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Christian Bason

Guesswork

By August 15th 2010

One of the things that most struck me the most when I left my 10-year career in management consulting to lead MindLab was all the guessing that went on in the Danish central administration. Public servants were routinely guessing what their boss thought would be an appropriate course of action on a given policy. They were also guessing what their boss’ boss might think (this would be the deputy permanent secretary). And, obviously, most of all they were trying to guess what the permanent secretary might eventually think. (Who of course has been guessing all along what the political boss — the minister — is thinking). Tremendous amounts of time is spent on this guesswork, not just on the guessing, but on drafting courses of action that might (or, more often, might not) be what the ‘hieararchy’ is looking for. Compared to my experience in consulting (in a much flatter hierarchy, and in a very different organisational culture), this guesswork seems to me to be a significant waste of time and, thereby, tax payer’s money. I have seen policy development processes that arguably should have been completed in a year or less take twice that time, with no discernible increase in quality or political relevance.

Of course there are some reasons for all the guesswork, and the time the policy development process takes:

First, policy development is often a complex progress, where the positions of various stakeholders (such as political majorities and minorities, lobbyists, industrial organisations, etc.) need to be taken into account. And there are of course delicate matters of timing, which may mean that a wonderful piece of new policy can be put in the drawer for months until the time is ripe for launch.

Second, senior managers in government have very tight schedules. They must be available at all times for their own boss and particularly the minister. They simply can’t fit in the time and resources to engage systematically in collaborative dialogue, brainstorming and idea generation, just because some of their staff need it. At MindLab, where we regularly run workshops focusing on high-level policy development, it is a rarity that anyone above the level of Head of Division can spend more than an hour in a work session, if that much.

Finally, paper work takes time. The century-old tradition of drafting papers to go up the multiple rungs of hierarchy and back lives on. Sometimes the process can be extreme, with little benefit. Recently, a senior official told me that a case concerning just 5 mio kr. (less than USD 1 mio) had dragged on for more than two years during which several government departments had haggled over who was to foot the bill.

These all (somewhat) understandable reasons.  But still, it seems the process just isn’t good enough. How to rid ourselves of all the guessing going on, and how to conduct the policy innovation process more efficiently?

First, as I wrote in an earlier blog post, even though innovation is a terrible word, we do need a language of innovation. We need it because we need to be more conscious about creating more efficient and creative everyday working practices. As British professor Fiona Patterson, who studied everyday innovation practices across more than 800 companies has found, “(…) organisations that clearly articulate what is meant by ‘innovative working’ are more likely to be successful in their attempt to encourage innovative behaviours”. No  serious new discipline  has, I believe, ever taken root in modern organisations without having a distinct vocabulary.

Secondly, other than speaking in meaningful ways about innovation, we should simply start meeting in a different way.  Key public servants desperately need to meet with each other  in better prepared, more focused sessions to actually craft policy together, rather than to just let lowly minions guess their best in writing and then give them the thumbs up or down. Senior public servants, advisers, junior staff, and — even — external stakeholders such as citizens, businesses, academics, interest organisations  and ‘wild cards’ need to collaborate much more consciously and intensively, if we are to come up with the effective and intelligent solutions we need. Smarter collaboration would save tax payer money, not just because we’d save substantial time and frustration by reducing all the guessing. It would also save tax payer money because such forms of co-creation have a much higher chance of producing  outcomes that actually work.

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