Published on July 29, 2011

Is it government’s job to be efficient?

By Simon Burall

Simon Burall is the Director of Involve. He has extensive experience in the fields of democratic reform, governance, public participation, stakeholder engagement, and accountability and transparency.

How we think about efficiency of government will have a big influence on how decisions are taken. Thinking only in financial terms risks taking decisions that cost less in the short-term, but cost much more in the future.

Back in June I went on an extended twitter rant about government efficiency in response to a link that Dominic Campbell of FutureGov sent round; I’ve been looking for the time to write this post for a while.

Dominic’s link led to a post on the Harvard Business Review making the case that one talented individual is worth far more than a team of people. While there is large dose of truth in this for some types of decision-making, I’m not sure I agreed with the poke that the author took at government:

The truth is, our brains work very well individually but tend to break down in groups. This is why we have individual decision makers in business (and why paradoxically we have group decisions in government)

While it is of course right that government should do all it can to ensure it delivers better value for money, there is a limit to how efficient it can become. One reason that government can’t be as efficient as business is because while business can afford to be single minded, government exists to mediate between special interests, to build consensus and take with one hand while giving back sweeteners in the other.

In fact, where government is concerned, for many types of decisions it may well be that taking decisions informed by groups is actually the most effective way for government to ensure that it understands fully the needs of different groups and the trade-offs that it needs to take.

As I write this post, it takes me back to what I had planned to write today about the launch of Parliamentary ePetitions before discovering that Richard Parsons has already critiqued petitions extremely well thus making my proposed post redundant. So just to note, if Parliamentary ePetitions magnify the voices of already powerful stakeholders and special interest groups then government will become even less efficient. One test of the effectiveness of ePetitions would be if some of them raise issues that surprise MPs and the government.

The classical pose for a leader is to take decisions in lonely isolation; much in the way that the Harvard author is suggesting is best. A much newer form of leadership, which very few political leaders really understand, is to create and step into a space where there is far greater uncertainty and the right course of action is unclear. A good leader in these more complex situations will create and manage a group process to reach decision that is far more likely to hold, and while being more inefficient in the short term, is actually more so further out into the future.

In the end, therefore, the challenge for our political leaders is knowing when to take a decision alone and when to engage with citizens. Getting it wrong can be really inefficient; as Andrew Lansley found out to his cost.

Photo credit: tkelly7029

 

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