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Are we really experiencing a democratic crisis or a crisis of democracy? What is wrong with our system? Trust in the system, in governments and in government administrations seems to be rapidly decreasing in many parts of the world. Ideologies are not clear anymore because they are not adapted to the needs of today and the challenges of tomorrow.

Very often, defensive party politics and seemingly popular measures have taken over and offer only short term solutions to isolated and mediatised problems of the day. Managerialism and organisational protectionism in government administrations have taken over and suffocate a possible positive attitude in public servants to pursue the greater good and to find innovative and creative solutions to both the wicked and the every day problems.

A grim image. Many people are talking about a system change or about reinventing democracy in order to break the gridlock. But all too often the cry for a system change is only done related to specific wicked problems or policies, or is putting additional system elements in place in the hope that the flaws in the existing system will be patched (e.g. citizen participation and transparency mechanisms aimed at regaining trust or at creating a perception of openness and shared decision making).

Photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

(smart) Vision

Frank Van Massenhove retired as Chairman of the Belgian Federal Public Service of Social Security on the 1st of April of this year. Frank became notorious, not only because he’s ‘the guy that tells funny stories and wears silly shoes‘, but mainly because he changed the command and control culture in his organisation to a big example of a creative bureaucracy in Belgium. And he made sure that the example of his Federal Service became well known which in turn allowed him to take a stance and be listened to on other subjects as well.

When Frank was interviewed in the last days before his retirement he was asked about his opinion about how politicians and administrations work in the overly complicated structure that is Belgium. His main argument was: ‘there is a total lack of long term vision’. I fully agree. There are many short term visions on very specific items. There is no long term vision on where our society, country, region, city, … should evolve to. When politicians have no long term vision, or do not formulate it, how can we expect government administrations to work well, how can we expect societal stakeholders working together to tackle the challenges that need to be tackled.

It is clear that not everyone has the ability to develop, to formulate and to operationalize a true long term vision (instead of marketing slogans). Most of our government managers in this context are very much focusing on the internal development strategy of their particular government organisation or on keeping the budgets that are allocated to their organisations intact. The majority of our political leaders focus on realising their part of the short term promises made before and after the moment they were elected. There are many reasons why that is so: lack of skills, lack of instruments, lack of motivation, the conviction that the long term is not their problem, a culture that isn’t very stimulating to visioning, a too controlling environment, lack of information, particracy, political games, … But the main reason is the lack of a mobilising and motivating long term compass.

I have had the pleasure to work in and with many government organisations on every level and get to know their cultures, internal procedures and their driving forces. By talking to politicians, managers, innovators, leaders but also gardeners, road workers, technical and administrative staff it is possible to feel the pulse of the organization. It became obvious to me that externally focused and open governments with a leadership culture that is enabling rather than controlling also seem to have the most motivated people in their ranks that deliver societal relevant, innovative and inspiring results. And they have leaders and long term visions that are ambitious and grounded in society.

Part of the solution to the systemic crisis that we are experiencing is that every level of society and government has a long term vision that is used as a compass for its future. In this post-New Public Management world the key to overcome criticisms about bad performing or wrong performing government organisations is to reach out and to admit that government is only one actor in the intricate web that our digital-era and complex society has become. One actor that shares a vision for the future with other actors and stakeholders.

I also strongly believe that this long term vision and the strategy to achieve it should be based on strategic intelligence and acted upon with strategic intelligence.

Strategic intelligence

What is strategic intelligence?

Strategic intelligence is a set of abilities that leaders and organisations need and – on a larger scale – our society as a whole needs to cope with the changes and challenges that are ahead of us.

Dr. Michael Maccoby developed the concept of strategic intelligence as a system of abilities and qualities to equip leaders with the conceptual tools to create a better future for an organisation.

Before starting to look at the different interacting components of strategic intelligence it is important to point out the word system. Systems thinking is more than a collection of tools and methods. It is also a philosophy, an awareness of the complexity, circularity and interrelatedness and interdependency of the parts of an entity. Systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected, interconnectedness not in a spiritual way, but in a biological sciences way.

Systems thinking as an ability is crucial for successful leaders. Unfortunately, the lack of systems thinking seems to be the biggest weakness in leaders today. Maccoby points out that the most successful leaders in human history possessed the strategic intelligence skills set and were all system thinkers.

Although developed with a private sector organisation in mind, this strategic intelligence system is also perfectly valid in the context of a government on local, regional or national level. Local, regional and federal/national decision makers also need certain abilities – and intelligence – to be able to look into the possibilities of the future and take decisions based upon the findings.

Concept of Strategic Intelligence, (Maccoby 2007)

Foresight

Foresight is the ability to understand to see signals and recognize the forces that are driving changes and creating new trends that can disrupt the environment organisations are functioning in. Being aware of the various possible futures allows organizations to make the most of changing circumstances instead of undergoing them. Projected upon a societal context, urban foresight – or urban futures studies – enables us to look at the future of the city through different lenses.

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) and the European Political Strategy Centre of the European Commission are already applying foresight techniques to look into the longer-term impact of policies and technologies on the EU level. A wonderful example is the Future of Government project of the JRC that is exploring new governance models adapted to the needs and requirements of citizens and society.

Foresight is not some kind of magical power that allows us to look into the future, but it is a way to anticipate different possible futures and form a basis to discuss on which future a group would like to work towards. It is a participatory process that is performed through bringing together a maximum amount of different viewpoints and expertise. The future is never here so can always be created.

We intend to go deeper into the subject of urban foresight in a next article.

Visioning

The ability to conceptualize a preferred future state based on foresight methods and create a process to engage others to implement it.

Of course, ideally the visioning process in itself on the government level is also shared with as many stakeholders as possible. It requires a balance between ideologically coloured visions of politicians and visions of citizens, businesses, civil society and other actors that have stakes in the city, the region or the country. The role of government is essentially to do the balancing and to consolidate the vision into one shared preferred future state.

Motivating and Empowering

The ability to motivate different people to work together to implement a vision.

In a governmental context this means not only to motivate people working in public service to implement the elements of the government strategy or of the vision, but to motivate each and every actor to work together, regardless of their specific agendas. Empowering also means to create mental space to allow for civil servants to take initiative in society, but also to allow civil society organisations, businesses and individual citizens to act upon the shared vision for the future of the city, region or country.

Partnering

The ability to develop strategic alliances with individuals, groups and organizations.

In a city context partnering is extremely important and a prerequisite to convince and motivate organisations and individuals to work together to achieve the shared vision. The quadruple helix city making partnership that we have described elsewhere and tried out in Ghent is a good example of how to put this ability in practice.

Leadership Philosophy and Personality Intelligence

The four elements of Strategic Intelligence are held together as a cohesive system by Leadership Philosophy and Personality Intelligence.

Each of the four elements of Strategic Intelligence depend on both Leadership Philosophy and Personality Intelligence. Deep self knowledge; knowledge of others, and a clearly articulated purpose, set of values, principles, and beliefs prepare leaders to look into the future, focus on relevant trends, and create a systemic vision.

They bring this vision to reality by recruiting and developing strategic and operational partners who complement their skills, support the vision, and share the philosophy. Through Personality Intelligence, they apply an understanding of the values of those partners and are able to motivate and empower them to collaborate, to achieve a shared purpose. (Maccoby and Scudder, 2011).

How to organise strategic intelligence in a government administration?

Strategic intelligence and creative bureaucracy go hand in hand. Post-weberian bureaucracy and post-npm governance is necessary to install strategic intelligence as an integral part of our government organisations. Administrations and governments as open and facilitating actors in a networked society instead of controlling, closed and managed inward-looking organisations are ideal environments for strategic intelligence to have the most impact. It also asks for very strong political leadership that believes in long term thinking and is capable of systems thinking, and a strong collaboration culture between politicians and leaders in the administration.

Strategic intelligence can be organised. As Chief Strategy Officer of a city administration it was my job

  • to stimulate politicians to think further than the next elections: by using foresight, visioning strategic planning and design thinking instruments and techniques
  • to convince my colleagues in the city administration – and beyond – to work together to try to achieve the shared long term vision and the shared strategy for the city: by using strategic planning, strategic management, programme and project management tools, by creating networks and coordination mechanisms
  • and to organise and structure the gathering of data and information that is needed to constantly develop scenarios, strategies and underpin decision making: through ecosystem building, and mainly by listening to citizens, civil society, businesses, academia, and looking for European and international evolutions and trends.

The organisational structure that we had set up to make this possible was aimed at bringing together all the different elements of strategy and intelligence: data and input from citizens, businesses, academia, other European and international cities, European and international institutions combined with capacity for supporting and enabling visioning, strategy making and above all city making. The ultimate goal was always the greater good and the better future for the city and its citizens.

In conclusion: let’s bring more strategic intelligence in government. Our future needs it.