Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Unconference: Discovering the CEC process

There is an unfortunate assumption in much of the discourse that it is the system that perpetuates good or poor governance. In this perspective, the system exists without people in it. The CEC proposes an alternative solution: focus on the people in the system to create transformational change. Integrate personal and organizational development for overarching societal development. The last day and a half of the unConference was an opportunity to explore this notion as a means of creating transformational change to ensure better service delivery.

Morning plenary speakers emphasized the importance and the urgency of changing the public sector and the importance of empowering employees to do so. The question became: would the conference participants internalize these messages and make the connections necessary to themselves further become agents of change? The World-CafĂ©-style round tables around the topic of ‘challenges’ facing the public sector gave participants a chance to brainstorm, play with and engage in interactive exercises. It was a clever design that enabled people to consider these challenges for themselves and with one another. ‘Trust’ – within departments, between departments, and with the larger community was a clear challenge. It was easy for participants to come up with images of the ‘stereotypical bureaucrat’ who was only there for the stable salary.

During the session on challenges, I wondered if the participants really ‘got it’. It was hard to tell. Participants laughed at the farmers when they got upset at the officials (in what was actually a slightly elaborated role play) for not paying attention to their needs and for blaming them for their problems instead of helping them. Their laughter did not sit easily with me. The ‘old values’ of the bureaucracy sat heavily in the room. I wondered if they believed that change was actually possible – even though they said it was.

Talking is easier than taking responsibility. Sometimes participants talked as if they were talking about someone else, with a slight smile and a cynical nod of their head, as if they themselves had neither responsibility nor agency. It took a student in the audience to point out the Elephant of Corruption that was lurking somewhere in the middle of the room – and a few of the stronger leaders to acknowledge it and her.

Later, there was a play acted out by individuals who had participated in the CEC’s notable Change Management workshops. The play demonstrated how one civil servant took the CM workshop and subsequently grew closer to the farmers and his family. It was powerful and demonstrated a strong shift in the values of the main character. Those playing in it had, indeed, had this particular experience. They were exposing themselves to the larger audience of their peers and supervisors.

This was followed by discussing the outcomes of the Change Management program. This included the evaluation from the Values Survey that we had done. We found that values that we associated with technocratic bureaucracy decreased. The various value-themes associated with humanizing the bureaucracy increased. Firming foundational values and the re-alignment of individual and organizational values towards the social good followed. We had the fortune of two people who had taken the surveys at our table, to share about how their values had shifted as a result of the workshop. Our evaluation was nicely complimented by a community-evaluation that affirmed that the relationships with the community had actually increased.

Later, there was a chance for the participants to actively explore the process by which this occurred. Here, the space of truth that lies at the heart of the CEC process, the Muttram space, was revealed. The Muttram is an alternative space where people could be themselves. In it, they break down the hierarchy and with it the rules and regulations that shape so much of the habitual and well-engrained behavior that prevents the needed innovation. This was a level of deep ‘employee’ engagement hinted at by the members of the private sector during the plenary discussions. Here, however, this is not done for the sake of improving the profit of the business: it is about improving delivery of water for the poorest. That teleos brought to the Muttram space an urgency and the capacity for change. In the Muttram space a new trust was created. Trust in themselves, in one another and in their surroundings.

Here, then, was a solution at work: changing the people at work through creating a new ‘Muttram Space’ based on the traditional courtyard spaces of joint-family living arrangements where trust and truth can gain dominance over dishonesty, disease and following-the-rules. This led to a shift in their identities – their values, worldviews and how they related to one another. Shifting their worldviews shifted the questions they asked. Shifting the questions shifted the solutions. There was a strong focus on changing themselves – a focus on creating agency. Done within the mandate of better service delivery, and within the context of their fellow officers it was not ‘another self-help workshop’ but instead a process to enable better service delivery.

CEC is primarily a voluntary organisation. In a system ubiquitous for its corruption, voluntary work by civil servants for the community is rare. At the moment, the CEC has over a thousand active members throughout the state. They support one another in building strong relationships with the farmers, leading to better innovation and appropriate action. This resonated with the plenary speakers in the private sector who emphasized the importance of ground-level innovation.

Celebration and awards are critical aspects of any social change endeavor. The CEC offers no financial compensation to its members. It does, however, recognize strong leadership through pins of excellence. At the end of the conference, several change-agents were awarded these pins before those gathered. Each of them held the self-confidence and dignity that comes not from external recognition but from having undergone an internal process of change and accomplished real results that mattered to those whom they served. To my mind, knowing that these pins are only given out to those who had shown real leadership at the community level, these were the real heros of the conference.

Their work is only possible because they trust one another. They have engaged in a form of values shift. Through building this social capital they are able to better respond to complex change. To be successful, this needs the support of senior officials, further experimentation and further consolidation.

One model of transformation offered during the conference was ‘de-freeze, un-freeze, freeze and re-freeze’. It sounded like a rather cold and frigid model to me. What came out of the conversations and experiential processes of the UnConference was not a rigid model but a warm – even hot and uncomfortable - dynamic, living one. There was nothing easy about what they were doing. But it was easy to tell those who had gone through the CM process from those who had not. It was the look in their eyes. A look of life.

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