Overcoming the aspiration gap: creating a curiously engaged public sector

This article is also published on Apolitical. Read it here.

In December 2019, Y Lab, the Centre for Public Impact, and the Welsh Government made ourselves vulnerable. We embraced failing forward and waded into the unknown, hosting our first-ever workshop to co-analyse nine months of research into why change does and doesn’t spread in Welsh public services and to collectively design pathways forward.

To take our analysis outside our offices, our workshop brought together over 30 people from across Welsh public services. They had the floor, but we carefully crafted their experience, showing workshop participants how we categorised data points, asking them for their interpretations and to identify emerging patterns.

This wasn’t about coercion or placation. Rather, the experience was about being in command but out of control. Because of it, discussions helped to validate, deepen, and expand our understanding. Most importantly, our participants enabled us to identify barriers preventing Welsh public services from embracing, doing, and spreading change — what many named “the aspiration gap”.

We wrote portions of this article, we hosted another workshop to test findings, and then COVID-19 crept on us.

In the face of this crisis, this gap has widened in some parts of the system—such as messaging from the United States federal government misaligned with actions on the ground. But excitingly, the gap also began closing in many areas—as Victoria Camp has inspiringly described:

With trust, a common purpose, and an acute sense of urgency, we have seen that it’s possible to create and enact processes, systems, and policies that are legal, compliant, and meet all the regulatory guidelines at speed.

Defining, understanding, and closing the aspiration gap is more imperative than ever. We cannot and will not go back to our old “normal” when this pandemic is over. Suddenly, yanked away from the routine cultures we inhabit (our offices, sports clubs etc), we have an unprecedented opportunity to build positive, new scaffolding for transformation.

The work towards resurgence, ensuring that our public services and governments are strengthened through crisis rather than weakened, begins now. This doesn’t mean you/we have the answers, rather we have an opportunity to reflect, learn and collectively sensemake — to unlearn bad practices, learn and adopt or adapt new ones, and strive towards identifying “next practice” that will accelerate our recovery.

Why “resurgence,” you might ask.

Because we need to strive for more than just recovery and restoration especially for those services and communities most impacted by the crisis. People are not only resilient and antifragile, they have the ability to transform under pressure and emerge united and renewed. That’s resurgence.

The aspiration gap we began unpacking in December 2019 illustrated that change was urgently necessary to create a more curiously connected public sector. This hasn’t changed. To unpack these initial hunches well, we have committed ourselves to developing a series. This article kicks-off that journey. We believe that the key to closing the aspiration gap is examining, understanding, and adapting our cultures so through this article we will:

  • Quickly introduce our current understanding of the aspiration gap;
  • Argue that addressing organisational culture is the necessary first step to addressing the gap;
  • Introduce 5 points on culture to build a shared understanding of what culture means;
  • And invite you all to comment, push back and help us to collectively learn as we cope and transition.

Meet the aspiration gap

The aspiration gap is the distance between what we would like to see happen — which can be goals, ambitions, and what we say we’d like to do — and what actually repeatedly happens in practice, which is what leads to the “culture” we create.

You could say the aspiration gap is simply the reality check on our ideas, but there’s more to it. It’s true that frequently there is a large disconnect between “theory” and “the frontlines”, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Disconnect often stems from bad design, outdated ways of doing things, and lackluster experimentation/testing of ideas that happens in controlled environments when, reality check, we live in a complex and responsive world. This is about the operating systems we create and how people respond to them which will be explained more below.

Photo by Artem Verbo on Unsplash

To achieve resurgence in our public services, it’s imperative that we close the gaps hindering our growth and begin to build cultures of continuous learning. These are organisational cultures that not only learn and allow space for emergent learning, but, authentically prepare and anticipate crises before they occur. This isn’t impossible, arguably High Reliability Organisations, ‘organisation[s] that [have] succeeded in avoiding catastrophes in an environment where normal accidents can be expected due to risk and complexity’, already achieve and strive for this.

Public problems are complex problems, risk is inevitable because uncertainty is guaranteed. You can try to minimise the uncertainty, but it will never be eliminated. What sets High Reliability Organisations and their operating systems apart from the rest is their culture, a culture that embraces risk and uncertainty instead of managing them as a target or trying to control the uncontrollable. This is a profound mindset shift. Culture closes (or widens) the gap between what we say and what we do. Culture enables continuous learning to freely flow. But, culture is frequently misunderstood, and therefore, not well addressed.

Culture fuels the gap

As humans we participate in a variety of different cultures — our families, surrounding community(s), or even among colleagues, to name a few. For the purposes of this series, we focus on organisational, workplace culture, which we define as the underlying values, principles, and structures that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organisation.

Culture is what prevents certain innovations and changes from sowing, growing, and spreading. We’ve all heard the proclamations such as “get the team right”; that if you give a good idea to an incohesive team, they won’t achieve great results, but if you give a mediocre idea to a high performing team, they will. This is culture. No matter how well designed the tools, methods, and technologies are, if the underlying values, principles, and structures are problematic, tools are unlikely to be effective. As Donella Meadows states:

The system to a large extent causes its own behaviour! Any outside event may unleash that behaviour but the same outside event applied to a different system is likely to produce a different result.

Thus, to dig down to root causes, we need to pay more attention to our organisational cultures and the conditions it creates. There’s no recipe for “good organisational culture”, we can only sensemake.

Why sensemake to address the aspiration gap?

We are withholding public value because of the aspiration gap and arguably, destroying it. The gap is unhealthy for those working in public services and for us citizens who depend on them. Why? Because, the aspiration gap keeps people down, hampers innovation and creativity, and can entrench the status quo, preventing public services from pivoting until a crisis occurs. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for organisations to enable remote working, deliver at pace, and lift unnecessary red-tape. Good culture catalyses a more productive, efficient, and viable workplace providing a clear business case for addressing organisational culture (outlined briefly below).

  • Culture and productivity: Dr Porath talks here about the harms of incivility in the workplace and how ‘even if people want to perform at their best, they can’t’— they aren’t as creative nor as attentive as they would be in a more civil culture
  • Culture an efficiency: As the late Edward Demmings said, 94% of of problems are due to operating system (part of organisational culture) and 6% are people-driven.
  • Culture and viability: viability is about long term sustainability—a policy/service/programme’s ability to endure and thrive which inevitably involves learning and adapting. A system’s willingness to become aware of problems is associated with its ability to act on them (Westrum, 1993, 329-342). For example, hard lessons were learnt about listening with NASA’s STS-107 Columbia disaster. Even the history of child abuse is a story about Pediatricians having to painfully learn to overcome the fallacy of centrality and stop mis-diagnosing children as having “brittle bones” rather than being victims of abuse.

We are now beginning to see some truth of this reality with how agile some services and countries have been in their COVID response when compared to others. But examining the “what” of culture to understand where things are going well and not so well isn’t that easy because culture is anything but linear; there is no simple flow of input to output. So to help, we’ve outlined five points on culture that build on each other.

Point 1 – Culture can be steered, not controlled

Although talk of culture in the public sector is popular — it’s grossly misused and paid lip service. Culture is complex which means if you try to dissect it and separately analyse its parts to create a transformation strategy, you’ll never fully understand it. It’s more than the sum of its parts because people’s behavior and motivations significantly affect outcomes. Think about the business case examples we outlined above. Therefore, you cannot command nor control culture, but you can try to steer it. Nelson Mandela taught that good leaders lead from behind, ‘seek[ing] to mold opinion and steer people toward an action’.

As a public servant recently shared with us, with culture the route is planned, not certain; you may set sail and need to change course. That’s why continuously learning to anticipate storms and identify better horizons is so important.

Point 2 – Culture is felt (embodied) and lived (enacted)

This point is critical to grasp so we created a figure to make the abstract more digestible and define what the two terms mean:

Organisational culture as embodied and enacted, Alexis Pala 2020

The interaction of enactment and embodiment is what makes culture so difficult to understand and impossible to dissect and control at the organisational level. Many of those orange arrows indicating relationships and interactions between people won’t be obvious connections, rather, they can be closed door discussions or capture what doesn’t happen such as people not participating because of feelings of disempowerment.

Enactments are the explicit, tangible things you can point to in an organisational ‘culture’, such as a Gantt chart or principles written onto a wall, some researchers call this the Cognitive Culture of your organisation. What’s enacted is generally where we focus when addressing culture because it’s observable and more easily quantified. Think Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and performance inflation, where, all-too-often, the numbers troublingly don’t reflect the reality. Just because we say or do things, doesn’t mean we believe in them, truly achieve them, or perform to the best of our abilities. Other things may be getting in the way.

Let’s return to Dr Porath’s incivility example to understand this point better: how ‘even if people want to perform at their best, they can’t’— they aren’t as creative nor as attentive as they would be in a more civil culture. Although an organisation may have a policy of innovation and creativity, if it overlooks how people collaborate and work through conflict (the orange arrows) to achieve that policy, it will likely affect what people do (avoid taking risks to avoid uncomfortable conversations) and feel (frustrated and disempowered) which will only further affect what they do. See the interdependent process?

Through culture we create social contracts that govern our behaviors more than our explicit policies and processes. An example is our posture towards failure—how we talk about it versus how we actually react when it happens. During one of Y Lab’s recent engagements a public servant shared that ‘oh yeah, we can fail and everyone says we can fail all the way up to the point where we actually do’.

Point 3 – Culture is a responsive process and developed

Our behaviours, processes, and choices perpetuate culture forward on a daily basis. Culture being embodied means we feel it. Organisational culture can motivate us, but it can also make us feel stressed, apathetic, and isolated, which changes the strength, direction, and frequency of the orange arrows above. Embodiment is difficult to grasp and explicitly communicate because it’s a responsive process—you can’t control if people trust you and therefore are truthfully sending back accurate signals; you also can’t control how you make someone feel.

This relational aspect of embodiment means it’s developed through trust, transparency, and vulnerability. This is why psychological safety is so critical. Having someone respond honestly to you about how they truly feel, rather than what they think you want to hear, is a privilege not given.

Problematically, vulnerability historically has been stigmatized and squeezed out of many aspects of our lives, particularly in a professional context. Even in moments where we should feel vulnerable (e.g., trying something new or different), we have been trained to appear confident and knowledgeable because that is what we are “supposed to do”. This is us “responding” to the signals of our environment. This performance can force us to push away our feelings, ignoring our basic human instincts. Incoherency can lead to all kinds of issues with mental health such as burn out, because it harms our self-esteem.

Point 4 – We must seriously create high levels of psychological safety

Harvard Business Professor Amy Edmondson, who has written extensively about workplace culture, describes this inability to be vulnerable and open as a lack of psychological safety. In a psychologically safe environment, team members share a belief that speaking up is valuable – whether you are admitting mistakes, voicing concerns, or even sharing a risky idea. A common problem underlying our inability to continuously learn in practice is this lack of psychological safety, where people do not feel comfortable authentically sharing their what they think, feel, and believe.

In isolation, this may not be an issue, but culture, and the extent of a cultural problem, is tricky to measure and quantify. Because of culture’s potentially negative and stifling impacts on our workplaces, many pioneers have begun ‘removing trust destroying and demeaning practices, and establishing a default trust culture’ to attain higher levels of psychological safety. NOBL, a change management collective, goes so far as to state culture is the last sustainable advantage and has been experimenting with helping organisations to create a Culture Contract.

As CPI’s research with The Aspen Institute on failing forward has explored, we think a critical component of creating a culture of continuous learning is developing the ability to fail forward—defined as identifying, analyzing, and taking action on failures. It is about intentionally building learning from failure into systems and processes and feeling able to discuss failures with candor so that they may be addressed sooner rather than later. But because of culture, there is a gap. As Edmondson says:

The wisdom of learning from failure is incontrovertible. Yet, organizations that do it well are extraordinarily rare.

Point 5 – sweeping things under the rug and firefighting needs to stop, people are being left behind and lashing out

Changing culture is hard and sensitive work. But sweeping things under the rug, running from crisis to crisis, and just carrying on with the status quo rather than reflecting and challenging it can no longer be an alternative if we truly believe in equality of opportunities and want our societies to flourish.

Why? Because maintaining a mediocre or poor culture is unsustainable and has unintended knock-on effects. Micro-actions matter greatly in complex environments. If you don’t have the right systems and processes in place, you risk creating cultures of entrapment, becoming blind to mounting problems or disempowering those who notice potential issues from speaking out, or even unintentionally, disincentivizing them to say when something may go wrong. Think Boeing 737 Max, where sweeping issues under the rug resulted in human lives lost.

Culture creeps and you can’t always predict where to. Our global recovery from COVID-19 will be that much harder if we overlook steering our cultures towards better horizons now.

When we fail to listen to and take culture seriously inside of public services, the lack of psychological safety and disempowerment inevitably impacts public sector work and outcomes either destroying public value or creating less value than we could—would this inefficiency be tolerated elsewhere? The book Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey captures this negative creep best:

Stressful social conditions have a psychological impact on everyone who is subject to them. Over time, they change the way people behave. This, in turn, changes the shape and the direction of a community. Anger and resentment, fertilised by the deeper psychological challenges associated with poverty – anxiety depression, poor lifestyle and low self esteem, social insecurity – place a significant emotional strain on everyone. This strain can limit human capacity for empathy, tolerance and compassion and makes many people angry, agitated, resentful and frightened (page 138).

Emotional strain limiting human behavior and overall health outcomes isn’t unique to people in poverty. The Spirit Level provides irrefutable evidence of this effect at a global scale. Specifically, it highlights the Whitehall I studies which found ‘job stress, and people’s sense of control over their work seem to make the most difference’ even when socio-economic status and lifestyle choices were factored in; such a difference, that ‘men in the lowest grade (messenger’s, door keepers, etc.) had a death rate three times higher than men in the highest grade (administrators) (Spirit Level page 75)’. These are the real consequences of overlooking the embodied side of culture.

Our call to action and why we need your help

Help us to steer our cultures away from the aspiration gap and towards better public value. Although complexity is a real challenge, it shouldn’t be a word to hide behind. Just as the system acts on us, we act on it. We want to help collectively discover better actions and pathways towards more curious, experimental government during and after COVID 19; towards cultures of continuous learning — ones that accept risk instead of manage it, meaningfully measuring the enacted and embodied to be attentive, attuned, and anticipatory.

Our workshops in December 2019 and February 2020 identified five hurdles for overcoming the aspiration gap in Welsh public bodies and we don’t think they are unique to Wales:

Instead of just blaming it on culture, we want to use the remainder of this series to drill down to root causes of these five hurdles and be biased towards action with each article.

Acknowledgements

The research behind the workshop is preliminary and was the result of a partnership between the Welsh Government and Y Lab. The December 2019 SPARKing Impact Workshop was generously funded by the Cardiff University Research and Innovation Services team with the support of UKRI Economic and Social Research Council funding.