Public Service as a Complex Adaptive System

This past week has had some fascinating posts put out, most notably by Laura and Nick. Laura’s post explores the idea of enabling policy intrapreneaurs and has some very practical tips for how they can be enabled to innovate within the public sphere. Nick’s post makes an excellent point, in showing that “Making innovation a business line rather than your core business is one of the biggest reasons that the pursuit of innovation usually fails.”

In both cases, they are talking about systematic issues that are at play within the public service.

I’ve been reading a fair bit lately on Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). There seems to be a belief that we can cut down the public service to its component parts, in order to analyze the best organizational structures to allow for (insert goal here). When solving any issue, though, we see that some of the greatest successes come from emergent work where people self-select into working groups, adapting to fill a need that they see.

The concept of CAS emerges to embrace the idea that the “new age is about an economy where knowledge is a core commodity and the rapid production of knowledge and innovation is critical or organizational survival” (Uhl-Bien, 2007). The Public Service is expected to be responsive to a wide range of constantly changing factors. This is recognized through research conducted within the Public Service, where is it has been noted that policy development “is often messy, drawing together all of the elements – research, qualitative and quantitative analysis, program evaluations, consultations, instincts about what is possible, the wishes of the Minister – into options and advice for the Minister and his colleagues.” Each of these functions are generally displaced throughout a department – indeed, “most policy initiatives of any important involve several parts of the home department.”

Civil Servant 2.0 simplifies the notion for us:

“As an employee you can only belong to one department, whereas the reality is of course much more complex”

In small ways, we can see that areas of the bureaucracy are already functioning in such a way – however, our administrative structures do not recognize this. We see informal groups formed that end up being institutionalized and providing innovative results. We see interactions happening amongst officials outside of the standard hierarchy (even if it’s not as wide spread as we would like to see). The reality is that these interactions are only going to increase (whether through social media, or other web 2.0 tools). It is the duty as public servants to work towards figuring out how to enable these conversations towards action to fulfill a common goal and purpose.

In figuring out how to best utilize the public service, as a CAS, we need to look at leadership from all levels.

If the public service is a CAS, our current thinking on leadership is ill-suited to allowing it to prosper and produce new and innovative ideas. That’s part of what I love about Laura’s post – it gives some practical tips for how we might move forward.

Of course, to truly move forward in the bureaucracy, and to provide new and innovative ideas in service to the public, we require a wholesale rethink in our conceptions of leadership. I’ll write more on this in the coming weeks, as I begin to put together some more research, but for those who are interested I’d suggest trying to get a hold of Uhl-Bien’s work on Complexity Leadership Theory.


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