God in the System - Uncertainty
Now more than ever Public Servants are grappling with how to deliver services into uncertain and volatile times; Christians have an important perspective on what the future holds.
“Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.” Proverbs 29:21
In recent months I have spent a lot of my time delivering Strategic Thinking training to Civil Servants across Whitehall. Although the people I am training are not in Whitehall; they are in bedrooms and at kitchen tables spread around the country. Because we live in extraordinary times, Civil Servants are having to grapple with some of the biggest challenges in their history whilst juggling some very unexpected organisational and personal challenges.
The times that we are working in have been characterised as ‘VUCA’ that is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. The challenge of how to respond is incredible and is stretching those within the system to their absolute limits. So, they reach out to be equipped and trained.
The fundamental problem that we engage with in Strategic Thinking training is that the future is unknowable, and therefore we can never be certain that our plans will prosper. Ministers demand clarity, certainty, and ‘future-proofing’. The media and the public demand ‘answers’. Experts argue over the nature of the question. Meanwhile civil servants get caught in the cross-fire. Never has the need to balance Evidence, Politics and Delivery (The ‘Policy Venn’) been more important or more impossible.
So how does it change our perspective to know the one who holds the future in His hands, and who promises that it is not our plans, but His purposes that will stand?
“But the plans of the lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations.” Psalm 33.11
In this blog I want to share my thoughts on the skills that make effective strategic thinkers, and how our faith equips us well for this task and for this season…
Good strategic thinkers understand complexity, that is the interconnected, relational and unpredictable nature of the problems that we deal with. They find ways to navigate purposefully through this complexity, holding the big picture in their mind and communicating vision clearly to the teams they work with. As Christians we have learned to live connected and relational lives, we are part of a global community connected by a common faith and purpose. Our knowledge of the sweeping history of God’s people through the ages grounds us; this meta-narrative gives context for our current times.
Good strategic thinkers know that they need to be ready to adapt. As Christians we often speak about ‘holding plans lightly’ because we have become familiar, if not comfortable, with the concept that we don’t control our own destinies. We become more adaptable and more flexible in the way that we approach life. For many of us our faith has taught us to be reflective and we are ready to learn from our experiences. This ‘growth’ mindset, something that we learned in Sunday School, is now being taught across the Public Sector as a resilience and wellbeing tool. The thing I love about Public Policy is the sense of possibility; that things can, do and will change. For me this sense of hope of redemption and restoration resonates with the tangible good news of the gospel.
“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” Isaiah 43:19
Good strategic thinkers find ways to embrace the challenge of uncertainty rather than being paralysed by fear of the future. As Christians we have a unique security in our own future that should bring a liberty to our lives on this earth. As God sends his people out in Exodus 23 He says to them “See, I am sending an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.” I love how many times in scripture we meet angels commanding frightened people ‘Fear Not’. I imagine that the heavenly hosts are singing that over many Christians in the Public Sector right now! Jesus speaks to us in the same way that God spoke to the people of Israel, He goes ahead of us and prepares a way for us, saying: “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me… I am going to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:1)
When the tough times come, when uncertainty paralyses our system and the challenges seem overwhelming, this is the moment when we need faithful servants of the Lord to also be faithful public servants. To take the strength, freedom and resilience that God blesses us with, and put it to work for the public good. When we’re not sure what to do God simply commands us ‘stand firm’. Throughout the Old Testament when troubles came upon God’s people He said to them “stand firm” (Exodus 14:13, 2 Chronicles 20:17, Isaiah 7:9). These days require honesty and integrity. The public sector needs leaders and managers who are sure of their own identity and purpose who can speak clearly into complexity, show compassion under pressure and be hopeful about the future. Now is the time for us to stand firm.
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labour in the Lord is not in vain.” 1 Corinthian 15:58
My church building, like many others had a sign on it during lockdown: “This church is not closed, it has been mobilised.” We are the church mobilised into politics, law, the civil service and public life. We know the one who holds the future and whose plans cannot be frustrated; in these days I pray that God would give you the faith to stand firm and the courage to speak hope and certainty into chaos and ambiguity.