A sufficiency of trends

By Robert Hickson 21/11/2013

Two recent reports highlight a range of trends affecting governments, but they take different approaches. The report from IBM – Six Trends Driving Change in Government – has a focus on the US but the trends are generally applicable.

Their six (some more accurately considered drivers rather than trends) relate to:

  • Performance – using data to inform “real-time” decision making on strategic goals
  • Risk – fiscal constraints and complex operating conditions create the need to adopt different cultures and frameworks to be better able to assess and managing emerging public sector risks
  • Innovation – rapid change in technologies and operating models, processes and services means that the public sector needs a better “culture of innovation” – experimentation, alignment of innovations with agency missions, connection with non-government innovators, and monitoring of outcomes
  • Mission – centralisation of organisation-support functions (HR, IT, finance) can lead to detachment from key agency goals. There are opportunities to better link these support functions to organisational goals or missions.
  • Efficiency – financial constraints are prompting a rethink of traditional processes. Technologies can help improve efficiencies and service deliveries, but there is a need to be transparent about costs, savings and outcomes.
  • Leadership – public sector leaders are adopting different ways of working with each other collaboratively.

The other report – from the Mowat Centre and KPMG – comes up with nine “Global Megatrends Shaping Governments” . They take a bigger picture view, examining:

  • Demographics – longer lives and fewer kids in the west are placing pressure on health and social welfare
  • Growing individualism – increasing demand for transparency and broader participation in public decision-making
  • Technology – ICT creating new types and styles of work and opportunities, while also challenging organisational performance and oversight
  • Increasing economic interconnectedness – leading to more trade, capital and labour flows, and creating the need for better policy and regulatory connections between states.
  • Rising public debt – will constrain what governments are able to do in the face of social, economic and environmental challenges
  • Shifting geopolitical power – will affect existing international institutions and agreements, and may challenge existing comparative economic advantages of some countries.
  • Climate change – will influence economic, political, and social activities and aspirations. Adapting and mitigating effects will require both national and international cooperation, and longer-term planning.
  • Increased resource stresses – rising energy, mineral, food, and water demands will challenge governments abilities to maintain prosperity and develop sustainably
  • Spreading urbanization – can also place stresses on infrastructure, services, resources and the environment

These, of course, aren’t discrete but can interact with and influence others, and the megatrends in the Mowat report are often the factors influencing IBM’s six trends/drivers.

The common factors between these two reports (and other recent trend reports – like Ernst & Young’s Six Global Trends Shaping the Business World, and Rick Boven’s transcribed speech posted on Sciblogs) are significant demographic, energy, economic and geopolitical changes, rapid developments in information and communication technologies, and the global financial crisis.

All recognise that new governance and business models are necessary to adapt to these changes. They provide steps to be taken, or questions to be asked that are designed to encourage the changes. Though I expect they are probably sceptical of the abilities for many governments (and some sectors) to change quickly and consistently enough. History shows us that there’s no ideal, clear sighted and committed government that has done this. Democracies, in particular, wander back and forth between successes and failures.

But you’ve gotta try. And the Mowat Centre report is good at identifying some of the policy, regulatory, program, strategy, structural and skill changes that they think are necessary.

What’s starting to worry me, though, is the growing number of these reports that are appearing – each with an overlapping, but slightly different, set of trends and drivers, and pitched to slightly different sectors. While they usually point out the increasing uncertainties in our future as we move from decades of relative stability and certainty, there’s the risk that setting out a nice set of six or so trends and helpful key questions will give a false sense of managerial comfort to the overworked executives.

The trends are a starting point for more detailed thought and engagement. What’s needed are fewer reports and more action (hah, you say, that’s ironic coming from a blogger, and former/future consultant – you have a point).

Before a gaggle of other government departments and industry sectors get enthused (or not) about creating their own trends reports, scenarios, roadmaps, strategic action plans, etc. lets stop. There’s certainly been a lot of duplication, and unnecessary expenditure, producing similar data sets and reports.

New Zealand is small enough and well connected enough that a common set of trends and scenarios (or other tools for imagining potential futures) should be generally applicable for many planning purposes, as well as having the benefit of illustrating that we’re all in this together. The major trends and drivers that I think most have some agreement over (demographics, energy, technologies, social changes, etc) will be important (perhaps in different ways) to the public and private sectors. Neither sector is isolated from the other and will need to collaborate to meet some of the challenges and create some of the desired futures.

So lets get a few well informed and influential people together from a representative range of sectors and groups to craft a common set of futures scenarios and critical questions for the whole country to think about, discuss, argue and act upon with more of a collective purpose. Or maybe a couple of sets, competition can be good. Save money and have the broader discussions that we need to have, rather than concentrating on own own narrower bespoke set of trends and possible futures. This appraoch can help address those needs to address performance, risk, mission, efficiency and leadership that the IBM report notes.

We seem to have the ability to quickly become proficient discussing sailing (or soccer, netball, etc) terms and strategies when we think it matters. Lets put some of that passion and energy into cheering on our future.


[Thanks to John P for putting some of these thoughts into my head]