Barriers to Innovation and Reform: Part 3

This posting looks at the culture of public bureaucracies as one of the barriers to innovation and reform identified by Roberts Gates in his book, Passion for Leadership: Lessons on Change and Reform from Fifty Years of Public Service (1).

Anyone who has worked in a government agency knows that unspoken, yet strongly enforced, rules, customs, and conventions define the culture of an organization more than the sum of its written plans, policies, or procedures. Robert Gates describes risk avoidance and insularity as characteristics of the culture of public bureaucracies that are resistant to reform. In governmental public health, these traits may have arisen, in part, from continued assaults on the discipline. But they have now become defense mechanisms that are aiding the demise of public health practice.

Risk Avoidance

Dr. Gates notes that, “In a public environment of exposés, recrimination, faultfinding, and investigations both by officials and by the media, not acting is usually safer than acting—especially if the action involves something new or different (p. 16).” On the agency-level, I’ve seen fear of such scrutiny paralyze public health agencies. Fear of bad press is the most common source. Public health is fairly comfortable in its reactive interactions with the press, such as when it responds to outbreak investigations, but it’s the discipline’s limited proactive interactions that exemplify its fear of scrutiny.

Some public health practitioners hold the belief that the discipline should not bring attention to itself. Early in my career, I was told by a senior manager that no press meant public health was doing its job well. But even at that time, it seemed commonplace for a public health officer or a manager to reach out to the press about a particular issue. They took on an activist role. Today, however, media activities are tightly controlled. Only a handful of people, who are trusted to hold the party line, are allowed to be spokespersons. Image control is paramount. Public health leaders could be writing editorials about community health initiatives. (An online archival search of my state’s leading newspaper brought up only two opinion pieces written by a state health director since 2010.) They could speak to health and social justice issues or—heaven forbid—even brag about their agencies’ accomplishments. Instead, they keep silent and allow others to define their discipline, its value, and its future. In these days of fierce competition for health care dollars, if people don’t know what public health does for them, they will see no reason to fund it.

Risk avoidance on the individual-level is easy to spot in the daily work lives of public health personnel. It’s about:

  • One colleague warning others not to air their program’s ‘dirty laundry’ to a funder
  • Human resources personnel being afraid to act on long-standing complaints about bullying by an individual who has threatened lawsuits
  • A manager who is more concerned with her climb up the agency’s leadership ladder than helping one of her staff resolve a conflict with another manager
  • An administrator denying a request to submit a grant proposal because the topic might be too controversial
  • The milquetoast agency director who retains his political friends by never taking a stance or making a decision of consequence

A benefit to risk avoidance is that it serves to preserve the dysfunction of agencies by preventing anyone from looking too closely at how poorly they are run and how miserable are many of its personnel. Risk avoidance also reinforces an agency’s insularity.


Dr. Gates talks about how insularity reflects the conviction that no one outside of the institution can understand what they do, how they do it, and why they do it. He states that the near-total absence of competition in public bureaucracies enables and strengthens a fortress mentality. In my experience, insularity occurs most strongly between programs within a poorly functioning organization, and it results in all the nasty politics (from lies to backstabbing) and consequences (from tolerating incompetence to sabotage) that result from fighting for scarce resources or greater personal power and status.

What I have found most surprising about the power of insularity, however, is how day-to-day enemies became comrades-in-arms when a threat challenges the status quo of their agency. An investigation into harassment is a good example. The first action taken by the agency is to insist upon an internal investigation. Such investigations allow leadership to stall the process as long as necessary to wear down the complainant. Internal investigations also limit the risk that wrongdoing will be found. The second action taken is heartlessly impressive. Like a dysfunctional family, with each member knowing intuitively that they dare not break familial rules about protecting the abuser, the comrades-in-arms lay the blame on the complainant. They would rather protect the dysfunction of the agency, because it serves their needs well, than take an honest look at those who may be mistreating others.

Dr. Gates notes that the pervasive sense of uniqueness and superiority that comes along with insularity makes the job of a reformer much more difficult. Yet governors and legislators typically rely on just one person to reform an agency. In Oregon, for example, one poor fellow, who is viewed as a talented administrator, has been moved over a seven-month period from leadership positions in three major state agencies to address agency shortcomings (2, 3). Without taking a deep investigatory dive into an entrenched culture, relying on one person will, at best, provide only a short-term remedy. Crises will re-occur.

I imagine it would take a team of professionals in the areas of organizational assessment, psychology, and management to diagnosis and implement interventions for dysfunctional agencies. But it is unlikely that elected officials and administrators have the political stomach, interest, or patience for such an in-depth process. They would also likely cite a burdensome cost. But what are the long-term costs with regard to employee well-being, retention, and productivity if effective action is not taken? This is a topic I will research further because I would like to know if it is possible to turn around entrenched agencies. Dr. Gates says yes, but please send examples my way, if you are aware of any success stories.


In parts one to three of these postings, we looked at the following barriers to reform and innovation:

  • Public bureaucracies report directly or indirectly to elected officials
  • Elective bodies with oversight responsibilities are unreliable, unpredictable, and even irresponsible when it comes to the lifeblood of public institutions—funding
  • The quality of the individuals elected or appointed to fulfill oversight roles of institutions is uneven
  • Bosses measure personal success by the size of their empires
  • Risk avoidance and insularity are characteristics of the culture of public bureaucracies resistant to reform

A common thread runs through these barriers, and it is our willingness to put self-interests above the collective good. Somewhere along the line, we learned to value political posturing, gamesmanship, and greed in our public agencies above doing what is right. Dr. Gates states, “Because we actually do need government, failure to fix it imposes huge financial costs in terms of incompetence, time wasted, and inefficiency…(p. 6)” In public health agencies, important work that needs to get done is not getting done, and the consequences to communities and to our discipline are significant.

I would like to thank Dr. Gates for writing about the barriers to reform and innovation. People working in dysfunctional agencies who attempt to raise such concerns are often sidelined. Then they begin to question themselves and their perspectives in those crazy-making environments. To have a man of Dr. Gates’ stature and experience speak publically about these barriers is refreshing and validating.

Your turn

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  1. Gates, R. A passion for leadership: lessons on change and reform from fifty years of public service. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 2016.
  2. Friedman, G. Clyde Saiki to ‘continue progress’ at Oregon DAS. Statesman Journal, Nov. 3, 2015. Available at: Last accessed Mar. 21, 2016.
  3. Friedman, G. Gov. Brown appoints Saiki as Oregon DHS director. Statesman Journal, Mar. 15, 2016. Available at: Last accessed Mar. 21, 2016.

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