The Complexity Conundrum

When it comes to dealing with the unexpected, government struggles. In order to address the nation's greatest public challenges, government needs to destroy its bureaucracies.
by | May 4, 2011

Government's response to increasing complexity always seems to be more bureaucracy. This may be the wrong answer. Instead of trying to harness change, we have to learn new ways to create public value in an environment of rapid change.

In his new book, Drive, the always engaging Daniel Pink offers an observation with important implications for government. He writes that social scientists categorize work into two categories: "algorithmic" and "heuristic."

Algorithmic work consists of going through a series of predetermined steps, a cookbook recipe epitomized by working through the algorithm of a long division problem. Not a lot of creativity is needed. Heuristic work, on the other hand, offers no such clear path. It requires a set of judgment-rich attempts followed by feedback -- try something, see how it works and then try something else based on your results.

As Pink notes, "Working as a grocery clerk is mostly algorithmic. You do pretty much the same thing over and over in the same way. Creating an ad campaign is mostly heuristic. You have to come up with something new."

Pink's observation is that the old "carrots and sticks" incentives are increasingly irrelevant. More critical is the ability to tap into the passion and creativity of an engaged workforce. Bureaucracy isn't very good at that, especially public bureaucracies.

When handling its routine chores, government generally functions pretty well. Social Security checks get mailed, streets get swept and clean water comes out when you turn on the tap. But when it comes to dealing with the unexpected, government struggles. We all witnessed the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, and just last week, reports showed that the Coast Guard's response to the Gulf oil spill was marked by shoddy planning. A string of high-profile IT failures at the FBI, IRS and states from Texas to Indiana shows how difficult it is for government agencies to successfully execute large change initiatives.

A Washington Post survey found that most people believe federal workers are overpaid, underqualified and lazy. This perception is likely fueled by a failure of bureaucratic institutions to fully engage their workforce.

In an environment of rapid change, the traditional, hierarchical command and control model is worse than useless -- it is destructive.

Unfortunately, a bureaucratic command and control hierarchy is the only organizational form available to most public-sector managers. Collective bargaining agreements proscribe rigid rules around work, compensation and hours. Even managers operate in a rule-laden environment reeking of archaic relics of the industrial age. In the private sector, job descriptions are only for entry-level workers, not for professionals.

Many public jobs see unique challenges every day. Teachers and police officers must exercise a great deal of judgment in doing their jobs. The management of these fields, however, is relatively static. Charter schools are, in essence, an attempt to introduce new approaches to the structure of education delivery -- something the bureaucracy hasn't done well.

To rise to the challenge of complexity, it is necessary to transcend our old way of thinking about motivation. Instead of thinking in terms of carrots and sticks -- or pay and bonuses -- it is critical to tap into the intrinsic enjoyment of tackling a rich and important challenge. It's also critical for government to embrace new ways of creating public value. Not only do we need to tap into the creativity and drive of public employees, we have to broaden our vision about how we create public value.

The private sector embraces transformational change with dizzying rapidity. It's often painful for established players, but progress is tangible. Think of the shift in the news industry, where newspapers and network news have largely been replaced by online sources and cable TV. Government, often locked in a cocoon of monopolistic isolation, moves incrementally -- a surefire recipe for failure in an era of rapid technological change.

In a heuristic environment, workers tend to be more autonomous. Managers see and treat employees as self-directed partners. Spontaneously forming and disbanding project teams that cross organizational boundaries are the rule, not the exception. Often, this will mean government relinquishing control in exchange for tapping into the passion and creativity not only of public employees, but community groups, business partners and citizens.

Hierarchy itself is not the culprit, by the way. In fact, the one government entity that handles change best is the most hierarchical, the military. Despite its reputation for red tape, military officers are trained to handle rapidly evolving circumstances on the battlefield. This means that they receive extensive training, and decision-making within the mission is pushed down to the front lines where knowledge of local circumstances and the need for rapid action means the difference between life and death. The military actually proved itself remarkably resilient during the Iraq war, overhauling an approach that wasn't working and introducing a new one. The successful operation to take down Osama bin Laden was anything but routine.

Innovation occurs when a workforce is engaged, motivated and valued for what they are producing. Too many public organizations fail that test. The result is a government that can't handle the realities of our rapidly changing world.

We need to figure out how to unleash the latent talent of public workers, who often work in stifling bureaucracies. If this doesn't change, our greatest public challenges will overwhelm our public institutions, and our nation will be the lesser for it.

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