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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.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the transformation of the military is less to do with hardware, and terms such as ‘jointness’ or ‘multidimensional manoeuvre’, but about social and organisational structures.

And that includes the role of women in the military:

But the Iraq insurgency obliterated conventional battle lines. The fight was on every base and street corner, and as the conflict grew longer and more complicated, the all-volunteer military required more soldiers and a different approach to fighting. Commanders were forced to stretch gender boundaries, or in a few cases, erase them altogether.

Perhaps the status, command and roles undertaken by women can be used as one indicator of the evolution of Western militaries beyond the traditional, conventional, Napoleonic paradigm—and even of willingness to engage in the heavy lifting of counter-insurgency.

Brought up as an old-school Army warrior, Mr. Baumann said he had seriously doubted that women could physically handle infantry duties, citing the weight of the armor and the gear, the heat of Baghdad and the harshness of combat.

“I found out differently,” said Mr. Baumann, now chief financial officer for St. Paul Public Schools in Minnesota. “Not only could they handle it, but in the same way as males. I would go out on patrols every single day with my battalion. I was with them. I was next to them. I saw with my own eyes. I had full trust and confidence in their abilities.”

Mr. Baumann’s experience rings true to many men who have commanded women in Iraq. More than anything, it is seeing women perform under fire that has changed attitudes.

These are not lessons easily learned, or transformation understood, by militaries that carefully constrain their involvement in such engagements.

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)

Ken MacLeod on surveillance in science fiction:

… we can identify three phases: pressing down, spreading out, and hacking back. In the first phase, pervasive surveillance is a feature of dystopia. In the second, it becomes a default feature of most imagined future industrial societies. In the third, the emphasis is on ways in which citizens can subvert rather than evade surveillance (the perfect example being Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother – I can’t remember whether I put Paul McAuley’s Whole Wide World, perhaps the most thorough recent SF exploration of surveillance, in the second or the third group). 

In the course of the talk I mentioned some relevant bits of my own work, for instance the significance of small cheap video cameras, referred to in The Star Fraction as making torture difficult to keep secret. I hadn’t, however, predicted that the torturers would use the cameras to make their own home movies.

It was only after I’d finished the presentation that I realised that the three phases could be neatly mapped to the increasing cheapness and availability of the technology of surveillance and data processing: from being only available to states, to being available to large companies, to being mass consumer items. 

The Star Fraction is a great book.

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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June 2017
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