Opening Government: Overcoming the barriers to knowing what we know

(originally published at


“If HP only knew what HP knows, we could be 3 times as profitable.”

Lew Platt, former CEO of Hewlett Packard
on the challenge of capturing and using all the useful knowledge
dispersed in the minds of many individuals in an organization (ref).

Public policy is complex; this observation has become a throw-away truism, almost to the point of parody, of the modern governance era. Part defensive posture (“we can’t solve that: it’s too complex”), part analytical framing, complex public policy challenges are more than just “really complicated” problems though. They exhibit conditions such as partial order, profound uncertainty, often rapid emergence that challenges our mental models and predictive capacity, are open and non-linear, have whole-system implications and have probabilistic rather than deterministic outcomes that are subject to interpretation.

But if knowing the nature of the problem is half the battle, what can we do about it? Policy complexity thinking has spawned a range of methods and approaches for dealing with this complex landscape: agility, acceptance of mistakes and failure, policy learning, social learning and adaptation are leading examples.

One of these promising avenues for dealing with complexity — and the one I focus on here — is horizontality, the act of working across the various ministries and divisions of a government in order to harness the organization’s capacity and resources and direct them towards the addressing of complex problems.

While policy problems have become complex, we traditionally have organized governments (actually, most organizations) in a more simplistic fashion — taking a quasi-militaristic hierarchical approach with divisions and branches, in order to make sense of things and to coordinate the work of employees. But in complex situations, these divisions create their own problems because complex issues rarely align with the organizational structure we have set up, and individual actors within government  are unlikely to have access to the full breadth of relevant intelligence necessary to fully comprehend and address a complex policy problem.

Despite the enthusiasm for open governance (in the sense of a shared endeavor between citizens and governments), I’m not alone in suggesting that we could do much better at opening governments as knowledge organizations. Look at any large organization — especially governmental — and rather than looking like one-big-happy-company, they look like a lot of smaller companies that happen to have the same shareholders. The vertical structure of most governments make it more likely that public servants in one department or ministry are much more likely to interact with colleagues in the same department  — indeed, even the same unit — than they are with colleagues across the government.

The early approaches to horizontality tended to take a top-down view: collegial senior executives would get together and orchestrate strategic collaborations based on their understanding of the structure of government and an appreciation of the complexity of the problem. Indeed, this was the central recommendation of a task force of Deputy Ministers in the Government of Canada almost two decades ago. (Intending no disrespect to the members of this task force — some of whom I have had the honor to work with in the intervening years — I’m reminded of the aphorism (that I’ll attribute to Maslow for lack of a better option) that “”if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”.)

This top-down view is also what gave rise to “knowledge management systems” (KMS) and “electronic knowledge repositories” (EKR), in which employees would store information that their colleagues could take advantage of through search functions and linked datasets. These dreams have largely remained unfulfilled, partly because employees weren’t likely to upload their knowledge to the repositories but mostly because knowledge is now understood as socially embedded and tacit — and tacit knowledge is more difficult to share via a KMS.

But more recently, an alternative bottom-up approach is focused on knowledge sharing and collaboration amongst actors within governments. The basic premise of this “organic horizontality” is that if individual knowledge agents and small group units work across the various divisions of a government — indeed, expanding to collaborative work carried out by multiple governments with overlapping jurisdictions and interests — the organization can organically grow its capacity and resources for more effectively solving complex problems.

Great. But again, how to do this? In the mid-2000s, following the development of the web 2.0 phenomenon, a revised approach to KMS and EKR systems emerged that indicated that new technologies might be really effective at opening up knowledge organizations. Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School was a leading voice in this “Enterprise 2.0” approach to technology-facilitated organizational collaboration and knowledge sharing.

This approach was based on the idea that if the kinds of social networking systems that employees were getting used to outside the organization (such as Facebook and Twitter) were made available within organizations, and if these enterprise collaboration tools (as their corporate versions such as IBM Connections and Microsoft Sharepoint are categorized) could be aligned with the normal workflow of employees, the embedded knowledge locked away in the minds of the organization’s employees could be more easily accessed, and spontaneous collaborations amongst knowledge workers across the organization were more likely to form. For the government policy system tasked with addressing complex challenges, a “Policy Analysis 2.0” system sounded like a promising bottom-up, technology-based operationalization of the general objectives of horizontality.

To find out what impact these new technology approaches to horizontal policy analysis might be having, I went out to look at the policy formulation processes in practice to see how policy analysts were using technology and connecting to their colleagues to share knowledge and collaborate, and to try to figure out what motivates and constrains them from doing so. In early 2012 I spoke with members of corporate policy units in the Government of British Columbia, and surveyed policy analysts using an online questionnaire. Since there was very little evidence of anything like Enterprise 2.0 tools being used in this setting (I’ll be doing follow-up interviews and a survey in the British Columbia government this year focused on what this technology space looks like now), the message that emerges from this research focuses on the “whether and why” of cross-government knowledge sharing and collaboration rather than the technological means.

Respondents were asked about knowledge sharing and collaboration — that is, did they think it was the right thing to do (attitudes), did those around them think it was the right thing to do (social norms), and did they feel they had the ability to act on those attitudes and norms (perceived behavioral control). What emerged from these survey responses and conversations was that attitudes and norms were important predictors of behavioral intention: believing that sharing knowledge and collaborating with your policy analysis colleagues will yield better individual and organization results, and having that reinforced by your colleagues and superiors, points towards the likelihood that you will actually do it.

What was found lacking, however, was “perceived behavioral control” — one’s perception that they have the ability to act on those attitudes and norms. This was partly a response to the lack of a technological ability to easily connect to knowledge resources throughout the organization or find potential collaborators (remember that in early 2012, there was little evidence of much practical Enterprise 2.0 use in this particular government).

But what was more striking was how much of this lack of perceived behavioral control came down to the feeling amongst policy analysts that they lack the authority or motivation (in a risk/reward calculation sense) to act in a way that their attitudes and norms would predict — that there exists a barrier between wanting to do something and being able to do it. Generally, respondents appeared constrained from unilaterally engaging in collaborative initiatives across departmental lines by the perceived limits of their authority and the institutional incentives that promote a focus on their own policy unit or ministry to the exclusion of others — the tradition of “ministerial responsibility”, however weak at the top still exists from the bottom-up. Beyond whether one “should” share knowledge with one’s colleagues across government in a legal sense, there is the “should” of collegiality with respect to information overload: in the current technology configuration that heavily relies on email, policy analysts were likely to not proactively share knowledge with colleagues who hadn’t requested it for fear of overwhelming their colleagues with what might be even more useless information.

This result aligns with other findings in the literature related to barriers to knowledge sharing in governmental organizations. These barriers arise due to concerns over privacy and confidentiality, statutory authority, public scrutiny risk avoidance, intra- and inter-organizational mistrust, inexperience, lack of awareness of collaboration opportunities and a lack of resources. While data interoperability — stemming from incompatible technologies and an absence of data standards — is often the focus of intra- and inter-organizational information sharing, knowledge sharing and collaboration are as much (if not more) a function of the organizational setting and inter-personal factors.

Lastly, a counter-intuitive gender result that emerged from the research — that women are less supportive of knowledge sharing and collaboration than men — makes sense upon further reflection and consideration of the culture of government as an organization, and contemporary Canadian culture. From this perspective, women may contribute less to group deliberations because men tend to be perceived as more authoritative than women when the topic takes on a perceived masculine character. Since political discussions are typically male-dominated, and when policy analysis is closely linked to political outcomes, women may feel disadvantaged and intimidated in policy discussions. This does not mean that women are not effective policy analysts (actually, it probably means the opposite) or do not contribute to policy development; however, such a tendency might explain why women would be less assertive in sharing knowledge and seeking collaboration opportunities.

There are some indications that, in computer-supported collaborative work environments, the gender imbalance that is evident in face-to-face interactions is somewhat mitigated raising hopes that an Enterprise 2.0 policy analysis environment may help to overcome some of this. However, for the less tangible elements of culture, trust and incentives, changing the policy analysis and formulation environment in the British Columbia Government to make it more open to the inclusion of female policy analysts will take a concerted effort by government.

Where does this leave the drive towards organic horizontality as a methods for dealing with policy complexity? The rhetoric of government as a knowledge organization — rooted in a belief that the organization is better served by having knowledge workers share their knowledge openly with colleagues —  appears to be in conflict with the reality facing the individual policy analyst. This reality sees the policy analyst mired in role ambiguity, dealing with mixed incentives and operating in a risk-averse organizational culture, and having limited individual capacity to act on their motivation to share knowledge and collaborate with colleagues.

While the British Columbia Government has made great strides towards gender equality at all levels of the organization, creating a welcoming culture for all potential contributors regardless of communication style will go a long way toward freeing up knowledge and providing access to it throughout the organization. And there may be some scope for reinvigorating the knowledge organization through new knowledge sharing and collaboration technologies, freeing the organization from the bounds that limit individual actors’ knowledge sharing and collaboration activities.

However, in many ways, the route to becoming a knowledge sharing organization rests more profoundly on an organization developing a culture of sharing and collaboration, tolerant of risk-taking and proactive inter-ministerial engagement, than it does on what technology platform the organization deploys. Without a shift in the culture of the organization, toward one that deeply encourages knowledge sharing and collaboration across the entire organization and from all of its members, Enterprise 2.0 systems layered on top of rigid hierarchical structures will continue to mean a government that doesn’t “know what it knows”.


(Also posted at the Center for Policy Informatics – Arizona State University. This post is a summary of research that can be found in: Longo, J. (2013). Towards policy analysis 2.0. (Order No. NR98532, University of Victoria (Canada)). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, 351.)



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