Monday, November 19, 2012

Managerial attention as a key determinant of effectiveness in public governance systems

Robert Simons in his book "Levers of Control" on management control systems unveils managerial attention as a key determinant of strategy. Before getting into the details of each of the levers that managers can move to control various aspects of the organization to help achieve its goals, Simons asserts that in a world where ideas emerge from all directions, managerial attention is the primary gating factor that goes on to determine which of the emerging ideas will become part of an organization's deliberate strategy. By attention, Simons means "information processing capacity" allocated to a "defined issue or agenda".

My understanding of this assertion is that, in the face of limited managerial bandwidth, the issues that get top management attention shape the future of the organization. What if this theory holds true in government and public institutions? What if, long before processes like budget allocation and implementation plans start, the way government officials choose to pay attention to certain issues in a certain manner go on to shape not only the immediate goals but also the long term trajectory of a nation?

Imagine there are 2 levers as shown below.

Which of the two levers should decision makers in public governance systems move? "Move" in this case means allocating management attention and information processing capacity to these areas. In practical terms, this might translate to decision questions like these: Where should the best administrators in government be deployed? Which type of institutions and research should get funded? Which of the competing alternative solutions to social issues deserve the most attention?

The 2 levers are different in that, the first lever tries to solve social issues and deliver better governance by taking a perceived root cause view of their existence and attempting to address those root causes. The phrase 'perceived root cause' has been used only because in many cases no clear cause has been established about why citizens behave in certain ways in public that are detrimental to themselves and others. In such a situation, when governments try to achieve certain desired social outcomes, which of these 2 courses of action is better?

For example:

Lever I. Spend money on civic sense enhancement via education, celebrity endorsement of specific programs, posters etc. in areas like: courteous driving on roads, queues in bus stops, cleanliness in parks etc


Lever II. Spend on civic infrastructure enhancement for: monitoring drivers on roads, enforcing queues in bus stops and penalizing people littering in parks.

The results of using lever I are indirect and hard to measure. The results delivered by using lever II are comparatively more tangible. The catch would be to think this through without letting monetary requirements and other resource constraints cloud the thought process. In the absence of such constraints in the near term, which of the 2 levers yields long term benefits?

Which of the 2 results listed below shares a stronger link with the 2 options listed above?

Result I. Government spending on educating citizen's about good behavior in public is effective. Through a combination of learning from such efforts and examples set by others, citizens practice good behavior in the public sphere. As a natural progression, children learn from their parents and future generations too behave the same way.

Result II. People get used to being monitored and change their behavior.

In the picture below, which of the two links gets a higher number N or M?

In the example of citizens' behavior in public cited above, even though the end results of moving either lever seem to be the same, the strength of the link as perceived by decision makers matter. This is because, if Link I were stronger, it would mean that after a period of time, resources - including managerial attention itself - can be deployed to solve other pressing problems of that time. If Link II were stronger, governments should plan for expending effort and resources for the same issues on an ongoing basis. The link strength question from the example above can be extended to other examples like poverty alleviation, job creation etc. It is highly likely that, based on a country's history, demographics, culture and number of other factors, the strength of the link would be higher or lower for lever I or II depending on the issue under consideration.

This bisected view of public governance systems is not new. But previous writings on this subject take a implementation and resource constraint view of the systems under study. In this post, I have attempted to shift the same view to the left end of the timeline and placed it in the initial stages when processing available information, creating innovative solutions, prioritizing among viable alternatives and planning for effective and efficient implementation are the main activities. According to Simons, the decision to pay managerial attention to certain things and not pay attention to others is one of the most important decisions that shapes all others. If this were true for corporates, from a managerial perspective, it should be true for governments too. In that case, allocating considerable time to decide which areas and methods governments should pay attention to will have a much larger impact on citizens and nations than it does on corporates and employees.

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