This blog has previously been published in the Danish magazine “Monday Morning”.
There is a lot of talk about innovation in the public sector – and with good reason; but a new way of thinking should never be an end in itself. The vision should rather be to discover new and better principles for the future of public governance. In this regard, there are two great challenges to be met.
The asymmetry problem
The first challenge is an asymmetry problem. Our public sector management suffers from an imbalance between those who bear the cost of an activity and those who reap the rewards. This asymmetry means that public authorities often lack a clear incentive to undertake tasks in a way that is overall the best and least expensive for the individual as well as society. The challenge is complicated by the presence of a second asymmetry that emerges in practice: silo asymmetry. The public sector’s organisation into various administrative domains (horizontally), and into national, regional and municipal administrative levels (vertically) impedes holistic thinking. It is, of course, impossible to conceive of a public sector without any organizing principle. But the silo asymmetry means there is a need for much stronger and binding cross-sectoral management processes than we have at present, at the top level as well as the operational level. We have spoken of “joined-up government” for more than a decade, but where has anyone really implemented the leadership and management models that will allow the cohesion to become real?
Time asymmetry The outcomes of public sector efforts are created over time – in some cases over several decades. But those making the effort (e.g., national prisons making enormous investments in rehabilitation) are not those who will reap the subsequent rewards (e.g., municipal social services, which will save money when former convicts find employment). Where do we see actual new management models that take on this dilemma? This is where one could explore whether social finance or social impact bonds can help short-circuit the time asymmetry by finding investors willing to pay for long-range societal outcomes – in exchange for a return that reflects the risk they run. This requires a completely undogmatic approach to whether the investors are private, public or NGOs. This is one of the areas in which the British-American organisation Social Finance is working.
The second challenge is that public governance and management is often based on a flawed perception of the relationship to citizens. There is still a widespread notion that public authorities best achieve results through control and regulation. At the same time, there is an opinion that as a public official one cannot take credit for the results of one’s efforts, because many other (external) conditions are involved. Nonetheless, we need a more radical shift from control to service; a service-oriented relationship to the public is generally much more effective and inexpensive. The Danish Tax Agency has already demonstrated this through its Compliance Strategy, and the Danish Working Environment Authority, with its new 2020 plan, is headed in the same direction.
Top executives in government must take responsibility for the results they create, even if they are achieved indirectly or through others. We have (again) spoken for many years about networked governance, but incredibly few organisations are explicitly practicing it. There needs to be far greater focus on what I would perhaps rather call value chain governance: a laser-sharp eye for those causal connections and resources outside one’s own organisation which will create value and results for the end-user. We must step back from the abstract practices of administration and toward a sincere interest in what will make a difference in the lives of real people. This includes, not least, an eye for how people’s own resources can be part of meaningful coproduction with the public sector – also as an “active citizen”.
Semiautonomous municipalities as frontrunners?
There is enormous potential to be realised if our public institutions seriously address these two governance problems. It would give us more holistic approaches to how to get the greatest outcomes for our tax income and catapult our public institutions into new value-creating partnerships, not least across municipalities, regions and the state.
Some rather radical innovation processes must come into play for the new governance models to become reality. Perhaps the small handful of “semiautonomous” Danish municipalities, which the government has recently given the license to experiment beyond current rules and regulations, are ready to pick up the gauntlet?