Public Sector Intelligence: The People Software That Learns and Adapts
The past two years have engrained a lot of medical metaphors in our discourse. Sometimes they will be apt and useful, as in the case of how to respond to polarization and extremism in our politics. We can’t eliminate the virus but we can develop antibodies and ensure our democracy remains healthy. This is an urgent task.
For the broad public sector across our federation that supports our democracy and implements laws, policies, programs and regulations I think a different metaphor will be more useful in wrestling with the challenges and opportunities of the next decade – one borrowed from tech – software that learns and adapts. Public sector intelligence is that learning software that will be essential if we are to move forward and not repeat painful mistakes of the past.
One aspect of intelligent learning will be captured by the traditional feedback loop of after-action reviews. Canada is well equipped with institutions that will pore over the pandemic years and suggest what could have been done better. All good, but the point is not to fuel comment page snark and partisan games, but to turn this into actionable choices about what to change and what to be mindful of the next time.
The pandemic reminded us all of the importance of assigning people and resources to preparedness for contingencies. Not just in specialized bodies but across the board. As it dragged on it taught us about the importance of resilience. For many public sector teams the pandemic forced a rapid rethink of how to deliver services and how to organize workforces. Change resistant school boards, courts, universities and front-line physicians made great leaps forward. The bigger bang is likely to come from the adoption of collaborative digital platforms for internally facing workflows.
Many people are weighing in on the implications of a more distributed workforce and hybrid workplaces. Management teams will want to have tools to check up and check in on “customer” feedback and on their organization’s output and resource utilization – variants of productivity measures. The smarter ones will want to keep an eye on workforce engagement and wellbeing. The really smart ones will want to engage their teams and staff in ongoing conversation.
Public sector leaders face an array of challenges. Middle managers and front-line supervisors play a key role in talent management and performance management but they have been trained to do it in pre-pandemic workplaces. There may or may not be a “great resignation” under way, but we know there definitely is a wave of baby boomer retirements and a tighter labour market that will make the competition for talent more intense for years to come. The old challenges of recruitment and retention will take new shape.
Because it is the 2020s and the public sector is both shaped by and also an integral part of society, leaders will want to pay attention to inclusion in all its dimensions, and will want to address mental health and wellness. Not that long ago too many people were just discarded or neglected. Indeed this is a 2020s version of productivity and organizational effectiveness – harnessing the energy, talent and input of as many as possible. Middle managers shouldn’t complain about not having enough resources until they are sure they are making the most of the ones they have.
Over the next year or two federal and provincial governments of all stripes are going to tap the fiscal brakes and we will see an array of “reviews” – a quest to do more with less and occasionally less with less if the political will is there. There is a risk that reviews will be poorly designed and anchored in outdated constructs and may reverse progress that has been achieved in making the public sector more innovative and more responsive.
A popular misquotation says that “what is measured gets managed”. If that is the case then governments and public sector leaders should strive to measure what matters to them. Tools and approaches from past decades risk leading us down the wrong paths. Audits that strain out for residual risk and fail to recognize changing context can only tell us so much. Measuring productivity and effectiveness with isolated crude averages will miss what is really going on and where the blockers exist.
The key point about the public sector today is whether it has the capacity to quickly learn and adapt. We don’t have good tools for assessing this competency. I heard from several former colleagues and Ministers that in the early days of the pandemic there was a distinct advantage to have people with experience who had a sense of what was needed but that as the emergency evolved the same people were sometimes reluctant to look at problems differently or try new things and a second wave of leaders emerged. Many organizations and teams demonstrated they had “software that learns” in these leaders and teams.
Across the public sector pace continues to accelerate and any decent “environment scan” will tell you about emerging realities. The challenges are accompanied by great opportunities to innovate and improve, and Canada is well placed relative to most other countries. We can do even better if we engage on whether our organizations have the infrastructure, governance, resources and competencies to learn as we go, converting lessons from the past into actionable decisions, scanning for and picking up and correctly interpreting new information, and walking the line between underreacting and oversteering. Public sector intelligence – nothing artificial about it.