[LEARNING INSIGHTS] Labor omnia vincit 4

It took only one heartbeat to say yes when the CEF asked me to be their first guest blogger.

But it took several heartbeats in order to come up with a fitting topic.

Should it be about the issues that we are discussing right now at the Ministry of Finance in the Netherlands to get a better public finance system, like:
– is it good to have a greater local tax area for the municipalities, or
– what is the added value of accruals in addition to a cash-commitments system?

Or about blended learning?
For example I recently read an article stating that the next great internet company around 2030 will be a company that gets learning and MOOCs (massive open online course) just right but with a little twist: the instructors won’t be humans beamed through videos. They’ll be bots, and they’ll be smart enough to personalize each lesson plan to the student sitting in front of the screen. What is the implication of this for our work on capacity building?

Or perhaps about my personal work this year, such as:
– setting up a robust system for reporting in the financial offices in the Dutch departments, or
– helping civil servants to set their first steps in becoming part of data-driven culture.
Then it struck me: all these choices and so much work resembles starting my career at the university. Back in the eighties, the chemistry department put on quite a show with explosions and nicely colored liquids to attract new students. The physics department tried to win new students by luring them to a big particle accelerator. In the mathematics department, however, it was quiet and they showed nothing but a medallion with the adage of the oldest mathematical society in the world: een onvermoeide arbeid komt alles te boven (untiring labor overcomes all).
Back then, it seemed to be the most honest way to describe work at the university, so I chose mathematics. Later I learned that this medallion is the Dutch equivalent of a Nobel prize for mathematics.

Fast forward to December last year, when I was in Ljubljana to give several workshops for the Strengthening Budget Execution Course
At some point, one of the participants asked, “When will it be enough? We must do so many things to run the country. Apart from the regular work of the Ministry of Finance there are all these new public reforms and PFM scores we have to adhere to.”

The sincerest answer is that there will always be a new topic with new work associated with it, right around the corner.

Digging a bit deeper, the real question was about the amount of work and the heartfelt wish to deliver longtime products of high quality one could be proud of, not just adding another project to a list that is already full.

Johnny Cash used to sing:

My mother used to tell me I should take it slow
The pace is not what matters, it’s the direction that you go
Keep your feet upon the path and your eyes upon the goal
You’ll have all the joy a heart could ever hold

So, maybe one way to overcome the concerns uttered at the workshop is to not think of work as a large series of discrete projects, with sharp beginnings and ends, but as a smaller number of continuous workstreams based around products, with stable teams assigned to each of these workstreams.
The teams could then be responsible for the long-term care and value of the product: not in terms of what was delivered for a particular “project” but in terms of how much value the product is providing to the public finance system, year in and year out.

Instead of funding being apportioned each year in a large block of “projects”, with specific features and benefits defined up-front attached to that funding, we could move towards a model with pipelines of funding assigned to various “products” or workstreams, based on how valuable and strategic they are or are expected to be. It is then up to the “product owners” to use funding wisely over the course of the year, adjusting as they go. Locking funds into pre-defined benefits and features give teams no scope to pivot as they discover new information.

With the first month of 2017 already behind us and eleven months ahead, I’d like to ask you to add two more items to the list of things to do in 2017.

First, give a go to the idea of continuous workstreams with products that team members can be proud of. Is it possible in your situation?

Second, please talk with our collaborators and students about what makes them proud and their hearts tick, because that will be the real foundation of capacity building.

It would be great to see their answers in the comments below.


About Rense Posthumus

Rense Posthumus works for the Ministry of Finance in the Netherlands. His background lies in mathematical systems and modeling. Since 2009, he works in the budget office as a policy advisor. Beforehand, he was the first information architect of the Ministry of Finance. A leading element in his career is the presentation and combination of HRM and financial data. In 2012, he was the project manager for harmonizing the cost types across all ministries, and he also helped to introduce a new system of accountable budgeting: http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/governance/introducing-accountable-budgeting_budget-12-5k455r12vs37 for the presentation of the Dutch budget memoranda. In recent years, he has been a driving force for making the budget more transparent and releasing it in the form of open data.

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