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With citizens clamouring for better services, the leaders of our vital public institutions need a better approach to solving problems, within systems that are no longer fit for purpose

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Illustration by Brandon Celi

Chris Clearfield is the founder and CEO of the Clearfield Group, and the co-author of Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It.

A Montreal family camps outside a Canadian passport office, desperate to secure an in-person appointment. The passport renewal process is so backed up that they are in danger of missing a long-planned trip. Dozens of people are waiting in line with them. The police are called in to manage the crowd.

A young immigrant from India is forced to leave Toronto, where he’s been working for more than a year. Though he is highly skilled and should have sailed through Canada’s immigration process, he doesn’t hear back from the federal government about his application for permanent residency. With his work visa running out, he has no choice but to quit his job at a major financial firm and take his talents elsewhere.

A B.C. woman experiencing excruciating hip pain is told to keep waiting. Though she sometimes cannot work or sleep, it takes two months for her to see an orthopedic surgeon, who then tells her that the surgical backlog is so long, she’ll have to wait at least two years for a replacement.

While these seem like disparate anecdotes, they are all examples of a deeper trend: the failure of public-sector institutions to provide a reasonable standard of service to Canadians.

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Getting travel documents, like these new-model Canadian passports, has been a challenge in recent years as offices caught up with demand after COVID-19 restrictions lifted.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Canada is not alone in this. Institutions in countries around the world are struggling to provide services that have come to be expected by citizens, and regulators and civil-service leaders are being steamrolled in the face of rapid disruption and increasing demand.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting health care crises in many rich Western democracies, for instance, have exacerbated already overstretched systems, leading to long wait times, overcrowded emergency rooms, staffing issues, strikes, physician burnout and thousands of backlogged appointments that are causing our health care systems to crack under the strain.

In the airline industry, the decision to add more efficient engines to the Boeing 737 led to a spate of design workarounds that contributed to Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019. Federal Aviation Administration regulators, lacking in capacity, approved the airplane for service, paving the way for the tragedies.

The FAA is also under fire after reports that potentially disastrous near-misses between commercial airplanes are surging, in large part because of higher volumes of air traffic and mistakes by air traffic controllers, who are dealing with a nationwide staffing shortage.

In the United States, overstretched supervisory systems failed to identify the risks faced by Silicon Valley Bank, Signature Bank and First Republic Bank, which all collapsed this year. Regulators have proved incapable of meaningfully dealing with these disruptive and potentially fraudulent cryptocurrency markets.

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Terry Beech, the federal minister tasked with improving service for Canadian citizens, is sworn in at Rideau Hall this past July.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Some of these institutional issues have been technological – the products of computer-system bugs or IT errors – but the core problems are with the systems themselves. And ever since András Tilcsik and I published our book on system failures in 2018, the pace of change that these systems must deal with has only accelerated.

Much as other governments elsewhere have done, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have tried to bridge system and service gaps with ministerial task forces, senior-level restructuring and the pumping of additional funding to apply a Band-Aid to the problem.

But with the Conservative opposition happy to point out any service delivery problem as a sign of a broken government, Mr. Trudeau announced a new ministry of citizen services in July. Terry Beech, now the Minister of Citizen Services, broadly defined the ministry’s goal as being the place “where the rubber hits the road in providing services to citizens right across the country.”

While Mr. Beech’s position remains ill-defined, its creation demonstrates the clear need for a rethink of the way the government manages essential services and the impact this issue can have on the public trust.

Indeed, the repeated failure of public-sector institutions to rise to the challenge of the modern world matters. Research from the World Bank, as well as high-profile economists such as Douglass North and Robert Fogel, shows a strong connection between institutional health and a society’s economic performance and overall well-being.

So if these institutions govern how we function as a society, and they are showing signs of wear and tear – with many of them no longer fit for purpose – just how vulnerable are we? And what can be done?

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A nurse holds her head at a Toronto hospital as colleagues in the ICU care for patients in 2021, when nursing shortages put strain on health-care systems across Canada.COLE BURSTON/AFP via Getty Images

As the American sociobiologist E.O. Wilson said in 2009, “The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.”

Of these three – emotions, institutions and technology – institutions represent the place that we have the most leverage to shift. After all, we’re unlikely to turn back the clock and give up the technology that is at the centre of so much societal progress, and emotions are incredibly sticky and essentially human – just ask any professional therapist.

The core challenge is that the “medieval” approach at the root of our institutions is not suited to the problems that modern society faces. To understand why, we need to understand the characteristics of the kind of problem we are up against.

Let’s turn to a tool called the Cynefin framework, which describes different levels of problems that leaders face. The first three kinds of problems – simple, complicated and complex – are particularly relevant here.

A simple problem is one that has a known cause and an obvious solution. It can be dealt with using best practices that everyone agrees upon. A level up from that is a complicated problem, one where there may be multiple correct solutions, but they are not obvious. This is the domain where analysis and expertise are most useful.

Then there are complex problems, which don’t have a defined solution or a known endpoint, and where it is hard to tell what kind of cause-and-effect dynamics are at play. These kinds of problems emerge from interactions within systems that can’t be predicted in advance, and since it is impossible to do so, according to the Cynefin framework, the approach required to tackle it needs to prioritize learning, experimentation and thoughtful delegation.

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The Wright flyer, shown in replica (above) at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, was a far simpler machine than B-17 bombers like this one in Cranbrook, B.C.J. Scott Applewhite/AP; Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Consider the nature of these categories through the history of aviation. The Wright flyer – built through a tremendously innovative process of measurement, experimentation and iteration – was a fairly simple machine. It used bicycle parts and a custom-built engine, and the pilot directly manipulated the shape of the wings and elevator to control the aircraft. As revolutionary as powered flight was, the system itself could be understood by a child.

Compare that with the B-17 bomber, in development around 30 years later. This plane was so complicated that, after a number of crashes, it was unclear whether a pilot could actually fly it. In a story made famous in Atul Gawande’s book The Checklist Manifesto, it wasn’t until a group of test pilots got together and created the first airplane checklist that pilots could safely fly the long-range bomber. Experts used knowledge to convert the complicated system to one that was simple enough to operate.

In contrast, the modern jetliner is complex. Pilots no longer directly control the airplane; instead, their inputs are mediated through computers and flight control models. This makes these aircraft more capable, but also more susceptible to unexpected interactions between different systems.

The problems that our civic institutions face today are complex problems – but public-sector leaders largely treat them as complicated problems. Our institutions typically rely on outdated, expertise-based approaches and traditional planning processes to develop their work forces and build technological infrastructure. As we have seen, the resulting systems are inflexible and ineffective. They do not scale when demand surges, and they can leave citizens in the lurch.

The crisis of institutional capabilities is not just about the systems we have in place, but rather our fundamental approach to solving problems – approaches that are failing today, as they appear hopelessly unfit for tackling the broad uncertainty created by new challenges. In short, complex problems demand a different paradigm.

As the Cynefin framework suggests, complex problems aren’t just bigger versions of complicated problems: they are “wicked.” Complex problems don’t have a solution or even an endpoint; they change and shift as we try to solve them. Moreover, we can’t just hit pause on these systems; even as we make updates and changes, the processes involved must continue because so many people rely on them. Economies can’t just stop while we try to figure them out. Immigrants will continue to immigrate whether our systems can handle them or not. People need health care regardless of if there’s a functional plan to provide it. We can’t land the plane to work on the engines – too much depends on the flight. All changes must be made mid-air.

There is no “right” answer for how to speed up an immigration system, improve efficiency in health care or strengthen our financial systems – there are just different approaches that are more or less likely to meet the objectives we’ve specified. But these problems do demand certain qualities in the leaders facing them: curiosity (because the answers aren’t known), collaboration (because those lowest in the hierarchy usually have the most useful, on-the-ground information about a problem) and experimentation (because we don’t know exactly what will work).

In the 1950s, Toyota, then an upstart auto manufacturer, recognized that to compete with other car companies, it needed to minimize and reduce waste – and that it was facing a complex problem. As a result, it developed a comprehensive approach to empowering those closest to the problem to experiment and find workable solutions, before scaling and systematizing those improvements. The resulting approach – known colloquially as being “lean” – doesn’t just apply to the physical world. Indeed, a lean approach to software development has taken over from one favouring centralized planning in many tech companies, where continual testing, learning and refinement are at the heart of their innovations.

What Toyota realized, and what’s true for government officials today, is that learning and changing at speed and scale are the most important skills an organization can have. Toyota didn’t necessarily figure out how to do things better; it figured out how to learn to do so. Being lean should inform the approach we need to bring to our public institutions, as well.

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Illustration by Brandon Celi

Transitioning from a top-down, control-heavy approach to one that thrives on experimentation and empowerment isn’t easy. It involves abandoning the illusion of certainty and moving toward the unknown. That’s challenging and countercultural because senior leaders – and this is true outside the public sector, too – are promoted and rewarded for developing plans and coming up with answers. Answers are useful and comfortable, but they don’t serve us well when our systems are increasing in complexity.

It might seem like abandoning planning would result in chaos to systems that are actively being used – but isn’t that essentially what we have now? Citizens are already waiting in line for border crossings and passports. Banking failures are already costing our governments and financial institutions hundreds of millions of dollars. Health care is already at a breaking point.

So first, leaders need to recognize, not resist, the new reality. Even when public-sector leaders see things changing, they often continue to operate in the same old ways, which makes a certain sense; the old way feels safe, especially amid chaos. So much time and money, too, has been invested in the old ways, which have often yielded career success for those at the top of their organizations. For example, The Globe and Mail earlier this summer reported that senior Canadian officials spent years ignoring warnings that the growing number of requests for immigration records would eventually paralyze Canada’s access to information system and overwhelm the department. They knew it was a mounting problem, but they did nothing about it. It may be comforting to ignore problems that seem overwhelming, but we won’t improve our systems if we refuse to take a risk and recognize that they need to be changed.

Second, leaders can take ownership of their process. Organizational leaders are often experts in the content of their problems; they might be physicians who know how to deliver health care and run hospital systems, or former border agents who have a deep understanding of immigration rules. But in my experience, working with a diverse set of large organizations, few senior leaders attend as expertly to the processes of work in their organizations. They should be asking: How do your people collaborate? How do you build high-functioning teams? How do you create trust and a felt sense of candour? How do you plan work and set strategy? In short, how does work really get done?

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Decisions made in Canada's Parliament, and the agencies that answer to it, can make a big difference in how the public sector solves problems affecting Canadians.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Things are less straightforward in the public sector, where legislation and governance practices often dictate how problems are solved – which is to say, from the top down. Even so, leaders still influence how their organizations work. They can build teams that readily share concerns and improve decision-making. They can model the experimentation that’s needed to keep institutions working and embrace the inevitable failures that result. They can increase participation from junior staff. And they can improve performance by orienting their organizations to identify and continually reduce bottlenecks in their work. All of this is at the heart of systems thinking, where leaders pay attention to the interactions between different parts of their systems, instead of tackling the problems from the top down.

To make all this work, the public sector needs to reimagine progress and promotion. Government and the public sector at large has a reputation for being a place where mistakes lead to resignations and shame, but experimentation is the key to learning – and mistakes are a key part of the process. An atmosphere dominated by fear of failure makes people afraid of trying anything new. On a fundamental level, that requires rewarding a robust process even if it doesn’t yield the expected outcomes right away.

If we want to accomplish this, we need to change how we talk and think about these things, especially among senior leaders. That’s going to take time – but when you have a capable leader in place who really wants to do well, they can do a lot to increase participation to get input from people throughout the organization.

What about the stereotype of bureaucrats being slow and stodgy? Well, that attitude is a result of the system in which they operate. A leader who’s able to change that system would be able to empower bureaucrats to help solve the problems, so that they do not feel like they are only part of the drudgery of implementation. That was Toyota’s early insight: Workers weren’t just there to build cars; they were also there to teach the company how to build cars better.

Improving our civic institutions is not like a primary-school math exercise or a history quiz: It’s not about finding facts or figuring out the one right answer to one big question. Instead, it’s about moving forward with a cohesive yet targeted approach to the challenges that we collectively face.

If today’s most important asset is the ability to assess and tackle complex problems, Canada should consider itself fortunate that Minister of Citizen Services Terry Beech has a software background; he may well recognize that many of the approaches to tackling complex problems are similar to what has propelled the growth of that industry. Instead of approaching his mandate piecemeal, his most important contribution might be to guide other public-sector leaders to develop a robust and repeatable way to identify, experiment and scale solutions to the problems they face.

That would make people’s lives better, restore trust, and create hope – and that should be the primary goal of any institution.

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