Civil servants confident in their organisations’ agility but barriers to progress remain, study finds

By on 09/11/2021 | Updated on 02/02/2022
While the majority of civil servants surveyed say the pandemic prompted their organisations to develop new capabilities, the results also suggest there are barriers to progress in times of crises and otherwise. Official White House photo by Adam Schultz

Four in five civil servants across nine countries say their organisation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped it to develop significant new capabilities, according to a major new survey on government responsiveness. However, the results of the study also suggest that officials feel systems and culture do not always match their ambition and that they are often restricted by bureaucracy.

The Responsive Government Survey 2021, conducted by Global Government Forum and PA Consulting, gathered views from 867 civil servants including 127 at senior leadership level about their confidence in their organisation’s ability to respond and adapt effectively to change. The countries that took part were the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

The survey comprised a series of 54 statements plus one overarching declaration: “My organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs.” Almost three-quarters of participants (72%) agreed with the declaration – but this confidence was not always reflected in responses to statements about the drivers that contribute to agility in government.

The report suggested two possible reasons for this disparity: that “civil servants have pride and confidence in their department and their work, but systems and culture don’t always match their ambition”, or that “they are working hard to effect change despite those systems and cultures”. The survey report’s conclusion was positive, however: “The appetite for excellence clearly exists. The challenge is finding ways to achieve it.”

Learning from successes and failures

Among all countries, there was great ambition to design and deliver services in new ways and to constantly adapt policies and services based on learning from successes and failures, with more than four in five leaders agreeing that they strive to do this. Yet only two in five said that they test, filter and refine possible solutions so that they can continually improve services – suggesting that the agile methodologies adopted by the software development industry, for example, have not yet been replicated in the design and implementation of public policy and services.

Areas where respondents identified room for improvement were collaboration between departments; communication through the ranks; empowerment of staff and giving permission to try and fail; and ensuring end-user input to policy design.

But the most negative scores related to organisations’ ability to move at pace, with respondents in almost all countries complaining about being hamstrung by unnecessary bureaucracy.

High confidence in the Nordics

Comparing aggregate scores across the nine countries surveyed, senior leaders in Sweden were easily the most positive about almost all responsiveness drivers – beaten in only one area, teamwork and collaboration, by their Nordic neighbour Denmark.

UK civil servants had the lowest levels of confidence overall, with their leaders especially downbeat when questioned around bureaucracy, budget, technology, human resources and collaboration. Australians’ responses were also relatively subdued.

However, even UK civil servants were positive about their response to the COVID crisis. Some 83% of the UK respondents (183 in total, including 26 senior civil servants) agreed that adapting to change has helped to develop significant capabilities that were not present prior to the pandemic. Leaders in New Zealand were the most positive about this statement, with 100% agreeing, whilst leaders in the US were least positive, with 58% agreement.

Grade variations

The results also revealed variations in how civil servants at different grades perceive their organisation. For example, in the US, non-management staff were significantly more bullish than their more senior cohorts, while in New Zealand the opposite was true: leaders there were more confident in their organisations than their more junior colleagues. Canada was different again; those at middle-management level were much more downbeat than either the senior leaders or their non-management colleagues.

The size of a country’s population and the structure of its government both appear to impact agility. Leaders in nations with smaller populations and less complex parliamentary and governance systems tended to exhibit higher levels of confidence.

The aim of the research was to improve public sector leaders’ awareness and understanding of the factors that drive responsiveness and agility and to assist them with their organisations’ strategic planning and operational delivery as the world emerges from the worst effects of the pandemic. By highlighting areas of international best practice and identifying barriers to progress, the findings have important implications for decisions about budget allocation, human resource provision and other factors that contribute to the design and delivery of policy and services.

Global Government Forum and PA Consulting will present the findings of the Responsive Government Survey during a webinar on 20 January 2022 – register here.

The 2021 survey is a pilot project that will expand in scope and coverage in future years.

About Tania Mason

Journalist and an expert in organisational and management issues.

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