Questions, Answers, and Problem Solving in the Public Sector: Action Learning Can Transform the Way Decisions Are Made within an Agency, and Improve the Processes by Which an Agency Operates

By Rahaman, Andrew | Talent Development, March 2016 | Go to article overview

Questions, Answers, and Problem Solving in the Public Sector: Action Learning Can Transform the Way Decisions Are Made within an Agency, and Improve the Processes by Which an Agency Operates


Rahaman, Andrew, Talent Development


Action learning is a familiar concept in the private sector, where experience is leveraged, diverse ideas are explored, and reflection is supported to keep fast-moving organizations nimble. And increasingly, its potential to create a collaborative, peer-to-peer problem-solving environment is introducing flexibility and strengthening leadership decisions in the public sector as well.

Action learning is the consummate learning-while-doing experience, built on the idea that when workers are encouraged to ask open-ended questions they will explore solutions to solve urgent and real problems rooted in the context of their work. Although action learning has been used successfully across a wide array of industries in the private and nonprofit sectors, the theory and practice of action learning holds particular value for public agencies.

In the public sector, action learning manifests itself slightly differently than in the private and nonprofit worlds. Many government agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of the Interior, are much larger than private-sector organizations. These massive government agencies have well-organized structures for reporting and decision making. The beauty of action learning in the public sector is its ability to weave knowledge throughout these organizational structures to the entire agency.

In fact, action learning creates leaders at all agency levels, all of whom are empowered to solve problems creatively and quickly by reaching across the agency to gain diverse perspectives. This ability is critically important, particularly in government agencies, which are often viewed as slow to respond to internal issues, and are bogged down with a "that's how we've always done it" mentality. By incorporating multiple perspectives, action learning ensures a solution will have broad support from the agency, rather than relying on directives passed down from higher-ups.

An effective strategy

Many agencies already have seen the benefits of enacting an action learning program. Back in the early 2000s the National Institutes of Health enacted an action learning initiative as part of a larger leadership development program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also used action learning in a leadership development capacity, as well as part of an executive leadership skills program. The U.S. Department of the Interior used action learning as part of a senior leaders forum for them to solve their organizational challenges and to their own development. Other agencies have used action learning to create coherent on-boarding programs, streamline agency processes to improve overall efficiencies, and ensure that all stakeholders are represented and satisfied.

From my experience as an actively practicing executive leader coach, faculty member at American University, and leadership facilitator/executive coach for the Center for Creative Leadership, and having spent 26 years in government service, I've come to understand that the challenges leaders in government agencies face at the individual, team, and organizational level are multifaceted across a complex and interdependent operating environment. The challenges agencies often must overcome include:

* working across stakeholder boundaries

* developing an enterprise-wide perspective

* operating in an ambiguous environment

* adapting to shifting strategies as the external and internal pressures change

* creating the conditions for adaptive change to develop leaders and their team

* creating commitment and leadership at all levels of the organization.

Action learning is a proven and effective methodology to address these challenges by sharing individually held information and experiences in a group. It's also an effective process for change at an enterprise level-for the leader, the team, and the agency as a whole.

What sets action learning apart from other training formats is that participants are encouraged to ask questions instead of assuming that they alone have to solve the problem. …

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