A view on the PASC Report on Change in Government and why just "doing stuff" will come into its own

I have just finished reading the Public Administration Select Committee's (PASC) recent report on Change in Government (pdf). Undoubtedly much effort has gone into it, with contributions from many wise people; but I can’t help feeling that it misses something very important, which makes the thrust of its conclusions …er …wrong. This thing is Complexity...

Everywhere things are getting more complex. I believe that (probably some time ago) we have crossed a sort of Rubicon to a place where the conventional wisdom of government is a lot less reliable. It’s as though the laws of physics have changed. To me the problems we face, such as the particularly acute ones in government IT, are arising because we are trying to make sense of this new place using old laws; and it's not working.

If you are not familiar with the concepts of complexity - take a look at David Snowden's Cynefin or Rittel & Webber's Wicked Problems. The essence (drawing on the language from Cynefin) is that there is a difference between the Complicated and the Complex. When things are Complicated, cause and effect can be predicted: when they are Complex, they cannot. In a Complicated world the way to do things is Sense>Analyse>Respond: collect information, analyse that information then take action on the basis of the analysis. In a Complex world things are different because the Analyse bit is just too hard to do. The right response is through iteration of Probe>Sense>Respond: take some action, see what happens and take some more action.

Up to now, we have built pretty much everything around us using the Complicated model; it has even put men on the moon. The model has served us very well and pervades the workings of government. Take a look at the Conclusion section of the PASC's report...

"The challenges facing Whitehall will require a Civil Service reform programme more extensive in size and scope than attempted for many years. We have received little evidence that the Government is engaging with the factors that determine the success of such reform programmes, namely establishing the appropriate scope for change, setting clear objectives and timescales for reforms, and ensuring central coordination and political support. Most importantly, we have no sense of what the Government thinks a reformed Civil Service will look like. Without a clear set of objectives, Civil Service reform and, therefore, the wider public service reform programme will fail.

Most Departments are aware of what they are seeking to achieve, but we have seen little evidence that many Departments have thought clearly about how they will make these changes or the nature of leadership required to implement them. We are concerned that any change to the Civil Service must overcome substantial inertia. A cultural change to accept new ideas, innovation, decentralisation, localism and the Big Society, necessary if these flagship government policies are to succeed, will only come with leadership and a clear plan.

We consider that in preparing for the necessary reform there is no substitute for the development of a centre for the operation of Government which is truly world-class and properly equipped to support delivery departments throughout the reform process and beyond. The scale of the challenges faced by the Civil Service call for the establishment of such a corporate centre, headed by someone with the authority to insist on delivery across the Civil Service. We propose to return to this issue in any future examination of the role of the Head of the Home Civil Service."

Summarising, this Conclusion says that, for reform to be successful, the Government needs a clearer vision, better planning, stronger leadership and enhanced central control: an archetypical Complicated approach. This thinking is further starkly highlighted in paragraph 64 of the report, which says...

"...but the Government’s approach lacks leadership. The Minister [Francis Maude] rejected the need for a central reform plan, preferring “doing stuff” instead. We have no faith in such an approach."

This instinct to follow the Complicated approach is deeply, deeply ingrained in Government culture, hence the reaction to Mr Maude's ideas. To the PASC, the ideas do not fit - they sound unprofessional - and, were this an essentially Complicated situation, I would think the same. But, if we are dealing with a mainly Complex one then Mr Maude is probably right: "doing stuff" is precisely what is needed; provided, of course, it is the right "stuff" and is properly part of a Probe>Sense>Respond approach. Going through months of analysing, visioning and planning would be a waste of time and resource. Whether Mr Maude is advocating "doing stuff" for the right reasons is another issue but I was encouraged by this exchange in a transcript of an evidence session in the report (Q214)...

Francis Maude: When we started talking about how we are going to support mutuals, the first response was: “Well, we need to have a plan, a programme, and devise rights and systems and processes.” And when I reflected on that, I thought, “I could not think of a better way of killing the idea dead.”

Chair: That may well be true, but that is not an argument against having a plan.

Francis Maude: Well no, it is, actually. The right approach is to find people who want to do this and support them, and as they try and set up their cooperatives and mutuals find out what the blocks are.

(Perhaps Mr Maude is becoming one of my Wicked Politicians?)

I should make it completely clear that I am not advocating a wholesale let-it-all-hang-out-Man approach to management across government. The Complicated stuff will still be there and will still need the Sense>Analyze>Respond approach; but it is crucial that we become good at spotting what is Complex and then handling it the right way because that's where the big problems are likely to be.

To me, Civil Service reform feels significantly Complex; and we should deal with it according to the appropriate laws of physics.

But maybe I have got this Complexity thing all out of proportion and it isn't as important as I make out. Let me know what you think.