As complicated families of agencies dealing with immensely complex issues, governments working to achieve agility face a range of tensions that businesses are typically spared.
So it is hardly surprising that many existing models of agility developed for large private sector corporations are not directly applicable to the public sector, according to a just-released "Provocation Paper" that seeks to generate ideas and provoke debate about the concept of government agility.
An outcome of a research project into agile government conducted by the Victorian State Services Authority in conjunction with UK think tank Demos, the paper examines some of the barriers to agility facing governments striving to become more responsive to emergency challenges.
One the face of it the paper suggests improved ICT capacity is helping to foster government agility and decision-making speed. It notes ICT allows governments to gather and share data faster, which should lead to better informed strategy, more responsive customer service, and more responsive relationships with citizens.
But it also warns that better ICT comes with the twin threats of information overload, and the production of more but not necessarily better data, which can increase confusion among policy makers.
"The key to successful use of information for governments is filtering out the really important data and providing policy makers with the analytical skills to make sense of it," the report says.
"Even with the very best data, governments will still sometimes find themselves in a situation where they have to make hard decisions with soft evidence, so policy makers need to understand the value and limitations of a range of information, from statistics to qualitative research."
And the paper identifies four key tensions governments must tackle on the way to achieving more effective approaches to agility in government.
First there is the accountability challenge. Governments face a "tangled web of accountabilities" with many parts of the public sector at any given time wrestling to achieve a balance between the needs of government, citizens and a host of other possible stakeholders. These complex accountabilities are a necessary and inevitable part of government and public sector management.
That means agility in the public sector is not just about responding, but about deciding who the right people are to be responsive to, and working with them to discuss, refine and legitimize government action.
Next comes the outcome challenge, as agencies work across and beyond government to get results. The paper points out that governments are increasingly eager to deliver results in outcome terms, forcing a shift in focus from relatively easily measured outputs to the end result for citizens.
The whole-of-system challenge addresses the need to achieve stability even in the face of rapid adaptation. The actions of any one agency can have significant implications for other members of the "family", the paper points out, and the public sector is so large achieving whole-of-system alignment is extremely complex.
That raises issues about where change should occur at a given point in time.
Finally comes the shaping challenge, with governments needing to know when to respond and how to shape.
"As governments seek new ways to support their citizens in an increasingly risky and uncertain world, it is more important than ever that public services are able to move swiftly in spotting and tackling emerging challenges, while being responsive in real time to the everyday needs of citizens," the paper says.
The authors argue that the fundamental challenge for government is to become more agile not just in the way that they meet changing citizen needs, but also to become agile in shaping what those needs are in the first place.
"This combination of effective shaping, adaptation and execution is the goal of much organisational theory, and government may have some unique advantages and challenges in achieving it," the paper says.
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