Can we fix dysfunctional government? - Team Business
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Can we fix dysfunctional government?

Can we fix dysfunctional government?

What more evidence do we need that dysfunctional government is a modern day plague that corrupts our public services?

In this respect, the Rotherham child protection scandal is a case study for our times. Archaic management design builds systemic failure into our social services and other government departments throughout the UK.

Under these conditions, catastrophic failure can happen anywhere.  And it probably already is and a lot more than we realize. We just haven’t heard about it yet. As a result of the monumental scandal in Rotherham, Eric Pickles, the Communities secretary parachuted government commissioners to sort the mess out. Unfortunately, unless they have a brief to de-commission the whole apparatus, they have a herculean task on their hands.

Can a leopard change its spots?

In essence what the government is tasking the commissioners to do is get the leopard to change its spots. We must not fool ourselves. It is not that somehow Rotherham Council attracted a unique bunch of highly malevolent or incompetent workers to it. I don’t suppose any of these employees were intent on destroying the lives of children and families within their remit. It is not the employees but the bureaucratic system itself that is at fault.

There is a plain and inconvenient fact here. And that is that the appalling lapses in child protection, and the systematic and aggressive cover-up by politicians, social services and the police, reflect a pattern of behaviour that is innate to any bureaucratic organisation.

Some organisations will be worse than others of course. But the vary nature of a bureaucracy’s top down command and control culture is anathema to truth, excellence and sensitive ‘customer service’. By customers, I mean in this case the vulnerable children who were supposed to be under the protection of the various agencies involved in the scandal.

The hierarchy in our dysfunctional government works against our genetic heritage

In Reinventing management thinking I explain that psychologically we are not suited to work in strict hierarchical organisations. In fact strict hierarchy with its attendant top down command and control management tends to trigger a stress response. This means that people working in a bureaucracy are, almost by definition, not working in their ‘natural brain state’. Instead what we see in response to the inherent anxiety is a random and bizarre array of personal survival strategies. This sort of toxic behaviour always gets in the way of effective organisational functioning.

As Edward Deming, one of the co-founders of the Japanese industrial revival recognised, “whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures”. Essentially what he means is that because of the fear factor, bad news travels slowly up a hierarchy ­ if it travels at all.

Nobody likes to hear bad news especially when it conflicts with pre-existing belief patterns. In this context I mean beliefs about how the system is running, and what the root cause of certain problems are. In this respect, bosses are no different to anyone else. But it becomes depressingly more difficult for a boss to acknowledge that their beliefs about their cherished system might be wrong the higher up the ladder they go. As careers progress so a lot of self-interest is at stake in terms of status, salaries and further career progression. The scale of their adverse reaction is directly proportionate to the amount of power, money and reputation under threat.

Hence the habitual response to bad news is to try and flatten the whistle-blowers. Three interlinked factors come into play here.

Senior management self-confidence can be a costly delusion

Firstly, we see that the type of person occupying the higher reaches of a bureaucracy usually arrives at this lofty level in large part due to a high degree of self-confidence in their own ability and judgement. Unfortunately, the research shows that this, self-belief in their ability to manage, rarely matches the reality. There is an unsettling implication here for organisational design. And that is that, to a great extent senior management is self selecting. Furthermore, as status rises with promotion, so this self-belief becomes more and more entrenched. The higher they rise, the more difficult it is for contrary information to penetrate and alter their cherished self-beliefs.

The wrong people get to the top

Secondly, there is another reason why promotion in bureaucracies rarely goes to the most talented and conscientious individuals. At best promotion is due to an orderly career progression based on prudence, diligence, risk avoidance and a passive acceptance of the prescribed norms. Unfortunately, also high on the the list of success factors are:

  1. Strong personal ambition,
  2. Adeptness at political manipulation,
  3. Skilled image management,
  4. An ability to play the system and
  5. Compliance with the prevailing culture.

None of these latter characteristics make a positive contribution to organisational wellbeing. This compounds a third problem.

Belief filters out conflicting evidence from our conscious perception

Bureaucratic organisations have a tendency to adopt or create their own ideologies. In the case of Rotherham, as in other government agencies, just one of the current prevalent beliefs is multiculturalism.

Importantly, organisational beliefs can suffer the same drawbacks as with individuals in terms of their impact on rational thinking. Where an individual holds certain beliefs, the brain literally filters out any conflicting evidence from the conscious perception. This peculiarity has been termed ‘premature cognitive commitment’. What this means is that our beliefs can physically prevent us from seeing what we don’t already believe in. This is why, where an organisation adopts an ideology the same thing happens. People behave like corporate zombies unable to see what they don’t already believe in. This happens even if, to everyone else outside the organisation, the facts are blindingly obvious.

This flaw in our belief system is as fatal for an organisation as for an individual.

The root cause of Rotherham’s malaise is the top down command and control culture

These three factors mean that the commissioners in Rotherham have an uphill task. The root cause of Rotherham’s malaise is the top down command and control culture. Governments seem addicted to targets and a culture of controlling operational affairs at local level by remote ‘experts’ sitting in Whitehall. All the evidence suggests that this never works very well. Top down command and control is always liable to inhibit productivity and performance. But on occasions, as in Rotherham and say Staffordshire NHS, this type of leadership can result in catastrophic failure.

Productive and compassionate working in such an environment is obstructed by an array of tools such as targets, regulations, inspections and politically-correct ideologies. These all get in the way of honest and open inquiry as to the exact needs of the clients. The reason being that these tools severely constrict professionals from a fluid implementation of their intuitive judgement.  based on their perception of what is actually going on and their extensive experience and training.

If you want to dramatically improve organisational performance you have to drop the top down command and control approach and instead instigate a collaborative effort.

Get the people who do the work to plan the work

Research repeatedly shows that the best people to plan or design the work are the people that actually do it. Wherever you divorce policy-making, strategy and planning from actual operations you start going astray. Nowhere is this as important as in an environment where there is a strong element of vocation among the workers combined with a high degree of training.

People wanting to be social workers and police officers don’t do so because they want to screw up young children’s lives. Similarly, once recruited, their training and experience are largely going to support their aspirations. The desire of the average social worker or police officer is to do something useful with their careers. It is not the individual that is at fault here. But the organisational culture that destroys their ability to perform effectively. Here, the role of leadership is to enable a strong element of bottom-up collaboration. Only collaboration empowers the trained professionals to respond to the need of the time. After all it is only the local professional who is conversant with the precise ground conditions and the salient needs of the time.

Every organization has at its disposal a vast wealth of talent, loyalty, training and experience. When unleashed, this latent talent has the power to transform the lives of everyone that it comes into contact with. The naive and often politically driven obsession with centralized hierarchy destroys this potential. What you are left with in functional terms is a shriveled husk.  A husk condemned to provide only compliant subservience with the latest government fad, target and regulation. Whilst the organisational structure becomes a bloated parasite feeding of the guileless taxpayer. The typical bureaucracy demands ever more resources for an ever diminishing return.

Collaboration means trusting the professionals to do their best

Collaborative leadership means trusting the professionals and other workers to do their best. They can then apply their skills and think and act conscientiously on behalf of the needs of their customers. It means stepping back and allowing things to unfold. It also means trusting that with trained and dedicated human beings events will happen in an orderly and beneficial way. Collaborative leadership creates the structure that acts as a conduit for the collective energy of everyone working for a common cause.

In this respect, ‘Reinventing management thinking’ explains a variety of techniques, ideas and methods from the various schools of thought around collaborative leadership including lean manufacturing principles, TBD’s team planning, systems thinking, Kaizen and so on. All these concepts help collaboration to be thorough and efficient at translating the collective energy into beneficial group action.

Collaboration is written into our DNA

Collaborative leadership and group decision-making works for one very good reason. And that reason is that we have survived as a species by evolving into highly socialized, collaborative problem-solving mammals. In other words, collaboration is written into our DNA. As a consequence, when a situation prevents us from expressing this natural talent it triggers a stress response. The stress response is responsible for the otherwise inexplicable and myriad ways people under-perform and misbehave at work.

Collaboration – ­ The benefits

On the other hand a collaborative working environment reaps a range of invaluable benefits. Below are six:

1. Unbiased negative feedback

Perhaps most importantly, collaboration encourages a freer flow of unbiased negative feedback. Such feedback informs management of what is really needed at the point of delivery.

2. Devolved problem-solving

Almost by definition, collaboration leadership involves spontaneous problem-solving at every level of the organisation. This means providing both the responsibility and authority to problem-solve where it matters most at the interface with the customer.

3. Greater adaptability to change

More accurate and timely information combined with a wider participation in problem-solving enables an infinitely greater adaptability to changing circumstances.

4. Parallel processing

Group problem-solving based on widespread feedback enables parallel processing of ideas. This more natural way of processing data prevents ‘unintended consequences’.

5. Sprint capacity

All these factors combine to provide an awesome ‘sprint capacity’. This means that the organisation can cope better and respond more speedily and effectively to errors and any stretch imposed on the system.

6. Collaboration enables neurogenesis

The naturalness of collaboration helps create a low-stress environment. This is an important factor because, among other disadvantages, stress prevents the natural growth of brain tissue. And we need new brain cells to help learn and develop new skills. As is well-known, trying to get people to adopt change or learn new methods at work is an uphill task. Part of the reason for this is the prevalence of stress in most organisations. When stressed, the brain diverts energy towards instinctive survival strategies and away from learning, retention and regeneration.

If the commissioners have the authority to embrace this new type of management thinking, we could yet see a transformation in Rotherham. One that would be an inspiration to public services across the country. Don’t hold your breath though, I think dysfunctional government is here for a while yet!


Jeremy Old is author of ‘Reinventing management thinking’ and
managing director of Team Business Development Ltd. Jeremy Old has twenty-five years experience of management coaching in the SME sector and has led over fifty business transformation assignments. His book explains the psychological principles behind the success of collaborative management styles and structures such as Lean management and Hoshin Kanri.

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