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It Takes a Village: Insights on Culture and Community in Local Government

In prior posts, we’ve looked at the many aspects of culture that affect large organizations, including the cultural dynamics in government that play out in large state & federal agencies.

A few days ago, a reader wrote and asked: “What about local government?”

That really started me thinking. So let’s have a look.

Similarities

Government agencies share a common service mandate, regardless of scale. That means local government exists to support its citizens, and that many aspects of the overall mission would logically be the same. Examples of this: revenue collection, protection services, health & welfare, even natural resources.

There’s also a similar political dynamic. Elected officials are voted into office to provide leadership and direction to full-time administrative branches. That can lead to a philosophical divide between the elected and the civil servants, an interesting cultural rift that is unique to governmental organizations, as I covered previously.

The net result is that local governments, like their larger state & federal counterparts, will encounter challenges of silo thinking and culture clashes, often resulting in small-scale bureaucracies.

Differences

It’s the differences that really bring home some interesting new factors. The most important of these is a sense of community. I wrote on virtual community a few months back, but the ‘brick and mortar’ community – including neighborhoods, businesses, recreation areas, and the like – makes up what is typically the strong, vibrant foundation or our day-to-day experience.

In a real way, our local communities serve as the backbone of our society.

These are critical factors for any town or region to remain healthy. Where these elements are absent, as is the case in regions with long-term economic decline, the systemic problems can be overwhelming. That means local communities and their governments are vitally important to create safe, healthy places for people to live and work.

Several things come with community that can benefit the cause of local government, with opportunities to drive a more open, participative culture

  • Citizen engagement – most want to live a good, healthy lifestyle, and want their neighborhoods safe, their schools effective, their tax dollars put to good use. This bodes well for engagement, because local citizens have an immediate stake in the affairs of local government
  • Proximity – by being nearby, it is far easier to participate in local government events and elections, including hearings, council meetings, and the like. Not so with state or federal.
  • Visible results – the effect of government can be seen locally, reinforcing value in real terms

I’ll argue that an “intellectual distance” has caused state and federal government to grow more removed from their constituents. It’s a chasm that hurts relevance to the average citizen. Small wonder the feds have long embraced a “town meeting” approach, in hopes of capturing the level of engagment that normally accrues locally.

The other major delta that impacts culture in local government derives from smaller scale, with 3 immediate impacts:

  • Less-hardened silos – the walls of over-specialization become stronger (quite literally, hardened) with time and scale. Yes, local governments will exhibit turf wars and silos among departments. But because they are typically smaller scale, it should, in theory at least, be easier to begin working across them.
  • Greater impact of individuals – with smaller jurisdictions in particular (towns, small cities) it is possible for strong leaders to drive signifcant changes; this is more difficult with large-scale entrenched bureaucracy.
  • Low critical mass (smaller talent pool). Being ‘smaller’ means there is generally less expertise available locally; smaller jurisdictions may need to lean more on outside help.

What does this mean? For starters: state and federal governments should ‘think small’.

But it also means this:

Local government should be aggressive on capitalizing on the advantages that community and smaller scale afford. They enjoy unique levels of access to their constituents. Moreover, they are closer to organizational models that favor collaboration .. provided they can abandon the silos that are inherited via the notion of government as ‘bureaucracy’.

A strong message from our culture research still applies here: there are no silver bullets. Achieving change of any scale is hard, and culture is as strong a factor in local government as with the larger jurisdictions. Government must be willing to interact directly with their citizens, not hide behind the silo’d walls of bureaucracy. Being both small and local can encourage engagement, a fundamental enabler of social change.

Is it time for the resurgence of the local community? Maybe it takes a village, after all.

Imagine: A Knowledge Renaissance

Close your eyes, and imagine:

a world where education and learning are priorities, with families planting and nurturing the first critical seeds of curiosity in their children;

a place where businesses of every size and shape focus their talent on innovations that improve the human condition, less obsessed with maximizing dividends and more focused on the triple bottom line of profit, people and planet;

a time when communities are quick to form around the shared values and talents of people around them, when insights are traded as a valuable currency, and information silos are relegated to history books.

It’s one tapestry, really. Can you see the common threads? It’s all about people. In fact, relationships not only matter, they’re at the core. Collaboration is the rule, not the exception. And our cultures embrace knowledge and knowledge sharing at every level.

On Thursday 10/15 in Raleigh, I shared my perspective on a coming Knowledge Renaissance. We discussed how people can tap social processes and technologies, first to find each other, then to collaborate. We also discussed the value of learning, the positive dynamics of human interaction in communities, and the roles we can play to revive learning science.

Let’s face it. Taking on century-old paradigms won’t be easy. We’re gathering up threads for a new tapestry.

I’m pulling together the key takeaways. Meantime, thanks to everyone who came out to participate in the discussion. Stay tuned.

Framework for Ecosystem Change (1): Current State

In my last post, I began to outline a new approach for innovation in complex ecosystems. Efforts to drive reform in Healthcare, Education, and Energy have routinely struggled, and progress has been elusive. My thought process was sparked, in part, by an analysis of complexity science written by Beth Noveck & David Johnson. But much of my energy was fueled by numerous examples where barriers to collaboration and silo-thinking have long served to stifle innovation in large-scale institutions and the ecosystems they serve.

The Challenge of Social Ecosystems

Though a great many provider professionals have, in practice, devoted entire careers to excellence, overall system outcomes can appear inconsistent and, in many cases, undesirable.

Why? As noted by Noveck and Johnson, system complexity itself introduces many dynamics that need to be investigated, among them, conflicting objectives of stakeholder “agents”. Another area for focus is money. While always a powerful motivator, in social ecosystems it serves as a double-edge sword. The same financial capital that’s driven breakthrough innovations can also motivate counter-productive results. To stakeholders in the pipeline, long-term outcomes are not always visible, actionable or prioritized effectively.

A Path Forward

To achieve an efficient system-level problem-solving process, I’ve developed a simple framework for Ecosystem Evolution.

First, let’s introduce Part 1 of this framework for the Current State, to ground our discussion and better define some key concepts like “ecosystems”, their “agents”, and their operating “paradigms”. The status quo is characterized by the following forces:

  • Closed-loop, mature transactions and processes
  • Heavy control exercised by producer and government stakeholders (“agents”)
  • Much investment (financial, emotional) associated with the status quo
  • Insufficient rigor in the definition of problems and possible solutions
  • Insufficient data to effectively prove viability of alternatives
  • Largely untapped sources of insight on complex (adaptive) system behavior

Ecosystem Framework Pt1 (Current State)

How would we move forward with this model?

For each ecosystem targeted, we’d document the current state paradigms (literally, “how things work”, represented above by the black box), creating light-weight process models that demonstrate a solid understanding of core challenges. We’d also break down the paradigms themselves into easily understandable components.

Rigor in developing models is critical. Stating problems fully and accurately is on the critical path to any meaningful change.

Then would come the work of articulating alternative paradigms using the above as a baseline, using a collaborative approach that leverages social media. Resulting ecosystem designs could give us (perhaps, for the first time) a detailed understanding of our fundamental, root cause problems, summarizing the changes that may be necessary to address them.

Next Steps

I’ll introduce Part 2, a collaborative solution framework for Ecosystem Evolution in my next post, building on the Current State model above. It will incorporate new, collaborative open-loop processes and the social media aspect. Comments and inputs are not only welcome, they are critical. We can only be successful if we tackle these problems with a mutual understanding and a resolve to work the issues to completion.

Our first test: looking at the model above, can we start to see the challenges more clearly?

Downside of Scale in the 21st-Century (re: Agility)

Recently came across a good post by Oliver Marks (@OliverMarks) covering a brief CNBC interview w/ Deloitte’s John Hagel.  The topic was the cummulative economic impact of large scale operations, and the ever-declining Return on Assets (ROA) across industry over the last 40 years.  The conclusion derives from basic business economics.  As assets get ever larger, returns from those assets, ROA, will trend to zero. Incremental productivity gains lose their impact.

The implications of this are important.

As you watch the Hagel video, you’ll hear him say “no back to normal”.  Complacency, especially  in corporate America, seems to have clouded our long-term economic view.  As Hagel alludes, executives seem to be waiting for the next economic cycle to bring us back to the good old days.  But when we continually build ever larger companies with ever more complex infrastructures and systems, we lose our ability to get meaningful value for that investment. 

The operational implication is even more problematic.  Due to scale, it becomes increasingly difficult to make strategic or even tactical adjustments.  Progress becomes gridlocked.  We lose our ability to compete. 

Look around your own company.  Are you seeing this happen? 

The flattened knowledge economy drastically cuts transaction costs, bringing global and niche competition head to head with the traditional market giants.  Where scale once provided muscle to fend off competition, that muscle has effectively turned to fat.  The extra weight prevents the agility needed to adapt to new demands, upstart competition, and wholly transformed markets. 

How can we hope to make money, when the answer to every problem is to buy and/or build more infrastructure?  Large scale operations require maintenance and up-keep, care and feeding.  It’s a problem that doesn’t go away.  A viscious circle.

It’s no longer enough (if it ever really was) to try to ‘think entrepreneurial”.  Small and nimble companies are developing a clear advantage in the new global marketplace. They lack the bureaucracy that blocks collaboration, that shields executives from shifting market paradigms, that strands innovators in organizational silos.

If your company is large and getting larger, it won’t be a question of competition.   The more important question:  will you be lean and agile enough to survive?