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Does the public service need more free radicals?

A Manifesto for Free Radicals by Scott Belsky is nothing short of awesome. It certainly has inspired me – and clarified many of my observation about the public service.

Ok. I’ve put together this post based on my experiences here in Australia. But how does the public service in your part of the world measure up. Read on.

The Manifesto resonates well with me given the content of the message I sent to many public service colleagues when I left the Australian Public Service last month. Specifically, my point about craziness. It also strikes a nerve with me because, well, the description of how free radicals work pretty accurately describes how I’ve worked from time to time. Fortunately, for the most part I’ve been lucky enough to work in areas within organisations that actually value ideas and practices that push the boundaries.

However, that being said in my thirty years + of working in the public service in various capacities I have seen so many public servants squeezed for daring to be different and challenging the status quo that it beggars belief. To some extent you expect that in the 20th century and earlier, but in the first and second decades of the 21st?

And that’s the point. For all the work taking place around APS reform, Innovation and Gov 2.0 the overwhelming state of affairs remains the same within many agencies. Severe risk aversion, endless and often needless bureaucratic processes, ticking the box on process, but not actually getting things done – especially if it involves change.

In my career I have seen so many good and talented public servants soldier on and getting things done despite the circumstances under which they have to work. Nothing much has changed and the constant hum is about ‘the system’ and ‘culture’ of the public service. The real message is “follow the process, keep your head down and just get the job done”.

Before I continue a few personal points:

  1. I am not a disgruntled former public servant (far from it).
  2. I believe in public service.
  3. I have not only worked for the APS I have dealt with it when working with another jurisdiction in the 90s. The culture remains problematic.
  4. It is very much my experience that public servants are talented people who do their very best to deliver to the public, but they are often frustrated in that by the processes and practices imposed on them.
  5. Yes, I got to do some pretty cool work in my public service career – and some of that work rubbed right up against the entrenched culture.
  6. Yes, I have been called a radical for some of my views and actions.

So where does this apparent negative state of affairs leave us? What simple advice would you give to the public service?

I think it goes something like this:

Release and accept free radicals. (The sky will not fall in)

Corporate management is the core problem and needs reinventing. (Check out The Age of Heretics)

Be more accepting of diverse views and let them be expressed openly and publicly

And take the time to discuss . . .

A Manifesto for Free Radicals

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Corey McCarren

There’s definitely a problem with the suppression of ideas in all bureaucracies. Many good ideas come from the bottom, but the middle managers often don’t want to take a risk by suggesting it to upper management. The people who are witnessing what’s actually going on should be taken more seriously, even if their suggestion seems far fetched. Some ideas of course are awful, but creativity should be encouraged and the most negative response to even an awful idea should be a kind “Okay, we can see where we can go with that”.

steve davies

Yes. There is a lot of conversation going on around culture change. I think a key part of the problem is our very concepts of management.

Last year I got involved in the Management 2.0 Hackathon with a short post entitled Do we need management at all? It started quite a lot of discussion. You won’t be able to view that discussion without joining so here it is in html and pdf formats.

There a lot of discussion around these sorts of issues offer at the MIX. Having worked in the management development area I must say I have my reservations about looking at these issues through the management lens. Reinvention tends to lead to perpetuation.

Not that I”m anti-management by any means, but in view of the impact of social media and Gov 2.0 I think it is logical to ask ourselves whether we need management at all.