy is lost when it makes contact with the local reality. It is sent in all possible directions – and often right back to the sender.
What if instead, one carried out reforms in a way where local units or institutions became their own power centres, which did not only create new energy but also shared it through a local network, thus boosting the positive dynamic further?
The first model focuses on rationality, uniformity, predictability, overview and control. The other focuses among other things on forming opinions, differences, unpredictability and the opportunity for ongoing learning and adjustment.
On the way to a new reform model
It does not require that much imagination to see how many of our domestic reforms over the past years have had a similar impact to that which arises, according to Charles Leadbeater, when one seeks to channel energy exclusively from the top to the bottom.
In the Danish Parliament at Slotsholmen there is also a broad recognition that attempts to create concrete changes for citizens and businesses, as was the intention with the reform makers, have failed. Perhaps the classic central reform attempt does not work as well as we thought when society is still becoming more manifold, more complex, technologically developed and globalised?
It is in this spirit that we have begun to test out new “soft” models of reform. A central example of this is the New Nordic School, where the Ministry of Education has motivated 350 institutions towards innovative learning and well-being through networking and professional associations. Last year’s partial agreement on seven principals for the modernisation of the public sector comprises many of the same ideas about being a framework, but not a direct management, for local development potential.
Across the country, in local government and institutions, I also get the feeling that people are considering the potential: now, the public officials have finally got the message that they should stop meddling and let local powers find the solutions themselves by bringing professional expertise and experience into play. Should there be a need for new development, we’ll do it locally ourselves – perhaps with a view to sharing ideas or principals.
Unique state role
I myself am a staunch advocate of reforms that make sense and create energy at a local level. To ignore the role that the central level can play, however, is not only naive (the government will always have a need for an overview and a feeling of control, regardless of how much of an illusion this might be), it is also ineffective: the state continues to have a crucial role in the process of making the “soft” reform attempts work in practice at the local level, it is just a very different role than that public officials are used to.
Here are four proposals of how this new role will challenge the ministries:
* Reform as sensemaking. I recently heard a municipal director say that if only the state would explain to his bosses what was meant by a reform initiative, it would all be so much easier. Reforms are not only about telling people what they should change, but also about helping them to understand why. A crucial prerequisite for the success of bottom-up directed reforms is a shared understanding of what the point of them is: not only from a political viewpoint, but also the specific changes one hopes to achieve to a citizen or a company’s working day. It demands ministers and public officials becoming far more skilled at communicating their intentions, including via new digital and social media, and it requires a far closer contact at local level so one knows how this “point” is being perceived among those who will actually be carrying out the reforms on the front line.
* Reform as a prioritisation tool. We know from MindLab’s work over recent years that reforms can lead to a great deal of confusion locally, because new demands are simply laid on top of old ones without any guidelines of what is most important. Effective reforms are thus not only about telling institutions what extra work they need to do. Ministries and authorities must have a far deeper understanding of which local dilemmas and challenges arise as a consequence of the new initiatives, and actively help the local leadership in prioritising. This could for example be done by dosing a reform into different stages, so everything does not need to be implemented all at once, by signalling quite clearly what is not important any longer, and by distinguishing between “should” and “could” in the reform’s individual elements. Finally, one can support dialogue and networking between local leaders, so they can learn from each other which priorities work best under which conditions.
* Reform as competence development. Some years ago I asked one of my colleagues, a civil servant, how she could be sure that local government would be capable of accommodating a number of new reform demands. Her prompt reply was: “Well they’ll just have to.” But the future’s reforms are not about threatening or aimlessly demanding that institutions do what we say. We should invest in their ability to translate the reform’s intentions into new forms of organisation, new work processes, skills, professional competences, etc. Again, this places demands on a very precise dialogue between the central level (where the resources are) and the local level (where the task is to be carried out).
* Reform as shared data. An undervalued strength of central departments is their ability to gather and analyse data across the sector or sectors they are responsible for. But this data – on efforts, activities, results and impact – is all too rarely made available, when it could be made into a pivot for actual dialogue among local actors or across local and central levels. It is precisely because future reforms are more open and unpredictable that they require looking more sharply, closely and more frequently at the data in order to see how the development is going and what needs adjusting. Here, I’m thinking not only of quantitative data, but also of observations, interviews and other qualitative data that can provide early indications of whether something is going in the right or wrong direction.
Tracing the contours of the ministry of the future
What then do these ministries and authorities look like, that are capable of creating reforms in this way?
I think that, over the next 10 years, we will see many experiments with a large number of initiatives: earlier, deeper and more committed involvement of end users and local actors in the design of the reform itself. Launching and testing of “reform prototypes” in order to learn what works – faster and more cheaply. New organisation reforms that support a more adaptable, learning-friendly organisation. More outbound, communicative and listening activities in relation to sectors and interests. Strengthening of interaction across departments, both vertically and horizontally. Smarter and more transparent use of data to give value to the entire system, and not only inspection or management tools.
These initiatives are not easy, but really, really hard. Finding the balance and getting all that’s soft to succeed – that’s the hard part.