In the media

Reimagining the public sector

Management Today

17 June 2020

This article was first published in Management Today

The public sector has long talked of fundamental change and of better delivery, more accountability and enhanced capability. Now, in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the sector has a unique opportunity to rethink the very notion of what it is and how it serves us all. It’s a chance to renew and become more purpose-led, more adaptive and more collaborative.

But with expectations high, any missteps could see the opportunity lost. To seize the moment, we’ve identified four key actions for public sector leaders:

1. Speak and act with greater impact

In recent months, more than 50 per cent of the British workforce has been in the pay of government as contracted workers or through the furlough scheme. There’s been a huge outpouring of support for the country’s National Health Service. These two examples make clear the public and state have never been more entwined, which has created an opportune moment to harness the sector’s purpose and deliver a positive human future with renewed impact.

We’ve seen the power of purpose during the pandemic, inspiring thousands of retired GPs to return to public service. This vison should translate into shaping, not just repairing, markets to encourage disruption, innovation and ingenuity.

Regulators have an important role to play, and it requires they get creative and entrepreneurial – to co-create with industry. That’s not easy when they’ve traditionally focused mainly on setting and enforcing the rules. The ‘sandbox’ approach employed by several regulators – most notably the Financial Conduct Authority – whereby businesses test products, services and business models with real consumers and the regulator, is a step in the right direction.

2. Radically rethink to meet evolving priorities

The public sector’s response to the pandemic has illustrated the art of the possible and the pace at which it can happen. And as citizens adjust to new realities, appetite for the old ways will quickly dissipate.

In response, it’s vital the citizen is kept at the heart of everything and the public sector sees them as a customer. The new, post-COVID-19 citizen has, for example, heightened expectations for digital services. Look at the role technology can play in adult social care. During the pandemic we’ve seen care homes embrace video conferencing. But it can go further, faster. An off the shelf device like Amazon Echo can transform the life of someone with care needs, meaning they can retain independence by shopping for themselves or turning their lights on at night. Simple but hugely impactful for an individual. The public sector needs to ask itself what else it can repurpose in this way to transform lives.

Another evolving priority for citizens is health and wellbeing over economic growth. Public sector leaders should look to determine wider measures of value. This means, for example, going beyond rudimentary healthcare KPIs such as speed and number of appointments and measuring things like access to care – particularly for vulnerable and marginalised communities – and how supported, socially connected and able to live independently people are.

3. Encouraging and incentivising greater collaboration

In a matter of weeks, we’ve seen the public sector adopt habits, such as the use of digital tools and joint working, that it’s been trying to embed for years. For this to continue, people must be empowered to deliver with the right technologies. For instance, virtual GP consultations have proven their effectiveness and are now here to stay.

We’ve seen how well the public sector deals with crises. Now we must turn improvisation into systematic innovation. It calls for a mindset where we seek to continuously decentralise, de-layer and disrupt. Imagine the possibilities if local government more commonly piloted new service delivery models or digital solutions – like drone delivery to provide urgent medical cargo including COVID-19 test kits – before embarking on end-to-end service redesign projects.

4. Unlock efficiencies and harness new talent

In our new world it’s no longer conceivable that any single public sector entity can operate independently. To deliver against expectations while reducing the deficit, the public sector will need to pool the skills that matter most. It can learn here from the approach of the National Cyber Security Centre, which protects industry, enterprise and citizens from cyber attacks with staff provided by industry secondments.

Purpose will also incentivise collaboration. We saw this when coordinating the Ventilator Challenge, bringing together experts and competitors across healthcare, product design and regulation, sourcing, finance and contracting to rapidly develop and manufacture ventilators in just four weeks.

Seizing this renewed imperative, the public sector can deliver lasting change – preserving the best parts of the existing system while finding new, imaginative ways to collaborate and innovate. The people of the UK deserve – and will expect – nothing less.

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