Global Government Summit report; part 4

By on 08/06/2017
Heiki Loot, state secretary, Estonia, whose cross-government achievements inspired awe among delegates.

In a world of complex, cross-cutting challenges, how do governments get departments to collaborate on shared goals? Estonia and Malaysia have taken very different approaches to the problem, as their civil service chiefs explained at the Global Government Summit

Most democratic governments struggle to get their various departments to work together in the pursuit of elected leaders’ over-arching priorities – but without such collaboration, it’s almost impossible to tackle complex social problems effectively.

Knowing this, governments have tried a wide range of tools and systems to foster integrated, coordinated cross-government action. And at the 2017 Global Government Summit – an annual gathering for top-ranking civil servants held this year in Singapore – the heads of Malaysia’s and Estonia’s civil services explained to their peers how they’ve gone about strengthening ‘strategic coherence’. The approach taken by Estonia’s Heiki Loot was so remarkable that one delegate announced: “I’m sitting here in awe of you! If I could do half of this, it would be fantastic.” But Malaysia’s achievements also put those of many larger and wealthier countries to shame…

Lessons from Malaysia

Dr Ali Hamsa, Chief Secretary to the Government, explained that historically many of the country’s 25 ministries and big agencies had a tendency to work in ‘silos’. “Everyone is an owner of one ministry, and they forget they’re all working for the same nation,” he recalled.

Then in 2009, Malaysia adopted its ‘National Blue Ocean Strategy’ (NBOS). Since then, key officials from across government have come together at monthly summits to develop and implement cross-cutting projects designed to benefit the nation as a whole. Over 100 initiatives have been commissioned to date, said Hamsa – all of them judged to be high impact, low cost, and capable of speedy delivery.

The NBOS programme’s first success was to open up military bases for use in training police officers, averting massive spending on dedicated police facilities. And the army has since allowed the prison department to set up small prison units on their bases, providing secure training and rehabilitation facilities for low-risk offenders – and producing dramatic falls in reoffending rates.

Dr Ali Hamsa, chief secretary to the government, Malaysia

Growing collaboration has also fostered the creation of 18 ‘Urban Transformation Centres’: one-stop offices offering 35-70 services from a range of departments and open from 8.00-22.00 every day. UTCs proved so popular that the concept has now been extended to create 11 Rural Transformation Centres, and some 213 Mini Rural Transformation Centres offering a narrower range of services. The next step, Hamsa remarked, will be to have “one front office, but back offices with different functions”: the goal is to offer a single interface around complex events, such as the birth of a child, that often require citizens to interact with various government departments.

Malaysia has also made use of taskforces, recruiting businesspeople and top officials onto a panel charged with improving the ease of doing business. Meeting monthly, this group has also introduced some big reforms – such as creating a single corporate identification number, recognised across government, for each business.

Meanwhile, the government created a mixed public/private-sector team named the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU): setting key performance indicators (KPIs) for all senior officials and ministers, the team tries to get people across government working together on shared priorities. These “people-centric” KPIs include, for example, addressing the rising cost of living and improving education results – and the prime minister, noted Hamsa, goes on national TV every year to report on progress against them.

Lessons from Estonia

Even much smaller countries often struggle to create strategic coherence, commented Heiki Loot – the State Secretary of Estonia. An OECD report into governance in Estonia and Finland, he explained, found “a very high level of fragmentation and decentralisation of the government system” – prompting radical action by the three administrations in power since 2014.

All three political leaderships decided on between four and six strategic priorities, and attached to each a set of “concrete actions with clear responsibilities and deadlines: a deliverable, official programme which binds and guides all the ministers.” Meanwhile, Loot explained, the budgeting system was reformed – building spending decisions around these key priorities rather than departmental structures or remits.

Estonia even plans to remove departments from the annual Budget; its agencies have already been taken out. Traditional, organisation-based funding allocations are being replaced in the Budget with policy fields and programmes – fostering a shift from inter-departmental struggles over cash towards a general rush to get involved in cross-governmental programmes. A good relationship between the central ‘Government Office’ and the Ministry of Finance is crucial to success here, Loot commented: “It’s very important to invest a lot in this relationship so that your priorities are not just words, but are supported by the finances.”

The country also moved to ensure that ministerial roles reflect the government’s priorities. The list of Cabinet positions used to be defined by law, Loot explained: “We abandoned the rule ‘one ministry, one minister’, and allowed two ministers to run one ministry with separate responsibilities, or one minister to have responsibilities in different ministries.” For example, a minister for public administration was appointed to the Ministry of Finance to lead on local government reform, and the minister for business and IT sits across both the economics and foreign affairs departments.

Loot now wants to remove some of the legislative barriers to departmental reorganisations, permitting government to shift functions and teams around as its top priorities change. Moving these ‘silos’ around is a “blunt weapon” in tackling the problems of fragmented working, he acknowledged, “but not having it is even worse.” And Estonia is working on plans to centralise some back office services, reducing the administrative burden associated with transferring staff and responsibilities between departments.

Loot believes an important reform is that of fostering closer partnership working on policymaking and service delivery

Another important reform involves moving four key departments into a single building, in the hope of fostering closer partnership working on policymaking and service delivery, hastening the shift to shared back office services, and exploring the potential for modern working practices such as ‘hot desking’. This project, ‘org lab’, provides “an ideal platform to experiment with these new practices,” comments Loot. “And if successful, it could be extended to the whole of government.”

Like Malaysia, Estonia also uses taskforces to tackle issues that straddle departmental responsibilities – always ensuring that they have the right accountability arrangements and budgetary influence to bring about real change. And finally, the country has introduced substantive reforms to the recruitment and management of senior officials – including fixed five-year terms, 360-degree appraisals, and the provision of carefully-tailored training and coaching designed to build both leadership skills and team spirit. The goal, says Loot, has been to create mobility across the top jobs and “overturn the so-called specialist culture, which favours the silo mentality.”

Reactions and responses

The delegates were impressed with Malaysia’s initiatives, some of which are more innovative and established than equivalent agendas within the governments of industrialised countries. But it was Estonia’s reforms which really wowed the group, many of whom are struggling with issues that the tiny Baltic state is tackling head-on.

On Estonia’s changes to managing senior officials, for example, one delegate commented that “people in the public services are used to having a title in office, and holding that until they see an opportunity for a promotion to another title in another office. I’ve wrestled with how we break that, so that people think of themselves as working on projects” rather than for institutions.

When interdepartmental projects do get off the ground, they continued, team members often remain based within their own departments. “But it seems to me still quite important to have the human interaction,” they said. “I think we need to be spatially a bit more flexible, and to be able to move people to teams and locations. There is something here that I think we all need to repeat, to emulate in some way.”

Another delegate was hugely enthused by Loot’s ambition – and by his success in delivering changes. “I’m sitting here in awe of you! If I could do half of this, it would be fantastic,” they said. “You’ve just spurred me on to have another go. Changing the shape of Cabinet and getting the Budget lined up with agreed priorities – that would be Nirvana!”

Summing up, Singapore’s cabinet secretary Peter Ong pointed out that “every public service is essentially an extremely large ecosystem, and achieving coherence requires the thoughtful and deliberate identification of priorities – accompanied, critically, by the alignment of human resources, budgets and accountability.”

Estonia’s and Malaysia’s presentations had “given us much food for thought, and triggered lively discussions,” he added. “This underscores the value of learning from each other at a platform like the Global Government Summit.”

This is part 4 of our report on the 2017 Global Government Summit, held in Singapore earlier this year.
You can read part 1 of our report here, covering the challenges of managing today’s skewed, fast-changing global economy. Part 2 is available here, examining how governments can preserve community cohesion in diverse societies. Part 3, available here, explored how civil servants can rebuilt public trust in government. And in part 4, we’ll examine how countries are taking digital government to the next level. The full report is available here


What brought you here?

Peter Hughes, Head of State Services, State Services Commission, New Zealand

“I’ve launched a reform programme in the New Zealand public services, and I’m keen to locate what I’m doing in a broader international context, to test it, and to get new ideas. All of the topics are relevant to us, to a greater or lesser degree, and I like the round table format.”

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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