‘Bursts and explosions of creativity’ and being risk smart: lessons from responsive governments

By on 10/02/2022 | Updated on 11/02/2022
Photo:Alexas Fotos/Pixaby

Coronavirus forced public and civil services around the world to respond at a pace rarely seen to the public health and economic emergency. Panellists at a recent Global Government Forum webinar set out the results of the Responsive Government Survey – and discussed how departments can build on the positive changes that were prompted by the pandemic

Governments around the need to “lock in the lessons” from the coronavirus pandemic to make sure that the fast-acting response to the crisis can be used to improve public services in future, according to speakers at a Global Government Forum webinar.

The pandemic required governments to work at pace, and the Responsive government: investigating the agility of the civil service in nine countries webinar held in January heard from Paul Glover, the president of Shared Services Canada, about how it is working to make sure the lessons from the response are learned.

Glover said the organisation is now working at the federal level to “lock in the lessons that have been positive, not take them for granted”.

He set out that this process includes determining which interventions around the pandemic were “for exceptional times” and should be kept in the toolkit only for similar circumstances, versus what he said were things that could be absorbed as part of a culture of “continuous improvement”.

“There are definitely some lessons that we are learning in that respect,” he said. In particular, this includes reviewing changes to the processes used by authorities to sign off policy decisions.

Such changes were made to create what Glover called “accountability and empowerment” for the response. “We realised that we removed quite a few controls that really literally added no value, and were able to speed up. So we’ll have to take a look at which ones can stay.”

The second element is the use of digital in the response, and how the wider use of digital applications had changed society following the pandemic. “We definitely think the use of digital and digital enablement is really important,” Glover said. “It allows us to reach larger numbers of people more quickly and to iterate and to scale.”

The third element to be considered is the development of the virtual workforce. Glover highlighted that the development of remote working practices has helped the public sector tackle the increased competition for talent, given that previously, a lot of recruitment plans were place-based. Now, flexible and remote working means that Canadian federal government organisations are “able to expand our reach and have far more diverse and inclusive teams”.

“That’s led to some bursts and explosions of creativity and a different way of thinking, which is good, but we are going to have to look at our policies, because they tend to be place-based,” he said. “And we’re going to come to terms with this notion of hybrid [working]. Those are some of the issues we’re going to have to think carefully about as we move forward.”

Responsive Government Survey results

The webinar touched on the results of the Responsive Government Survey, undertaken by Global Government Forum in partnership with PA Consulting. GGF executive editor Richard Johnstone set out the details of the survey, which received 873 responses, including 133 from senior officials, across nine countries.

“The starting point of the results is that the majority of public and civil servants think their organisations are responsive. Almost three-quarters of participants (72%) agreed with the statement ‘My organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs’, with just 19% disagreeing,” he said.

However, there were distinctions between the different countries, he highlighted. For example, Sweden stands out as the world’s most responsive government, according to its leaders. “It stands atop the rankings for responsiveness across categories including ability to work at pace, empowerment, autonomy and accountability, use of evidence, and available tools and resources,” Johnstone said.

“Its high scores made it easily the most positive of all the nine countries surveyed and appear across the different aspects of the report. 60% of leaders responding from Sweden agreed that there was little unnecessary bureaucracy in their organisation – a high that it shared with Norway – compared to just 12% of senior civil servants in the UK, for example.”

Other standout nations include New Zealand, which Johnstone highlighted as a government that had improved its responsiveness.

“It has the highest response rate to the question, ‘Over the last three years, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen significant reduction in ideas to implementation time’,” he said. The speedy closure of New Zealand’s borders and immediate lockdowns in response to outbreaks were flagged by respondents as key to reducing the prevalence of COVID-19 in the country.

Denmark, the third highest scorer in the report overall, marked themselves as “collaboration kings”, Johnstone said. The survey respondents, who were all senior figures, reported strong teamwork and collaboration. The Danes were 100% in agreement that they work well together in teams to generate and implement solutions, and they were more confident than peers in any other country about their efforts to collaborate outside their own teams.

Nordics excel when it comes to collaboration

Grete Kvernland-Berg, a managing partner and Norway country head at PA Consulting, which supported the research, said that her experience working with governments around the world was indeed that the Nordic countries were very good at collaboration.

“I’m not sure if that is only due to the size of the countries – they are quite small countries compared to the US and Canada – but I think it’s also how we lead and how public sector leaders are. I think it’s some mindset about finding solutions together.”

She highlighted collaboration examples from Norway’s public health system. This is integrated across local government and hospitals, but Kvernland-Berg explained that there were different incentives in different parts of the system, as well as different cultures and structures. So, the Norwegian government has put in place various measures to aid the design and delivery of patient-centred services, she said.

“Local governments and hospitals in Norway are incentivised financially, to co-create services and deliver services in an integrated way together. They have to work together to get money around the most vulnerable patient groups, like mentally ill patients, children in need of care, elderly people, and people with chronic diseases.”

Most health spending is on these services, she said, so a collaboration programme has been designed to provide patient centric services. One project PA worked on was with a large hospital in southeast Norway, where it worked with both the local government and patients to create services for “hospital at home”, she said.

“Exactly this service was very useful during COVID-19 because primary care units and the hospital were able to collaborate around the infected patients, and they were able to discover much earlier if there was a need for hospitalisation, so it saved lives.”

Organisations create a common culture by working together, not just talking about doing so, she stressed.

“That’s real stakeholder management,” she said, “and that enables us to implement new services, and digital services, at that quick pace.”

Need for ‘permanent positive restlessness’

Such an approach highlights what Alex Richards, the managing consultant of PA’s international Adaptive Edge business, called the need for “permanent positive restlessness” in government.

“Civil servants have done a fantastic job over the past two years addressing COVID, however, that has meant that they’ve had to break with tradition and cut through the bureaucracy to achieve the necessary outcomes,” he said.

“If you work on the assumption that climate change, sustainability and the increasingly volatile political landscape around the world are going to drive an even more fluid and uncertain strategic environment [then] governments need to embed what we call a permanent positive restlessness.

“This means transforming organisations that are ready to continuously adapt and evolve. It means having the structures and culture to be able to change quickly. At the same time, organisations need a steady sense of who they are, what their purpose is, and how their strategy sets them up to achieve it. For this to be possible, adaptability has to be built into the fabric of organisations and government.”

This means that transformation must be viewed as an ongoing imperative, not a one-off, he said, and organisations must encourage evolution and flexibility in public sector services.

“This means removing the bureaucracy that respondents have reported are stopping them from being able to pivot to the challenges at hand. In my experience, this isn’t because there’s a lack of ambition or drive, but it’s because these complex organisational transformations need to take place to enable bureaucracies that have been stood up for a much more stable environment to [change].”

Be ‘risk smart’

Canada’s Glover highlighted the need to be “risk smart”, as the pace that government had responded to the crisis of the pandemic could not be maintained.

“Responsiveness is not about speed – that’s one of the most important things I would encourage everybody to take away,” he said.

“If we try and make every decision fast, that creates, I think, a little bit of recklessness. The real issue is what is the risk? What is the rate at which decisions need to be made? If we try and keep this pace up, we will burn ourselves and our people out.”

Someone watching the webinar asked how the culture of government could be changed to become more responsive.

Kvernland-Berg said there was a need “to empower people and step back a little bit as leader”.

Glover agreed, highlighting that “as senior leaders, we need to mean what we say, say what we mean”.

He added: “If you want people to take risks, you need to support them, when they take risks, you need to celebrate their successes and their failures and what we learned from those. It is really truly about creating the environment that aligns with everything we’ve been talking about, and making it real. If we don’t people will see through that.”

Richards highlighted Peter Drucker’s famous dictum that culture eats strategy for breakfast. “You can have the finest plans and strategy, but if you don’t address the cultural aspects head on then it’s always going to fail or be suboptimal. So, understanding what drives people [and] what their needs and wants are as well is absolutely crucial.”

The webinar included two polls of the audience of public servants. Of those responding, 54% said their organisation was quite responsive, and a further 18% said it was very responsive. Only 1% said not at all responsive, and 19% not very responsive, with the remainder saying they didn’t know.

The second poll question asked what the main barriers to responsive government were. The top barrier was unnecessary bureaucracy, which was one of the major factors highlighted in the report, as well as limits to information sharing and an inflexible organisational strategy.


Global Government Forum and PA Consulting’s Responsive Government Survey

Why do UK civil servants rank themselves as the least responsive government?

Why do UK civil servants rank themselves as the least responsive government?

The Responsive Government Survey in four charts: which countries lead the global pack?

Seven things we learned from the Responsive Government Survey

‘We have a totally different management style’: what makes Sweden the world’s most responsive government?

The Global Government Forum webinar Responsive government: investigating the agility of the civil service in nine countries was held on 20 January 2022, with the support of knowledge partner PA Consulting. You can watch the 75-minute webinar via our dedicated event page.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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