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From Tyler Cowan’s notes on meeting Bill Gates:

10. Gates understands the very high returns from better governance, but also sees it is not trivial to reap them.

Asked what they do, most public servants will talk in terms of positions in the hierarchy, or perhaps reflecting, broadly, the words in their position description.

But work (perhaps I should capitalise it: Work) is a much misunderstood concept, particularly—but not exclusively—in the Australian Public Service. Much work is hidden from formal view, and sometimes from the ‘public face’ of the organisation or sub-organisational group.

We can think of work in in two dimensions, transparency and formality, as set out below. Formal, open work is that described in position statements. Formal, behind-the-scenes work—such as team-building and collaboration—may be acknowledged in position statements.Work and reform

Informal work includes the ‘articulation work’ needed to adjust in the face of shifting, often unexpected circumstances, to work around problems and roadblocks, to deal with the consequences of distributed teams and changing understandings, and to get back on track (Star and Strauss 1999). Articulation work is likely to be non-discretionary—it’s needed to get the job done—but unrecognised.

When there is a misfit between the formal, overt expression of work and the actual work needed, articulation work increases. And as technology changes and cultural norms within the workplace evolve, articulation work increases.

The difficulty for anyone experiencing a reform program is that such reform teams often only acknowledge the formal, overt expression of work—position descriptions, in public service terms. They may acknowledge, even encourage collaboration, but show no awareness of the articulation work needed to support successful change, collaboration, and the constant adjustment of the workplace.

A focus on position descriptions increases the likelihood of misfit, hence greater informal work, especially articulation work.

Granularising work into individual positions perpetuates the production line mentality that tends to prevail in the public service, particularly in the rigid hierarchies of Defence.

It encourages reform efforts to see work as a linear, stepwise production line in which individual components can made more efficient and streamlined—the fallacy of likening work to tyre changes in a pitstop. It focusses on outputs, not outcomes.

Such views of reform completely miss the point. Defence will remain broken until it sheds such rigid, brittle, antiquated strait jackets of thought. That includes the notion prevalent particularly in the military that so long as the process is right, good things automatically follow.

Work is an intensely social activity. It bears all the attributes of any social activity: it is intensely non-linear, involving trial and error, the testing of ideas, artefacts and relations against the expectations of superiors, colleagues, peers and norms, a mix of exploration, confluence and opportunism.

And work is highly contextual: the work—and its convergence of purpose, intensity, support, technologies, skills, experience, personalities, rewards—needed to change a tyre in a pitstop are just that, suited to change a tyre in a pitstop. They don’t easily transfer out of that context.

In contrast to that 60 or six seconds in a pitstop, policy advising and intelligence analysis are—or should be—rigorous, rounded, inquisitive, judgmental and creative. Aside from sitting uncomfortably within bureaucracies, these are attributes are not suited to a production-line, efficiency-oriented, output-focussed mentality.

How should such reform efforts proceed, then? First, the heads of reform programs would be well advised to seek a better understanding of work, of the different types of work and their contexts at a individual, a group and an organisational level. Second, they should avoid the rigidity of position descriptions, and encourage more freedom for teams to devise their own work behaviours. Third, recognition of the existence of articulation work—but not formalising it, as that detracts from adaptability—would help reform program and managers ensure teams and teams members at all levels are better supported.


Star, Susan Leigh and Strauss, Anselm (1999), ‘Layers of Silence, Arenas of Voice: The Ecology of Visible and Invisible Work’, Computer Supported Co-operative Work, 8, 9-30.

The pieces by Mahnken, Singer and Harp all point to an increasing dependence on information technology:

  • strategically, to help overcome weaknesses elsewhere (such as demographics);
  • operationally and tactically to secure battlefield advantage and in an effort to gain certainty; and
  • in terms of resourcing and capability, to enhance existing systems.

As Harp notes, the reliance on information technology to deliver an ‘edge’ now lies across a range of domains, from warfighter to strategic strike to counterinsurgency to humanitarian missions.  And increasingly the end-users of capability are ‘digital natives’  comfortable in information-saturated environments, who not only rely on information and social technologies, but expect those technologies in their work as well.

The use of information technologies increase the West’s dependence on immediacy as the dominant paradigm.  The effort to ‘get inside the OODA loop’ is an expression of immediacy, as is the collapse of time, space and hierarchy as generals seek to direct their lieutenants through real-time video.

Immediacy indeed can be useful in the tactical level, but its utility lessens as we move from the tactical through the operational to the strategic.  As we ascend the layers, immediacy becomes one of a range of considerations, such as positioning, sustainability, escalation (and de-escalation) and political ends.  A preference for speed risks excluding other means of shaping the environment and achieving strategic objectives.

In the Iraq invasion, a broader and heavier footprint was eschewed for speed and leadership decapitation.  Subsequent experience from both Iraq and Afghanistan emphasised the importance of slower, more patient understanding of change-resistant traditions, and of the time needed to build trust with communities.

Greater reliance on information technologies increases interconnectedness.  Considering organisation purely as information processes—a very IT-centric view—the behaviour of the organisation is a function of its network structure and the information-processing capability of its agents.  A completely connected structure—every agent connected to every other agent—would, one may think, have the highest possible processing capability.  But that would assume a) infinite processing capability on the part of the agents; b) immediate information transfer, with no delays or attenuation; c) completely accurate information.

None of those assumptions holds, of course.

People have limited processing capability, and we filter information and exclude data that does not fit with our preconceptions.  Even real-time systems suffer from delays, though they may be imperceptible–and data may take time to assemble itself into meaningful information.  Nor do we necessarily want the immediate to crowd out the important.

Moreover, we reinterpret data and information as it arrives and is processed—and errors creep in and are rapidly magnified through speed and linkages.  And information is contextual, and context doesn’t always translate easily through technology.  High degrees of interconnectedness increase system complexity and the chances that poor or simply wrong information will cascade across technological and social networks.

Such systems can be self-correcting, when, for example, individual agents have the ability (and authority) to self-correct, the wider context and information to self-correct, and there exists source in which they have sufficient degree of trust.  The latter, of course, is not necessarily the government or highest authority.

All this implies that to be effective, increased reliance on information technologies has to be accompanied with changes to social systems and organisation.  Social organisations are far more adaptable than brittle, complicated IT systems—and the more sophisticated the technical systems, the more fragile it is.  The popularity of current social networking technologies is that they are lightweight and match much more closely social organisation.  They don’t match top-down command and control or silo organisations.

Briefly, we can expect that information technologies, amongst other attributes, will

  • Enhance speed and immediacy as discussed—the challenge will be to avoid their temptations, but take the long view and choose their use wisely;
  • Allow the retrieval of past patterns of behaviours—both sides can build up ‘pattern libraries’.  Terrorists and insurgents already scout out targets using information retrieved from the internet and Google Maps; human terrain teams seek to understand and map the social environment in which the military operates.  Information technologies can capture conversations, traffic streams, local weather conditions, trade flows and so on ;
  • Reverses traditional command and control, both as illustrated by Singer, but also through enabling different means of organising (for example, swarms, ‘pop-ups’).  The need for human capital—skilled, experienced, and educated people, both military and civilians—will increase: it takes people to programs, understand, assess and make judgments on the vast streams of data enabled through technology; and
  • Obsolesce old platforms, as old platforms are made vulnerable by new technologies and, as Harp points out, advantage in a shift from platforms to systems  It also enables new capabilities to be developed, and implemented quickly.

China’s pollution problem: it could ‘put an abrupt end to China’s economic growth’ and there’s the minor matter of causing ‘mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout the world.’ (Mother Jones)

Programmable matter via DARPA (Danger Room, Wired)

The hollowing out of families and the middle class in American cities, resulting in ‘places that, despite celebrating diversity, actually could end up as hip, dense versions of the most constipated suburb imaginable.’  (The American)

Throwing at the batter‘–a baseball expression; I suppose the equivalent would be a bodyline ball–and its expression in the workplace (Pink Slip) 

12 of the world’s most fascinating tunnel networks (OOBjects, via BLDGBLOG)

So, some thoughts on the resignation of the Defence minister.

First and foremost, ministers depend on loyal, competent staff. 

Political advisers are needed to protect the minister from the internecine warfare between factions and white-anting by ambitious colleagues. 

Media advisers are needed to protect the minister from gossip and stories that, if they take hold, can create images that are hard to dispel. 

Policy advisers are needed to ensure the minister makes sound decisions and manages his portfolio responsibly, and that the department delivers sound policy advice and implements decisions as directed.  The latter is particularly important in Defence, given the way Defence is run by government in Australia.  Those policy advisers should be civilians who are knowledgeable and credible on Defence matters, with the good policy nous and experience needed to exercise sound judgment. 

With good staffers, a poor minister can manage to get by, while poor staffers can be the undoing of good ministers.  And the minister has to be able to trust his advisers: it’s fairly clear that was not the case here:

“I have at least two or three Judas’ in my midst, and they have the drip [sic] on me,” he said.

“Sadly, I’m not able to rule out my own ministerial office.”

But Defence demands more than simple trust between staff and minister, hard though that may be to achieve.  

Defence is hard.  Ministers have to be capable intellectually of getting across a broad, complex and difficult portfolio.  They have to be able to absorb and process a huge amount of diverse material addressing complex policy problems.  They have to understand and drive the the strategic and yet handle detail.  They have to exercise good judgment in time of crisis, and have the determination and insight to question the advice they receive.

Ministers have to be tough and willing to hang civilian and military officers out to dry, if need be.  And because of that, they must have the complete confidence and support of the Prime Minister.  While I’ve no doubt that Joel Fitzgibbon is an affable chap, the Defence minister must be more than a good bloke.  

Too often ministers are captured by the department, and in particular by the military.  The military are not backwards in ensuring the new minister gets to experience all the good things about capability–the thrills of fighter aircraft, the brute strength of tanks and the romance of ships.

And too often ministers are confounded by the inertia, bureaucracy and indifference of Defence, both civilian and military.

Like finding a good Defence secretary, finding a good minister is hard.  It should not be their first portfolio, and possibly not even their first Cabinet portfolio.  Smart, capable candidates know Defence is complex, intransigent and almost certainly a career-ending poisoned chalice. 

The danger then is that the prospects who want or are available for the job are quite likely wrong for the task at hand—but often desperation means that such choices are accepted.  We need a Robert Gates.  But even then, there is the argument that Defence–and I do not mean simply the organisation, but how we think about and govern Defence–is so broken that it does not matter how brilliant the minister, they will fail.  It should not be so, of course, but that’s a topic for a later post.

Some general advice and lessons learned (alas, not by me, though they make uncommonly good sense):

A reminder that cyber security is not all about the pipes, networks or software.

Good bureaucracy is a matter of doing small things well: reward ordinary competence and be wary of feats that come too easily.

A report from the UK Royal Academy of Engineering on synthetic biology:

“Many commentators now believe that synthetic biology has the potential for major wealth generation by means of the development of major new industries, much as, for example the semi-conductor did in the last century, coupled to positive effects for health and the environment.”

The effort needed to change the Australia defence organisation—whether in pursuit of policy adjustments or in order to find $20b in savings—should not be under-estimated.  Experience from both public and private sectors is that organisations have to make a substantial investment in order to achieve, and obtain the benefits from, change. 

And Defence has particular challenges typically not articulated in organisational assessments or change strategies.

First, there’s the inertia of history and of accepted norms, as well as the usual political, institutional, and bureaucratic resistance to uncertainty, novelty and change.  I speculated earlier about competition of organisational forms.  If nothing else bureaucracies are dogged competitors determined to ensure their ongoing existence.

Second, there’s the sunk costs in the form of large, often Cold War-era platforms, plus the manning and skills needed to operate support them.  Force structure and procurement have become prisoners of tradition, impeding innovation, generating a disconnect between old configurations and new systems and so adding to the spiralling costs of capability (Luttwak 2007).   

But that’s not the only dynamic. Over time, systems—whether cars, submarines, or pay systems—experience ‘structural deepening’ (Arthur 1993).  They become increasingly more sophisticated and complex, requiring ever increasing maintenance and specialisation, further entrenching both costs and special interests.

Third, there’s the inexorable pull of business as usual, or BAU.  The constant press of events, the increasingly fragmented nature of work (Mark, Gonzalez et al. 2005), combined with the news cycle and 24-hour media has led to an attention deficit disorder.  Policy-makers and managers find it hard to pay sufficient attention to the slow, the distant and the unlikely—and the sustained focus needed for successful change management.

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Kenneth Payne argues that unconventional, asymmetric and hybrid wars aren’t new, but that Western militaries have evolved away from that such warfare.  The challenges to the Western way of warfare have arisen have done so because of trends in society and changes to the nation-state.   

In particular, Payne argues that the post-modern Western military has arisen from the changing relationship between the citizen, states and soldiers.  So that now, 

western society and western militaries have discovered that they must fight foes who use ‘conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder’. And, being postmodern, their approach will necessarily differ from the colonial and imperial approaches of earlier times.

I wonder if there’s more to it.  If I recall correctly–I haven’t the book or my notes to hand, and so may have to correct myself later–Charles Tilly argued the modern state emerged because it offered the best means, through the concentration of capital and labour, to exert force.  

So perhaps there’s another dynamic at play.  Perhaps it’s possible that through globalisation, technological and societal change, and the ability to exert force in different ways, new stable and sustainable forms of organisation are emerging–have emerged–and are offering alternative, viable means to use force to greatest effect.   After all, there’s no reason why the nation-state should be the end point of evolution in human organisation.  If so, we are entering a time of considerable, and probably bloody, dynamism, as not simply states and non-state groups but organisational forms compete.

Tilly also noted that, confronted with something that didn’t look like a state, Western nations did their best to make sure that the entity became a state, that it was bought into the fold–or destroyed.   Certainly that has reflected conventional approaches.  In the past Western empires and states bought off and eradicated tribes and colonised voraciously.  We now seek to ‘reconstruct’ weak and broken states to look like us.  We seek to eliminate al Qaeda not simply because of the threat it poses to lives, but through its use of force it threatens directly the nation-state as dominant organising principle.  And at least one international relations scholar has suggested that the Caliphate should be restored so that nation-states can deal with an entity they recognise.  But if alternative organisational forms are strengthening, it will become harder to apply ‘conventional’ methods.  


Bell, C. (2007). The End of the Vasco de Gama Era: The Next Landscape of World Politics. Lowy Institute Paper. Sydney, Lowy Institute.

Tilly, C. (1990). Coercion, Capital and the European States AD990-1990. Cambridge, MA, Basil Blackwell.

Sean Gourley and colleagues developed and analysed a large data set of attacks and casualties across a number of conflicts looking for commonalities.  Gourley provided a brief overview of his work at TED recently:

Analysis of the data revealed a power-law, whereby the probability of an attack of resulting in x number of casualties equals a constant multiplied by x raised to the power of -α.  This points to an underlying structure to armed conflict, where moderated by the coefficient α.  Gourley et al argue that α reflects the organisational structure of the insurgency.  Values above 2.5 indicate a fragmented structure; values below 2.5 reflect a more consolidated structure.

Finding power laws in such data is not unexpected: there are many attacks with few casualties and few attacks with high number of casualties.  I looked at not dissimilar data, from different sources, a few years ago.

The ‘so what’ questions remains, as Gourley acknowledges.

Gourley et al considered the effects of the Iraqi surge.  They believed that consolidation at least offered the opportunity to negotiate with a group, and expected the surge to assist with consolidation.  In the event, under the surge groups initially did seem to coalesce, but then fragmented again.

A few points:

  • these results are robust across different conflicts, but each still has its own peculiarities, and while at a system-level, and over time, outcomes are consistent, it may be easily perturbed at a micro-level;
  • we don’t know what influences, or how to influence, insurgent (or non-state actors or mob) organisational dynamics to an outcome we want;
  • conflict is not a closed system, but open to a range of outside and transitional influences;
  • insurgent groups will interact and co-evolve with each other.  Perhaps there is some sub-system grouping that needs to be taken into account; and
  • technology will act as a mediator on the conflict, the nature and rate of fatalities, and insurgent group behaviour as well.

Last, the benefits or otherwise of coalesence versus fragmentation is contextual.  It is true that ending a civil war via negotiation depends on having someone, representative of the insurgency, with whom to negotiate, and that can be hard to achieve.  The emergence of such a party probably depends as much on dynamics internal to the insurgency as on external pressure.  Once achieved, such a position of strength may not translate easily into a willingness to negotiate.  But civil wars also often simply peter out, as the parties lose will, energy and resources.  When that happens, fragmentation may indicate such a transition.

So the results are of interest, but there is a way to go to generate some further insights and understandings.  I do note that Gourley’s group has been applying their ideas and findings to other areas; there may be some transfer back into the realm of conflict.


Collier, P. and N. Sambanis (2002). “Understanding Civil War: A New Agenda.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 46(1): 3-12.

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