Posted: 30 Nov. 2020 4 min.

Did we forget about cross-border learning in the public sector?

Topic: Public

There is a well-known, yet wonderful social experiment in which people are asked to bet an amount of money on whether a coin flip will end in either heads or tails. What’s so fascinating about this is that people on average will bet more if they toss the coin themselves, even if it’s obvious that it is totally and utterly unrelated to the outcome.

This is just one of many experiments that point to the fact that we, as humans, are both persistently and irrationally over-confident in our own ability to make decisions. We view the world according to our attitudes, our past experience, our personality, our motivations, expectations and biases. Most importantly, we often assume that we are the ones who know best, even though it is definitely not always the case.

How is this relevant in our joint effort to build better public sectors for the future? Well, the answer is simple: Just as individuals are biased in their individual views of the world, so can entire systems be biased. This is why knowledge-sharing and cross-functional collaboration is pivotal in any organisation, public or private. Without input from the outside and without new ideas that challenge our worn-out assumptions, we simply get stuck in unfavourable practices and misguided decisions. 

Add to this, that the structure of our public sectors might actually work against cross-border knowledge-sharing as officials typically focus on national policy-making as well as the political priorities within a certain area.

I don’t think I’m offending anyone if I say that far too often, this structure points towards internal optimisation within a single policy area rather than external learning and critical review.

Here is why we are wrong
If we were to dial back the clock, we would quickly discover that behavioural scientists for decades have warned us that even the most clever people among us will eventually make mistakes simply because our logic only exists within the limits of our own view of reality. In other words, every person and every system will eventually get it wrong even if we try hard to appear reasonable and rational.

Here are just a selection of the most well-documented risks of decision-making:

  • Firstly, on an organisational level, even when we try to make seemingly rational and fact-based decisions (which is hopefully what all public organisations aim to do), there is always a risk of stereotyping (wrongfully copying characteristics from one situation to the next), limited sampling (having insufficient data) and the so-called attribution errors in which we wrongfully attribute successes and failures to the wrong circumstances and wrong people. I’m sure you have all seen this in your work life one way or another. It happens every day.
  • Secondly, on a personal level, most people seem to have a self-serving bias, which is the habit of taking credit for positive outcomes, but blaming outside factors for negative events. We do this to maintain a positive image about ourselves – and to avoid facing our personal failures. Even in politics at the highest levels, such simple banalities often come into play.

Why collaboration is important
What all of these shortcomings boil down to is that cross-sector and cross-country learning in the public sector is often impeded by human vanity and organisational habits.

I am not the only one to notice this challenge. In a brilliant article on apolitical.co, the writers point out that “some biases are innate, others determined by our disciplinary training, yet others by the cultures of the organisations we inhabit”, essentially preventing public institutions from harnessing “different mindsets, attitudes, knowledge and wisdom”1. With more and more complexity added to public administration every day, this is a challenge that we need to solve.

Here are at least three obvious advantages of cross-sector and cross-border collaboration:

  • Tackle ‘wicked problems’ — As the world gets more complex, so do the issues facing governments, including those issues that are bigger than the jurisdictional authority of any particular government entity. These include social issues, climate change and pandemic disease management as we have seen with COVID-19. Traditional approaches involving government agencies implementing siloed programs to tackle big problems are beginning to show their limitations. Instead of going alone, countries can build structures of people and organisations around accomplishing specific objectives. Here, cross-border learning offers government the possibility to expand the scope of government influence without increasing the formal authority of government, which is critical as the problems being addressed grow more interdependent.
  • Do more with less — As budget shortfalls threaten the public sectors’ ability to deliver public services that satisfy citizens’ needs, cross-border collaboration can leverage limited resources and tap into a large, motivated network to create public value at a lower cost.
  • Turbocharge innovation — Cross-border collaboration shifts the source of strategic advantage from in-house expertise to an organisation’s ability to connect, find and mobilise external resources. In a rapidly changing world, knowledge itself quickly loses value, but the ability to quickly create relationships with the right people can make an organisation more innovative and nimble than ever before.

And most importantly, as the world evolves at a rapid pace, we should create the structures that add more perspectives and enrich the processes of policy-making. A few years ago, the Danish government initiated the so-called ‘neighbour checks’2 through which government agencies were advised to cross-check the Danish regulation against similar countries in order to identify misalignments as well as opportunities for improvement. This initiative was a starting point, but far from enough. It should be duplicated, expanded and institutionalised at every level to make an impact that matters.

Even in the most developed public sectors in the world, it is dangerous to assume that other countries haven’t found better solutions. In the post-corona world, hopefully we will spend more time harnessing the true value of different mindsets, attitudes and experiences. There is a immense potential in cross-border learning in our public sectors.

 

1. Aaron Maniam: Why government needs partners: three reasons, three examples accessed via https://apolitical.co/en/solution_article/government-needs-partners-three-reasons-three-examples

2. https://erhvervsstyrelsen.dk/nabotjek-som-metode

 

More about the author

Carsten Jørgensen

Carsten Jørgensen

Equity Partner

Spørg mig om: Den offentlige sektor, regulering og deregulering, reformer i den offentlige sektor, strategi Carsten er dansk og nordisk leder af Deloittes aktiviteter i den offentlige sektor. Han har 20 års erfaring som konsulent og rådgiver i den offentlige sektor, hvor han har ledet en række komplekse analyser samt større transformationsprogrammer.