Two cultures in public services and how to bridge between the two

Image via Fanpop
Image via Fanpop

Matthew Taylor’s take on there being “two tribes” or cultures in public services is excellent, and well worth reading for anyone serious about understanding change in public services.

He describes the two tribes/cultures as follows: Networker Innovators are

budding social entrepreneurs tapping away on their devices at Impact Hubs. They tend to be young, impatient of the old ways of doing things, sceptical about traditional politics. They love big data, social media, hackathons and service design… If only they could get some start-up funding and prove their concept, it could be scaled up to change the world.

Whereas Hierarchical Managerialists are

the politicians and bureaucrats who run public service institutions and systems. They are middle aged, care worn, always tired and rarely with time for anything more than coping. Somewhere deep down they retain their idealism, but they have long since become reconciled to fulfilling their public service ethic through crisis management and marginal improvement… They are focused on local conditions, relationships and power structures. They see the biggest barrier to change not as the absence of new ideas, but the preponderance of old politics.

The result of these two tribes is that

Bright people and bright ideas fail to mature. Big systems and institutions fail to improve. Innovators add their voice to a lazy cynicism about ‘the system’ while bureaucrats pay lip service to innovation but think it is marginal to their day to day lives. Second rate ideas and second rate practices survive unchallenged, each justified by their own self-serving discourse.

Taylor’s solution to this is to bring the two systems together:

The networkers need to be challenged to understand the constraints of big systems, big budgets, complexity, risk and public accountability. The managers need to admit that many aspects of politics and public service are only the way they are due to historical accident or the positioning of vested interests.

This admittedly binary description resonates very much. My personal experience is as someone who is equally frustrated with both of the cultures described: there is clearly a significant need for large swathes of public services to change, but I sometimes find the solutions and methods proposed to secure this change both naïve and ineffective, to the point where they may undermine the very change they seek. (For example, my reflections on “innovation” demonstrate such frustration.)

(From a personal point of view, this means I don’t feel I belong to either of the cultures described, and can be misunderstood by both. I’m sure lots of folks feel they aren’t being described by either of these cultures! There are, though, a good deal of such anomalous folks around, and at different levels of the system.)

Image via StuffPoint
Image via StuffPoint

I’ve often reflected that the most successful efforts at change are when people understand the motivations and positions of “the other”; this is often, though not only, because they have been in the other person’s shoes at a previous point in their career.

This understanding seems to me to be a form of translation, bridging or linking, and it’s where I strongly believe effective change is most likely to start and be sustained in the complex world and systems of public services. It’s why the recent thinking on systems leadership – notably put forward by the Stanford Social Innovation Review – is something I’ve blogged on before: it gives concrete form to what these ‘translating’ / ‘bridging’ / ‘linking’ activities are. They include:

  • Seeing reality through the eyes of people very different from yourself
  • Building relationships based on deep listening and building networks of trust and collaboration
  • Having an ability to see the larger system and so building a shared understanding of complex problem
  • Fostering reflection and conversation that can challenge assumptions or existing mental models
  • Shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future… not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.
  • Re-directing attention to see that problems “out there” are “in here” also, recognising that we are all part of the systems we seek to change
  • Re-orienting strategy by creating the space for change and enabling collective intelligence and wisdom to emerge: instead of trying to make change happen we focus on creating the conditions that can produce change
  • Working through a disciplined stakeholder engagement process, the nature of which can’t be predicted in advance
  • Transforming relationships among people who shape systems, rather than just working on systems themselves.

Talking with a fellow frustrated friend about this, we realised we both found Taylor’s analysis heartening. Understanding a problem goes a long way towards solving it, and being explicit about both the “two tribes” and adding some ideas as to how to bridge the gaps between the two hopefully helps to shift us to more effective change in public services.

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Published by

rich_w

Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

4 thoughts on “Two cultures in public services and how to bridge between the two”

  1. A really insightful and interesting blog Rich. I too fail to identify with either end of this particular spectrum . Sitting on the bridge (Millau?) is oft exhilarating, always frustrating and gosh the wind does blow!

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