Changing Our Capacity to Govern, Learn, Make Collective Decisions and Be Productive
This new book Stolen Focus by Johann Hari is getting a lot of attention and for good reason. The author lays out in detail how we are all bombarded by systems that are designed to distract and hold our attention for the purpose defined in business models. This constant level of distraction has taken a heavy toll on our collective ability to think, focus for any length of time, listen accurately and deal with complexity. This has very real impacts on public leadership and democracy. It is already altering how we educate our citizens, communicate with them and choose to use/purchase technology that will protect citizen privacy.
To govern and lead with any success we need citizens and employees who can focus for more than seconds or minutes. It goes without saying that many studies including this book lay out the basic reality that our brains were never designed to multi-task and in fact are incapable of doing it. We continue to convince ourselves this is not the case, but studies confirm the opposite is true. Hari’s research shows that we use up a significant amount of our energy and productivity when we switch from one device to another, one tab to another, or constantly take calls on our phones while focused on something else. The author describes in detail our current reality. Teenagers in the US can only focus on one task for 65 seconds at a time and the average office worker is not much better clocking in at only three minutes of focused attention. Most senior executives now report a max of 20 minutes a day of uninterrupted time.
In today’s fast paced world consumers are not used to delays, although many disruptions during the pandemic have caused all of us to expect and prepare for delays. The US government systems were designed for stability of service but with our additive approach to legislating, systems have grown in complexity causing delays in services. Leaders who want to protect long term positive relationships with citizens have mastered the skill set to effectively manage expectations during systems delays.
There are multiple types of system delays: the predictable delays, the preventable delays, and the unpredictable delays. The ability to predict the delay in a system with some accuracy makes it easier for you to build a plan for the delay period. As a leader your ability to manage each one of these delays is critical and can save you and the citizens you serve a tremendous amount of time, stress and lost goodwill.
Systems thinking is an essential leadership practice often not taught practiced or included in the education of public leaders. The complexity of the public sector combined with the number of people who depend on public leadership makes it essential for us to develop skilled confident systems thinkers. Ideally, public sector workplaces would be run by leaders who understand how to address system delays, how to manage intended and unintended consequences, and where the point of leverage is in a system. Our leaders must also educate the citizens who depend on them to think systemically as well. This field of learning is critical for our policy makers and legislators who can find themselves setting policy or making decisions that have unanticipated consequences that are both unexpected and costly.
The response to the current public health crisis has fallen heavily on local Municipal and School Department Leaders. Their ability to implement and design communication systems which build trust and keep people safe in this constantly changing landscape has been nothing short of heroic.
In their 2011 report the Carnegie Corporation discussed public schools as the guardians of democracy. As students go back into the classrooms this fall, many for the first time in 18 months, our work with the public-school leaders is at the forefront of our minds. Despite a tumultuous election cycle and a focus on public sector issues in the media such as public health, the federal budget and policing, few people have asked how are schools doing civically? Are they adequately developing students who will be our next voters and civic leaders? Will they be prepared or even interested in participating in our democracy and facing the challenges ahead?
“Over the past 12 years, U.S. airlines have accomplished an astonishing feat: carrying more than eight billion passengers without a fatal crash. Such numbers were once unimaginable, even among the most optimistic safety experts.” Wall Street Journal article, 4/16/21 The Airline Safety Revolution by Andy Pasztor.
This WSJ article is a tutorial in organizational learning and the practices of skilled public leaders who aspired to make the US airline industry among the safest in the world. The hard leadership work in this kind of change process is always the same, facing the current reality openly and honestly, creating the shared vision for change, engaging the essential partners, staying focused and sustaining the focus and discipline over time. The good news for all of us they did it.
Independence Day is an opportunity to reflect on the courage, compassion and resiliency that so many public servants exhibited over the last year. Many of you have been working over-time in stressful situations for more than a year. Our wish for all of you this summer is the time to restore your energy and re-connect with family and friends.
Since last July we have shared a number or relevant topics on our website. Feel free to go back and read all the monthly updates and take advantage of some of the recommended books and videos as well.
Public Service Recognition Week is dedicated to honoring our public servants. This past year has been a time that we all truly depended upon public leadership during a prolonged crisis. During May and June, we want to encourage everyone to say thank you to the thousands of public servants in cities, towns, schools, states and the federal government who have worked tirelessly to implement communication, testing, tracking and vaccination systems under stressful circumstances while doing their pre-pandemic jobs.
The Public Sector Consortium is a national non-profit which is dedicated to reinventing the practice of public leadership through “sustainable leadership practices”. These leadership skills and practices can be learned and applied by all public leaders. There is no better time to turn our attention to sustainability than April when we celebrate Earth Day on April 22. This year’s theme Restore Our Earth focuses on ways that we can green our planet.
You can learn more about this year’s Earth Day and activities here. If you have 5 minutes of time this video explains the history of Earth Day and could easily be used to start a staff meeting or in a classroom to remind people in your state, city or schools about the importance of Earth Day.
There is no more challenging branch of government to lead and manage than the US executive branch with over 2.2 million Americans in civil service, another 2 million working with the Department of Defense, and 15 executive departments. It is a large complex ship to steer (OPM and OMB Federal Workforce Statistics). The challenge is even more daunting during periods of leadership transition with the political appointees or elected officials learning their new jobs and attempting to build partnerships with the existing civil servants. This particular transition is far more complex with the continuation of the pandemic and subsequent humanitarian and economic challenges.