The Plight of Cinderella Services

Primary research

I was in a privileged position of being able to ask some seriously amazing leaders across the public sector to tell me what they thought, and share their experiences with me. They were generous to a fault with their time and their openness and honesty. And people found it hard to pinpoint the ‘why’ exactly, even though they could all describe a range of problems and the negative feedback loops they’d observed in their own roles and careers.

What was the main research question?

Given the importance of enabling functions in creating an entrepreneurial state and the benefits of digital transformation, why have we not yet applied the thinking and practice of digital transformation to these enabling functions? What is preventing the cross fertilisation of these new dynamic capabilities at an organisational level, and what are the opportunity costs of not doing so?

What did I learn?

There is a complex set of factors at play here. This includes prioritisation and salience, because what we view as important and what we see/experience as a problem are what we invest in changing. Those are the areas we invest our time, energy and support into.

The impact of new public management theory

The impact of new public management theory which dominated much of western public sector bureaucracy during the 1980s and 1990s can’t be underestimated. New public management theory focussed on outsourcing, privatization and performance management, based on the belief that the public sector would be less efficient than the market led private sector. The negative result was to reduce and remove skill and capacity from the public sector itself and caused a decline in administrative quality, which has directly contributed to a lack of dynamic capability across the public sector.

People centred approaches are key

Design thinking, user centred design and agile and lean practices all prioritise the user. We need to rehumanise essential bureaucracy away from seeing it as either an overhead to be reduced or just a necessary compliance function. That means we need to have ‘more subjective, empathic, behavioral, contextual, “Messy” and flexible appreciation of what it means to govern public organisations’ (see Christian Bason’s work in this area — this quote is from Bason 2017). We know that systems are messy, people are messy and needs are complex. We already know this about citizen facing services — why do we persist in thinking it would it be any different for enabling functions?

What next?

I’m planning to turn this into a talk, and hopefully an academic article. Both of those things feel scary and challenging to do. So feedback on this would be useful — did it resonate, was there enough detail, too little?

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Cate McLaurin

Cate McLaurin

Director @PublicDigitalHQ. @madebycatem. alumni @IIPP_UCL MPA graduate. Views are my own. Interested in change, innovation, leadership and digital