The biggest challenge facing government executives is not diagnosing the need for change, but rather recognizing that the way government has always done things is no longer sustainable.
Earlier this year, Deloitte released a report entitled Provinces in transition: tackling Canada’s toughest policy and management challenges, which focuses on seven key issues of concern to government. In developing the report, our research revealed that provinces have an unrivalled potential to change the role and management of government to better respond to the challenges of the 21st century.
Although all governments are in transition – the ultimate destination or “future state” is not well defined. This is despite the fact that as substantial as the current changes may seem, they are viewed generally as being insufficient to address the underlying challenges that provincial governments are facing.
So why not articulate a clear and compelling vision?
The answer lies in three inter-related issues: a lack of political will; inadequate strategic planning capacity at the enterprise level; and an inability to consistently execute large-scale change.
Overcoming these obstacles – to create and pursue a clear vision – is the next big step for provincial governments.
Painting the big picture
Building political will requires an ability to explain why and how government needs to change in a way that elected officials can understand and explain easily to constituents. In effect, one needs to have a clear view of the big picture in order to really accept change. Nowhere is this more evident than in healthcare where, many would argue, vested interests often try to stall reforms. Initiatives aimed at improving system capacity, cost effectiveness, financial sustainability, citizen choice and other issues are often curtailed by a lack of political will.
Of course, it isn’t that government executives are not trying. The challenges are attracting the attention of politicians, framing issues in a way that elected officials and their constituents can understand and finding a balance among competing priorities.
Gaining a politician’s attention may sometimes be hard to do absent an immediate crisis. But the need is increasingly important because elected officials and executives alike must think differently about how government will meet citizen expectations given ever-tightening budgets, an aging population and eroding infrastructure.
If government tries to deliver the same level of service to citizens as it has in the past, it cannot expect to meet expectations by relying on traditional ways of doing so. There isn’t enough money or qualified people to meet demands. As such, many provinces are beginning to develop a roadmap to the future.
For example, British Columbia’s search for answers and a new model of government has been driven by concerns about the future. Within the next decade or so, education and healthcare could consume the annual budget, effectively leaving nothing for public safety, infrastructure maintenance or improvement, water and wastewater services and almost everything else taxpayers expect.
As such, BC is in a continuous search for opportunities to design and implement new ways of doing business. These emerge from the very real stresses to construct a different vision for the role of government.
“If we don’t have the labour to inspect facilities the way we always have done it, do we need more self-regulation?” one senior government official recently asked. If the answer is “yes,” government’s role continues to evolve into one of designing and monitoring frameworks of self-regulation that ensure fairness and that the public is being protected and well-served.
Scenarios and strategies
If it is true that government is driven by election cycles then it is fair to acknowledge that the environment in which decisions are made is not always conducive to a holistic process. But the emerging challenge is substantial and the need for establishing a clear vision is becoming more of an imperative. This brings into focus the need for effective strategic planning functions at the enterprise level that can analyze future scenarios and present meaningful strategic alternatives to decision makers.
There are certain times during its mandate when a government is likely to be more interested in rethinking its vision and plan. One opportunity may be at the start of a mandate, especially if the winning party ran on a platform of change and reform. Another is during the second and third years – the midpoint of a mandate – when the government has to demonstrate that it is managing affairs effectively. Government executives need to be ready to seize these opportunities when they arise to frame the imperative for change and support politicians as they present the bigger picture to constituents. The need to understand future scenarios and to build flexibility into strategic plans is described well in Michael Raynor’s recent book, The Strategy Paradox. These concepts can be applied to government as well as in industry.
Given the challenges that lie ahead, the vision that emerges is likely to contain some radical options for the future role and design of government. The challenge is to convince decision makers that the status quo is not sustainable in the longer term.
In re-thinking the shape and focus of government’s role in the future, the most hazardous impediment might be previous experience. Therefore, rather than using the traditional approach, it is important to look at new opportunities and approaches and shed the conventional wisdom that was created by past behaviour and expectations.
A good example is the support provided to families and individuals with autism. Traditionally, government provides support directly to public-sector healthcare providers, schools and institutions so they can assist parents of autistic children. But some jurisdictions are turning to providing funds directly to a family or individual so they can purchase services that best fit their needs, whether that’s a government program, not-for-profit agency or private resource. As a result, businesses crop up to provide services that government cannot offer in the same way.
But adopting self-regulation, user pay, patient choice and other reforms on a large-scale requires a dramatic shift in a government’s mindset. The pressure will mount steadily to be more proactive in engaging non-government organizations and local communities about how to best meet needs through alternative delivery methods. Government will need to spawn innovation in industries and communities that will help ministries change the way they deliver services.
From vision to results
Even if senior executives are confident of their level of political support and the ability to develop a sound future vision, sometimes the fear of failed projects can trump their desire to act – and not without good reason. Government officials across the country acknowledge the lack of transformational leadership skills that exist within their ranks. And because of public visibility, they are more risk averse when tackling change than the private sector. But the imperative eventually outweighs the fear of failure, which is why governments will continue to improve their ability to execute large-scale change.
Recently, there has been a greater appetite on the pa