6
Nov 12

Resilient Agencies (The Foundations for the New Public Administration Theory)

A more recent post on GovLoop that closely ties into the fitness landscape theory of public agency organization.

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I just finished Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy which details new research in how some systems recover from traumatic events. The concepts behind resilience are familiar to people who have studied complexity and systems theory. Basically, resilient systems have the following characteristics:

  1. Tight feedback loops
  2. Dynamic reorganization
  3. Built-in countermechanisms
  4. Decoupling
  5. Diversity
  6. Modularity
  7. Simplicity
  8. Swarming
  9. Clustering

Putting all these principles together, a resilient system can immediately detect changes in its environment and is able to rapidly reconfigure itself to adapt to the environmental changes. Resilient systems also go through an adaptive cycle:

  1. Rapid growth phase – underlying resources come together and begin to interact
  2. Conservation phase – system becomes efficient at locking up and utilizing resources
  3. Release phase – resources are dispersed in response to a disruption or collapse
  4. Reorganization phase – the cycle begins again

Two new concepts seem to have specific significance to government agencies. First, there are organizations that seem robust but are fragile (RBF). These organizations are well-adapted to their current environment and are the dominant organization – for now. But, a rapid change causes a quick collapse of the seemingly robust system. Think of the large banks during the 2008 economic meltdown. These are organizations that are stuck in the Conservation phase but cannot transition to the Release phase.

The second concept is that resilient systems contain resources that are not immediately used but can be configured to take advantage of new environmental circumstances. This is often seen in biology where similar bone structures are used differently whether the animal is aquatic, land dweller, or avian. In the business world, you can see how Pixar’s latent abilities with computer animation transformed it from a graphics software company to a movie company.

So, how does this apply to government agencies? First, many agencies are very good in fulfilling their mission but consider how their effectiveness and efficiency have created robust-but-fragile organizations that cannot handle significant changes such as new laws, economic realities, or technological changes. These agencies have streamlined their operations to the point that they do not have latent capabilities that can push the agency from the Conservation phase into the rest of the adaptive cycle.

Also, consider how the hierarchical structures and organizational silos prevent the use of the nine characteristics in helping the agencies to see change much less to respond to change. So, how do we reorganize agencies to incorporate the nine characteristics while maintaining mission focus and the delivery of government services? Hopefully, more research into the science of resilience will lead the way in creating new government agencies that are both effective and adaptable.

Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in this posting are my own and do not reflect the opinions of my employers or any organizations that I belong to and should not be construed as such.

Reference:
Zolli, A., & Healy, A.M. (2012). Resilience: Why things bounce back. New York: Free Press.