Hatching the butterfly: public service transformation

By on 10/09/2019
McKinsey’s Vidhya Ganesan: “Simplicity, reliability and transparency are much more important than speed” in service delivery.

Public services around the world are changing – but only a handful are being genuinely transformed from top to bottom. At the final session of Global Government Summit 2019, delegates debated the leadership, project development and public engagement skills required to rebuild services for the modern world. Matt Ross reports

“Satisfied customers are more likely to trust government, and more likely to agree that government agencies achieve their mission,” said Vidhya Ganesan. “There is a very strong correlation between customer experience and trust in government, and that cannot be ignored.”

Ganesan, a Partner at McKinsey & Company who leads the consultancy’s digital government and economy work across Asia, was explaining the results of recent research into citizens’ experience of public services. Some 20,000 people were surveyed across the US, Mexico, the UK, France, Germany and Canada, she said, and it was clear that their interactions with public bodies had played a key role in shaping their views of governments’ effectiveness – with efficient, accessible services strengthening their trust in government as a whole. Overall, she added, 67% of trust in government can be explained by customer experience.

Delivering really high-quality services, Ganesan told her audience – top officials from nine countries, gathered in Singapore earlier this year for Global Government Summit 2019 – also generates efficiency savings: when services are accessible and effective, people are more likely to engage with service providers and need less support to achieve their goals. “There’s a myth that driving up customer experience comes with a huge cost, whereas for most public and private sector organisations we’ve surveyed, over a period of three years and above it actually drives down the cost to serve,” she said.

And there’s a close link between customer satisfaction and staff engagement, she continued – with happier staff providing better services, and happier customers leading to a more content workforce. This finding chimed with Stephanie Foster, Deputy Secretary for Governance in Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet: following a “very significant cultural and retraining programme” for the staff of the Australian state of New South Wales’s public sector ‘one-stop shops’, she said, “they have seen an absolute correlation between customer satisfaction and staff satisfaction; both went up together, and they’re both now through the roof.”

Happy staff = happy citizens

Stephanie Foster of Australia’s Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet: there is “an absolute correlation between customer satisfaction and staff satisfaction”.

Interestingly, that programme actively used staff morale and engagement as a tool to improve customer services. “Their philosophy was to start with the employee, because they said: ‘If your employees aren’t happy, how can you expect them to be engaging with customers?’” recalled Foster. “So they turned that paradigm on its head.”

However, Foster revealed that the Australian government’s own research didn’t appear to line up with McKinsey’s findings. “Only about 32% of respondents said that they trust Australian public services,” she said. “Interestingly, though, there was a 56% satisfaction rate with services, and 71% were satisfied with the professionalism of staff. So there was a massive difference between trust and satisfaction.” The government is now examining those findings, she added, holding focus groups to understand the disparity.

Even if the link between service quality and trust is tenuous, though, public bodies have plenty of good reasons for transforming service delivery. “As a citizen, you never compare the services you’re getting from your own government to those provided by the government of Estonia or Finland,” noted Ganesan. “You compare them to the private sector services you consume on a daily basis – and across the [surveyed] countries, customer satisfaction for the private sector players is significantly higher than for governments. So the bar for government service delivery is on the rise.”

Track A-Z, not M-N

She went on to outline some of the key factors in transforming public services – beginning with a focus on user journeys. Service users can be satisfied with individual “touchpoints” such as a telephone call, she noted – but if they’ve had to call in because the digital platform is poor, their relief at finding a way around the problem shouldn’t be mistaken for good service. “It’s important to take a ‘whole of journey’ approach, rather than looking at individual, silo’d touchpoints,” she said.

During that journey, she continued, people’s overall impressions tend to be “defined by the highs, the lows, and the end” of the process. And McKinsey’s research suggests that the lows leave a stronger impression than the highs – so “the first thing to do is to identify the potential lowest lows, and try to turn them around before you try to delight your citizens.”

Public bodies must also focus on what really matters to service users, said Ganesan – and sometimes they emphasise the wrong things. For example, those managing services often stress cutting turnaround times; but McKinsey’s survey found that “simplicity, reliability and transparency are much more important than speed,” she noted. So hitting a long deadline 90% of the time, for example, generates much higher satisfaction rates than meeting a short one only half the time.

Don’t redecorate: rebuild

Effective service improvement, Ganesan argued, demands business process transformation: where public bodies simply launch an app or rebuild their portal without tackling the service’s underlying operations, she said, customer satisfaction scores tend to rise briefly then fall back again. And she trotted through some of the essential elements of service transformation: understand your users; map out their journeys through the existing service, focusing on their goals and the high or low points; co-create a new service journey with users; then build a prototype, test and iterate.

All this work must be shaped by a “common purpose” defined for the service, she explained: the US passport agency, for example, set itself the goal that no applicant should miss out on a planned overseas trip. Then frontline staff must buy into that common purpose, and be given the tools and authority to help achieve it. And leaders must establish the correct metrics to measure performance – for using an ill-thought-out performance framework can create perverse incentives that point everyone in the wrong direction.

Alongside internal performance metrics, said Ganesan, public bodies can gather external feedback on their services – inserting short surveys into service portals, for example, and monitoring social media to generate “sentiment analysis”. Such channels can provide early warnings of problems within the service, she added, enabling managers to “catch many of these things before they start coming in as increased call volumes in your call centres, etcetera.”

The digital journey

Mikhail Pryadilnikov of Russia’s Analytic Centre: Russia is exploring “proactive public service provision, where the state predicts what you need and provides it”.

This approach rang bells for Mikhail Pryadilnikov, Deputy Director of the Analytic Centre for the Russian Government, whose country has pushed forward on citizen engagement techniques such as co-design and participatory budgeting. “There’s a great success story in Moscow, where you guys redesigned your transport system,” commented Ganesan. “There was an immense amount of co-creation involved in terms of trying to understand pain points, and getting different stakeholders involved in transforming public transport.”

It’s been a long journey, said Pryadilnikov: Russia’s current mid-ranking positions in international e-government indices represent huge progress since the early 1990s, when its post-Soviet services “didn’t really consider citizens. It was all about what the government needed.”

Russia’s e-government rating has crept up, putting it in the middle of international rankings

In 2005, he explained, basic service standards were introduced, and in 2011 one-stop shops were introduced to provide a wide range of public services: there are now 3000 across the country, processing 370,000 service requests daily. The next step was to provide a digital equivalent; half the Russian population are now registered to access services via www.gosuslugi.ru. And there may be another shift in delivery channels: “We can discuss the extent to which websites are going to continue to be a central point for engagement, or if we’re going to have apps,” he commented.

Meanwhile, city and regional governments – which manage the majority of public services – have pursued the co-creation agenda. In Moscow, said Pryadilnikov, the public are invited to vote on where – for example – investments should be made in green spaces, or city bus stops should be located. Citizens are also encouraged to alert the city administration to service delivery problems via a central website: “About two million complaints have been received since 2015, and almost a million people are registered on the site,” he said.

The Moscow city government has built a platform allowing citizens to
submit complaints and vote on public spending decisions

Proactive public services

Looking ahead, Pryadilnikov said that Russia is moving to replace paper documents with digital records, whilst automating the delivery of services around key life events. This means “proactive public service provision, where the state predicts what you need and provides it” rather than expecting citizens to apply for relevant services from a range of separate agencies.

The government is, he added, also interested in “using the private sector to provide public services. We think that certain channels – like the banks, for instance – can help. Why does it have to be the state, if someone is trying to register a company and the banks already have most of the information they need?”

Estonia is one of the world leaders in fully automated public services – and Taimar Peterkop, the country’s State Secretary, was curious about delegates’ perspectives. “If you have invisible services – if the citizen doesn’t have to do anything, and services are just provided – how do you think that affects the relationship between citizen and state?” he asked.

McKinsey’s survey did test people’s views here, responded Ganesan – and it found that “as long as citizens don’t feel that they need transparency but aren’t getting it, they’re very happy with ‘zero touch’ delivery.” So people are pleased with, for example, tax systems that calculate their liabilities automatically – whilst showing their workings – but if their passport needs renewing, they expect good communication about how the service will operate and what’s expected of them.

Last words

Whilst Ganesan and Pryadilnikov had set out some of the techniques and perspectives required to improve public services, as the event drew to a close former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell pointed to questions around how to create the right environment for their deployment. “Some things to do with digitalisation and improving public services require centralisation: common platforms, standardising data and all the rest of it,” he said. “Yet quite a lot of what we’ve heard is about innovation and decentralising decision-making – and I’m still grappling with how to put those two bits together.”

Events like the Global Government Summit exist to help top officials address such issues. “In the context of this rapid, agile world, there’s more and more need for us to stop and think and plan and prepare,” said Foster. “As they say in defence: ‘Time spent on reconnaissance is seldom wasted’.”

Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service: civil servants must “deal with a whole range of challenges, whilst at the same time seizing new opportunities”.

Meeting the public’s fast-evolving needs is “a complex business, and it’s not measurable,” concluded Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service. “There’s not just one KPI, there’s a whole host of them – and therein lies the challenge of what we’re asked to lead and respond to. Our profession is called upon to reach different citizen segments in very different ways, and to deal with a whole range of challenges, whilst at the same time seizing new opportunities.”

But Sirpa Kekkonen, Head of the Government Strategy Secretariat in the Finnish Prime Minister’s Office, argued that – given the time, the expertise and the relationships – civil services can rise to the challenges facing them. “It seems to me that we feel quite optimistic and positive. We believe in the human capacity to develop solutions to tricky questions,” she said. “I call myself an eternal developer – and that’s why my glass is always half-full, not half-empty.”

This is the final part of our report on the 2019 Global Government Summit, held in Singapore earlier this year. Part one covers the introductory speech by Leo Yip, Head of the Singapore Civil Service – who focused on the dangers of today’s global and social tensions, and the challenges around trust, technology and transformation facing government. Part two reports on former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell’s presentation and Q&A on the next global recession. Part three explores how civil service leaders in Finland and New Zealand have built new systems and processes to focus governments’ work on a few key priorities. Part four discusses the very human skills required to adopt and deploy emerging technologies in government. And part five examines the enterprising, collaborative style of leadership required in modern government.


Global Government Summit 2019 attendees

In alphabetical order by surname

Civil servants:

  • Natalie Black, Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner, Asia Pacific, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, United Kingdom
  • Nancy Chahwan, Chief Human Resources Officer, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Canada
  • Stephanie Foster, Deputy Secretary, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Australia
  • Rosemary Huxtable, Secretary, Department of Finance, Australia
  • Sirpa Kekkonen, Head of Government Strategy Secretariat, Prime Minister’s Office, Finland
  • Ng Chee Khern, Permanent Secretary, Smart Nation and Digital Government, Prime Minister’s Office, Singapore
  • Dato’ Haji Suhaime bin Mahbar, Deputy Director-General of Public Service (Operations), Public Service Department, Malaysia
  • Gabriel Makhlouf, Treasury Secretary and Chief Executive, Treasury, New Zealand
  • Gus O’Donnell, Lord and former Cabinet Secretary, House of Lords and IMF, United Kingdom
  • Peter Ong, Chairman-Designate of Enterprise Singapore, Senior Economic Advisor, Ministry of Trade and Industry, Singapore
  • Taimar Peterkop, State Secretary, Estonia
  • Jacqueline Po, Deputy Secretary, Strategy Group, Singapore
  • Mikhail Pryadilnikov, Deputy Director, Analytic Center for the Russian Government, Russia
  • Dmitry Yalov, Deputy Chairman, Government of Leningrad Region, Russia
  • Tan Ching Yee, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Singapore
  • Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary, Public Service Division, PMO, Singapore
  • Leo Yip, Head of Civil Service, Singapore

Knowledge partners:                                  

  • Steve Bennett PHD, Director, Public Sector and Financial Services Practice, Global Industry Practices, SAS Institute
  • Vidhya Ganesan, Partner, Digital Government, McKinsey & Company       
  • Giselle Ho, Head of our Government Practice, SAS Institute Singapore

Global Government Forum:

  • Matt Ross, Editorial Director, Global Government Forum
  • Kevin Sorkin, Chief Executive, Global Government Forum

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *