The time is now:
There has never been a more vital time for Government to fundamentally shift how it gets work done. Government needs to react to changing economic, environmental, financial and geopolitical changes almost on a daily basis. Even worse, the Government is being outpaced by the citizens it seeks to serve. As Jack Welch states: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.”
And against all of these challenges, the Government is expected to deliver top rate services that are value for money, innovative and ‘on demand’.
The UK Government needs to change the way it works to meet this challenge. It needs to act as a network, and it needs to change now. In the past there have been numerous barriers to this happening, but these barriers are melting away. Indeed the Government has already managed to do this externally with the Gov.uk project — and I’m excited by what that could mean if we applied these concepts internally. But we need to start today.
Historical barriers to responsiveness:
There are a number of reasons why UK Government acts the way it does. During the huge drive for economic and industrial growth over the last 100 years, companies and government were built for efficiency over responsiveness. This led to specialised departments focused on one particular policy area, and arranged around process and hierarchy to mitigate risk of failure.
Whilst we think of Government as one entity, it is in essence a series of individual and competing departments with organisational, technology and hierarchical barriers to collaboration across Government. Technology systems are often limited to one department, meaning that important information and skills are locked away.
Rather than 400,000 people working in concert, maximising the available skills, expertise and collective experiences, we restrict this to small groups that are hindered by process and risk aversion.
Government has made some great strides in recent years towards this. A key success has been the simplification and ease of use offered by the gov.uk website in its external digital presence to citizens. There is now just 1 website to rule them all.
This was led by the great new body — the Government Digital Service. The question is, if it can be done to such great success externally, could it be done internally?
We have seen pockets of innovative and forward looking civil servants trying this. (Tim Lloyd’s great initiative). There have been movements and pockets of disruption. But like most successful change movements, this needs to be bottom up AND top down.
What would happen if you removed some of these barriers? If you gave the space for civil servants to coalesce around areas of specialty, around people with a wider range of skill sets, across the country, and including the private and third sectors? One giant network of people focused on solving the toughest challenges, reacting quickly to events, and seeking to provide the best public services to citizens.
The answer is that we don’t know — because it has not been possible before. With the advent of mobile technology, greater data connectivity, and software that requires little to no training, we find ourselves at a pivotal moment. The time is now.
Aim, Fire, Adjust:
There is no big project to be implemented to fix this. That is the last thing anyone wants against a backdrop of historical public sector IT project failures. It is a change in mind-set and operating principles that the Government needs to adopt. The best way to deal with this is to create the conditions for the 400,000 civil servants to self-organise and come up with innovative solutions. Then to test, fail fast, learn and try again. One network is the ideal — but in reality this will only work if a large proportion of Government changes the way it thinks and acts.
Technology is just one component that could allow the natural ingenuity of Civil Servants to find a space to co-create and solve the problems of the day. A space accessible irrespective of which department they are in, where they are physically located, and what device they choose.
This is not new. We have seen individual organisations and departments use technology to support these physical networks over the last few years. (Brighton and Hove Council, Monmouthshire CC, TFL). The challenge is to scale this Government wide: Gov.uk, One Network.
More information on this fundamental shift in organisational culture can be found at the Responsive Org. You can also join Microsoft and the Yammer team for a free day-long workshop on 3 February at Microsoft’s London offices at Cardinal Place.