We are told that government is transforming itself. The public sector is changing into a ‘public purpose’ sector. More of the service outcomes we expect should be co-produced, across complex delivery chains, which are more connected and collaborative. Success often depends on nudging the behaviours of citizens, communities and businesses. Prevention is increasingly the mantra, empowering people with the tools they need, addressing problems quickly and providing services in settings that suit needs.
Rules are slowly being changed to harness technology in a way that works for everyone. The promise is that innovative technologies provide an opportunity to move past a choice between improving outcomes, shifting costs on to individuals or increasing pressure on staff. They are a catalyst for greater connectivity and empowerment. Not only saving time and money but enhancing public value.
But there still seems to be an inverse relationship between the transformation rhetoric and the reality. Many of the traditional government tools, which emphasise predictability, control and distinct accountabilities, struggle to address ‘wicked challenges’ that are fluid, interconnected and unpredictable.
Public services are struggling to adapt to new demands in a world characterised by speed, intensity and connectedness. They are driven by short-term demands for results and a political fix, which undermines the ability of government to make the larger system work more effectively.
Productivity has gone up mainly by doing ‘more of the same’ rather than through reform. The easiest savings have been made and choices are getting harder. As the Institute for Government recently commented, ‘governments cannot continue for long to provide the same services by simply muddling through, with dollops of emergency cash’.
What does this mean in practice? And what are the implications for the reform of public services?
First, progress has been made when using digital tools to improve many of the more transactional dimensions of government. Improvements have been made to the convenience, speed and efficiency. However, too often complexity is resulting in technology silos and a miss-match with business needs. Transformation demands more radical change across operations, processes and technology. Digital thinking and technologies have to be tightly woven into the fabric of government. Simply replacing an existing manual operation with a digital one is NOT a viable approach.
Second, new demands are being placed on the ability of public services to combine the best available skills, expertise and resources – inside government and outside in the business, academic and community sectors – and point that firepower at the right place to achieve a transformative shift. A more discerning conversation is required about the best way of achieving policy, regulatory and service delivery outcomes. Including the role of private and community sector organisations in reform of public services.
Third, we are now used to platform business models that respond to the potential of distributed networking with organisations, institutions and individuals. Yet government is constrained by an age-old culture of centralised or, at best, decentralised structures. It needs to work out which approach – centralised, decentralised or distributed – makes most sense for different tasks and contexts.
Fourth, we all want solutions that are simpler, integrated and responsive to people and their lives. So we need to reconnect policy making and delivery. Which means that delivery people are ‘in the room’ from the start of the policy process. In particular, government has to confront the reality that much of the most important information needed for good policy making is to be found through interactions with frontline staff, customers and citizens.
Fifth, trust in government is in short supply. And many private and community sector organisations appear out of touch. Being more open, responding to citizen and user concerns, becoming more transparent are all part of the solution. But the work of trust rebuilding is unspectacular and slow. It relies on leadership, daily habits, and clear thinking.
Success will be difficult but not impossible. It requires government to think about the long term. And then invest in more collaborative and evidence based ‘platforms’. This type of change depends on transparency, of purpose and approach, so that we do not just observe what is happening but at least want to know why.