toward distributed governance

Last year I wrote a post — cities & the future of work — as an introduction to my session with the Prime Minister’s Office of Finland. I have been invited back to Helsinki this year to further discuss some issues around reforming the government’s operating practices particularly moving toward a more collaborative culture.

In the emerging network era, leadership is helping communities and networks become more resilient. Government agencies can focus on creating more human organizational structures that enable self-governance. Leadership becomes an emergent property of a network in balance. Depending on any one person to be the leader only dumbs-down the entire network. Viewing all of our work and learning from a network perspective may in the long-run create a better society. One role of government in the network era is to enable knowledge-sharing and curate the knowledge of all citizens. It can start by doing this internally. Countries, regions, and cities should be designed to enable more and better connections between citizens. Learning and innovation are more about making connections than having unique ideas. Increasing connections makes for a more innovative country.

In Finland the government is looking at a cross-sectoral and phenomenon-based approach, which ensures that a phenomenon like youth social exclusion is understood and addressed by government departments together, before individual budgets and projects are initiated. I liken this to agile sensemaking, where these ‘situation rooms’ (work teams) are based on temporary, negotiated hierarchies, that can be re-organized to address different phenomena as they appear.

The core asset in working this new networked way is — trust. This is an issue for most democratic countries, as reflected in a project in which I was involved: Identifying & Responding to Issues in Canada.

“Between March and June 2015, the Research and Statistics Division (RSD) at the Department of Justice Canada undertook a modified Delphi process involving 33 experts and thought leaders from across Canada. The goal of this project was to identify issues, perhaps unforeseen to us, that may arise in the next 10-15 years that could have implications for the justice system in Canada.”

One issue we identified was that trust in democracy is decreasing.

“Respondents also note a growing democratic deficit which has contributed to recent cynicism and societal distrust. This further challenges fundamental social-trust contracts. For instance, with the 2008 financial crisis, people lost trust, the psychology of the masses changed, traditional authority figures and institutions were challenged and there was a demise of authority. This is linked to a lack of support and credibility for existing models for resolution and decision-making. This is seen as contestation/dissatisfaction with local, national and international notions of community, the lack of public support for conflict resolution mechanism that do not allow for public input or develop avenues for community engagement and bridging mechanisms for social divisions.”

How can trust be built? Through personal interactions, one relationship at a time. It means government workers getting out of their departmental and institutional silos and engaging with the broader community with a real intention of understanding, not broadcasting. One excellent example of this is the Finnish military. About ten years ago the Chief of Defence Command Finland encouraged his senior officers to engage with social media in order to learn and understand what is happening beyond their profession. Markku Koli, now retired from service, is still active on social media, as is the current Chief of Intelligence, Harri Ohra-aho. This proactive use of social media in order to understand it is required for all civil servants, as we all live in a social media surround.

As the network form becomes the global norm, our existing institutions and markets will be increasingly inadequate to deal with the complexity. But individuals and organizations can develop new skills and share their understanding to help change the organization or build new ones. It is difficult to build a networked organization if you have never been active in a real knowledge network. It is possible to learn these skills while still working in a non-networked organization but sooner or later the transformation will have to be made. Who better than people who understand both the inside and the outside?

A network society needs networked models for organizing and for learning. Governments and their departments need to transition to the network form. Each network form will be different, so there are few best practices to follow. New practices have to emerge from those testing the new methods. The old centralized way of organizing is obsolete. As Steven B. Johnson observed, “The modern regime of big corporations and big governments has existed for the past few centuries in an artificial state that neglected alternative channels through which information could flow and decisions could be made.” Governments and organizations have to become not decentralized, but truly distributed, so that ‘information can flow and decisions can be made’.

Image: Paul Baran (1964) RAND (PDF)



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