Government runs on rules. Policies, processes and procedures designed to address every contingency and plan for every possible risk in order to provide equity, stability and certainty.
However, as experience has shown time and time again, we cannot predict the future.
While we continually attempt to plan ahead, largely these plans are based on extrapolating past trends and experiences.
This has served us well in times of relatively stable and slow-changing societies and provides enormous capability to mobilise and focus resources towards a few large and separate goals.
However it doesn’t work as effectively during rapidly changing conditions where there are a myriad of interlocking issues. The approach can also neglect large and important changes, which are often discontinuous and almost totally unpredictable.
History is littered with enormous societal, economic and cultural shifts brought on by unpredictable innovations; gunpowder, the printing press, steam-power, radio, television and, most recently, the internet.
Each of these – and other – innovations profoundly changed how societies operated, destroying industries and creating a stream of new inventions, professions and both political and cultural challenges in their wake.
In hindsight we can often see very clearly how these changes unfolded and they can appear historically as an evolutionary process. However when living just before or during these enormous shifts it is virtually impossible for most individuals or organisations to predict outcomes ten, five, two or even a single year ahead.
I believe we are living in this type of time right now. The invention of the internet, progress in nano and bio technologies and in alternative – hopefully sustainable – sources of energy is in the process of increasingly rapidly reshaping our world. At the same time we are facing the consequences of previous disruptive innovations – most notably climate change, fuelled by enormous levels of fossil fuel use over two hundred years and population growth, fuelled by improvements in food technology and medicine.
This becomes a time of enormous challenge for governments. How do we extrapolate trends, develop policies, acknowledge and address risks which didn’t exist a few years ago?
How do we continue to serve the public appropriately when the time required to plan, develop and implement national infrastructure is greater than the effective lifespan of that infrastructure?
How do we let go of faltering systems to embrace new ways of developing and implementing policy without losing continuity of governance?
And how long can we continue to govern incrementally when living in an exponential world?
We’re in a place where there are many more questions than answers. Issues are ever more complex and multi-faceted and can no longer be in silos. Our organisations need to be more flexible and adaptive in response to an increasingly assertive community who often have better tools and information than the government departments servicing them.
Fortunately the disruptive technologies we are developing also allow us to approach many of these challenges collectively on a national and international scale.
We have the means to mobilise the brainpower of a nation – or many nations – using the internet and simple crowdsourcing tools.
We’ve already seen communities emerge online where companies ask their insolvable questions publicly, allowing scientists, academics and the general public to discuss and provide suggestions.
We’ve also seen governments willing to ask questions of their constituents, rather than rely on traditional stakeholders, academics and bureaucrats to have all the answers.
I hope over the coming years we see Australian governments embrace serendipity rather than attempt unsuccessfully to chain it. I hope we see bureaucrats and citizens working collaboratively to address major issues, working in adaptive and flexible configurations rather than rigid silos, stepping beyond ‘consultation’ towards participatory policy development and evolution.
This will require courage on the part of elected officials and senior public servants alike. It will require different types of leadership and thinking, better communications and a broader focus on connecting people over managing fixed resources.
Can we achieve this step from where we are today?
I’m optimistic that we can, but it will take significant work and pain to achieve.