Generally in our work we focus on delivering results ‘in spite’ of the organisational hierarchy; building compelling design cases for focusing on service and delivering quality services. We aren’t naive about the importance and role of hierarchy, it’s just that with a sound evidence base, multi-disciplinary team and meaningful insights we are generally lucky enough to have decision-makers at the highest level tell us that we should “do whatever we need to do with structure to get the service delivered”.

But what about when the key outcomes of the design work affect the lead decision-makers themselves and not their teams?

Just over two years ago we published a series of posts about the evolved notions of service and organisation within the new digital reality. One of our reflections in that series was about the evolution of CIOs from Information to Investment Officers. Those posts were in response to recognising that digital had more of an influence than just with the client experience – if organisations were serious about service it had a direct influence on their ‘E’ roles and structures.

We’ve been thinking about the issue again as over the past year we’ve had a range of work that culminated in a challenging of the very lead decision-making structure of a number of our clients – primarily within the Public Sector, so we thought we’d take a moment to reflect on what the uneasy tension is and how it can be addressed.


Tension 1: It can be is difficult for lead decision-makers to see service delivery models without seeing structure

Public Sector Executives work hard to get to a level. They strive to be ‘Band 1s’ or ‘Band 2s’ so it’s only natural that level becomes a determinant of influence and position. In a traditional organisational hierarchy (leaving aside personal influence and relationships) the ‘level’ is seen as the determinant of position and equity.

But that doesn’t necessarily work in a service focused organisation. If you have five Band 1 positions delivering a public service, they represent a range of capabilities and outputs. There is no way their work is ‘flat’ or ‘even’. Some are accountable for front-facing services, some for enabling services, some for expert capability. But often when you visualise how services are actually delivered and how this should be influencing decision-making, scope and work programs, they only see structure. “I’m not delivering to my peer – they are at my level.”

Part of this phenomenon is a result of the gradual movement of rewarding administrative skill over technical expertise or specialisation that we have seen over the last 20 years. As the seeming rejection of expertise continues, lead decision-makers with the same administration skills expect hierarchy only exists above or below them – not at their level where ‘everything is even’.

We try and counter this by continuing to re-draw organisational structures as living service delivery organisations. Pointing out that there must be a co-relationship between deliverables at the level of the lead decision-makers that focuses on the service and the service recipient – not the structure they happen to have been appointed within.


Tension 2: Lead decision-makers can tend to focus on ownership rather than outcomes when they see a work program

Work programs are (sadly) rarely an investment and value-based view of the total outputs of a particular public sector organisation. Though valiant efforts are made to apply value-based measures and prioritisation processes, the work program as we know it is largely what we call ‘a candidate list’.

This concept of candidate list is driven by whether or not the ‘work owner’ has funding, resources, people and a deadline. Multi-million dollar departmental budgets are run based on this notion of approving ‘candidates’, not integrated outcomes. What this means is that a tension arises around ownership of work rather than outcomes for lead decision-makers.

In fact, the ‘outcome’ often becomes the delivery of the work, not the value it is creating for people. Lead decision-makers have often gotten to their current position because ‘they deliver’ and that can breed a singular view of delivering what they are accountable for, whether it fits with the rest of the organisation or users or not.

We try and counter this tension by constantly drawing the lead decsion-makers we work with back to their strategic, operating and service intent. By articulating and sharing an intent that goes beyond the strict deliverable of the work item, we create a platform for being measured by outcomes not just outputs. Nuances can be interpreted by the decision-maker that accords with their business or policy drivers, but they also get a language to situate their position in the context of other decision-makers in the organsiation.


Tension 3: The industry of the public sector allows some lead decision-makers to forget that the main reason they have a job is, in the end, to deliver services

Three words keep coming up in the work that we do. Governance, Risk and Strategy. Increasingly, these words are used to create an ‘industry’ in their own right rather than to make services better. The Public Service is just that; a sector created and running in order to deliver services to the community. Whether those services are wanted, desirable, positive or not doesn’t matter. They are still services – at base, an exchange of something for something between multiple parties

So when service design and delivery is encumbered by business management processes – risk management, governance processes and multiple levels of strategy – becoming larger than the service themselves (problems arise.

We try and counter this by demystifying business management processes so lead decision-makers can be focused on the delivery of services. We work with clients to ensure risk management is inherent in all aspects of the service rather than a separate process in its own right. We work with them to pull apart what they call governance and see if (as it is in many cases) the forums, groups and acronyms in the process are just there because decision-makers (lead and otherwise) aren’t enabled to make accountable decisions. And we work to define what people mean by ‘strategy’ and at what level they are using the term. It doesn’t hurt to just call something an operating procedure or run plan rather than everything being a strategy.


We know the public sector operating environment in many ways is getting more complex – even the recent rise of potential pandemics means years of hypothetical planning must now turn into the delivery of actual services and human responses. But releasing the tension of complexity and freeing up lead decision-makers to look beyond hierarchy and focus on service can help everyone with accountability to live that accountability.


For more of our thoughts in this space, see also: Forget Wicked Problems – Wicked Decision Making is what matters most.