“So When WILL They Decide???”

demandingA consortium proposing a complex development a few years ago had one consortium member under financing pressure – he needed speedy completion.  Stressed, he went to the Minister, and said he needed a decision immediately – so the Minister, not ready to be confident the project was suitable, made the only quick decision he could, and the project was dead.

Another project: a senior manager was instructed by his CEO to go to a Director-General and tell him that if the Department committed to a project before 30 June (just weeks away) they would get a big discount – the CEO, who had never sold to the public sector before, had no idea at all that public sector decision-making is never the same as the private sector, nor that his ask was simply impossible as the decision had to go to Cabinet.  The other message this “incentive” proposal delivered was that the price was inflated and could be reduced – which slowed things down!

Almost every client has at some point vented about the time it takes to get a decision out of Government.

The reasons for delay are often valid, unseen and unappreciated.  Sometimes, of course, delay is just ridiculous.

The first thing to know about public sector delay: Public servants are not spending their own money, they’re spending the public’s money (and resources, time, etc) so decisions have to jump through rigorous hoops* that make sure money is being spent on the right things, for goods and services that meet real needs, in an efficient way, at the right price, and on a supplier who provides product of suitable quality.  The same applies when it’s not a money decision, but a policy decision: are they making the right policy decision on behalf of the public?  They need to be sure they have the facts, all of the facts, and nothing but facts.  The bigger the decision, the more extensive the process of ensuring it’s the right one.  And public sector policy making, particularly for new things, can by involved and complex – see here.

Second: Junior public servants, and even mid-level public servants aren’t authorised to spend much money or make big decisions, but are the subject-matter experts, so the operational or policy people have to ask their seniors to make the decision, by writing a comprehensive briefing note.  The bigger the spend or decision, the more senior the decision maker to be briefed, and the more content and effort in the briefing note.  If the decision is big enough, it will require a Cabinet submission – which takes weeks and months from first draft.  Delay is increased if there is a need to brief intermediate managers, who also have to tick off the proposal as it proceeds up the hierarchy … and any or all of those intermediate managers might ask for amendments to the briefing note or Cabinet submission.

Third: Contention or competition will delay a decision, as multiple alternatives have to be assessed and compared, a consensus sought, objections overcome and a business case developed for a preferred recommendation: that’s much more detailed than just a “yes” or a “no” on a single proposal.  You may be quite unaware of competing proposals; they may include such things as impending new policy, other Departments wanting the money that might be spent on your project, other vendors entering the market, alternative policy or development proposals, and so on.  Often, for larger projects, consultation with other agencies will discover some objection that needs to be accommodated or negotiated away.  And, it is rare for something to go to Cabinet while disagreements remain among Ministers, nor proposals go forward within the public service while major divisions continue.

Fourth: Unenvisaged implications – perhaps a special kind of contention – might also cause delay or blockage.  For example, your proposal or project may require public sector monitoring or staff training, which Departments are reluctant to pay, or may set a precedent they don’t want to be stuck with.

Fifth: Consultation can take time.  When public servants analyse a proposal, they need to know, and/or advise more senior decision-makers, what the impact will be on stakeholders, clients, communities, other agencies, other Governments and so on.  Working that out, and engaging with stakeholders, can take enormous time.

Sixth: Public sector priorities can never be the same as yours – they don’t work for you, aren’t driven by the needs of your business, and are subject to the priorities and obligations imposed by Government and their managers; anything at all can displace consideration of your issue: impending election, by-election, Ministerial scandal, Ministerial reshuffle, Departmental reorganisation, announcement of a new policy, a bigger project, a more politically significant project – and you will probably not have an inkling that many of these kinds of things are on the agenda.

And there are more!

Good decisions are rarely instant decisions, and some delay is always necessary, to ensure money is being wisely spent, that the decision is appropriate, economical, in the best public interest, and will deliver necessary or desirable outcomes; your assertion that’s the case is not sufficient and has to be tested properly.

But we all have war stories about delays that have been simply absurd, and there’s no doubt that processes can be improved and made faster without increasing risk.


* Yes, I use and mix metaphors.  Get over it.  You know what I’m trying to say.


About Mike Smith

Partner in Ethical Consulting Services: www.ethicalconsulting.com; Ethical strategies and programs which get you where you need to go ... * Exceptional government & stakeholder relations, * Thriving governance systems, * Specialised project facilitation, * Inbound investment assistance, * Successful marketing, communications and PR campaigns ... and customised training in each of these areas.

Posted on December 10, 2014, in Culture, Government Relations, how to lobby, Lobbying and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Reblogged this on Steven Howard and commented:
    Understanding public sector decisionmaking will make tendering easier and reduce the stress of waiting and wondering about what happened to the masterpiece you submitted weeks or months ago.

  2. Hi Mike, I mucked up the reblog on this. I really like the article and wondered if it would be ok with you for me to republish it (with attribution) on my weblog at stevenhoward.com

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