Public Service Reform: The Myth of Failure

I’m getting ready to give my talk at the Public Service’s Executive Summit conference – a group that includes the CIO’s of all the federal ministries and other IT people engaged in service delivery. Although many of the themes will be reminiscent of the APEX talk I hope to blog on some of the newer themes later.

Leading up to the talk I’ve been reflecting on this notion of failure in the public service.

Frequently, when discussing the issue of public service sector reform, public officials seem to be of two minds. On the one hand I hear some advocates – let’s call them the entrepreneurs – argue that the public service needs to be more forgiving of risk and support innovation. Others – let’s call them the caretakers – regularly remind me of how government is different from the private sector. That unlike the private sector, which can take risks and fail, the government cannot. The consequence of the ‘caretakers’ predominance is everywhere: it explains why the government is slow to adopt new technologies and ideas, as it prefers to observe others figure them out and then move cautiously.
Myself, I’m a big supporter of the entrepreneurs – if you can’t fail then you can’t experiment, and while that means it’s hard to make things worse, it also makes it very, very difficult to make things better.

More importantly however, I find the latter statement interesting…  and also troublingly evasive and unrealistic.

It is true that many government services are essential – and the costs of a failure (however defined) can be high. But this is not true of all government services. All across government there is latitude for experimentation and new ideas – and indeed it takes place – but slowly.

More importantly however, the caretakers statement ignores reality. Government programs – like those of many organization – fail on a regular basis. Ask anyone whose worked in the public service, they’ll tell you of programs that never launched, got killed because they didn’t work, or that are continuing to operate and receive funding, but essentially don’t work (indeed, entire ministries come to mind…).

These can even include critical services. Aboriginal policy in Canada has been broadly “failing” for over two decades – and the consequences have been pretty atrocious. If one thought there was a zero risk threshold issue, I might have through this was it. While I believe that ‘caretakers’ are genuinely concerned that new technologies and approaches may increase the risk of failure there may be another, more troubling reason. ‘Caretakers’ may rightly fear that new technologies and structures because they create new types of failure. Failures that the bureaucracy is not practiced in the art of discretely hiding.

This is a powerful motivating factor. Failure, particularly failures that become public can at best cause Ministers great discomfort, discomfort they are likely to recreate for those who work for them. It’s an understandable and real concern. But in many instances the status quo of service and policy can also be dangerous. Experimentation – and as a result risk taking – is the only path I can see out.

2 thoughts on “Public Service Reform: The Myth of Failure

  1. Phenom

    Good post – and quite relevant to me.

    The Government of Nunavut is trying different things, trying to develop a Nunavut-specific form of governance. They are meeting with limited success, but some of their successes are a direct result of trying things that haven’t been done before.

    Reply
  2. Phenom

    Good post – and quite relevant to me.The Government of Nunavut is trying different things, trying to develop a Nunavut-specific form of governance. They are meeting with limited success, but some of their successes are a direct result of trying things that haven’t been done before.

    Reply

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