Civil service transformers: adapting to a changing world

By on 07/10/2020 | Updated on 04/02/2022
Whatever form’s necessary: civil service bodies must become more adaptable and flexible, constantly reshaping themselves to meet new challenges. (Illustration by Katy Smith).

In a world of ever-quickening change, civil services must constantly transform themselves – adapting their structures and operations to meet the public’s fast-changing needs. At this GGF webinar, the civil servants leading reform programmes in the UK and Singapore explored the issues with a private sector specialist. Natalie Leal reports

It’s been a “turbulent few years” for the UK civil service, said Caleb Deeks. Since 2016, responding to the EU referendum result has been “a scramble, as the civil service gets to grips with a range of real challenges associated with leaving the EU and taking back control of aspects of policy and delivery that haven’t been done in Westminster for some time,” he explained. “And that’s obviously been against a background that has often been characterised by real political drama and uncertainty, at points. It’s required whole new departments created, and shut down once they’ve done their work; transfers of staff across the service; new ways of working; real change.”

As programme director for civil service modernisation and reform at the UK’s Cabinet Office, Deeks is charged with managing the government’s civil service reform agenda. And, speaking at a Global Government Forum webinar last month, he pointed out that just as much will be asked of Britain’s civil servants over the years to come. The government has “big and important ambitions”, he said, including ‘levelling up’ poorer parts of the UK – addressing “big regional economic imbalances that have persisted for decades” – and reaching zero net emissions by 2050. Namechecking the webinar’s title of ‘adapt to survive’, Deeks noted that in the case of climate change, this “is not an exaggeration at all.” And then, of course, there’s the pandemic. As the UK’s public sector works to protect and support its population through these challenges, he said, “success will depend on changing and adapting how we work.”

Disruption as the new norm

And this turbulence isn’t unique to the UK. These days, we “exist in an environment where disruptive change is now the norm and the only certainty,” said Alex Richards, managing consultant at PA Consulting Group, which helps public bodies to respond effectively to this constantly-evolving landscape. “Public sector organisations are facing a range of challenges and threats,” he noted; and these are hard to address using “capabilities that were built in a world that operated at a slower pace and had less complexity and interconnectedness.”

To respond effectively, organisations need “the right leadership, culture, governance and processes” to be able to “pivot quickly” – reshaping strategies, budgets and services as the challenges they face change. In essence, Richards suggested, the task facing public bodies is threefold: to embed a mindset of constant adaptability; to re-wire the culture of how organisations think and work; and to create “a framework of flexibility” – moving from a culture of certainty to one in which people embrace change.

An agile public service

Singapore has been on this path for a number of years, and is widely recognised as a global leader in civil service innovation, technology and connectivity. For Teoh Zsin Woon, deputy secretary (transformation) in Singapore’s Public Service Division – which sits in the Prime Minister’s Office – the keys lie in creating the right organisational cultures and staff skills. “Agility in organisations starts with agility in the minds of our people,” she said, explaining that the city-state has introduced career coaching, extensive training and peer-to-peer learning for leaders.

Teoh Zsin Woon

Civil service leaders have worked hard to reframe “the logic in terms of how we organise our work,” she continued – particularly in the area of service delivery. Until recently, services were “largely organised along agency lines. We expected citizens to be like the planets, revolving around us as the sun,” she explained: each agency provided a limited set of services, and service users would have to “go from agency to agency to get things done.”

Over recent years, though, agencies have worked together to “wrap the services around citizens”, said Teoh – digitalising services and providing access to all those required at key life moments, such as birth and bereavement, via a single shared platform. This has cut the time taken to engage with public services at these life moments by half, she added; and by visiting a set of new shared offices, less tech-savvy Singaporeans can also access over 200 services provided by 15 agencies.

Tech backbone

These changes in Singapore have been backed up by improvements to the government’s internal tech and data framework, with new centralised IT systems and legislation ensuring cross-departmental data sharing. “Ironically, agility comes from building stronger central capabilities and systems, so that we can support all agencies and let them be both free, and obsessed with meeting the needs of the citizens,” said Teoh.

A solid tech infrastructure is a priority for the UK government, too. The National Data Strategy, recently published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS), outlined plans for an ‘Integrated Data Platform’ linking up datasets across departments. The strategy also set out the government’s intention to address the “long-running problems” around the civil service’s creaking legacy IT systems.

These legacy IT systems don’t just reduce service quality for individual citizens or businesses. Civil servants also find them frustrating and time-consuming, said Deeks: that time could be put to better use elsewhere, instead of “grappling with stuff that’s out of date and maybe insecure.” Creating accessible, fully digital services makes life much easier for citizens, he added, and that’s “the way to get people’s buy-in to this”.

Silo busting

Caleb Deeks

Asked whether the UK’s reform plans would make it easier for officials to operate more such cross-departmental services and projects – perhaps through changes to programme budgeting, management and governance systems – Deeks stressed the need to work as closely “across other boundaries, with our partners in the private sector, in the wider public sector, and indeed with citizens. We need to build the culture and the infrastructure to do that. And of course, we also need an effective centre of government at the heart of this: so really close working between Number 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury”. Of reforms to support better interdepartmental working, he said: “We’re talking to the Treasury about that. They have a long-standing interest actually in these kind of shared outcomes. So I’m hopeful about progress on that front.”

Such cross-departmental collaboration, said Teoh, can also be driven by appointing individuals to lead work on particular policies right across government. “A great example of that would be during COVID, where our team leaders were put in charge of driving key missions across various government agencies,” she said. “For example, safe distancing, where there were many, many organisations coming together under the leadership of one single leader to ensure that our safe management measures are well implemented on the ground.”

Richards agreed that focusing on outcomes and marshaling public bodies behind a shared mission can help catalyse coordinated action. “It takes it away from the organisation, and brings it towards what we’re delivering as a collective,” he said. “And that is something that everybody can get behind: it’s that single agenda and that single purpose for that team.”

The COVID effect

While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges to civil services everywhere, Singaporean officials and the public have benefited from the reforms of recent years. Having spent years working to create a more integrated and flexible culture, said Teoh, COVID-19 demonstrated “how we have succeeded in building this one public service” – with staff from many different departments stepping forward to take on new roles and responsibilities.

Alex Richards

In the UK, the pandemic has served as an “incredible catalyst” for reform, said Deeks, with the public sector’s rapid response showing “us just how much change is possible.” He pointed to successes during the first few weeks of lockdown, including the processing of six times the usual number of benefits claims, and the launch within weeks of a vast wage subsidy scheme for staff unable to work.

As the UK government sets out on its reform programme, Singapore’s experience shows what is possible. Deeks and his team will be learning a lot from the city-state’s approach to reform. But they will also, he said, be learning the lessons of the UK’s own history of civil service reforms – from the foundation of the modern civil service 170 years ago, to the work of then-Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude in 2010-16. Civil service reform is not a “greenfield site”, said Deeks. “We’ve been doing this since the 1850s, with Northcote-Trevelyan, or Francis Maude in the 2010s. And it’s really important that we look at that [and] learn those lessons”.

And the leaders of today’s wave of civil service reform will be listening very carefully to the interests and concerns of today’s officials, Deeks said: if it’s to be successful, reform “can’t be seen as something that’s being done by outside forces.” But given the scale of the challenges facing governments in today’s world, the UK civil service must become more able to adapt rapidly to changing circumstances – and in Deeks’ view, the stars are aligned. “For me, this feels like a really unique moment where change is possible,” he concluded.

The webinar ‘Adapt to survive: creating more responsive civil services’ was held on 15 September. You can download the slides here and watch the whole webinar on-demand via Youtube:

About Natalie Leal

Natalie is a freelance journalist whose work has been published by The Sun Online, The Guardian, Novara Media, Positive News, and Welfare Weekly, among others. She also writes reports and case studies on global business trends for behavioural insights agency, Canvas8. Prior to working as a journalist Natalie worked for the public sector in social services for several years. She switched careers in 2013 after winning a fully funded NCTJ in a national writing competition. She holds a Masters degree in social anthropology from Sussex University where she specialised in processes of social change and international conflict and reconciliation processes.

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