How to disrupt inertia in government

By Andrew Greenway

Tips for digital ministers to sustain reforms and harness bureaucratic inertia.

It’s a problem for government reformers everywhere. Finally making progress after years of pushing their bureaucracy in the right direction, an election is called. How can they make sure all that hard work isn’t lost?

2018 will be a big electoral year for several territories that have made significant progress towards digital reform. Ontario goes to the polls in June, Mexico the following month; Brazil, Sweden and the US midterms follow shortly afterwards.

New administrations present an opportunity and a threat for officials trying to make their institutions internet-ready. A new government can bring fresh energy, arriving ready to smash down what were once seen as insurmountable barriers. It can also bring discord, distraction, or disinterest with the difficult business of making public services simpler, cheaper and faster.

Surviving succession requires luck. Even so, the better you plan, the luckier you’ll be. The trick to staying power in big organisations is spending enough time on making its most powerful force work in your favour. That force is inertia.
Inertia, put simply, is the tendency for things to travel along the same speed and direction, unchanged. Bigger things have more inertia. Government has inertia squared.

When digital reformers get started in government, their whole job is about disrupting inertia. They are there to make waves, change direction, crank up the speed. The important thing for those disruptors to realise is the game isn’t really about fighting inertia — like the weather, inertia never really goes away. Harnessing it is the trick to get right.

Look at it this way. If you imagine running a bureaucracy as a game — something that many senior officials do, consciously or otherwise — the reformer is trying to change the game. They could suggest packing the game away entirely; but are unlikely to have any hope of persuading people who have spent their careers playing it to great effect that this is a good idea.

The obvious alternative is to try winning over the people who have the best personal chance of forcing a new game to be played; ministers and other politicians. This is a sensible strategy — for as long as those people are in office. But at election time, relying too heavily on political patronage is a dangerous strategy for reformers. Lose the sponsor, and they lose their momentum. Rebuilding that momentum takes time and energy.

Political support is impermanent, changing the game head-on is exhausting and nearly impossible. Fortunately, there are three other ways to harness inertia. Change the players, change the rules and change the scoring system.

All this assumes that there is something worth saving. Teams operating under the right conditions tend to survive changes in government, whether they’re doing good work or not. The most successful reformers know when to save their game and when to start again.

But in this case, let’s say a new team is obviously delivering better outcomes for citizens, working in a way that is different to the norm. How do they ensure it can persist?

First of all, change the players. Bring new, digital era skills into the most powerful institutions of government. Put web designers in your finance ministry. Hire user researchers into the President’s office. Make data scientists private secretaries. Create multidisciplinary teams in every department.
"Hire user researchers into the President’s office. Make data scientists private secretaries."
Second, change the rules. Make it simple to hire all that new talent. Impose spending controls on technology, marketing or other areas where the investments don’t match the results. Reform procurement, and unfreeze markets frozen around a handful of comfortable vendors. Set standards that raise the benchmark for what good public services look like. Stop processes that make easier to get approval for spending $10 million than for $10,000. Work openly with the auditors and unions to help them effectively hold you to account.

Third, change the scoring system. What’s measured matters. If the government doesn’t have metrics it cares about, introduce some. Publish how well the government is doing against them. Avoid hard targets that lead to perverse behaviours.

However, be careful to measure outcomes that citizens care about, not outputs that officials care about. Numbers are not enough. As a recent book by Jerry Muller argues, “measurement is not an alternative to judgement: measurement demands judgement.” Teaching that lesson to generalist managers takes time.

None of this is easy. But wherever they work, the most successful teams involved in institutional reform around the world always have two halves. There are people who ‘do’, delivering innovative improvements to public services on the front line.

And there are people who create the institutional conditions for that delivery to be embedded for the long haul. These are the bureaucratic hackers, the people who can harness inertia in the interest of making progress. To sustain change across election cycles, you need both groups working together.

If you can change the players, the rules and the scoring system, the game will have the same name, but it will quickly become unrecognisable — and for the better. That’s something any new government will want to hang on to.