Future of government services: 5 public service reform principles

Civil Service Reform

February 24
09:13 2014


Its a pleasure to be back in the Gulf among friends.

I was here in Dubai in October last year for the GITEX conference to discuss the digital revolution from the opportunities of big data to the challenges of cyber security.

This time around were talking about the future of government services - digital technology is an absolutely crucial part of this, although there are many other ingredients too.

In the UK, public sector reform has been an immediate response to the urgent need to reduce the national deficit. But there is a greater prize at stake - the opportunity to create 21st century services: cost-effective and sustainable for the future, but also faster and more responsive to peoples needs.

Of course no 2 countries have exactly the same experience. But around the world governments are facing similar challenges: squeezed budgets, rising expectations, low growth. So we need a new paradigm for government services. One that delivers better services focused on user need, at much lower cost, in a way that supports economic growth.

It gives governments a clear choice. Indiscriminate salami-sliced cuts to front line services; the soft option path of least resistance. Simpler for the bureaucrat, who doesnt have to face the political consequences of service cuts. But the second - the high road - of cutting governments own costs and driving innovation and change - is the way to go.

Thats what we did in the UK. Its tough. Its means unrelenting hard practical work. But it can bring about lasting change.

All round the world Ive seen governments wrestling with the same problems.

Ive seen how Singapores Public Service 21 programme encourages staff to question assumptions and seek new ways of doing things. I visited India too, and saw how they recognised the importance of improving their civil service through training.

And Ive seen how countries like Estonia and South Korea are leading the way in digital.

I was particularly taken with the Korean phrase Bali-bali, meaning quick! quick! - surely a phrase thats stamped across the heart of anyone in politics? Certainly one that my own long-suffering staff have had to learn to live with!

The UK has a long history of cooperation, friendship and open dialogue with our Gulf partners. And while there is no single formula for success especially in a region with distinct cultures and differing political systems - there is still much we can learn from each other about the future of government.

So today Im going to speak about 5 principles that characterise the UKs approach to public service reform since the coalition government was formed in 2010.

I stress that we did not start with these principles. We started not with the theory but with the practice of making changes to test what worked and what didnt. These principles are distilled from that practice and that experience. Theyre pragmatic, not ideological. I think they can be of widespread application, for governments of all origins, whether right, centre or left. We all face the same challenges and we can all learn from each others experiences.

Open government

The first principle of public service reform is openness.

Using transparency and open data to bring about continuous improvement can help governments to address rising public demands and the challenges of austerity.

This wont always be comfortable. In fact transparency can be extremely uncomfortable open data exposes waste and taxpayers are able to see exactly how their money is spent.

But this sharpens accountability and informs choice over public services. And combined with ever increasing technological capability, it will ultimately create more accountable, efficient and effective governments.

Open data is also a raw material for economic growth supporting the creation of new markets, businesses and jobs.

In the UK we have committed to enhance the scope, breadth and usability of published contractual data which will help stimulate greater diversity in government suppliers.

And last year, G8 governments came together under the UK Presidency to agree a landmark Open Data Charter. This sets principles for the release and re-use of data and for its accessibility. Having these principles on openness is a critical element in encouraging growth and ensuring consistency, helping governments and businesses to operate more closely together.

Transparency is an idea whose time has come. And it is the friend of the reformer. Governments that work with it, and go with the grain, will be stronger for it.

Tight centralised control

My second principle is that tight control from the centre over common activities like property, IT, procurement, management information, and oversight of major projects reduces costs and encourages collaborative working.

Back in 2010, when the coalition government was formed, the UK was spending 4 for every 3 it raised in taxes. Billions of pounds got frittered away on wasteful consultancy, superfluous advertising and disastrous projects. And no effort was made to get to grips with the millions lost every year to fraud, error and debt.

Many of the fundamental components of efficient management and effective oversight had been conspicuous by their absence.

So within days of coming to office we introduced tough spending controls on discretionary spend in central departments.

Immediately we started renegotiating contracts with our biggest suppliers dealing with them as a single customer instead of letting them play one part of government off against another.

We have also reduced the size of the civil service by more than 15% which allowed us to cut the cost of the government estate by vacating buildings that were no longer needed.

And we created something that had been lacking in government for too long a strong corporate centre. Known as the Efficiency and Reform Group it works across artificial departmental boundaries to implement cross government solutions to cross government problems.

Its about making government work more like the best-run businesses; ensuring every penny of taxpayers money is used to maximum effect.

And as a result of this tough-minded approach, in our first year we saved 3.75 billion, in our second 5.5 billion, 10 billion in our third year.

And in the first half of the current financial year we saved 5.4 billion 73% more than we had saved at the same point last year.

Loose control

But we need to do much more to balance the books we need to find new and better ways of working.

So my third principle is that tight control over the centre must be matched by looser control over operations.

Spin-outs and services commissioned outside the public sector should become the norm.

Public service mutuals, joint ventures and charitable enterprise are attractive alternatives to the old binary choice between delivering services in-house or full red-blooded privatisation.

That was a stagnant, rigid and unimaginative model which stifled innovation.

So in the UK we are breaking the public sector monopoly over service provision. We already have around 80 live and trading staff owned mutuals, up from just 9 in 2010, with responsibility for well over 1 billion worth of services - everything from libraries to elderly social care.

They foster a sense of ownership and empowerment. Everyone understands their role. Everyone has an incentive to make it work.

And it frees public sector workers to do their job as they know best - because the people who know best are not politicians or bureaucrats, but those who deliver frontline services day-in, day-out.

When this public service ethos is married to entrepreneurialism it can be an incredibly powerful force.

Its part of a mindset which elevates the service that the public receives above the structure that delivers it.


My fourth principle is about digital.

If a service can be delivered online, then it should be delivered only online.

This is the approach which is guiding the transformation of 25 of the largest transactional government services in the UK so they are simpler, clearer, faster and - most importantly - designed around the needs of the user.

Every superfluous page, every unnecessary question, is another dead end for an angry, frustrated and confused user.

So by digital by default, we mean creating digital services that are so straightforward that all those who can use them will choose to do so, and those who cant are given the support they need.

Its an iterative process - building and testing in small chunks and working quickly to make improvements along the way. The feedback

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