If you’re what the GovLoop web site calls a ‘govvie’ (work it out) you could do worse than dip into their web site occasionally for a piece of cross-cultural enlightenment.

They’re an American outfit – but they let other folks on – with the aim

to inspire public sector professionals to better service by acting as the knowledge network for government.

A post called Why Are Many Government Officials Such Bad Leaders? by one of their 50,000+ members called Paul Wolf popped up yesterday. I was alerted to it by a tweet from Australian e-government (and much else) guru @craigthomler (such is the power of the web – Washington USA to Canberra Australia to Aberdeen Scotland in less than 24 hours).

The title of Wolf’s post tells you what it’s about. If you’re not familiar with American usage you needed to know that over there a ‘government official’ means an elected politician not an employee as it does in the UK.

But in terms of learning lessons, that’s OK since the American system of government means their politicians (or many of them) are much more hands-on than their UK cousins and in many respects act more like a CEO as far as federal, state and local government employees are concerned.

Wolf’s article compares what a private sector manager at a DuPont plant and an elected official, the governor of New York State, say about leadership.

Leader No. 1 says

  • as a leader you don’t and shouldn’t make all decisions
  • developing people by teaching them to make choices rather than just telling them what to do is critical for an organisation
  • be clear on expectations and provide people feedback on how they’re doing
  • give people flexibility to figure out the best way to achieve the results sought.

Leader No. 2

  • ‘is unbelievably involved in almost everything. On one level, it’s very impressive because he’s a machine in the way he works. But it’s also completely paralysing and debilitating because [you] can’t go to the bathroom without him giving the go-ahead’
  • assumes everything people does is wrong.

Can you guess which is which?

One of Wolf’s readers comments

I have to say I admire [Leader No. 2]…I saw close up the results he left behind. They were actually very impressive. He had been a no nonsense leader who did not accept excuses for substandard results. He had overturned a great many apple carts, exposing the rotten fruit that had been hidden, and broke more than a few rice bowls in the process…Most of the staff did not particularly like him and let us know that as soon as we took over. He wasn’t there to be liked.  He was there to get results, which he did…If you want an old fashioned kick ass, take names and get results actual leader who will leave [the organisation] better than he found it, stick with [Leader No. 2].

‘Old fashioned kick ass.’ Don’t you love it?

Well, if you haven’t guessed already or you have and want to read more, you’ll have to get on over to GovLoop. Wolf is asking for people’s views on what he says, so you can tell him how much better things are in the UK…maybe.

Recorded by the BBC at the Farnborough Air Show, an exhibitor explains his company’s product

This is next generation of systems to provide kind of the high-end situation awareness for pilots.  It starts with the central computer right here which really has the computer capacity of a laptop but it’s really no bigger than a smart phone.  That system is fully integrated with the soldier worn display which is again a nice, if you look here is a very thin wear right on your wrist touch screen gives the person off the aircraft situational awareness kind of the bird ‘s eye view of where they are, where the target is, where the friendlies are and where the bad guys are.  The beauty of this is that we’re really leveraging off of existing commercial technology, making it applicable for military use.  So that soldiers when they go back into the field they don’t go back in time   They can operate with systems and solutions that they‘re very comfortable with in everyday use.  That’s the big deal about this.

So now you know.


There’s an old song lyric

It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it


On that basis I guess you’d have to concede that Barack Obama is up there with the best.

Take a look (not the whole 1 hour and 5 minutes unless you’re a real enthusiast) at his 2012 State of the Union Address to Congress.

I guess most people in the UK saw the tiniest clip from his speech on the TV news last month.  What that wouldn’t have shown is his mastery of public communication – the words, the pace, the body language, the eye contact, the back-up facts on the related presentation, the ordinary Americans up there in the gallery as Michelle Obama’s guests – the works.

Of course it’s all geared towards this year’s presidential election.  But based on this performance, how could any sane citizen not rush to re-elect the man later this year?

Well, I guess the answer lies in who the Republicans eventually select to put up against him, not to mention how the US economy does over the next nine months or so.

But they say incumbent politicians lose elections, opponents don’t win them.  And on this performance you’d have to admit Obama’s got a damned good chance of serving a second term.

In none of this, you’ll notice, do I comment on the many facts favourable to Obama in his speech and the related presentation.  But hey, what do you expect, there’ll be plenty who do that and after all this is politics.

Big Society, 25%-40% budget cuts… 

One way or another UK public agencies need a radical response to the pressures from the economy and the coalition government. 

When the recession first hit in 2008 Japanese motor manufacturers in Britain seemed to do everything they could before they actually made staff redundant, if they ever did.  Toyota, Nissan and Honda were all good examples. 

Regular readers  know the importance I assign to employees in driving improvement in an organisation – see for example my post on How to improve government (and keep improving it).

But how can you say to people “Your talents are key to improving this place” and then hand them their P45? [non-UK readers – a government form people are given when they leave an employer] 

From the USA comes advice from author Gregg Stocker on his blog Avoiding the Corporate Death Spiral (named after his book of the same name).

 He starts with the memorable words

 When a ship encounters rough waters, the captain does not consider throwing crew members overboard to protect the ship’s owners 

From a North American and private sector perspective he lists seven steps to avoid layoffs.  This is my take on each, in the order Gregg lists them. 

  1. Shortened Work Week:  Although akin to a pay cut, a shortened workweek forces everyone to participate without the loss of jobs.  Also, receiving time off helps compensate for the reduction in pay.  Sounds sensible – better to earn even 60% of your former wage than 0%.  The sums to produce any saving needed should be easy to do.  I’m not aware of this happening anywhere in the UK public sector.
  2. Unpaid Holidays:  Similar to the shortened workweek, implementing unpaid holidays allow more flexibility in choosing the extent and timing of the cut back.  Again, I’ve not heard of this happening anywhere 
  3. Hiring Freeze/Attrition:  Although an obvious step, I have worked with companies that laid off in one part of the company while hiring in another.  Any positions that are critical to fill should be done by transferring and training existing employees.  Fairly widely used but how effectively?  “Transferring and training” is critical but how creative is the public sector in moving people around and supporting them in those moves?  And since everyone’s urged to work in partnership with other agencies, what about transferring people between organisations?
  4. Elimination of Bonuses:  Nobody should receive a bonus during a period that people were laid off.  I was in a meeting several years ago with a large division of a Fortune 100 company where managers decided to implement a layoff in order to protect their bonus accruals – a totally unacceptable action.  A very mixed public sector picture.  Performance related pay is entrenched in some public organisations, entirely absent from others.  Personally I’d eliminate it entirely, not to save money but for all sorts of other good reasons (see for example Alfie Kohn’s now classic Punished by Rewards.  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes)
  5. Elimination of Dividends:  In spite of what many people believe, the resulting damage to the organization caused by a layoff does not protect shareholders.  By protecting its workforce, companies are actually actually protecting future returns for shareholders.  Studies have shown that companies that resist deep cuts during downturns recover much more quickly than competitors (in terms of earnings and share price).  Stocker’s only step not directly relevant to most of the public sector.  But the ethos could apply to agencies required to make a set return on capital for the government.
  6. Focused Kaizen Activity:  Improvement activities should be focused entirely on reducing costs (while improving or maintaining existing quality levels).  Kaizen activities focused on cost reductions will prevent employees from being idle during downturns and assure that the savings achieved will be sustained once business returns.  Something like this should be in the organisational DNA, not a response to a crisis.  Stocker says kaizen.  Others might say systems thinking or other structured improvement.  For this particular purpose it matters not.  I have recently seen an example of a local authority function where careful measurement proved that 26% of the total cost did not add value for customers and could in principle be eliminated.  The challenge, which many wrestle with, is the ungainly named benefits realisation, which in this example would mean eliminating 26% of the budget.
  7. Pay Cuts:  As a last resort, pay cuts should be implemented to save jobs from being eliminated.  I believe in implementing across-the-board percentage cuts with executives being asked to volunteer a larger percentage.  Of course pay cuts and pay freezes need to be in the mix as that “last resort”.  And senior managers taking a larger cut sends the right message.  But without all the other good things Stocker mentions this inevitably goes down like the proverbial lead balloon.

Of course some of these actions imply less work being done and so less service being delivered.  But that’s going to happen anyhow.

And some would need a major culture change in the UK – amongst politicians, senior managers and trade unions.  Put to the point could they all make the leap?  I have my doubts.

This one’ll upset some folks since Russell Ackoff will be very well known to them.

But I justify my inclusion of him as a lesser known hero on the basis of that modern litmus test (forget academic citations) of the number of Google hits on his name.

A search today threw up:

  • Deming – 2,780,000 hits
  • Ackoff – 121,000.

So on that facile basis he’s about 4% as well known as W Edwards Deming.

I suppose my other – entirely subjective – criterion is that Ackoff was unknown to me until a year or so ago.  When I discovered him I was bowled over by the sheer humanity of the man.

I first came across Ackoff through an archived webcast of a talk he’d given back in 2000 on systems thinking and youth justice to a workshop associated with the improbably-named Girls Link group at the Kent College of Law in Chicago.  The video’s not brilliant technically.  But it’s worth viewing.  It covers many of the ideas he developed over a lifetime (he sadly passed away in 2009 aged 90).

Ackoff began his working life as an architect and said that architects were – had to be – systems thinkers.  They don’t design, say, houses by starting with individual rooms, designing each perfectly and then finding a way to join them together.  They start with the building and then find out how to fit the rooms into the overall space and shape.  They use (my words) an iterative process to get the best fit of the different elements.

That’s systems thinking – and systems design. 

He was interesting on the difference between errors of commission and omission – how the former were easy to know (and assign causes to or, too often, blame for) whereas the latter were unknowable and therefore unmeasurable.  In typical organisations managers avoid being blamed by avoiding errors of commission.

 And the easiest way not to make errors?  Do nothing.  Yet we only learn by our mistakes.  So how can such organisations learn?

He also said there are five types of “content” – data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.  The first four are all concerned with increasing efficiency, only the last is concerned with effectiveness.

Efficiency is about doing things right.  Wisdom is about doing the right thing.  “The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger it becomes.  It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right.”

One of Ackoff’s major insights for me was his use of systems thinking to throw light on social issues wider than how any single organisation works. 

He said that almost every major social problem is the consequence of doing the wrong things righter, in his own country (the USA) citing the health (sickness) care system and education – “teaching is a major obstruction to learning”.  These are major social systems “pursuing objectives contrary to their intention”.

He wrote extensively about his idea of idealised design – that in improving a system you should start from first principles, work out what your idealised design would be and then take steps towards it.

Much of this, plus a sense of what the man was like can also be seen in a brief video on YouTube (you can find many more talks by or about him on the web)

Video by PhyllisHaynes on YouTube

As always with these pen portraits, there’s a lot more that could be written and I’d love those who understand Ackoff better than me to add their own thoughts.

The other thing I’ve discovered is the love and affection Russell (“Russ”) Ackoff inspired amongst his many colleagues, students and clients.  That doesn’t happen by chance.  I wish I’d had an opportunity to know him.

My thanks to Susan Ciccantelli for commenting on a draft of this post.  Her kindness reflects that of Dr Ackoff.  The conclusions are of course mine.

…well I hope they do because it’s a fantastic institution and they’re fighting the biggest budget cut in their history – $37 million.

Map courtesy of Pontus Edenberg on stock.xchng

I was there two weeks ago and saw a wonderful exhibition in their main building about Mapping New York’s Shoreline, 1609-2009 – a whole social history of the City brought alive by maps and other graphic material.

I suppose the “realistic” part of me says that notwithstanding what looks like a very effective campaign (see their web site) they’re going to take a hit of some sort in these hard times.  But they do so much good work you can only hope it’s as small a cut as possible – over 120,000 New Yorkers have written to their council member to support their library system.

Anyone with a view can contact their representative (or the mayor/speaker if you’re not a New Yorker) here – but do it quickly.  The decision’s being made this week.