When government is working it makes things simple. Good government takes as little money and time from people as possible while maximizing the quality of the services it delivers.
Government and politicians are facing a crisis of trust and legitimacy. Only 19 percent of US citizens believe their government is fair and tries to do the right things. In 1960, that figure was close to 70 percent.
Who do Polish people trust least? Politicians. Who do Irish people trust least? Politicians. I gave a talk in Vienna recently and when I mentioned politicians and trust in the same sentence, the audience just burst into laughter.
There is nothing that erodes trust and damages belief in fairness more than complexity and lack of transparency. Fifty years ago, if an average citizen was faced with complexity — things they didn’t understand or were unable to use — they said: “I must be stupid. I trust you — the expert — to help me and to do the right thing.” Today, they are more likely to say: “You must be stupid if you expect me to fall for this jargon, spin and propaganda. I don’t trust you.”
“Part of the challenge in government in a modern democracy is the unpacking of complexities so that a singular clarity of purpose and measurable outcome can be achieved,” Hugh Segal wrote for Canada’s Globe and Mail in 2015. “Too much of government is about measuring inputs, confirming processes, ensuring broad involvement from different parties rather than measuring actual outcomes. It is, of course, the outcomes that matter, in policing, in health care, in poverty abatement, in education. Yet it is the inputs (how much are we prepared to spend, how many person years are involved in the program, who are the groups to be consulted in program design?) that dominate the public debate or legislative discussion.”
Organizations are increasingly not fit for purpose. The old model is broken and cannot do anything but damage in this complex, ever-changing world. We need a new model that is outcome-focused, not input-focused. We need to reward positive outcomes, but instead we reward inputs like production of content and purchase of systems. We are obsessed by programs, projects and campaigns, as if they were the end in themselves. We manage what we can easily measure rather than measure what is hard — but vital — to manage: the outcomes.
We must give up the illusion of controlling and predicting the future. We might as well be reading tea leaves. We must constantly adapt our input based on the outcomes that are occurring. We succeed today through a process of rapid evolution, and evolution does not exist within a vacuum — it exists within a network that is constantly giving feedback. Try it. If it works, do more of it. If not, adjust and try again.
“Life is so complex, and events and circumstances change so fast, that setting a target is mostly guesswork,” Frederic Laloux writes in his excellent book, "Reinventing Organizations." “A year after it has been set, a target is in most cases just an arbitrary number — either so easy to reach as to be meaningless or so challenging that people must take shortcuts to meet the number, actions that will hurt the company in the long run.”
The old organizational model is broken. Are we still going to keep using it out of blind and stubborn habit? If so, expect the crisis of legitimacy and trust to deepen.