Organisational memory loss impacts negatively on the performance of government agencies. It can lead to weaknesses in policy, service delivery and the craft of the public servant. By understanding its causes, public sector organisations can reduce memory loss.
This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG's ongoing special Research Series and featured in The Drop – ANZSOG and the Mandarin’s research newsletter. Sign up to receive The Drop.
In a paper for the journal, Governance, Alistair Stark (University of Queensland) discusses organisational memory loss in government agencies from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. The article outlines four reasons leading to institutional amnesia: organisational churn, absorptive capacity, strategic forgetting and historical storytelling.
Organisational memory loss impacts negatively on the effectiveness of government agencies. It is:
The research involved an analysis of four case studies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK. Each case related to a public inquiry that investigated a crisis.
The case research was accompanied by 100 interviews with ministers, policy officials, and public sector leaders involved in the cases. Four explanations for institutional amnesia emerged from the study: organisational churn, absorptive capacity, strategic forgetting and historical storytelling.
The most common view of amnesia from interviewees related to the churn government agencies experience because of staff throughput and restructuring. Different types of bureaucratic organisations have different rates of memory loss.
Themes in the data related specifically to three organisational types:
This relates to the ability of an organisation to institutionalise change. When an organisation can hardwire new reforms into its pre-existing machinery, reforms do not get lost or stuck before they are embedded. The research identified two factors that can affect the ability of an organisation to implement new reforms:
The research interviews identified two types of wilful amnesia:
Institutional amnesia can be reduced when officials engage in storytelling about the “why” behind how things are done. The existence of storytellers—individuals who hold and communicate the story of each crisis and the lessons of each inquiry—was repeatedly defined as important in the case interviews.
Institutional amnesia can undermine the performance of public sector agencies in policy, service delivery and reform. Initiatives that can enhance organisational memory within government need to be a priority for public managers in order to prevent this memory loss.
Explaining institutional amnesia in government – Alastair Stark, Governance, Volume 32, Issue 1