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Article Article May 30th, 2019
Legitimacy • Innovation

The mindset shift emerging from local government

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Are current models of government still working? @_AdrianBrown explores the mindset shift in government in his speech at #folg19

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The enablement mindset: governments focus less on controlling outcomes and more on creating the conditions in which good outcomes can emerge

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The path from delivery to enablement for gov't is by re-thinking authority, capacity and accountability - @_AdrianBrown #FindingLegitimacy

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Adrian delivered the following keynote address at the Future of Local Government National Summit in Melbourne, Australia on 23 May 2019.

It is fantastic to be here and inspiring to be in a place where there is a real interest in localism and empowering communities.

What I want to share with you today is some of the research that we've been developing at CPI and hopefully give you some reassurance that you're on the right track. I'll also share some ideas from around the world where we've seen interesting examples of new ways of working in government..

The growing legitimacy crisis

I'd like to start with the question of “why now?” Why are we talking about devolution and localism? Why are we asking fundamental questions about the way we're organising government and its relationship to society?

There are two reasons we've picked up through our research.The first is that we know our models of government - whether they're local or national - are not delivering the outcomes that citizens expect. We've made good progress on certain types of services, typically those that are more transactional, and more predictable

But, there's another class of problem, which is actually the kind of problem that we have to deal with much more on a day-to-day basis: complex problems, what some people call wicked problems. These are the problems of entrenched disadvantage. Problems like homelessness, substance abuse, how we deal with the care needs of an ageing population. These are the problems where we haven't made so much progress. We've tried to design solutions to address them but the current approaches aren't really working. Certainly not at the speed and with the results that we would hope for.

One reason people are asking whether we need to dramatically rethink governments is because we sense that the current models of government aren't really working.

The second reason - which is perhaps less talked about, but it's certainly an issue in many countries - is that people are losing faith in government. Trust in government is at record lows. That's as true here in Australia as it is in many other countries around the world. By this we mean people's faith that the government represents them and understands their needs, that when someone looks at government, they believe they see people who are like them. That kind of trust is falling and it's falling very quickly. One common reaction is that this is a political problem. That it's Trump, that it's Brexit. Politicians are letting us down. Certainly that is a part of this story. But I think that's too much of an easy answer. There's something else that is happening. Our governments are just not building a strong enough connection anymore. There's no longer a sense of human connection with government. This is something we at CPI refer to as legitimacy: the broad reservoir of support that allows governments to deliver positive outcomes for people.

So we're struggling with a crisis of legitimacy and we've got an effectiveness problem. On both of these problems, people are raising the question: do we need to radically rethink how our government works?

Reimagining government

So the task is nothing short of  reimagining what the future of government should look like. And I think the best source for ideas of how we do that in a way that addresses these two big challenges is at the local level. Which is why I think you are at the forefront of this agenda. You've been thinking about this for longer. You are closer to citizens, and you've got the passion to address this.

I know it feels like you're held back by other levels of government and I know it feels like a tough challenge, but I am here today to firstly try and cheer you on and say, “You hold the keys to solving these challenges” and actually, it will be state and national governments who will be looking to you to tell them how to do it.

Of course this can get quite complicated because there are lots of different models and ideas out there about how government should improve. It's hard to bring that together into a single vision for the future of government. And it's particularly challenging because there's a paradigm of thinking that we haven't yet dislodged. In fact, it's still kind of built into our DNA at all levels of government.

And that version of what government is about - some people call it New Public Management - is the idea that government can be thought of like a giant machine that's delivering services. In this model,  the role of officials working in government, or politicians, or others involved is to try and optimise the machine to achieve the outcome. So we focus on efficiency, we focus on effectiveness, we focus on measurement. We set targets. We draft project plans and try to manage everything so it runs smoothly and delivers the outcomes.

Now, you've probably already spotted the fact that's more likely to work well for the more transactional, predictable services. In other words, the areas where we are already doing ok. That mindset doesn't work at all in dealing with complex problems, the areas where we currently struggle. And it also doesn't do a particularly good job of building legitimacy. Because if we say that people are customers, that we're going to have a transaction with them, then we're setting up a very transactional relationship: they will demand things, we will deliver things. That is very different from a sense of community, a sense of belonging, an authentic connection.

So this mindset, which I call a delivery mindset, has been in government for many years - and while it has achieved certain things, it's also led us down the wrong path. And it is not the future. The delivery mindset is not the future of government.

I think that the future of government will need to look very different. Because we know the delivery mindset is not going to be effective for solving complex problems and is not going to address the crisis of legitimacy.

From “delivery” to “enablement”

I'm proposing we move from a delivery mindset to one of enablement. The difference between the two is that rather than trying to control, rather than trying to manage, rather than envisaging the world as a giant machine to be optimised, an enablement mindset says that our job in government is to help create the conditions from which good outcomes are more likely to emerge.

Now those of you who may have read anything about systems thinking or complexity will recognise where this thinking comes from. Rather than try to control things - which you cannot do in a complex system - let's try and understand what factors are likely to create an environment that would allow people to come together and improve outcomes together..

An enablement mindset says that our job in government organisations is not to try and control outcomes: it's to help create the conditions from which good outcomes are more likely emerge.

And that's why the subtitle of this talk is letting go. Letting go of the idea that we can control everything. Letting go of the idea that we can manage everything, that we can measure everything. And instead, embracing the idea that we should be creating conditions from which good ideas can emerge.

The enablement mindset in practice

What I would like to do now is to illustrate what the enablement mindset could mean. Break it down a little bit and give you some examples from around the world where I've seen it happening.

I think there are three headings through which we can understand what enablement means, and those are:

  1. Authority: how is decision-making power distributed?
  2. Capacity: how do we actually get things done?
  3. Accountability: looking beyond traditional hierarchical accountability models to broaden our definition of what accountability means.


Authority in government is tightly hoarded. Who gets to make decisions about how we spend money, about how services are designed? At the local level I know it feels like the higher levels of government are taking many of those decisions. They may give you some money, but there are strings attached. Or they may hand over some decisions, but with conditions and guidelines. We're all familiar with authority being handed down conditionally and removed again if you make a mistake.

Now there's some radical new ways of thinking about how authority can be distributed in organisations that I think are particularly interesting and important for us in government and for the localism discussion. Rather than starting with that hierarchical pyramid, we should push decision making authority as far down the hierarchy as possible. How can we push authority down to the lowest levels - to the people that are working closest to the action?

There's a nursing organisation in the Netherlands called Buurtzorg, which means community care in Dutch. Buurtzorg are a totally self-managed organisation. They're based on small teams of a dozen or so nurses that work in communities - they have a patch of about 60 or 70 individuals that they're working with. And rather than having any targets, having any metrics or having a hierarchy that sits above them, these teams are entirely self-managed. They work within a set budget but it is entirely up to them how they organise themselves, the service that they're offering, and how they're working with their clients to achieve outcomes.

So it's a very radical approach particularly when compared to how nursing care was organised beforehand. Prior to this new model, a very traditional service model was in place, in which nurses were managed very closely- basically a large-scale industrial model.

The reason they were willing to try out the self-managed approach was that the hierarchical, industrialised structure was just not working.

It was expensive and the patients found that nurses kept coming in seemingly at random for this little service or that little service. There was no consistency, there was no predictability. It wasn't really clear why people were doing particular things. The hand-offs were difficult between the different providers. Which all added to the cost and confusion.

So, they tried a new self-managed approach aligned with the priorities and needs of each patch and the outcomes have been impressive. First of all, whilst people thought this would be more costly, it didn't cost any more at all. Secondly, the outcomes in terms of patient satisfaction with the service they received went up. And thirdly, the satisfaction of the nurses themselves has also gone up.

So the self-managed team here has a lot of value. It's creating solutions for patients that would not be developed with the old model, the old way of standards and processes and best practices. And after the success of the initial pilots, it's now been rolled out across the whole of the Netherlands, and it's being replicated in the United Kingdom, in Sweden, and in other countries around the world. So it's very promising. I'm not saying that this is the only way of developing authority, but it is an interesting model to look at.


Now let's talk about capacity. Often when we think about capacity we're thinking about a static look at the organisation we're in: what people do we have, what money do we have, what skills, processes, etc. are helping our organisation. There's still a place for that but the enablement mindset requires us to think more systematically.

Firstly, it means thinking more broadly. Focusing not only on our own organisations, but all of the other organisations working in the community. And not necessarily saying we're the ones in charge or we get to decide everything, but asking who is best placed to work with a particular community to fix a particular problem? Other organisations might be in a better placed than we are. So broadening that concept of what and where the capacity is, not just within our organisation, but the community at large.

The second is about recognising that when we think in systems - the broader ecosystem - that capacity is more than just the capacity of adding up all those parts. Capacity is also reflected in how all those parts interact with one another. Understanding how information flows, for example, how we exchange learning, knowledge, data between different players.

Rather than using the old model that says information flows up and down the organisation, we should be thinking: how can we get information to flow horizontally between organisations?

There is a great example of this in Ontario, Canada, where there is community of professionals who work in cancer care. Rather than stay in their silos focused on their own work, they regularly carve out time to get together to discuss what each of them is working on and ask how they can learn from each other. That conversation could involve sharing data, but it involves much more than that, it is a rich exchange of ideas.

That's where innovation comes from.

So how can we create those types of communities where we're sharing information and learning together? The more we can exchange information, the more we can learn from one another. And the quicker those feedback loops work, the better and stronger the system and the more we'll achieve together. That's a very different way of thinking about capacity.


The third area is accountability. In the old model, we spend a lot of time thinking how we can measure things and manage things. So a lot of intellectual energy is going towards performance management, and I've spent plenty of my career thinking about how to improve that. What we haven't spent a lot of time on is how can we enrich accountability.

Let's assume we can't change the whole structure of democracy so that remains a given. But in addition we can start to develop a more enriched version of democracy that gives communities a voice and the ability to hold services and organisations to account in ways that don't just rely on the long loop of traditional hierarchy. How can we create more participatory forms of democracy? This could be a citizen's assembly, creating a space where tough issues can be debated and discussed.

Because if you don't get people to feel that they have a way of engaging with government and engaging as a community around a particular issue, then that erosion of trust and sense of belonging will really start to become a problem.

I would highly recommend exploring these different forms of democracy, whether you are going to call it participatory or deliberative democracy. And also thinking about other methods of engaging communities.

In addition, peer networks are another very powerful way of creating new forms of accountability. For example,  in the UK, there's a national school inspectorate but there's also a new type of inspection that's performed by schools inspecting each other. Groups of peers coming together to work with a school and understand what's going on and making recommendations. And as you're probably not surprised to hear, that peer approach is much more powerful, much more welcomed by the participants than the traditional top-down approach.

These are just a few examples. I'm sure you've got quite a few examples about how you're re-thinking authority, capacity, and accountability in your areas and I encourage you to try and use those headings to see if you can think of new ideas or taking current ideas and enhance them.

If we can align authority, capacity, and accountability in a place, in a community, around an issue that's how we can get a powerful self-reinforcing system.



To read more examples of local governments and communities who are experimenting successfully with the enablement mindset, check out our recent deep dive into the UK: how Greater Manchester has evolved to devolve, the Wigan Deal in particular, and how community building has helped Gloucester through austerity.

#Finding Legitimacy


Written by:

Adrian Brown Executive Director
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