We're All In The Public Service
Good ethics is all a business has.
A business cannot exist in isolation from the society that sustains it. Providing sustenance is a choice. The capacity to choose isn't static. Choices change.
A business grown comfortable in the expectation that society needs it is a foolish business.
Such has become the state of the business of government. It can just as easily become the state of the independent business.
To prosper we must engage with each other, and with energy, interest and integrity.
This applies as much to organizations as it does individuals. We must do so to encourage profitable recombination.
I use the word profit in the broadest meaning: to benefit, to advance, to increase, to succeed and to progress.
In the world of business this is the act of business itself. To cooperate and combine to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.
The important point here is that whatever we produce, we should return to the society that empowers and enable us.
This is of course the duty of the public service. It is the end to which government concentrates value producing resources.
In terms of providing service to society, the business of government is just one business. There are many others.
And to many citizens, most others of a similar scale appear to be doing a better job.
I’m not here to criticize the public service. I spent 10 years working in core government agencies. Once you become a public servant, it tends to stick with you.
I left to become more effective and more achieving in my pursuit of helping people. If anything what I’m trying to do here is equalize expectations.
Because the public service is not limited to the particular institutions funded by government.
The public service is a large value network that encompasses most of the value producing organizations within society.
Most of the institutions of society form part of the public service. Though the chances are most don’t see it that way.
There is this idea that business is separate from society in some way.
This is an illusion and a folly.
Business has a duty to the environment that sustains it. Business that fails to meet that duty will meet its end in some way.
Failing to meet this duty means failing to discharge social responsibilities. Every institution has these responsibilities.
The problem for many is they aren’t aware they do.
Again, there is this idea that business exists in a bubble. It does not.
One of the problems bedeviling government institutions is the struggle to understand the ‘customer’.
That this is a struggle at all is an sign of how much trouble these institutions are in.
All things have their lifespans and the existing idea of the government institution is coming to a natural end.
It is foolish to think that particular forms of organisation can withstand the march of time without substantial reinvention.
Just how old are these institutions, in terms of their present form?
About 350 years.
Jean-Baptiste Colbert was the senior government minister for Louis XIV and made several reforms in the mid to late 17th Century. Out of his work grew the organs of the business of government.
These organs evolved and expanded across the world and through time until they came to be part of the landscape.
They always seem to have been here. So they will always be here, right?
That’s not the question I’d like to ask.
It’s not about whether they will always be here, it’s about should they be here?
And if they should be here, what form should they take? What size should they be? What structure should they take? What strategy should they enact?
Where is their place in the wider value network that is the modern public service?
For the record, my view is there should be government institutions charged with delivering the business of government.
My view is also that we should expect these institutions to match the life cycles of other parts of the public service value network.
That is to say, that they should be regularly disbanded and reformed to meet the needs of the day. I can imagine many of my recent colleagues throwing up their hands at the very thought.
I’m not advocating wanton destruction.
I believe in the importance of the principle of stability in the modern public service. The government institution has a role to play in providing that stability.
What I'm looking for are ways to mitigate the essential weakness of the publicly funded government institution. I mean ‘essential’ in the sense of the essence of something, it’s basic element.
The government institution is funded not through the mechanism of the market, but the mechanism of the budget. The budget is based on intention. Once allocated it can’t be unallocated.
There is no existing external test the government institution can be subject to that forms the primary signal of whether it should receive more or less budget.
I’m not advocating running government institutions using the mechanisms of the market.
It doesn’t work. It won’t work. It can’t work. People have been carping on about government institutions being more businesslike for, oh, about 350 years.
They're missing the point: the two are completely different beasts.
It has been a feature of the government institution that senior decision makers wish for better results and look to the private sector.
The idea is that the leaders, techniques and practices of these organisations can help produce better results for the government institution.
An attractive and simple idea. Actually, it's not a simple idea. It's simplistic. And thus to be avoided.
It doesn’t work because success in the government institution means obtaining a larger budget and employing more people. Success here orients to a quantity dimension.
Success in the private sector, where there is an external test, means satisfying more needs and deploying more products and services. Success here orients to a quality dimension.
This is therefore not an 'or' question. It is an 'and' question. As Roger Martin writes in his (awesome) book The Opposable Mind, 'or' questions are easy.
The modern public service is distributed and includes most of the institutions of society.
The challenge is that the institutions funded by the government are imprisoned within a zombie business model and the other institutions don't see themselves as having responsibility.