Saturday, January 28, 2012

The impossible role of government

Peter Shergold spoke very well a couple of months ago on the challenge for government to meet contrasting expectations.  People expect government to leave them well alone to do what they want, but they also expect government to provide all this fantastic stuff, like flawless social services.

Like the Herald article last week on people's attitudes to toll roads - in the main, people expect not to have to pay for it, because that's the "government's problem"!

At the core of this is our perception of the role of government.  It is a logical conclusion of 'new management' approaches to government, founded in free market liberalism but with social democratic values, and a capitalist-liberal philosophy of the individual (who can and should pursue their own interest).

As Shergold explained, we need a more reliable model for the role of government, and also an alternative narrative, to displace this catch 22.


Organisations refining the idea of a 'thriving' society and how to deliver it (like TACSI in Adelaide and Participle in the UK) are providing a way to reconcile liberal and social values, but as yet it's only a start. The british government are going to need to build a model and narrative around this approach if their Big Society agenda is going to have any success - and indeed public administrators around the world will be hoping they can learn from the experience.

John Baxter

Friday, January 27, 2012

Responsibility in a complex world

Happy Australia Day!  I hope you all survived okay.
Many of you will be familiar with my philosophy on responsibility - essentially that we are responsible to do what we can, whatever that may be.  I like to reflect on this on Australia Day, and what this means as an Australian citizen.

I've been thinking lately about how responsibility and leadership work in a complex world.

Leadership often comes up in discussion of 'Australia' - usually bemoaning a lack thereof.  The leadership we can't see is that from the top.  The sort of nationalism-building narrative Paul Keating might praise, and demand from our political leaders.


But do we really need more leadership from the top, from a professional politician?

Innovation isn't effectively generated from the top.  The organic mess of local interactions is needed to generate the new ideas and understanding required.  Outside of the usual 'filtering up' philosophy, people study the generation of innovation in distributed systems.

Leadership in distributed systems is much less widely considered, but it's no less important.  Ideas are just potentials until something actually happens as a result, and you need leadership to deliver.  Sometimes you will be able to filter the idea up to someone else to lead - maybe your manager, or theirs.  In a complex world this isn't the best approach. When life gets challenging, the best point of action is likely not the top, but somewhere nearer the source of the idea.  Leadership needs to be distributed too.

And my point?  An increasingly complex world requires distributed innovation and leadership.  A system of distributed leadership requires us all to take responsibility.  Not for playing follow-the-leader with those above us, but for local leadership.

John Baxter

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Network-centric approaches to transforming systems

I've recently been nutting the value out of a great approach for working towards a long term vision within a complex system.  The approach was described as a 'network-centric approach to transforming systems' by John Blackburn.

I can't find much online, but John presented at a Collaboratory Melbourne meetup last November - these words are necessarily interpreted and regurgitated.

Applying a network-centric approach

It was described mostly in terms of organisational vision and capacity, but the principles fundamentally apply when:
  • we have a broad-scale, long-term objective that requires systemic transformation (e.g. carbon neutrality)
  • the system is complex (one we can't fully understand the operation of)
Transforming complex systems is a challenge because our understanding of them is never good enough to fully predict the outcomes of our actions.  This is why detailed, linear change plans will never work for this sort of change.  Nevertheless, we might know where we want (or need) to get to.  The network-centric approach starts by determining the key characteristics of the future you want to create (but not specific details).

Some change required is relatively simple, despite a complex context - for example increasing school attendance.  Traditional top-down policy implementation does not solve these because the context is too complex for a one-size-fits-all approach.  Nevertheless developing and prototyping local solutions (e.g. a design methodology) can make good progress because the extent of change required is more modest.

When transformation is needed, however, we need to use the system to catalyse changes - the extent of change required is too great for simple solutions, no matter how ingenious or well resourced they might be.  John referred to this as a 'pull' approach to working towards a vision.  In an organisational sense it was like implanting 'viruses' which disrupted the system to shift it onto a trajectory better aligned with the vision.  It isn't possible to know exactly what any given intervention will do, but persistently intervening can transform the system in ways that no amount of 'push' will achieve.

In other systems this intervention will take different forms, but the principle is the same: understand the characteristics you're aiming for, and intervene in ways that will disrupt the system and align it with those characteristics.  For example, trees planted along the bank of a river may hold the banks in place, encourage other greenery and plant life, and clean the water - much of which may be impractical to be created by force.

Apply to the individual

The Power of Pull was referred to that evening, and while it bears little resemblance to the content of the talk (unfortunately), it reinforces what I had been thinking - our 'careers' are sufficiently complex to approach them like this.  It might seem like we are in control and that a linear planning approach will work - this may be the case for some people. But in a highly networked, ever changing and unpredictable world, where job opportunities are more likely to open up by chance than design, it just doesn't work like that.

In part, that's the philosophy underpinning my employment policy and the way I'm going about sorting out my future in general - like this blog.

But what intervention?

What John didn't explain well was understanding what interventions to make.  Just because the impact can't be predicted doesn't mean all interventions are the same.  I'm still trying to nut that out, but I think that's where things get messy, and the simplicity of the approach breaks down.  I can't avoid the need to understand the structure of the system (e.g. that trees are an integral component of the river ecosystem, but that the kangaroos, while important, are secondary).  Your choice of action is only as good as your understanding of the system.  On the upside, if you can map them out then complex systems can have relatively simple interventions (Berlow TED talk - short but fantastic).

A complex system graph.  Times like these I'm grateful to be a mathematician!

On the other hand, your understanding might depend on actually getting off your backside and trying something. I guess that means I should get going!

John Baxter

Friday, January 13, 2012

Acting on motivation

I have done a bit of brainstorming lately on public administration and my interest in it.  It has lead me to think about a motivation>action combination which seems like a very useful starting point - not only in terms of public administration, but personally as well.

To understand the scope and space of different ways of working I needed to relate different methodologies to one another.  How can one talk about options between traditional and design approaches to policy development without being able to relate these methodologies?

Different methodologies all have different components and labels, seemingly irreconcileable, but have strong parrallels.  Starting points including problems, opportunities, policies, objectives and outcomes.  Finishing points include plans, policies, programs and actions.  So many different methodologies have vastly different interiors, but nevertheless start at something like this, and finish at something like that.  They're processes, they all start, and they all go somewhere (though they don't all finish).

TACSI working backwards approach

But they don't all start at different places.  It's not like design starts at a drawing board, but policy starts at a polling booth. Each one of them starts at some sort of motivator.

They all end at action - or at least at some sort of a program for action.

Motivator > (program for) action

So now we have some sort of a reference point to relate these different methodologies, and at least a conception of how to choose between them.  Identify your motivator, and work out what methodology is the best approach to realising it.

Unfortunately, methodolgies aren't determined by a judgement of the best approach.  They are determined by things like precedent, experience or profession.  Or where none of these are present there is no structured response at all!

What are your personal motivators?  What approach do you take to realise these?  Does this make sense considering the importance of your motivators and the options available?

John Baxter

Monday, January 9, 2012

Initiating a personal employment policy

Employment is a tricky beast.  It is weighted against us and our autonomy in many subtle ways.  The world is moving on from oppositional industrial relations.  But the institutions of employment are stronger and more oppressive than any boss’ own authority, and it is the individual that loses out.  This post is about the personal employment policy I am developing - a tool I hope to be a modest first step towards retaking some ground.

The panopticon, a traditional ideal example of institutional oppression

The context - a sick irrigation system

Employers still set the agenda.  It might not be a manager, the CEO, or anyone in between, but nevertheless the institution drives employment arrangements. Everything from your position description to your dress code is likely set before you get the chance to comment.  Within the things you have influence over, there are subtle ways your own decisions are taken away from you, like the relatively sparse information you have about any potential new workplace.

Outside any given employer, the broader ecosystem of institutions weights so many of our choices that it takes monumental courage to really stand up for ourselves.  Think about how financial systems, education, and the social status of employment are structured to guide you down certain pathways and into a nice little digestible box we might call a ‘job’.  Think of a river dammed and channelled for productive irrigation - but at the expense of the health of the river itself.

The response - a tool to develop a thriving river

The idea behind an employment policy is that it gives you a bit of solid ground to approach employment relations in a more equal (co-creative) fashion and to help you make better decisions for yourself, rather than simply being presented with an institutions’ preferred option.

Environmental Works Services

It is not about setting yourself up in opposition to an employer, but about being able to come to mutually beneficial arrangements - a healthy ecosystem combining the thriving of the river with the benefits of production.

My current draft policy includes a long-term vision and objectives for my next employment arrangement, including areas I am looking to develop, and the characteristics of employment that I value.  A few different headings, but in essence it is quite simple - feel free to check out my first rough version (Dropbox hosted pdf).
Nevertheless, once refined I think it can be quite powerful.  I expect to trial using it to
  • align my short term approach to employment with my own long-term objectives and take a more strategic approach that puts me at the centre, rather than the expectations of other institutions
  • articulate these things to help identify opportunities and assess my options
  • articulate, negotiate and potentially formalise employment arrangements
  • communicate my position to those able to help

The challenge - how to redesign a dam with a whisper
Being something new to me, the idea is to start quite basic and to refine along with my professional adventures.  Once I get comfortable with the policy as a tool it can be updated periodically as things changed, and used to review how well my employment situation meets my needs.
  • I would love feedback, but there are so many things worth getting advice on.
  • How do other people achieve what I’m aiming for?  Or on reflection, how could you?
  • How should I use a tool like this?  Will I scare employers off by seeming too demanding?
  • What do you think of the policy, about what should be included or left out, or how it should be presented?
Do comment or contact!  I think tools like this are sorely needed to help people to forge their own paths.  I would love to think that I can refine this approach and be able to share something of value with others.

John Baxter

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The conundrum of shallow skills and silo professions

One of the tricky spots of my current situation is feeling a conflict between needing to deepen my skills, but not seeing the value in committing to digging myself into a silo.


I am not unskilled.  In fact, I have an impressive array of randomly aquired skills, experience and knowledge.  But my skill set is shallow, and not necessarily complimentary.  This is not a vice, at my young age.  But it is not an asset, and I am feeling that - I don't know how I can really be of value to others with the shallow skill set I have.  Who on earth really needs an analyst!?

But I think about the options to deepen my skill set and I struggle to see how that will help me solve the sorts of wicked problems that aren't already being churned through the production line of specialised professionals.  If I wanted to deepen my skills I would probably stay on at the audit office another year or so to gain a bit more experience, seniority and methodology.  But that would only exacerbate the smell of wasted, rotting innovative solutions that are flushed out of the woods by preliminary audit investigation, to be then methodically swept under the rug of the infamous audit methodology.

My aim - or at least what I propose - is not to focus on deepening my skills, but on the contrary to broaden them.  To be valuable I will deepen my expertise and my understanding of systems of government, without pinning myself to a profession.  I will pivot the experience I have gained so far, find other angles, and develop ways in to government's problems that others are yet to exploit.

I know my stated interest in 'public administration systems' is too broad for all this.  I'm working on how to narrow that down.  But regardless, it's a worthy beast to fall in love with - who needs a solution, when you have a problem like that?

From screenrant interview

John Baxter

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Happy New Year!

Do you do the whole New Year’s Resolutions thing?

I did in 2011, and I am now for 2012.  They worked very well last year.  While they weren’t specific (so I couldn’t tick them off) they were good guidance - they’re probably not what others would think of as resolutions. The key, personally, was not to leave them hanging.  You may know I plan things pretty extensively, so for me it is just a matter of making sure my plans for the year incorporate my resolutions.  You don't need all those details, but here is 2012 resolutions in brief!

Presumably Calvin Hobbes is written by someone but I found this here


·         Pioneer: push myself of the bank of career certainty, make myself into a doer

·         Engage: speak up, connect, and make real what I have learnt

·         Develop broader skills: collaboration, acting in uncertainty, design, entrepreneurial, strategic planning...

·         Develop personally: become a helpful, valuable, connected person, develop niche (value-add) expertise

What to do?

The resolutions are like a vision statement, just with a specific timeframe.  Now you can either state them and hope that by osmosis you’ll do them, or you’ll articulate how this will happen.  I do lots of things by osmosis, but nothing I can identify that matters.  I do have more specific plans around these, but in short, for 2012 I will:

·         Get an online presence that fosters engagement with others, particularly in an area of expertise (e.g. blog on economic thoughts or public admin)
·         Get involved in exciting extra-curricular projects (tbd what exactly), and develop a practice of pursuing my own ideas
·         Find a new workplace that better supports my 2012 objectives
·         Develop my ‘brand’ of expertise in public admin systems (to a point of public recognition, e.g. being invited to present or write)
·         (Ir)regularly review the resolutions to determine whether these actions will get me there

Checking in

In organisations reviews tend to happen when people need to justify doing what they are accountable for.  They don’t happen very often otherwise.  I know I’m not overly accountable for these, but I think reviewing has value for anybody looking to develop and learn from where they’ve been.

I sit down and have an informal review every* quarter against the year’s plan, and reframe activities in the meantime.  This wouldn't normally be documented, but I may post thoughts here if they are of value.

Good luck with your resolutions and intentions for 2012!

John Baxter