Community, not Competition

There’s a common cliché about working parents – we’re expected to perform our job as though we don’t have children, and parent as though we don’t have a job.

Working in the public service is a bit the same – we’re expected to deliver community outcomes as though there’s no financial imperative, and perform as though we aren’t community-driven.

The guidance on how to tackle these challenges is thin on the ground. Popular strategy literature provides useful tips, but the focus on market competition falls short for public servants.

For the public organisation, as much as the private company:

·       Strategy is all about the way we choose to achieve our big picture goals, rather than getting lost in big-picture vision, or tangled inside detailed plans

·       Our strategic position should reflect our key capabilities and unique ability to deliver value

·       Key systems should align to this position and be both complementary and reinforcing

·       Strategy is all about trade-offs and choices.

The central difference between a private and public sector strategy is in the purpose:

While private companies aim to produce maximum profit through competitive advantage, public organisations aim to produce maximum value through community impact.

This means the shape of our trade-offs and choices are quite different. Public agencies face a constant tension between worthy causes, and commonly find themselves choosing between right and right – not right and wrong. The question sometimes feels like “which deserving initiative, programme or group should miss out?”

The paradox here, just like the working parent, is that the stakes are high, and the outcomes matter. Which makes those rade-offs more important than ever, as we use our limited resources to make as much difference as we can.

“Strategy is about making choices, trade-offs; it’s about deliberately choosing to be different.” – Michael Porter

The public organisation should have no desire to compete. In fact, if there are others willing and able to operate in our space – great! We should get the heck out, or support that behaviour if there are gaps in the public good that won’t be managed by private enterprise.

Being different in this context, then, means more than crafting a market niche. It means meeting otherwise unmet community needs, that generate public value. Make no mistake, operational excellence is important – we need to be efficient and effective in the way we serve the public. But when it comes to strategy, we need more.

Auckland Council Community Places faced this exact tension last year. For this team, pressure to increase non-rates revenue almost sparked a new strategic direction which would have included competing in the private events market, and eroding the unique value offered to communities.

Instead, the unit chose a strategic position to add more value which reflected the community good and leveraged existing capabilities around connection and equality of access, and the results speak for themselves. Read more about this here.

I speak about this tension in my Public Sector Strategy 101 seminar – for more information about running a workshop with your teams, or to organise a taster session, email with the subject line “Strategy 101”

Til next week!