Successful public service transformation – what works and why?

Everyday governments face the question – evolve or transform? Focus on well-defined shifts in ways of working within one department. Or radically transform government through new technology enabled business models.

Public service transformation was the subject of a recent Institute for Government (IfG) roundtable, sponsored by Sopra Steria, where senior civil servants identified principles for successful transformation. A lack of focus or clear objectives, inadequate resources, unrealistic timescales, departmental silos, limited insight from service users, unpredictable and changeable political agendas. The reasons for failed transformation programmes were many and varied.

But there were examples of successful transformation. Civil servants cited automatic enrolment to workplace pensions (more people are now saving for retirement), Getting it Right the First Time (reducing unwarranted variations in medical care) and Making Tax Digital (digitising the reporting of tax). There were also many examples – such as Universal Credit, NHS Vanguards and School Academisation – were it is just too early to reach a sound judgement. Transformation can take time.

In reality, high performing government agencies do resemble well-run companies. Both have worthy goals; well designed, rational processes; strict accountability; and effective leaders. But the profound differences in their purposes, their cultures and the contexts within which they operate conjure up different obstacles.

Transformation across government is arguably more difficult than the private sector. It is not possible to exclude a ‘difficult’ service user. Priorities change with new political leadership. Traditional structures tend to be hierarchical rather than flexible and agile. There is increasing political and media oversight. And there might be public opposition to novel efficiency initiatives such as remote video hearings or online pleas for minor offences or even divorce applications.

This means that transformation, through flexible new operating models designed around users and data, requires new thinking across government. Civil servants told us there was no ‘magic bullet’. Instead there is a need for empowered teams that deliver an agreed vision and work through a detailed plan. They have cross government support to remove systems and structures that undermine progress. There is a willingness to experiment, with pilots and early wins building credibility. And incentives, positive and negative, drive behaviours, including ‘invest to save’ schemes and the use of behavioural insights.

The suggestions made will play a formative role in the development of a ‘Transforming Public Services – 2020 and beyond’ research programme. I’d welcome comment on the this or any other issues raised in this post. And you might want to know more about our recent research with NIESR, where we asked whether the recent more upbeat assessment of the public sector finances was realistic.

Published by

Philip Craig

I am the Government Sector Strategy Director at Sopra Steria. My background is in the public (central and local government) and private (consultancy) sectors. I have an interest in public policy, technology and public service reform.

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