Government’s role as a stakeholder to administrations and agencies

As with some of the articles published in the past week, I’ve rewritten an article I wrote in 2009. I am trying to integrate all articles from the past into this blog, rewriting them where that appears necessary.

I am very surprised at how relevant it still feels, reading this more than three years after it was initially written. That said, I’ve rewritten quite a few key passages.

A reactive stance

Public administrations’ and public agencies’ effectiveness, efficiency and economy are quite often an unintended victim of the existing interaction model with the elected representatives of the people, the government and the ministers. I’m talking about the often reactive stance which administrations and agencies are required to take with respect to ministerial or governmental decisions. This issue might be solved by a simple change in perception and related behavior at the side of the public administration or the agency, subject to acceptance of this changed approach by the elected representatives.

Striving for efficiency, effectiveness and economy

Public administrations and agencies look at government and ministers as active decision takers in their respective areas of responsibility. After all, the minister is politically responsible. However, the political decision process that guides and directs the government and its ministers can be and often is a bottleneck. This bottleneck in turn influences the speed and direction of actions of the public administration or agency and thus its efficiency, effectiveness and as a result its economy. Whereas this a a very common and traditional situation, this is likely not most optimal position of a public administration to ensure these three objectives.

A minister is not a CEO

Public administrations tend to see their ministers and government as CEO’s. They are not. They are chosen representatives out of an elected body. They are closer to a board of directors chosen from amongst the shareholders.

While they can significantly contribute to vision and mission, they should not adopt a day-to-day role in the strategic or – worse – operational activities of a public administration or an agency. The administration or the agency, which in essence should be a-political in nature and staffed with a competent management team, needs to be able to continue to execute a long term vision, which is being “tweaked” or “influenced” but not or only in very few cases dramatically changed by the government or the ministers.

Administrations and agencies need the flexibility to act now

This is not necessarily different from what is happening today, other than the fact that the administrations spend too much time in limbo, waiting for direction from the government. After all, most of the (operational) activities of the administration will not significantly change no matter what the government’s direction is. Taxes need to be collected, whatever the tax rate or tax structure. Vehicles still need license plates, whether the number is associated with a person or with a vehicle. Food safety needs to be assured whether or not it incorporates the Commission’s REACH objectives or not …

Thus, an administration can commit to a long term action plan of improvement and change, designed by its president and managers, presented to its stakeholders (minister, government, parliament and even the wider population) and tweaked, fine-tuned in view of their feedback. However, and administration should not wait to take action in its areas of responsibility pending a ministerial decision which may be bogged down in heavy political negotiations. This delay is not acceptable to its stakeholders (enterprises and citizens alike) as they have limited to no understanding of or appreciation for this process.