While there are lots of politics watchers and lovers, my interest in government is really about public administration…structures, choices of instruments, governance processes, really anything “internal” about how the machine works. This past week ended with an expected announcement of a change in our branch structure as a result of changes in strategic direction and a rethinking of how best to meet those new needs.
However, what is of interest to me in the general sense is that some of the changes “undo” some changes that were made a few years ago. That sounds bad, but it’s really not. It’s just that some things that were changed a few years ago for very good reasons have now been changed also for very good reasons, yet environmental factors are not the only issue, nor even necessarily the driver. Some of it is, or perhaps may be, just cyclical.
Take for example programming by, well, just about by anyone delivering public services. The “best practices” are simple and ubiquitous…you want the program delivery to be light and flexible and as close to the client as possible. You ideally want the clients to have say in the design or at least feedback that can drive annual flexible tweaks. Health care, education, just about every field has the same message — empower and engage stakeholders and you’ll get better results.
Internal services are often faced with the same question. Take research for example. A number of years ago, my department did a review of research being conducted across the department. Not surprisingly, in a large organization, it was rather distributed. And people felt that perhaps that wasn’t the most efficient way to do it. Take for example say three groups doing research separately. And let’s assume they are in different areas so there’s no risk of overlap. On basic priority setting, group 1 could do projects A/B/C but not have enough money to do E/F/G. Group 2 in a similar boat does H/I/J but not K/L/M. And Group 3 does N/O/P but not Q/R/S. If ABC/HIJ/NOP are the top nine priorities no matter how you slice them, it doesn’t matter. Now in that analogy, Group 1 does C (their 3rd priority), and Group 2 cannot do K (their 4th) nor Group 3 Q (also their 4th), then you need as an organization to be sure that CJP are all higher than the fourths in the other groups. In other words, distributed decision-making can make for effective decisions within that group, but not necessarily the best across a portfolio. It’s not rocket science, it’s basic organizational theory. It’s a risk of decentralization of sorts.
So what do people do? They think, “Well, if I centralize, particularly when budgets are tight, I can make sure we’re doing it all consistently and efficiently”. Maybe there’s even some economies of scale that allows you to merge it all and do 10 or 11 instead of just 9 projects. The change goes through, and then a few years go by, and you see that while that great decision was well-founded, now you’re starting to see that maybe you need to decentralize a bit more. And then a bit more. And then a bit more. Mostly to put decisions in the hands of those closely aligned to the decision-making.
As a civil servant, I see these pressures constantly. While I started with decentralized above, it often starts with decentralized for IT or HR issues. Take for example IT, where it is usually initially provided by an IT branch. The program branch has some IT needs, often which are not completely met by the IT group. So the program branch hires someone to liaise with IT, hoping to improve support and access. And then maybe, just maybe, they hire an IT person or two of their own to handle some “extra” support that the IT group can’t do. Then maybe another person. Or decide they want to run their own server. Etc. Next thing you know, a program branch has a fully decentralized IT group and someone comes along and says, “Wait, this is really inefficient” (i.e. IT Branch starts having branches complain about their funding because they’d rather fund their own IT people than contribute to a larger branch that isn’t meeting all their needs) or says “This is really great, let’s decentralize it all”. Either way, you see a decision made to respond to one or two failures in a structure. They know there are pros and cons to the decisions, but they think the pros of the change outweigh the cons of the status quo, so they implement the change.
In the last five years, I’ve seen it on HR, IT, Finance, and now a bit different, a stakeholder engagement file. All of them have gone through the full cycle — we start off either decentralized or centralized, someone decides it’s either inefficient and weak or too tightly managed and unresponsive, and the change is made. Now we all know that the downside of decentralization is less consistency, less uniformity, potential for inefficiencies of multiple forms, yet the benefits of empowerment outweigh the costs of standing still. Then, five years later, someone looks at the decentralized benefits (empowerment) and decides the benefits of the change to centralized outweigh those decentralization benefits which are now viewed as costs.
Don’t get me wrong, none of them are individually bad decisions. Just really weird to see what is a bit cyclical in nature, and may simply be a push/pull of centralization/decentralization tug of war, driving decisions that each time seem like a force of positive disruption and even innovation to get better outcomes. And that happens in some cases even without any changes in the operating environments.
And what it leaves me with is a question…if I’m making a change as a manager, how do I know that I’m adequately counting the benefits of what is working now, given that I may not see it as easily as that which is not working (i.e. the costs)? Because what I’m starting to see is that we spend a lot of time “solving the problem” now only to see the alternate problem crop up strong enough five years later that we have to change back to “solve that problem”.
Like I said…I’m a public admin nerd.