Delightful internal control processes in public sector organisations

Inspired by “Delight is in the details” by Shawn Blanc

The nascent public sector problem

Here’s the problem: a lot of public sector organisations have been forced to shed a lot of what has long been considered their bloated structures. This often takes the form of personnel reductions. Some of these are retirees that do not get replaced in their functions. Some are public servants being moved around to other functions. Some are people leaving public service to try their luck in other sectors. At the same time, the tasks to be executed by the public sector remain the same or are, at best, reduced a bit. However, a government cannot immediately and radically reduce the service its citizens and private sector organizations have come to expect. The solutions are both a significant automation, mainly by means of information technology, and mainly in back-office activities, and an increase in the competency levels of the average public servant.

There is no silver bullet

Two considerations here: ICT will not solve everything, and is only as good at the software-implementor combination can make it, and the competency level of the average public servant is actually not necessarily lower than that of an average private sector collaborator.

The public’s expectations only continue to increase

Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of the public sector activities, the public, expects that the core tasks of government are executed as well or better as before. This means that a core task should be executed efficiently, effectively, economically and ethically.

The road more traveled

There are two possible roads to achieve those ambitious objectives. The first one is the road more traveled by. A strong level of accountability is established, with strongly established hierarchical structures that “force” the collaborator to perform to a set of key metrics. This traditional approach imposes an order and a level of control that is wanted and required. I just wonder whether or not it is realistic, or whether it will lead to an increase in burn-out of public servants, leading to even larger problems over the long term.

From an internal control point of view, this approach asks for high degrees of internal controls, often added to existing processes. However, once those processes come under pressure, the internal controls added to them will quickly be abandonned, because performing them feels like it does not add any direct added value. And believe me, with further reductions of personnel and the usual teething issues with ICT, it is more than likely that the processes will come under pressure.

The road less traveled

There is another option, one I would like to refer to as the road less traveled by, the road not taken, referring to the poem by Robert Frost.

Qualitative performance is more important than quantitative performance

We can choose to optimize the processes not just from the point of view of quantitative performance, but also in terms of qualitative performance. The public wants a quality service, also from its government. Burden reduction initiatives are essential here. But it’s not just the public we should target in this optimization exercise.

Engaging the process owner

The process owner should be able to execute his assigned tasks in the most logical, pragmatic way possible for him or her. This means stepping away from the production optimization mentality that has ruled pretty much any large scale organization since Ford’s production chain. There is value in that, but we have likely exhausted that value years ago.

Tasks should not be executed for the benefit of executing a task, they should be executed for the benefit of the public. In addition, we need to establish ownership of the process related risks at the level of the process users themselves. That means that these people need to be allowed to manage their own risks, in the way most appropriate to them. Controls can be validated and optimized, but controls need to be adapted not only to the process and the context, but also to the process user as well.

The question then remains as to how we will monitor this. Nothing in the above excludes the measured use of metrics. Ideally, public sector can introduce some measure of performance based compensation, which should not necessarily be monetary at all.

It is okay to like your work

Ideally, process owners need to “like” doing the work they are asked to be doing. Now, like is of course a very subjective concept. I believe we can go a long way by translating a “liked” process as a process that is as simple as possible (but not simpler), logical, with tangible and measurable results, and ownership complemented by an accountability which is established not at the level of the individual metric, but at the level of the overall personal performance. Ideally, the end user of the public service, the public, has a say in how they appreciate what their public servants are doing.

This counterbalances a move which I often see for the establishment of traditional internal controls, attached to a process which are likely to be ignored under pressure.