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Why is Government Struggling?

The Public Sector had a PR problem. In common parlance, 'bureaucracy' itself is the problem yet many of the social, economic and environmental issues we face are fundamentally public in nature and will only be solved with the help of public institutions? How do we square this circle?

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It is a truism that everything government deals with is getting rapidly more complex: from climate change to pointed social issues like same-sex marriage or even the delivery of traditional government programs and services. The impact is a generation of public servants at risk of getting confused and burnt-out.

This model maps this dynamic: as issues become more complex and 'wicked' their solutions must too, but our public institutions sometimes seem stuck in hide-bound patterns. The harder we try to break-free, the tighter the bonds become. Evidence from the private sector confirms the trend: in the top US and European firms over the past 15 years, the sheer quantity of procedures and approvals required to forward actions increased between 50 and 350%. That’s an annualised increase of 6.7% per year in private sector organisations where goals and priorities are not as complex or conflicted as they can be in public administration[1].



We are seeing a breakdown in the effectiveness of our public institutions at the very moment we need them to be at their most effective!

Despite the moralistic tone of debate, this dynamic is no-one's fault; it is inherent in the growth of complex systems and an indicator the next level of effectiveness may be just-around-the corner.

Systems theory tells us that, as the complexity in systems increases a bifurcation point is reached: the response/feedback mechanisms either grow to match the change, or; they break-down to their smallest viable unit. From a personal perspective it’s like trying to get all my devices syncing properly, I tend to ignore all but the one I use the most.

At a global level, Climate Change epitomises the challenge. We’re attempting to address a supra-national issue with a nation-based governance system (at best, the United Nations, where one state equals one vote). It’s not working.

Either we transform the governance arrangement (beyond the nation-state framework to something supra-national) OR, responses will inevitably break-down to the sub-national unit best positioned to deal with one symptom at-a-time (eg. a flood or a fire).

We are at a critical point in the evolution of our public institutions: we either follow the blue arrow UP the chart of effectiveness, or we watch our public institutions break-down into ever more deeply entrenched silos as they struggle to grapple with ever smaller parts of the whole.

There is no middle ground.