Adapting to being adaptable

We’re starting to see government agencies come to terms with modern digital technologies, with more and more people in agency seeking to use them in their activities.

Agencies are beginning to operationalise social media and, while still working through the process, open licenses and data as well.

Some in digital related-roles in government are starting to feel their hard slog is nearly over, that they’ve won over management and can begin to focus on planning and doing rather than justifying, defending and educating.

Managers are beginning to resolve governance and risk questions and observe more acceptance of the use of digital channels by Ministers and their peers, making them feel more secure.

However there’s a broader change taking place that public services and governments should not ignore.

Embedding Gov 2.0 thinking and technologies into an agency isn’t simply a modification in how government engages, a reprioritisation of channels or an evolution of existing processes and procedures.

This change isn’t like implementing a new structure or system – or introducing a new tool for staff, such as a fax machine or computer.

Governments and agencies don’t just have to adapt to the internet and Gov 2.0.

They need to adapt to be more adaptable.

The web is only twenty years old, Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 less than ten. In both cases we’ve seen an enormous flowering of ideas, rapid innovation and experimentation – with hundred-year-old industries already under threat.

This is but the opening gasp of what looks to be a continually changing and evolving digital landscape, a landscape which has already begun reshaped our physical world and calling into question many beliefs and traditions around how people behave, how organisations should operate and how governments should govern.

Public servants and politicians not only need to learn how to embed social media into their workplaces and activities, but how to design, manage and operate organisations and governments in fast changing environments and communities.

The change is as profound as moving entire nations from solid land and placing them on the sea, where unpredictable currents and storms continually challenge how structures are build and people organised.

We’re entering an era where virtual states may be more relevant to people than physical ones, where the expertise government needs resides not only within their own staff, but outside the walls of their organisation, where programs succeed or fail based on whether communities wish them to – where governments are no longer the controller of states, but the servants of communities.

This era has only just begun, with self-organising groups only beginning to flex their muscles – often in uncoordinated baby-like ways. However as time passed and people learn how to better organise and design better platforms for doing so, we are likely to see radically different organisations appear and challenge incumbents for dominance at both micro and macro levels.

For governments to remain relevant they will need to learn to be adaptable, not simply to adapt to each new development, otherwise they will share the experience of the French in the opening days of World War II – with their plans, experience and processes for holding off Germany at the Maginot line were defeated by Germany going around the wall, failing to play by the rules of earlier engagements.

Governments seeking to control their citizens, or to set boundaries even for their staff, are already finding that many are going around the walls of process, governance and technology they have erected to define the boundaries of acceptable conduct or behaviour.

People are building, organising, sharing in spaces that agencies don’t even recognise, let alone understand or engage in. Governance is lagging further and further behind practice and people are not waiting to let decision-makers catch up.

So how do governments learn to be adaptable, to be agile, to be inclusive, flexible and inclusive without giving up too much ground on areas such as privacy, security and governance?

This is an evolving body of work. However there are principles and similarity that adaptable organisations often share:

  • Hire adaptable and resilient people
  • Trust and empower your staff
  • Foster community and collaboration
  • Provide guidance rather than rules
  • Respect and reward innovation and achievement
  • Be transparent. Develop everything – policies, programs, systems, research, documents – to be accessible and shareable
  • Never stop listening and learning
Organisations – even governments – who fail to adapt to being adaptable will keep falling further behind. At some point they may become irrelevant, unnecessary, or be forced to change from outside influences.
So while considering how you may use social media or Gov 2.0 tools and techniques today in an activity, think about the bigger picture. Are you and your organisation learning how to become more adaptable?

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