We live in times of significant demographic and technological transition across the broader public sector. People are leaving. New people are arriving. The swirl of senior leaders continues unabated, leaving behind memory gaps, taking with them accumulated experience. We are constantly moving around more and more information. What about that experience and the wisdom it can offer others? Gone in the tail stream of business. Retired or moved on.
With all the technological advances, most governments have lost a lot of institutional memory with the disappearance of hard-copy file systems and the inadequate replacement of them with more decentralized databases. These are good in themselves, faster, deeper. But where are the stories? Where is the nuance?
The richness of public organizational life does not lie in its databases. It lies in its people, their stories, how they confronted issues, either successfully or not. So too for the richness of the study of public policy and management. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Government offers a context that is replete with complexity, drama and ambiguity. Capturing that combination either for practice or for study is the advantage that case studies offer.
While much has been written about case studies as a teaching tool, there is a pressing need to extend the range of their use to the realm of organizational learning as well. Similarly, while many cases exist for both academic and business use in the private sector, the use of cases in public administration generally has been more modest. Maybe it has to do with political and privacy concerns, most of which can be overcome.
Case studies provide a rich tool for presenting problems in public administration. They can cover the range of public policy and management issues. Case studies are not restricted to management alone. Indeed, the workings of the policy process and interplay of policy ideas, context, politics and the constraining environment provides an ideal platform for case studies. We just are not doing enough of them.
Overcoming the NLH syndrome
What I have seen emerging over the past 10 years of teaching and the years prior in public administration practice is an increasing understanding that it pays to learn from others – and it costs not to. While every situation is unique, the experience of one agency, department or government can inform the decisions confronting another one. I have also learned that people learn best when they see the context of what they are reading, when they understand the interpersonal play and the underlying forces driving one organization in a certain direction.
There is much to be learned from others. Unfortunately, there is a sort of Not Learned Here (NLH) syndrome, which suggests that simply looking around, and sharing experiences will not inform your own decision making because, well, it was NLH. That sort of hubris invites many public organizations to take on yet again the exercise of inventing a wheel that others have already crafted.
Cases can take the place of forms of interaction that seem to be falling away in the light of budget restraint and a general increase in organizational busyness – conferences, casual discussions and reflective retreats. Of course, they cannot replace these fully, just help avoid the loss of memory and sharing of experiences that such interaction fosters.
There is a crying need today for public organizations to pass on their experiences, good, bad and otherwise, to the generation of new leaders. While the experience varies around the world, the sharing of that know-how in a less structured fashion, one we might call relational osmosis – just being around people with more experience – is truncated by the fact that proximity is increasingly defined as a text message.
Case studies, even when they reflect actual experience, force the substance of these tales from the trenches of the bureaucratic venture into a format that leads to broader application of the experience, the derivation of lessons learned, the applicability of public administration theory and the potential for decision making.
A pitch for case studies
As editor of IPAC’s series of cases, I see a need for more governments and agencies to tell their stories and share their experiences. I call these cases organizational learning cases. We have some but never enough. We need more cases. Governments need to spend more time structuring their experiences through cases. When you think of the value of a case to a struggling manager, think of the movie Groundhog Day and how to avoid it.
Andrew Graham is editor, Case Study Program, Institute of Public Administration of Canada and an Adjunct Professor with the School of Policy Studies at Queen’s University.
Where to find government case studies
IPAC Case Study Series in Canada:
Electronic Hallway in the United States:
ANZSOG Case Study Program in New Zealand and Australia: