The Challenge of Transforming Government

Published in the Telegraph-Journal 24th February 2010

The pressures on government to resolve monumental social and economic issues including health care, education and infrastructure are growing. As the demands on public services have been expanding, so has the burden on taxpayers. In response, governments are being forced to run larger budget deficits leading to increasingly higher levels of public debt. This is a consequence not only of governments running its operations but dealing with an unprecedented array of calamities that include the financial crisis, demographic shifts and energy prices.

In the face of this complexity, we have created a simpler problem that is easier to manage – that government is inefficient, ineffective and too costly. This simplification lends itself to the evident solution; that government operations need to be reduced in scope and scale, its budgets chopped, its head count dramatically decreased.

This solution misses the real challenge. To make the transition to the next economy, the role of government will be critical. The emerging multi-polar global economy has created dramatic shifts in trading alignments and capital flows. Major changes in the nature of employment and consumer confidence may be irreversible in the short term. These combined effects have destabilized the authority of governments at precisely the moment when they need to be a powerful ally for political, social and economic change. In order that governments assume this role, it is important that they are efficient and effective. Yet, governments are ill-equipped to meet this challenge. After years of operating at cross purposes, confidence and a tolerance for risk are not as high as needed to undertake systemic reform. The prevalence of orthodox practices and too little emphasis on performance excellence means a public sector culture lacking focus on quality, cost or transparency. Increasingly, those that are concerned by the profound challenges facing society are calling for a transformation in the way government works.

Ironically, falling short is the biggest danger when taking on an integrated approach to transformation. Even when previous reform programs were undertaken, they were too slow, took too long to achieve results and ultimately achieved too little. In addition, the complexity of government means that very few managers have the necessary experience or expertise to bring complicated reform to a productive conclusion. The challenge associated with the need to operate under media and public scrutiny further complicates reform goals. The failure of previous approaches to achieve the objectives of broad reform frequently is seen as evidence that it cannot be done. For other detractors, the objective of raising productivity in government means primarily reduced spending and accepting lower quality outcomes from government activities. Their assumption is that government reorganization will produce winners and losers. The corollary of this assumption is that the adoption and implementation of efficiency targets is a project that is intrinsically undemocratic. In fact, the transformation change in government is critical to ensure that it is best equipped to play the significant role in managing many problems where the private sector has little authority, credibility or motivation. Government is a critical partner in the development of an equitable society.

There are other obstacles to transformative change. Transformational change must incorporate the soaring ambition needed to challenge powerful existing orthodoxies associated with government’s organizational structures, capabilities and processes. This means that the reform must be aggressive and even radical. Simultaneously, to succeed, transformative change will require sustained and systematic engagement with public service employees and the general public. To ensure support for major change, its proponents will need to engage with those who will be affected to ensure its legitimacy. For leadership, this responsibility entails real risk but it cannot be delegated away.

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