ANZSOG & CPI Present… Reorient to Learning

Image courtesy of ANZSOG

There are often no simple answers or solutions to the complex challenges faced by governments. For this reason, CPI has long argued that public sector agencies should employ operating models that cultivate a culture of learning which is tolerant of mistakes. But given the culture and processes embedded within most corners of the public sector, that’s a tall order.

As part of the Reimagining Government series, ANZSOG and CPI recently hosted a panel discussion focused on the need to reorient to learning. The panel included Visiting Professor in Public Management at CPI Dr Toby Lowe, Director of NSW Treasury’s Human Centred Design Team Sarah Hurcombe, and ANZSOG Research Program Director Dr Subho Banerjee.

Download the webinar chat summary

The discussion kicked off with a question that gets to the heart of how the public sector currently operates: is the focus on targets, outcomes and performance management problematic?

A culture of fear

One audience member stated that the most common objections to experimentation that they had encountered was a fear of adverse outcomes – it became a theme that weaved its way through the conversation. 

Sarah Hurcombe told the audience of the problematic fear of failure at every level of the public sector, from the Minister down to public servants. This, she said, is because of a public expectation – partly driven by the media – that complex issues will be dealt with quickly and simply. Sarah said:

We often don’t make the time and space to learn from and reflect on our failures – to shift it away from blame.

According to Toby Lowe, that culture of fear can be traced back to long-standing outcomes-based performance management mechanisms. 

“In the work that we’ve seen in CPI, the biggest obstacle for governments to learn is the performance management mechanisms that manage teams and organisations, and particularly the way those mechanisms are embedded in the funding distributed throughout the public service,” he said. 

Toby explained that performance management works to undermine processes of learning because it incentivises people to make up data to satisfy set targets, and focus on meeting those targets, regardless of whether they are actually resulting in improvements. 

“Learning starts from a culture of curiosity, but what we’re rewarding and punishing in performance management is knowing.”

There is a great need, therefore, for reformation: “We need to completely rethink how we do performance management in government. A culture of fear becomes pervasive and corrosive.”

Subho Banerjee agreed and described the performance management model’s propensity to rely on made up data as “obscene”. However, he noted that in his experience as a senior public servant, the broader political context makes moving to a learning approach “murderously difficult”.

“Any sense of not meeting targets is seen as a failure, especially at Senate Estimates. It is extremely difficult for public servants to experiment.”

Embracing experimentation

It became clear that those in the public sector need to develop an openness to not having all the answers which, according to the panel, requires a cultural shift to embrace the freedom to experiment and to learn from failure.

Subho said leaders need to “walk the walk, encouraging ideas that are different, and standing behind the people with the ideas.” He said that the business of government is hard and involves complex, multi-dimensional problems that require conceptual experimentation. 

“Many other fields are comfortable with that way of thinking. Start-up culture, sports coaching, creative arts, it’s all about being iterative and seeing what works. But in the public service we find that kind of flexibility extraordinarily difficult. It goes counter to this idea of how you tackle difficult problems. We need to think in more adaptive, flexible ways, and if we don’t we’re not going to get there.”

One of the challenges the panel flagged was how to persuade people to take a new approach. Toby said:

We’re talking about a paradigm shift in how government works, and how public management works. People are locked into their way of thinking. If you want to change a paradigm, you create an alternative story and you find examples of that story in practice.

But he stressed it was important not to try to convince the sceptics, and instead invest energy in developing a “coalition of the willing.”

Toby gave the example of Plymouth Alliance, an initiative by the Plymouth Council in the UK which adopted a systems-approach to serving marginalised and excluded adults in the city. 

“If you build something different and you’re right, people will see that and join what you’re doing.” 

From accountability to learning

Subho said there are ways of thinking that we need to develop and get better at. Language was an example he raised. If someone fails, Subho suggests asking, “what were they thinking and trying to achieve?” Toby agreed and proposed the following thought experiment – imagine if in Senate Estimates hearings, instead of Senators interrogating whether departments had hit targets, they instead asked what public servants had learnt as a means of holding them to account for the rigorousness of their learning processes.

Sarah said that such experimentation isn’t going to be the right approach for every problem. Those in the public sector need to be clear on what they want to test and communicate around that.

“The way that accountability structures operate needs to change. If we don’t change those forms of accountability then it makes it a thousand times harder,” Toby said. And the public sector can choose a different path. “Doing accountability by holding people to account for hitting targets is a choice, and they can choose to do accountability differently.” 

The message is therefore clear, and something CPI has already argued: progress is best achieved through experimentation and a process of continuous learning.

Under a reorientation to learning, failures will not be eliminated, but nor will they be taboo – they will be harnessed

While this shift to learning cannot happen overnight, the public sector needs to get going, to begin tackling their issues with a mindset of learning through failure at a smaller level before building capacity. Only then will the public sector be able to harness the learnings from failures to realise greater success.

#ReimagineGov