For my masters in public administration I wrote an 11,000 thesis on digital transformation and how it should, but mostly doesn’t, focus on enabling services such as procurement, finance, HR. You can read the whole thing here and this blog post is an attempt to distill that down to a tl;dr version*. . .
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?
Why ask this question — because whilst digital transformation, innovation and the application of design thinking to citizen facing services has received considerable attention in the past decade, our internal enabling functions have remained the Cinderella services of bureaucracies — neglected, and left behind instead of going to the ball. And my hypothesis is that this lack of attention in this area really holds us back from creating a truly entrepreneurial state.
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.
It’s about a lack of dynamic capabilities from the legacy of new public management which leaves us unable to adapt and innovate, and a lack of trust in organisations which leads to process heavy solutions and risk averse thinking within enabling functions. Too often the process, and how well that process is working in terms of outputs not outcomes, becomes the thing.
And there’s a real need for us to do things differently if we are to really create an entrpreneurial state so that we can tackle our big societal problems.
‘forget the moon shot and the north star, the way that we operate within the department and our investment in the enabling functions is woeful. So we’re never going to be able to deliver all these things unless we can pay attention to what’s actually going on under the bonnet of the car.’ (quote from a senior central gov digital leader)
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?
How do we establish higher trust relationships within organisations that enable change and innovation to take place? What does the ‘boundary work’ between professions look like that will reduce friction, exchange best practice and break down those barriers?
How could we shift the framing of responsibility and reward so that enabling functions have a more transparent stake in delivering outcomes to citizens?
And we need to do the hard work to calculate the value of enabling services contribution to building an effective entrepreneurial state. Can we reframe the prevailing narrative in the public sector from enabling services as drains on resources that otherwise should be spent on the ‘frontline’ to a framing as a set of ‘force multipliers’ that act to make people’s jobs easier to do?
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?
*Ed note: this is really hard to do!