Why our society is in need of resilient government organizations

March 11th, 2021

In my previous blogs I wrote about the importance of investing in resilience and positive proactive approaches. This applies to all organizations, but certainly also to our public organizations. That is why I want to focus here on the major challenges our public organizations face when it comes to adopting positive proactive approaches. 

For public organizations it’s often an extra big challenge to choose a positive proactive approach. And I am not just saying this because the task of many government organizations is formulated negatively and reactively. But also because a guaranteed government contribution protects government organizations from bankruptcy and because government organizations are protected against external pressure to keep developing their products or services as a result of their monopoly. This golden cage results in the stimulation of a passive attitude and preservation of the status quo while development of resilience is inhibited. 

There are several reasons why we all sometimes show a passive attitude and hold on to the existing situation. The impact of our natural tendency to preserve the status quo is different for public organizations than for private organizations. In private organizations people also often have the temptation to hold on to the existing situation. But if private organizations adopt a wait-and-see attitude for too long, the complexity of the environment and new developments by competitors will quickly start to threaten their existence. This will result in a reduction of revenues and the risk of going bankrupt. In order to survive in a complex environment, private organizations must constantly keep developing. Although private organizations also sometimes only move due to external pressure and regularly opt for negative reactive approaches, positive proactive approaches are indispensable for these organizations to survive. 

The reason for this is that in today’s complex environment, unexpected negative events and setbacks are inevitable. It requires resilient organizations to deal with this effectively. Resilience is a balance that exists as long as protective factors provide sufficient counterbalance to the setbacks and negative events that must be faced. While resilience provides a form of protection, severe setbacks can cause protective factors to crumble and, in some cases, the complete loss of resilience. Protective factors can be built up and increased through a positive proactive approach. A positive proactive approach aims to go in the direction you want to go. It is an approach that stems from an intrinsic motivation to move in a self-chosen direction. This ensures a broad perspective, a flexible attitude and positive developments. 

Due to the “protective” golden cage, the above mentioned mechanisms don’t work for government organizations. Once a public organization has been established, its existence is virtually guaranteed. After all, the organization must continue to exist because of the system. Taxes must be collected, criminals must be prosecuted, fire safety must be ensured, healthcare must be provided, etc. Even when problems start to pile up and major social outrage arises, a public organization’s right to exist will not be called into question. The protection that government organizations enjoy ensures that negative events and setbacks cannot cause bankruptcy or result in a stop on the purchase of products or services. As a result, unlike private organizations, there is no natural need to invest in positive proactive approaches that increase the resilience of an organization. Moreover, there is no external stimulus to act, to change or to develop. With a lack of necessity and incentives to encourage positive proactive approaches, it is not incomprehensible that many government organizations only apply negative reactive approaches. 

While resilience and positive proactive approaches are not necessary for our government organizations to survive, it’s important to realize that our public organizations deal with important complex issues on behalf of our society. This includes issues in the field of the environment, crime, terrorism, healthcare, technological developments, privacy, economic developments, etc. This means that the functioning of our government organizations is of great importance for the development of protective factors that can help our society to cope with the negative effects of the setbacks that we will face. 

It’s vital that our public organizations also actively start to learn from their interactions with our complex environment. That public organizations invest proactively in positive approaches to increase the resilience of society. That our public organizations, just like private organizations do by nature, learn during their interactions with our contemporary complex environment that they cannot afford to only change or develop in response to the environment. After all, as soon as a reactive change has been fully completed, the environment has already developed in such a way that this change is already obsolete. Just think of all those organizations that go through reorganization after reorganization without ever achieving what they thought or hoped to achieve. Without positive proactive approaches, not enough resilience will be built to withstand the setbacks that are yet to come. The large number of committees of inquiry that have been established in recent years, are evidence of the current lack of resilience, and the pressing problems caused by the passive attitudes and negative reactive approaches of our public organizations. 

While it’s very important to investigate the problems that resulted in the establishment of committees of inquiry, it’s worth remembering that this will not lead to positive proactive approaches and an increase in resilience. Inquiry committees are a negative reactive approach in response to a problem. And this is reflected in the type of advice that these committees usually give. The big disadvantage of negative reactive approaches is that they are based on the desire to move away from something. Usually (and this certainly applies to committees of inquiry), what we want to move away from is an urgent problem. An urgent problem that is accompanied by great negative pressure such as a threat, a sense of urgency or time pressure. As a result, our view narrows, we adopt a negative perspective and we lose our flexibility. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the recommendations of committees of inquiry often mainly consist of a negative approach to remove known problems in existing systems and to prevent these known problems in the future.

While the current situation doesn’t encourage this, positive proactive approaches to increase the resilience of our public organizations are vital to our society. In our complex society, negative events and setbacks are inevitable. In addition to resilient private organizations, we are in need of resilient public organizations. We need public organizations that are constantly evolving of their own accord. Organizations that take responsibility and feel responsible for more than is asked of them. Who find the total effects of their efforts just as important as the specific part for which they themselves are responsible. We need public organizations that do not passively wait for what is possible, but proactively look for opportunities. Flexible organizations that ensure that something is arranged regardless of the obstacles that present themselves. Organizations that match the large number of civil servants who are driven by an intrinsic passion to make a positive contribution to our society. 

Building resilience is an investment that always pays for itself. During good times it leads to development and increases the chance of innovations. And during setbacks it provides counterbalance to protect against negative effects. Therefore, in addition to investigations of mistakes made in the past, let’s also open our view broadly towards the future. Where would we like to move towards? And what positive actions can we initiate to get in motion? 

Consulted sources:

  • How resilient is your organization or team? 03-01-2021
  • The importance of a positive proactive approach. 03-08-2021 
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