Experiences of DesignGov as a government start-up – the perils of responsibility inflation

[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Who makes the decision when things fall outside the norm? If our experience at DesignGov is anything to go by, it is usually someone in a more senior position than you might have expected.

For instance, we at DesignGov are working a lot in the spaces between Departments and Agencies (that’s why we’ve been set up after all). We often have unusual (in the sense of uncommon) requests, sometimes procedural/process-related, sometimes to do with new ideas/proposals.

More often than not, the proposal or issue has to be escalated higher up the decision tree – there is ‘responsibility inflation’.

I think this is a key part of understanding the innovation process in the public sector – and a key part of some of the frustration that can occur. What might seem straightforward and apparent to the person proposing the new idea, might be unusual and unclear to the person who has to act on it. And a natural response when confronted with uncertainty is to check with your respective reporting line as to what should be done.

There is no uniform cause or rule, but I would suggest that the following might be some of the reasons that this responsibility inflation can occur :

  • When existing rules or guidance doesn’t cover something, it is normal in a hierarchical culture (which the APS like most bureaucratic systems is) to encourage people to check things when there is uncertainty
  • If something is outside the norm, it may not seem relevant or appropriate to those who are expected to act on it. It can prompt thinking of ‘what has this to do with my work/area?’, which is an entirely rational response when someone already has a full work agenda
  • If something is outside the norm, acting on it might lead to criticism – people in an agency  may be unsure of the risk appetite of their senior leaders or their minister, and need to ensure they are not doing something that goes beyond that appetite
  • Dealing with things that vary from the usual decision set can be difficult – so there’s an incentive to getting help/support for the decision from those more senior who might have relevant experience that will help guide in making a good decision
  • Officer level public servants may unsure when or if senior leaders should be consulted, so they send material to these people ‘just in case’
  • Less common, but importantly, there may be concerns around the legitimacy of decisions. The public service needs to ensure that its actions are legitimate from a democratic governance viewpoint. The status quo is assumed to be legitimate, so any change from ‘what is’ (which an unusual request can lead to) is questionable and needs to be checked accordingly.

Whatever the reasons though, it is a problematic aspect of innovation – it can add time delays and frustration, and it means the time and attention of senior decision makers is absorbed in what might actually be rather minor (or seemingly so to those on the outside) matters. But at the same time, an innovation that goes beyond what there is authorisation for can be extremely problematic – not just for the innovating area, but for the rest of the organisation, for stakeholders, or even beyond.

So perhaps inflation responsibility is something that should be ‘factored in’ when considering undertaking innovation and built into the decision-making/governance of the innovation project/initiative and into the expectations of associated decision-makers. It could be seen as a natural cost of introducing change into a bureaucratic setting. Or, perhaps the ‘system’ needs to adjust in some way to enable different processes which are both efficient and accountable?

What do you think? Is there a way to minimise ‘responsibility inflation’ when introducing change? Or is it an inherent component of innovation (or innovation in the public sector)?