The fascination of jigsaw puzzles

Information is required for understanding the world around us, for decision making, and for preparing for the future. We need to know the big picture, but as well – to a certain degree – the bits and pieces it’s made of. In addition, the connections and interactions of these pieces are of most importance. Quite often it is like we are building a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces are scattered all around, not knowing whether they will ever be found. Some of the pieces are still to be created – and simultaneously the world around us is changing, thus modifying the picture we are building.

Last autumn a group of NAOF experts worked with a quite interesting puzzle: the aim was to draw a big picture of the development work of the Finnish public governance over the years, of the approaches applied, and of what kinds of audits have been carried out to review and support the development. Obviously, quite a few thoughts and ideas about the future challenges, hopes, and expectations were also brought into the discussion during the process.

The work took place in close cooperation with people either working in the administration or developing the administration and governance. The discussions, workshops, and other contacts added remarkably to the information derived from reports, audits, and other written sources. The picture about the past, today, and the future was enriched with perspectives, dimensions, and depth. The results of the work were published in early February as a NAOF publication entitled “Perspectives” (in Finnish only). – Warm thanks to all who participated in the process!

Our puzzle-building involved a number of choices to be made along the way. What to do when pieces are missing, when there is a risk of gaps in the picture? Or when some of the pieces are more blurred than others and some even too abundant with details? Shall we carry on searching for the missing parts, filling in the information gaps, or to what degree should we accept the holes in the picture? Do the missing or uneven parts prevent us from getting a good enough picture to answer the question or solve the problem currently at hand? The balance between costs and benefits is also relevant. It can happen that, compared to the extra work required, the additional information or details gained can be of minimal value – in some cases, even of negative value.

On the other hand, the missing or blurred pieces can help us to identify things which need further research, exploration, or attention. The keys to approach the unknown can be found in the nearby pieces: which known things are the gaps related or connected to, how are they positioned in and how do they relate to the big picture?

Each problem solving or decision-making situation is different and thus requires a situational solution. This is quite neatly described in the detective novel Borkmann’s Point by Håkan Nessner. In this novel, chief inspector Borkmann considered the time aspect of investigation and maintained that there came a point where no more information was needed. On reaching that point, a superior detective knows enough to solve the case based on “some decent thinking”. Borkmann’s point also marked the difference between a good investigator and a bad one. A good detective tries to establish when that point is reached or passed; a bad one, lacking this ability, carries on unnecessarily. Similar ponderings are familiar in all decision making and expert work.

The more complex phenomena we are faced with, the more there are interactions and connections between the pieces, and the more essential it is to recognise the role and limits of information. In addition, the more important it is to apply different qualitative and quantitative methods and various approaches: research, statistics, auditing, expert analyses, and insight. The more complex and multi-valued questions we are faced with, the more important it is also to admit and address aspects related to values and attitudes.

The development of the Finnish public governance and administration has followed a rich and interesting path. Governance has changed over time along with changes in society, but it has also showed the way and given a direction to changes. Thus, public administration has fulfilled the core role designated to it: to support and ensure the functions and future of the welfare society. These basic aims are also the key elements of the brand-new strategy for the Finnish public administration, launched in December 2020.

The development and renewal of the Finnish public administration continues in strategies, working groups, and other initiatives and activities. The picture in tomorrow’s jigsaw puzzle is constantly drawn and painted, as the numerous pieces of the puzzle are being designed and made by various actors. Decisions made today determine how well the pieces will fit together in tomorrow’s big picture.

This invites us to continue cooperation, sharing, and interaction. Our joint goal is to ensure that the Finnish welfare society and public administration will compose a great big picture even in the future – a picture that is more than the sum of its pieces.

Author: Heli Mikkelä