Global Government Summit 2018; part 1

By on 26/04/2018
The Global Government Summit is a unique event that each year brings together the world’s most senior public servants for informal discussions on common public sector challenges.

At the first session of 2018’s Global Government Summit, UK civil service chief executive John Manzoni explained Britain’s Whitehall reform goals to top officials from eight other countries. Matt Ross presents the first part of our report on the event, starting with the “dreaded D’s” – the key challenges facing government, outlined by Singapore civil service chief Leo Yip

The Global Government Summit is a unique event that each year brings together the world’s most senior public servants for informal discussions on common public sector challenges. Over an evening and a day, top civil servants from a range of countries explore and discuss some of the biggest challenges facing governments today – hearing presentations from their peers, and sharing what they’ve learned about how to tackle shared problems and agendas.

The Summit is organised by Global Government Forum, and in 2018 was held with the support of knowledge partners the Boston Consulting Group and the Centre for Public Impact. It was hosted by the government of Singapore at the city-state’s Shangri-La Hotel on 9-10 February, and attracted very senior officials from nine countries.

The Summit is designed as a safe space for honest, open discussion between people at the highest ranks of government, and as such is held under Chatham House rules – meaning that no quote can be attributed without permission from the speaker. Additionally, Global Government Summit has excluded from this report aspects of the discussion which might lead to governments or delegates being criticised or embarrassed; it is essential that people can speak freely at the Summit without fear of repercussions.

Nonetheless, we produce a report on the event because – with the permission of those quoted – it is possible to cover many of the discussions and draw out the key lessons. Our report is intended to share the ideas and learning generated at the Summit, helping senior civil servants in governments around the world to address the issues explored by delegates.

Welcome to Singapore

“As senior public officials, we don’t have enough forums where we can come together and reflect on what’s happening around us; on the common challenges we all face,” said Leo Yip, Singapore’s Head of Civil Service, as he welcomed top officials from 10 countries. “In the business world, there’s a multitude of conferences where CEOs and business leaders come together to talk about their operating landscapes. But there’s hardly any conversation about improving the environment in which we all operate – yet our profession impacts so many more lives than any single company.”

The Global Government Summit, he explained, is “based on the idea that even though we’re all serving different countries and governments, each with our own unique national contexts, there is much we can learn from each other in terms of our experiences and perspectives. And I recognise how much commonality we share, in the priorities for our civil services and the sorts of challenges that we have in common.”

Yip was, he said, looking forward to hearing about other countries’ approaches to civil service reform, policymaking and service delivery. To get the most out of the event, he asked them to be honest about the challenges they face and the problems they’ve encountered: the quality of the discussions, he said, depends in part on “how prepared we are to be open with one another.” And Kevin Sorkin, the director of Global Government Forum, encouraged everyone to “intervene and contribute; please don’t wait for permission to speak. The event’s success is down to its informality, and the continued input of all our participants throughout.”

The dreaded D’s

Leo Yip, head of civil service, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore

Setting the tone, Yip laid out some of the “challenges and driving forces that will shape our societies, our governments and our people.” Some of these are disruptive “shocks to the system”, such as changes in technology, trade and the global economy. Others are “creeping changes that take longer to work through the system, but which are no less insidious than the disruptions.” These “elephants in the room”, he added, can be characterised as the “dreaded ‘D’s”.

Demographic change, said Yip, will “profoundly change the societies and people that we serve; how do we serve that very different population?”

Disruptive technologies present a second challenge, including “digitalisation, robotic process automation, and the convergence of technologies in the physical, digital and biotechnology spheres.”

Declining trust in public bodies and experts – evident in some countries – is the third: within these nations, there’s a “questioning and scepticism over why people’s lives haven’t improved and whether governments are telling the truth.”

Disillusionment presents the final D – with some electorates showing declining faith in “the political process, political parties and the political system.”

Faced with these powerful changes in technology and society, Yip argued, civil servants mustn’t respond with three further D’s: denial, defensiveness and a sense of drift – a “lack of clarity in direction, and a lack of strategic responses to the challenges staring us in the face.”

Address the challenges, own the solutions

Instead, civil services must fundamentally rethink how they structure, organise and equip themselves – developing holistic responses, and the processes and skills to implement them. “As governance becomes more complex and disruptions more profound, we can no longer address these challenges at the single dimension or domain level,” he argued. “Responses need to be at the system level, and delivered with deep expertise.”

To develop those responses, Yip concluded, civil servants must address a set of questions. “What does the future of my civil service look like? How do we conceive and conceptualise it? How do we mould and design it? And how do we make it happen? Those are questions that we as civil service leaders must own and answer – otherwise the answers will be given to us because of outside pressures.”

The Global Government Summit exists to help top civil servants formulate their answers to those questions. For as Yip told his peers, if civil servants don’t take ownership of these challenges and set out convincing ways to address them, then someone else will.

Civil service reform: the UK experience

John Manzoni, chief executive of the UK Civil Service, Cabinet Office

In the years before 2010, explained UK civil service Chief Executive John Manzoni, the country’s civil service took a step back from delivery and implementation – outsourcing aspects of service management, along with support functions such as IT.

This “worked really well for infrastructure – we built the Olympic Park really well,” he commented; but many of the civil service’s technical and project management capabilities dissipated. And officials lacked the commercial skills to get the best out of private sector delivery contracts: “If a government doesn’t have commercial skills, it ends up with transactional, price-based contracts – and the cheapest bid wins, because there’s no other basis on which to award the contract.”

“I spent 30 years running companies, and the quality of intellect inside the UK’s civil service way exceeds the private sector,” added the former BP executive. “The issue was that it didn’t have a lot of commercial, technical, project experience.”

Following the credit crunch and the subsequent recession, the Coalition government elected in 2010 slashed budgets to squeeze the public sector deficit – reducing the size of the civil service by a fifth. But without substantive organisational reforms, leaders “ran out of road” for further savings: appointed in 2014, Manzoni warned then that more was being asked of the slimmed-down civil service than it could deliver.

Reach horizontally, not vertically

His solution was to chip away at the “stove-piped” structure of government from a strengthened centre, fostering collaboration across departmental boundaries whilst building pan-governmental professional ‘functions’ to improve career paths, training, recruitment and deployment for specialist staff. And in a bid to match the demands on the civil service with the resources allocated to it, the centre instigated ‘Single Departmental Plans’ to push government bodies into prioritising and specifying their goals.

The professional functions cover fields such as project delivery, HR, property, data and finance, Manzoni explained, and provide the “only structures which cut right across the UK government”. Their directors, who report to Manzoni, are tasked with improving skills, setting professional standards, providing independence assurance, and creating centres of expertise.

By taking ownership of the ‘how’, he argued, civil servants can avoid coming into conflict with ministers over the ‘what’. As he told an audience in the UK recently, “if what the civil service does is policy and only policy, over time and in subtle ways it changes the dynamic between politicians and the civil service in a way that I think is detrimental to this country in the long term… What we really need is a civil service which deeply understands through experience how to do what the politicians want us to do.”

Skills absorbed, not repelled

Strengthening professional skills and structures inside government, said Manzoni, creates a virtuous circle for recruitment and retention – showing specialist professionals that there’s a home for them inside the civil service. “People used to bounce off the UK civil service because there was nowhere for them to dock; it was all policy conversations,” he recalls. “We’ve created through this mechanism a structure that suddenly makes the UK government more interesting for people from the outside world.”

In the longer term, he argued, strengthening career paths will enable the civil service to hire bright young specialists – and, crucially, to hang onto them as their value grows in the private sector jobs market. “If you want to attract a young finance professional, you need to offer a finance career,” he said. “In five to eight years, we want it to be as likely that a permanent secretary is a commercial, HR or finance person as a policy person.”

This latter goal, he added, will require a shift in the way leadership is viewed. “For some, leadership is about being the smartest person in the room,” he said. “But leadership isn’t about intellectual superiority; it’s a broader thing. The leaders I know are the people who can get the smartest people into the room; that’s an important thing to drive into a different leadership culture, and I think the top of the civil service today gets that.”

These changes to leadership, prioritisation and professionalization, Manzoni continued, are accompanied by a wider workforce strategy and a mission statement – setting out the aim of creating a “brilliant civil service”, and bringing in other goals such as flexible working and equal opportunities.

Dealing with disruptive events

Developed “to meet a fiscal envelope”, this package of reforms is now helping the government address its pressing delivery challenges. When the major services provider Carillion collapsed recently, Manzoni recalled, all 450 of its government contracts were picked up by joint venture partners and public bodies: “Not a beat was missed when that company went into liquidation,” he said. “Public services were retained – and if this had happened two years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to stand here and tell you that.”

The biggest challenge facing the UK is, of course, Brexit; and here too, the functions are proving crucial. “We have 330 new projects that relate to Brexit,” Manzoni noted, detailing some of the new systems and processes that will be required. Producing realistic schedules and delivery plans for those projects, he said, demands specialist expertise; and the functions are currently placing relevant professionals on each of those teams, helping policy officials to get to grips with the mechanics of implementation. “So this cross-government functional structure is being leveraged right now on two pretty disruptive activities,” he concluded.

Wider skills at the top

Paul Huijts, secretary-general, Ministry of General Affairs (Prime Minister & Cabinet Office), The Netherlands

Responding to Manzoni’s presentation, some delegates warned of the need to retain policy skills alongside technical capabilities. And Paul Huijts, Secretary-General of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office in the Netherlands, argued that those making policies “should also have a basic understanding of the complexity of policy execution, in order to ask the right questions”.

Getting more specialist professionals into senior roles will, Manzoni responded, help address this issue: “In a few years’ time, when these different streams come up into the senior civil service and the top leadership ranks, we’ll have a blend of people around the table – and that will lead to a different conversation.”

Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service, pointed to the need to reach even further into fields of technical and scientific specialism. Like the UK, he said, the Singapore civil service is working to build capabilities in new disciplines such as data science, as well as more traditional realms such as engineering.

Deeper expertise, better collaboration

“In a more complex world, we require more complex solutions; we need in-depth expertise,” said Yip. “We’ve realised that we need to bring on board deeper scientific expertise. It’s no longer adequate for us to look at education policy simply through a policy lens: we need education scientists. For my colleagues dealing with urban policy, we need urban scientists. As leaders, we must be able to harness and blend pockets of deep expertise across our civil service, because that’s the nature of the problems we’re up against.”

Such specialist policy expertise can help governments to identify and prepare for emerging challenges in particular fields of service delivery; whilst the cross-department functions assist in developing and delivering a response. As Manzoni asked, “what are the disruptions of the future?”

There will, he added, be many such disruptions – and to deal with them, “there’s no option but to create civil services which are increasingly efficient and effective.” That, he argued, means breaking down the “stovepipes” that have traditionally fragmented the UK government’s operations: “The question is: how do you create those structures across the system to get us into the modern age?”

The second part of our report focused on New Zealand’s civil service reform journey, with Andrew Kibblewhite – head of the country’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. In part 3, two top Singapore officials set out their country’s public sector reforms. In part 4, BCG experts and top officials discussed the opportunities and risks around artificial intelligence. Part 5 explores how governments can reconnect with disillusioned sections of the population. Part 6, the concluding section, will be published next week.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

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