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Are we being served?

It’s been a year since the UK Government floated the idea of the ‘fusion doctrine’ in its 2018 National Security and Capability Review. It showed government is recognising what businesses have long known: working in silos is dead. The world moves too fast and too unpredictably for individual departments and capabilities to plough their own furrow.

Spearheaded by the National Security Council under Sir Mark Sedwill, Fusion is about bringing capabilities together across areas like security, economic and social policy to drive efficiencies. Early signs of how Fusion works came in the handling of the Skripal poisoning. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Home Office and Ministry of Defence all worked together.

Can departments work across boundaries?

But amid the culture of great departments of state, old habits will die hard. So, how far can Fusion really go in Whitehall? The answer will depend on how far government is prepared to transform itself – to become citizen-centred and see implementing policy as a service.

Brexit is providing an early test of how well government can mobilise resources collectively to produce a coherent response to the unexpected.

The challenges of Brexit inevitably mean departments and functions will work more closely together. At the UK border, for instance, it won’t be enough for Defra to focus on the safety of goods coming into the country, HMRC to focus on duties and the Home Office to police immigration. Working in such organisational silos would force everything coming across the border through multiple sets of governance and checks, adding time and cost.

Instead, there would need to be a citizen-centred service dedicated to giving people what they need, rather than a set of departments with individual interests. This could be could be a Department of the Border that focuses its resources on helping citizens do what’s necessary quickly and efficiently, rather than on what suits the machinery of government.

What steps does government need to take first?

Moving towards this kind of model clearly won’t happen overnight. But government can take steps to make policy change happen in a way that turns the aspiration of Fusion into reality.

Own change at the centre

Helping businesses transform has underlined to us how important it is for the change to have a clearly-defined owner. It’s no different in the public sector. So, the first step is to stop the ownership of policy being an obstacle or source of conflict.

Currently, policy change is down to a Senior Responsible Owner (SRO), who usually comes from a department that has the budget to deliver the change. If the policy change involves three departments, who holds the budget and appoints the SRO? The answer here is for the Cabinet Office to own the change and the strategy, so departments can focus on making it real rather than their own interests.

Measure leaders differently

Leadership is critical to making any transformation possible. The people at the top must set the right example, show appetite for change and give their teams clear strategies and objectives. Fusion is more likely to take hold if Senior Civil Servants’ performance is measured on how well they work with other departments and encourage their people to co-operate with different parts of government. The clear incentive for leaders is that they’ll develop a reputation for delivering policy faster, while making public money go further.

Pool the skills that matter most

Making the most of existing skills is another crucial aspect of successful transformation. Government projects need people like programme and project managers to keep them moving. But these experts, like those in change management and business analysis, tend to be tied to individual departments. Again, Brexit has put current systems to the test by driving up demand for these skills, which are the backbone of successful policy change. And some departments are better-placed than others to meet it.

Having a pool of these skills across government would make sure they’re available where they’re needed most. The people would belong to the pool instead of being beholden to individual departments.

These are all essential steps towards the sort of policy implementation the Fusion imagines. But the real, deep-rooted change will come when the apparatus of government comes to see policy as a service and reimagine its structures around making that service work for its users.

Focusing the forces of Fusion: Bringing national security capabilities together

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