Why Canada’s public services need faith

As I mentioned the otherday, I recently finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the text, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term, “paradigm shift.”

Here, in this book about how progress is made in the sciences I was completely floored by this paragraph in penultimate chapter: The Resolution of Revolutions.

…the issue is which paradigm should in the future guide research on problems many of which neither competitor can yet claim to resolve completely. A decision between alternate ways of practicing science is called for, and in the circumstances that decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise. The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving. He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed with the many large problems that confront it, knowing only that the old paradigm has failed with a few. A decision of that kind can only be made on faith. (pages 157-158/3rd edition)

This describes precisely how I feel about Public Service Sector Renewal (reforming the public service). When I talk and write about an open and networked government I understand it raises questions around accountability, ministerial responsibility and human resource management. I’m aware that these are “large problems” for which our present structure has some – albeit highly imperfect and I’d argue, quickly eroding – answers.

Moreover it is true, that if we decided on how and if to reform government based solely on the performance of past models then we would always choose the status quo. The corporate hierarchy has served us well. Any new model will appear, relatively speaking, untested. But a growing number of us know that the status quo is unsustainable.

I know that any new system, however slight the change, will bring with it new challenges and questions, but the paralyzing and untenable problems with the current system will ultimately outweigh these unknowns – even in an organization as conservative as the public service. Ultimately, I am saying that a new system can succeed with many large problems confronting it even as the old system has failed only with a few.

So, as odd as it is to admit, I am, in part, acting on faith. Not only that, I believe the public service is going to learn to have faith as well. Why? Because in the end we won’t have a choice – the old problems this system cannot solve will demand it. We will have to change, and that will mean, someone, somewhere in the public service have put their foot forward into the unknown.

Indeed, many already have.

One thought on “Why Canada’s public services need faith

  1. Rikia

    David,Catching up on your blog I am excited about your vision for changing the part of government that truly touches people's lives every day. Democratic reform is seen as something that comes through political action, but the idea that the civil service might lead the way is revolutionary. It certainly has a greater incentive for change than the party system, and more potential for fluidity and organic growth once you get the ball rolling.Interesting times.

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