The Layer of Crazy

I worked with a team late last year who were struggling to reconcile what they saw as the right way forward for their agency, with the fickle demands of meddling politicians.

Aware of the struggles they were facing, I facilitated a conversation about the complexity and reward of public service – the transparency, the democracy and the bureaucracy.

It was a good yarn, but it got much better when their manager stood up and summarised it thus:

“Just accept there’s a layer of crazy here, and move on.”

I love this. There is a layer of crazy – and it’s beautiful.

I’m writing a book on public sector management, which has involved lots of fascinating research. One of the pieces I reference talks about the “contested nature of the authorizing environment” in the public sector, which appears to be academic speak for “layer of crazy.”

What I enjoyed most about this particular piece, was the finding that the maddening political shifts and indeterminacy of managing in a public sector environment can actually be a real asset. (My apologies if you were swallowing your coffee when you read that and you choked)

The authors argue that grappling with the layer of crazy is great, because it:

a)     Provides an opportunity for us to be flexible and move quickly, if we embrace it

b)     Pushes debate and discussion in a way that can really enhance our policy decisions, compared to those left unchecked.

“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.” 
― Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage

I’m a staunch believer of the Stoic idea that The Obstacle Is Way, so the idea that this political tension and fragility provides an opportunity to do better work resonates nicely.

That, and I have three daughters, so my home has a pretty thick layer of crazy too. If I’m able take the stance that this chaos boosts my own development, I’m on board!

On the Looking Up podcast, I discuss three key ways that managing in the public sector manager is different to working in private business:

  1. Transparency – The level of media and public interest in your work is significantly higher, which ups the ante on your decisions and has the danger to lead to risk-averse decision making

  2. Democracy – You’re dealing with politicians who, unlike other governance members, often have little operational or subject matter expertise in the areas they govern.

  3. Bureaucracy – And lots of it. The accountability component of both the transparency and democracy part of the job creates a serious process and policy overhead.

Like it or not, public sector management is a hard job. It’s way more complex and challenging the life led by your private sector equivalents. Seriously – I’m not making this up.

Professor Simon Collinson, pioneer of the Global Simplicity Index, found in 2012 that public sector agencies in the UK are 30% more complex than some of the world’s largest companies.

Yet, If I had a dollar for every time I had someone try and tell me that government should be run like a business, I’d… well, I’d have at least $50.

In my upcoming book, I talk about why we persist in applying commercial ideas even when they do us a disservice (1980s New Public Management theory, I’m looking at you) and how we can succeed in this environment.

You can read all about in March 2019!

For now, my advice is that you go one step further than accepting the layer of crazy – embrace it as your normal, and go from there.

“There is no greater challenge and there is no greater honour than to be in public service."
 - Condoleezza Rice, Former United States Secretary of State

How to… Embrace the Layer of Crazy

  • Think of your relationship with politicians and the media as a sort of arranged marriage – maybe not your ideal partnering, but you’d better learn to love them

  • Understand that your politicians will bear the public brunt and flak for your recommendations, regardless of how logical or well-reasoned. Take the time to build engagement accordingly

  • Identify ways to leverage the democratic layer. For example – many local Councillors are well connected to the community, which can actually make them your greatest asset in testing ideas and building buy-in

  • Drink more wine – it’s still technically Christmas time.