The government of the future is organisationally ambidextrous

26 April 2019 4 min. read

Growing demands from businesses and citizens are putting pressure on the public services provided by government. According to Ageeth Telleman, a partner at management consultancy Twynstra Gudde, governments could improve the way they deliver their services by adopting a less hierarchical and more network-based way of working. Developing the necessary people skills is a prerequisite.

Can traditional institutions like government adapt fast enough to disruptive change?

The way our society connects and interacts is changing fast. Our government needs to adapt. It is not a choice. Dave Gray said it well in his TEDtalk on ‘Connected Government’: “It takes a network to serve a network”. Governmental organisations need to learn how to connect and co-create in a network society: how to build communities, how to participate in them, how to nudge them. More and more civil servants need to develop skills to be excellent ‘boundary spanners’.

How can hierarchical and bureaucratic governments transform into flexible networks?

We believe that ‘fighting the system’ is the wrong perspective. At some point, the (hierarchical) system works and has its function. The government still needs to be in control of and accountable for how well our public money is spent and for the availability and quality of our public services. Hierarchy in governmental organisations is a reflection of the representative democratic system.

Do we really want disruptive change to overthrow our democratic institutions? We believe that public-private networks and democratic institutions should be successfully aligned. It is not if/if, but and/and. At Twynstra Gudde, we help governmental organisations to develop organisational ‘ambidexterity’: to be innovative, flexible, fast and adaptive and at the same time in control, accountable, transparent and reliable.The government of the future is organisationally ambidextrous

Can governmental organisations innovate from within?

We see civil servants – especially the young professionals – who develop excellent networking skills, looking at policy issues from an outside-in perspective, leading the change to new ways of working like citizen journeys, data-driven policy-making and (digital) co-creation. They are pioneers and call themselves ‘2.0’. These ‘first movers’ should be challenged to align more colleagues, to increase the group of early followers, and to reach an early majority.

To really move the organisation towards a tipping point, the ones that ‘get it’ should not implicitly ‘disqualify’ their colleagues as ‘the others that do not get it’. Instead of creating ‘green fields’ with the ‘usual innovators’ working together, we believe people working in – for instance – operations should also participate from the start in innovation processes. This makes a learning pilot more challenging, but increases the chances of successfully upscaling later on.

What skills do civil servants who want to be change agents need to develop?

The most important skill to develop, we believe, is ‘working with paradoxes’. Civil servants who work at boundaries between ‘the real world outside’ and ‘the system inside’, between development and operations, between networks and institutions, have to learn to deal with paradoxes that come with their job: between trust and control, innovation and efficiency, flexible and reliable, customising and standardising, local and central. Both ends of the paradox represent an import value that our government stands for. Instead of debating what is right, civil servants should learn how to balance different values.

In our own training programmes for civil servants, we use the metaphor of the ‘two-footed soccer player’. We let participants test what is their ‘stronger side’ and challenge participants to train their ‘weaker’ side more often. This means for example that civil servants who are excellent in developing communities and working in green fields are asked to think through how successful pilots can develop into successful scale-ups and routines. Moreover, operational managers and legal experts are challenged to think through how existing systems and rules need to be adjusted if a pilot becomes successful.

The interview with Netherlands-based Ageeth Telleman is part of a series of interviews with leaders from Cordence Worldwide (Twynstra Gudde is a member firm) on the digital future of government services.

Related: Governments can reap major benefits from the data economy.