This week marks my 29th year of working in Central Government.
Throughout my career I’ve always been an optimist, and that is one of the things that’s driven my slight obsession with delivery. To bring this to life a bit more, I’ve always believed that public services can:
- have a significant and positive impact on people’s lives. From the things we don’t see, like managing security, providing Justice to the more targeted areas such as information, advice, guidance and payments to people when needed.
- that these services can be provided quickly, that they are accessible to all, are kind and considerate, fair, efficient and personable.
- that the services can be easy to provide for the people delivering them. For people that serve the public everyday administration is efficient and effective, they have the right tools to do their jobs, are well supported and can focus on the important aspects of their jobs rather than managing cumbersome and inefficient processes.
- be something everyone can be proud of. Good services have a positive impact on individuals, groups, communities and society.
What are we aiming for?
Going back quite a few years (c2000–10) there was a coherent strategy and approach across government to improve outcomes for the public. This was underpinned by Spending Reviews and Public Service Agreements (PSA Targets). At the heart of this was a drive to link spend (and investment) with continuous improvement.
Think about outcomes as improving health, reducing crime, growing the economy, improving the environment, raising education levels, providing better housing, improving living standards…..the list goes on.
Despite the fact many of these outcomes can take years to realise and see the benefits come to fruition, there was a large part of changing culture in departments to effectively say the status quo wasn’t and isn’t good enough. So it led to developing strategies, supported with detailed delivery plans, and there was encouragement and incentives to embrace change and innovation, with a tad of disruption and more radical thinking.
There’s a good summary here; https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/sites/default/files/case%20study%20psas.pdf
Whilst some really good work was done, and there was a lot of money available and spent, for me one of the biggest shift changes in Government was the drive to break down departmental silos and force cross Department collaboration.
Linking targets (with all of their flaws), embedding Key Performance Indicators into delivery and focusing on things like performance data, cross departmental delivery plans, and a dedicated unit at the centre monitoring performance seemed to really work. Furthermore, having accountability at all senior levels definitely raised the bar on how public services were delivered.
Timing and Digital
A few years later, and with the formation of the Government Digital Service (GDS), User Centred Design, User Experience and all of the best practice of Digital/agile thinking was brought into Government.
There was a definite ripple, even a small wave, and over a few years every department embraced some elements of this new way of working. GDS even made some of Government ‘cool’ as they were able to do some things at scale and in ways that the private sector wasn’t able to. For a number of years lots of civil servants working in Digital were sought after in the private sector, lots of the work was reused and Government was able to slightly break out of its inferiority complex with the private sector.
For me, it’s interesting that at the same time as this was happening, there seemed to be a decline in the wider transformation/improvement strategy across government. The Public Service Agreements were a thing of the past, the Spending Reviews started to feel like a Treasury accountancy exercise again, and I think Digital was seen as a silver bullet which would fix everything, so some of the harder work could slip.
Being slightly controversial, the Digital work has only skimmed the service in my view, and the slight wave of change has been diluted by the structures and more traditional approaches (the memory foam of large organisations and especially Government always pops backs to the moulded shape when pressure is removed).
What are some of the current problems?
- The large siloed IT systems still exist in most departments, too much money is spent maintaining the status quo.
- management layers, constant management moves and the mini industry of constant re-organisations, which can remove accountability and ownership of delivering improvements.
- data remains difficult to join up, policy thinking is still too often done separately and in a conventional way (prototyping, testing ideas with lots of user research should be embedded in all work now).
- exhaustion. The last few years have been about keeping everything working, and there isn’t much appetite to do more.
- it feels like strategies are still being written in silos, and from the very top as an exercise to cover a yearly process (see next point). There’s a possible lack of focused measurable delivery plans that remain in place for years (with funding linked to measurable performance).
- there’s lots of focus on a 12 month cycle. 3 months for a new strategy and priorities to be set, along with an eventual budget allocation. 3 months to then develop business plans, a usual attempt to do Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), 3 months to recruit and get things in place, and then 3 months of panic and slightly frantic attempts to spend 12 months worth of money in 3 months.
- there’s a lack of incentives for organisations, leaders or their teams to change too much. If the financial settlements are generally rolled over, give or take a % here or there, and any improvements or savings aren’t rewarded, why take any risks.
- the focus still tends to be on rewarding and promoting individuals. Teams rarely get rewarded properly and the concept of a team/product/service, delivering improved outcomes and performance is rarely nurtured. At the same time, people increasingly recognise teamwork is one of the most critical success factors but teams are rarely nurtured. Suppliers are often used to provide people and outcome projects seem to be in decline.
- Priorities. As Government is huge and in any organisation it’s difficult to create high performing teams overnight, there probably needs to be a pragmatic approach and order to concentrating effort and expertise. And similar to previous work, having some clear examples to shape and reference best practice can then be shared more widely.
What’s wrong now
For me, the potential of combining clear strategies to drive improvements combined with all of the potential of deeper Digital work (the heavy lifting of joining data and breaking out of silos) still has some of the greatest potential to improve public services. There’s also a really strong business case for this as it will unlock efficiencies and enable more automation and the removal of inefficient administration.
As examples of some of the things I’ve been involved with in recent years:
> Border Force. Data, advanced data, algorithms, facial recognition, automation, machine learning (and possibly AI) when applied to support border security can improve overall security and border control whilst making the whole experience quicker and easier for the vast majority of people just wanting to get from A to B. But this work is far more effective across national boundaries, with data sharing and collaboration essential.
> Prisons and Probation. People working in these areas still spend a huge amount of time entering data, duplicating data, using paper and undertaking numerous back office admin processes. Every hour spent doing admin work means less time spent on rehabilitation, interacting with individuals that need support, focusing on the priority areas like managing security and being pro-active. Data is still often siloed in different areas as well, making collaboration across agencies more difficult.
> Farming and the environment. Often this is the livelihood of the people involved and impacts on a whole family, their home and can go back generations. Services to support this work and encourage environmental outcomes (think about water quality or reducing carbon emissions) has to be easy to access, built around the farmers needs and whenever possible, as painless and simple to use.
> Bereavement. Unfortunately this is a a life experience most of us will encounter. In a modern society with personal accounts and data in dozens, if not hundreds of organisations (both public and private sector), navigating the processes to close accounts and manage the financial and legal administration is daunting and complex. Being able to inform the right parts of Government and being able to easily share this across multiple organisations such as banks, pensions, utilities, social media, mobile phone companies and multiple on-line accounts (eg. streaming or shopping services) needs to be as easy as possible.
Just a few ideas and thoughts on what, after my 29 years, I would recommend:
- A better focus on outcomes with clearer owners and responsibility. Using the bereavement example, I’ve found it odd that there isn’t a single department or group of people with responsibility for delivering services in this area. It’s a significant life event and one where most people would really benefit from the expertise and support of government. That doesn’t mean delivery has to be centralised, quite the opposite as local government and third parties are much better placed at a local level. But there should be a central framework and technology.
- Think beyond ‘Digital’. Too often technology is seen as the silver bullet but it is only ever an enabler. The best services bring together strategy and policy, service design (co-designed with operational experts and users) and full multidisciplinary teams working in an agile way.
- Break down the silos. A better focus on outcomes, cutting across organisational barriers. And with incentives to reward collaboration and improved services.
- A better focus on maintaining delivery teams and enabling them to move across projects. Why lose all of the expertise and start again time after time (as is often the case now).