Serving Beyond the Predictable

The public sector needs a unifying framework to reconcile the efficiency gains of the past with the participative, explorative and adaptive strategies needed to address tomorrow's complex challenges, argues Jocelyne Bourgon, President of Public Governance International and President Emeritus of the Canada School of Public Service.

Date Posted

1 Jan 2010


Issue 7, 14 Jan 2010

Even though the reforms they have undertaken since the 1980s are strikingly similar, public administrations vary from country to country, reflecting different histories, circumstances and philosophies on the role of government in society. Generally speaking, public administration lacks a unifying framework to help practitioners reconcile what was and integrate what is, as they forge what might be. Public organisations are not yet aligned with the complex issues they have to address1 or with the unpredictable nature of the global economy, networked society and fragile biosphere.2 This article outlines some potential directions for reform to help address this misalignment.


To serve "beyond the predictable", public organisations must embrace a broader definition of public results, an expanded understanding of the role of government and a dynamic view of public administration. Their role is to achieve public policy results and civic results. To do this, public administrators must explore how to move results up the value-added chain and balance better policy results in the short term, with the need to engage citizens to achieve better results in the long term.


© J Bourgon 2009. Reproduced with permission.


The work of government extends beyond achieving public results in a relatively stable environment, to dealing with complex issues in a volatile environment.

The term "emergence" reflects the fact that new patterns arise from a vast array of interactions, and seemingly out of nowhere.3-5 Conventional government approaches were conceived to break down difficult undertakings into simpler tasks,6 not to deal with complexity and uncertainties. This linear approach leaves government in a reactive position, unable to detect emerging trends or intervene ahead of time.

Governments need alternatives. Complex problems cannot be solved by breaking them apart. They require a systemic or holistic approach.7 More knowledge does not resolve complex issues since problem definitions and the solutions are contested, and positions entrenched.8,9 Complex issues call for a participative approach to create a shared view of a given issue, opening up the possibility of concerted actions.10 Complex problems cannot be solved by replicating standardised actions of the past.9 New, emergent solutions must be grown to address them.

Governments acting alone cannot address an increasing number of complex policy issues ranging from public health and safety to environmental protection. These issues require active citizen participation and the contribution of multiple stakeholders.11 As governments start producing results with others, their options widen.12 Government can act as a partner, responsible contributor, facilitator or leader. Seen in this light, public administration is a dynamic system where the authority of the state is used in different ways to achieve different results.

Serving beyond the predictable renders traditional action antiquated and requires new capacities.


To achieve public results, the state apparatus must have strong institutional capacity. This ensures respect for the rule of law, checks and balances in the exercise of powers, accountability for the use of public funds, and respect for public sector values.

To achieve system-wide results, support government-wide priorities and work across borders, governments must have strong inter-organisational capacity.

Institutional and inter-organisational capacities give governments a solid foundation. To achieve results of high public value, we must take a fresh look at the administrative systems we have inherited.

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Transforming Old Ways: Policy Units

Most governments have a strong internal policy capacity. Some have gained much experience in intelligence-gathering, scenario-planning or guiding public policy debates about strategic priorities. These are valuable assets for improving their anticipative capacity. The Netherlands, Singapore and the UK have much to share in this regard.

The challenge is not so much to gather more information or to build more powerful analytical tools (although more of both are needed); the challenge is to focus on extracting meaning and detecting probable patterns where none were seen before. Interpretation is key.

Developing New Ways: Explorative Capacity

Irrespective of efforts to improve anticipative capacity within government, the best knowledge about emerging patterns is in the minds of people, in the networks of inter-relationships in their community or in their global community of interests, and may lie beyond its grasp. In spite of a growing body of literature on collective intelligence,13,14 not enough is known about how governments can best extract knowledge and meaning on emerging patterns, how they can channel the efforts of many minds towards tackling complex public issues or how they can leverage the power of networks to connect actors, problems and solutions in new ways to achieve public results.

The challenge will be to integrate the findings of collective intelligence research and network theory into the intellectual framework of public administration, to help government anticipate, prevent and act to increase the likelihood of positive results.


Where shocks can be reasonably foreseen, it is the role of government to anticipate, initiate pre-emptive action and mitigate key vulnerabilities.15,16


© J Bourgon 2009. Reproduced with permission.

However, where shocks cannot be foreseen or prevented, the role of government is to promote the resilience of society, ensure a more equitable distribution of risks and reduce the impact on its most vulnerable. This means building the adaptive capacity of society.17

Complex issues call for a participative approach to create a shared view of a given issue, opening up the possibility of concerted actions.

Individuals, organisations or government working alone cannot achieve resilience.16 It requires an active citizenry with the skills and confidence to act. It relies on strong communities with the capacity to mobilise resources and co-ordinate action that leads to common solutions.18

Changing Old Ways: Redundancy and Contingency

Redundancy refers to resources that can be deployed easily to explore emergent situations, experiment to enhance collective learning, and perform other functions to promote exploration, experimentation and innovation. Redundancy builds resilient organisations and improves their adaptive capacity.

Contingent capacity, a related concept, is the concept of building resources in areas of greatest vulnerability, allowing resources to be deployed rapidly in these areas. Public organisations that push aggressively for efficiency gains may erode their adaptive capacity.

Developing New Ways: Participative Approaches

A participative approach to public policy and policy implementation is not a luxury. It reinforces resilience and the adaptive capacity of society, particularly when it allows decision making and action at the community level.19

Where shocks cannot be foreseen or prevented, the role of government is to promote the resilience of society.

Complex issues can be large or small20 and governments must intervene appropriately to achieve the desired outcome.17,20 Small-scale interventions are a powerful way to gain insights on preferences, potential outcomes and unintended consequences, and micro interventions can accelerate collective learning, deflect risks and increase resilience.


Building on the strength of public institutions and organisations, governments are called upon to address complex issues in the unpredictable nature of the global economy, networked society and fragile biosphere. They are called upon to serve "beyond the predictable".

This role transforms the systems and structures that served us well in the past. It requires new capacities. Future public sector reforms entail improving the anticipative capacity of government and building the innovative and adaptive capacity of society.

As a result of a number of global failures and crises, a search for balance is under way to reconcile the private, public and civil society spheres. The need for a new balance reveals more clearly than ever the need for an affirmative state able to provide services of high public value, promote and defend the collective interest in all circumstances and also to serve beyond the predictable.


As a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Civil Service College, Singapore, the Honourable Jocelyne Bourgon spoke on "New Governance and Public Administration: A Dynamic Synthesis" in June 2009. Madame Bourgon is President of Public Governance International, an organisation dedicated to advancing good public governance, and President Emeritus of the Canada School of Public Service, where she is project leader of the NS6, an International Research Network that is exploring the challenges of public administration in the 21st century. She is also Distinguished Visiting Professor of Public Administration at the University of Waterloo, and Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

These positions follow an extensive career in the public sector where she led the Public Service of Canada through some of its most important reforms since the 1940s. Selected positions include: Ambassador to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (2003-2007), Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet (1994-1999), Queen's Privy Council of Canada (1998-present), and Deputy Minister in various departments: Transport, Canadian International Development Agency, Consumer and Corporate Affairs, and the Canadian Center for Management Development.


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