Reflections on public sector transformation and COVID

Public sectors around the world are facing unprecedented challenges as the speed, scale and complexity of modern life grows exponentially. The 21st century is a large, complex, globalised and digital age unlike anything in the history of humans, but our systems of governance were largely forged in the industrial age. The 20th century alone saw enough change to merit a rethink: global population rose from 1.6 billion to 6 billion, two world wars spurred the creation of global economic and power structures, the number of nations rose from 77 to almost 200, and of course we entered the age of electronics and the internet, changing forever the experience, connectivity, access to knowledge, and increased individual empowerment of people everywhere. Between Climate Change, COVID-19, and globalism, nations worldwide are also now preparing for the likelihood of rolling emergencies, whether health, environmental, economic or social.

“Traditional” approaches to policy, service delivery and regulation are too slow, increasingly ineffective and result in increasingly hard to predict outcomes, making most public sectors and governments increasingly unable to meet the changing needs of the communities we serve.

Decades of austerity, hollowing out expertise, fragmentation of interdependent functions that are forced to compete, outsourcing and the inevitable ensuing existential crises have all left public sectors less prepared than ever, at a the time when people most need us. Trust is declining and yet public sectors often feel unable to be authoritative sources of facts or information, independent of political or ideological influence, which exacerbates the trust and confidence deficit. Public sectors have become too reactive, too “business” focused, constantly pivoting all efforts on the latest emergency, cost efficiency, media release or whim of the Minister, whilst not investing in baseline systems, transformation, programs or services that are needed to be proactive and resilient. A values-based public sector that is engaged with, responsive to and serving the needs of (1) the Government, (2) the Parliament AND (3) the people – a difficult balancing act to be sure! – is critical, both to maintaining the trust of all three masters, and to being genuinely effective over time 🙂

Whether it is regulation, services or financial management, public sectors everywhere also need to embrace change as the new norm, which means our systems, processes and structures need to be engaged in continuously measuring, monitoring and responding to change, throughout the entire policy-delivery lifecycle. This means policy and delivery folk should be hand in hand throughout the entire process, so the baton passing between functionally segmented teams can end.

Faux transformation

Sadly today, most “transformation programs” appear to fall into one of three types:

  • Iteration or automation – iterative improvements, automation or new tech just thrown at existing processes and services, which doesn’t address the actual needs, systemic problems, or the gaping policy-delivery continuum chasm that has widened significantly in recent decades; or
  • Efficiency restructures – well marketed austerity measures to reduce the cost of government without actually improving the performance, policy outcomes or impact of government; or
  • Experimentation at the periphery – real transformation skills or units that are kept at the fringe and unable to drive or affect systemic change across any given public sector.

Most “transformation programs” I see are simply not particularly transformative, particularly when you scratch the surface to find how they would change things in future. If you answer is “we’ll have a new system” or “an x% improvement”, then it probably isn’t transformation, it is probably an iteration. Transformation should result in exponential solutions to exponential problems and a test driven and high confidence policy-delivery continuum that takes days not months for implementation, with the effects of new policies clearly seen through consistently measured, monitored and continuously improved delivery. You should have a clear and clearly understood future state in mind to transformation towards, otherwise it is certainly iteration on the status quo.

There are good exceptions to this normative pattern. Estonia, Taiwan, South Korea, Canada and several nations across South East Asia have and are investing in genuine and systemic transformation programs, often focused on improving the citizen experience as well as the quality of life of their citizens and communities. My favourite quote from 2020 was from Dr Sania Nishtar (Special Assistant to the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection) when she said ‘it is neither feasible nor desirable to return to the pre-COVID status’. It was part of a major UNDP summit on NextGenGov, where all attendees reflected the same sentiment that COVID exposed significant gaps in our public sectors, and we all need significant reform to be effective and responsive to rolling emergencies moving forward.

So what does good transformation look like?

I would categorise true transformation efforts in three types, with all three needed:

  1. Policy and service transformation means addressing and reimagining the policy-delivery continuum in the 21st century, and bringing policy and implementation people together in the same process and indeed, the same (virtual) room. This would mean new policies are better informed, able to be tested from inception through to implementation, are able to be immediately or at least swiftly implemented upon enactment in Parliament and are then continuously measured, monitored and iterated in accordance with the intended policy outcome. The exact same infrastructure used for delivery should be used for policy, and vice versa, to ensure there is no gap between, and to ensure policy outcomes are best realised whilst also responding to ongoing change. After all, when policy outcomes are not realized, regardless of whose fault it     was, it is everyone’s failure. This kind of transformation is possible within any one department or agency, but ideally needs leadership across all of government to ensure consistency of policy impact and benefits realisation.
  2. Organizational transformation would mean getting back to basics and having a clear vision of the purpose and intended impact of the department as a whole, with clear overarching measurement of those goals, and clear line of sight for how all programs contribute to those goals, and with all staff clear in how their work supports the goals. This type of transformation requires structural cultural transformation that builds on the shared values and goals of the department, but gains a consistency of behaviours that are constructive and empathetic. This kind of transformation is entirely possible within the domain of any one department or agency, if the leadership support and participate in it.
  3. Systemic transformation means the addressing and reimagining of the public sector as a whole, including its role in society, the structures, incentive systems, assurance processes, budget management, 21st century levers (like open government), staff support and relationship to other sectors. It also means having a clear vision for what it means to be a proud, empowered and skilled public servant today, which necessarily includes system and design thinking, participatory governance skills and digital literacy (not just skills). This can’t be done in any one department and requires all of public sector investment, coordination and cross government mandate. This level of transformation has started to happen in some countries but it is early days and needs prioritization if public sectors are to truly and systemically transform. Such transformation efforts often focus on structure, but need to include scope for transformation of policy, services, workforce, funding and more across government.

As we enter the age of Artificial Intelligence, public sectors should also be planning what an augmented public sector looks like, one that keeps values, trust and accountability at the heart of what we do, whilst using machines to support better responsiveness, modelling, service delivery and to maintain diligent and proactive protection of the people and communities we serve. Most AI projects seem to be about iterative efforts, automation or cost savings, which misses the opportunity to design a modern public service that gets the best of humans and machines working together for the best public outcomes.

COVID-19

COVID has been a dramatic reminder of the ineffectiveness of government systems to respond to changing needs in at least three distinct ways:

  • heavy use of emergency powers have been relied upon to get anything of substance done, demonstrating key systemic barriers, but rather than changing the problematic business as usual processes, many are reverting to usual practice as soon as practical;
  • superhuman efforts have barely scratched the surface of the problems. The usual resourcing response to pressure it to just increase resources rather than to change how we respond to the problem, but there are not exponential resources available, so ironically the
  • inequities have been compounded by governments pressing on the same old levers with the same old processes without being able to measure, monitor and iterative or pivot in real time in response to the impacts of change.

Sadly, the pressure for ‘good news stories’ often drives a self-congratulatory tone and an increase to an already siloed mindset, as public servants struggle to respond to increased and often diametrically opposed expectations and needs from the public and political domains. Many have also mistaken teleworking for transformation, potentially missing a critical opportunity to transform towards a 21st century public sector.

Last word

I’m planning to do a bit more writing about this, so please leave your comments and thoughts below. I’d be keen to hear how you differentiate transformation from iterative efforts, and how to ensure we are doing both. There is, of course, value to be found in some iterative efforts. It is when 100% of our time and effort is focused on iteration that we see public sectors simply revert to playing whack-a-mole against an exponentially growing problem space, hence the need to have SOME proportion of our resource on genuine transformation efforts. Proportional planning is critical so we address both the important and the urgent, not one without the other.

3 thoughts on “Reflections on public sector transformation and COVID”

  1. Nailed it!!

    I mean that you have covered just about everything. I would comment on 2. Organisational transformation and using the context imagine a blank canvas what would we design? Everything so far as been built on existing failures or successes but what if we need to create new to transform. How can we start with a blank page? Not with a bikie sky!! Not from the problem we are trying to fix but the future state. What’s possible rather than what is. How do we bring everyone along the journey? More questions. Perhaps we need to start with all the questions we need the solution to answer!! Good luck!!!

  2. Love this, Pia! I think that effective digital leadership is also a hugely important (and currently scarce) factor critical to successful transformation efforts. Without good digital leadership, a future state can’t be articulated or achieved. And by “digital leadership” I mean leadership characterised by qualities of being human-centred, iterative and responsive to evidence and feedback, and informed by an understanding of how technology works and what effective digital practice looks like. I also think that practising digital leadership shouldn’t be exclusive to positional leaders. I reckon we can all practice digital leadership from whichever role and in whatever capacity we’re working in.

  3. bit late to the party – thanks for keeping on blogging Pia 🙂

    > The exact same infrastructure used for delivery should be used for policy, and vice versa

    Yes! And vica versa indeed: It’s well known (e.g. Standish report) that executive support is one of the most significant success factors in project delivery. I think it’s causal, if executive loose interest in delivery (after the initial “decision to expend”) then it is starved of the executive services that would otherwise contribute to it’s success.

    My experience is that the only projects that enjoy sustained executive support are the ones directly relevant to policy objectives. The worst projects are the silver bullets, the “we need to do this first so that we can support policy later” projects that are decoupled from policy objectives.

    I know you are writing about successful policy, but delivery at the whole of government scale would benefit from harmonisation with with how we monitor and measure policy outcomes too. Policy and delivery should bath in the same light.

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