Diana Goldsworthy, public service management specialist: Exclusive Interview

By on 22/06/2015
Changing the status quo: Diana Goldsworthy, public service management specialist

After 30 years in the British civil service, Diana Goldsworthy now works with governments around the world to improve their administrations. She tells Global Government Forum about the most common problems that countries face and how she deals with people’s reluctance to change

You wouldn’t know it’s there unless you’re in it: operating deep below the ocean surface, a submarine is designed to surprise the enemy and its exact location is only known to those controlling it. Besides expensive, highly technical weapons systems and equipment, submarines require dozens of crew members to work together in a coordinated way.

However, when Diana Goldsworthy was inspecting the UK’s naval procurement establishments as part of a Ministry of Defence (MoD) management audit team in the early 1980s, it became clear to her that the MoD’s management of its naval estate left some coordination to be desired: “The MoD couldn’t authoritatively tell us how many buildings it had, what the value of its property portfolio was, or what its running costs should be. So they had no idea if they were getting value for money,” Goldsworthy says.

These discoveries were, in part, triggered by one of the most significant reforms passed under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership, aimed at improving financial management by “making sure that we know not only the cost but also the value of everything that government does,” Goldsworthy explains. Her work with the MoD’s audit team was, she adds, “what really gave me my thirst for government reform.”

Having caught the reform bug, she moved to the Cabinet Office where she helped implement some of the country’s most fundamental reforms, such as the creation of autonomous ‘Next Steps’ public service delivery agencies, and setting service delivery standards through the Citizen’s Charter. Throughout that time, she says, “many people from overseas came to us and said: ‘You’re doing some really interesting things, would you like to come and talk to us about it?’”.

Goldsworthy was sent on numerous secondments abroad and thus began her involvement with public service reforms in developing countries. Eventually, this led to her quitting the civil service in 1997 and going freelance to help governments around the world reform themselves. “I wanted to find another outlet for the work I really loved,” she explains. Since then, Goldsworthy has worked with countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe and more than 20 in between, including Rwanda, Kosovo, South Africa, Myanmar, India, Jordan, Tanzania, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Most common problems

She frequently helps countries to organise the institutions and systems at the heart of government more effectively – “whether you call it the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister’s Office, or the Council of Ministers, it’s the centre of government, which must coordinate policies and programs across all the other ministries and departments, and manage the civil service machinery as well.”

Another frequent challenge for governments is HR management – the systems for hiring and firing and performance management. Sometimes, Goldsworthy says, the problems are self-made: “Civil service laws which are over-prescriptive can get in the way of making good management decisions, so governments become trapped by their own systems.” In the case of appointments, for example, it can mean that jobs and promotions are given to people “solely on the basis of qualifications and seniority” – which may seem to be the easiest way to achieve fairness. But, Goldsworthy argues “that doesn’t necessarily mean you get the right person for the job. Someone with a good track record may be better suited for a role than someone who has served for many years”.

This concept can be hard to grasp for many government officials. Recalling her time helping a European country to modernise its HR systems a few years back, she says: “They could not accept the idea that you might select somebody with fewer years of service to do a job if it meant they would be giving instructions to people who had more seniority.”

Achieving change

Even when people are on board with ideas for improvement, Goldsworthy adds, changing the status quo is never easy, especially when people at the top have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. For example, where there is corruption, change is not welcome, “because transparency and a more merit-based system, could challenge people’s power and authority.”

It is human nature to resist change, she argues. So, though she mostly “answers calls for help” by various governments, it is not unusual for them to reject her ideas. Is it a frustrating experience to work up various reform plans only to see those who requested her help fail to implement them? “Yes,” she says, but adds: “It’s no more frustrating than it was in the UK. That’s the nature of trying to change things: it makes people uncomfortable.”

To try to convince people, Goldsworthy says it is important for them to understand that “I haven’t got all of this out of the book – I was a ‘victim’ of reform once too; I know how they feel; I’m on their side and I’m there to help them. And I give people my honest professional view – there is no hidden agenda.” At the end of the day, she adds, she talks to governments “about best practice and quite often that’s powerful because people want to be seen to be doing what the best do.”

Another problem Goldsworthy often faces is a lack of long-term commitment. Reform rarely happens without the leadership of politicians, so getting them on side is key. But even when they agree on a particular reform, she explains, they are rarely around for long enough to see it through: “They will happily say: ‘Yes we want a reform programme.’ But, what reform needs is five, ten, fifteen, or twenty years of sustained effort to make it happen, and you rarely get that kind of commitment.”

Learning from each other

Her ideas may not always be fully implemented, but the fact that countries are willing to work with her shows they are open in principle to learn from others. This kind of openness does not apply to all nations, she says, although senior government officials who have learnt from other countries’ approaches generally value the experience. But, Goldsworthy says that “governments and civil servants are often hesitant, if not reluctant, to learn from each other. It’s not like the private sector where you think: ‘They might know something useful’, it’s more like: ‘We do things our way.’”

She remembers coming back to the UK from a secondment to South Africa after helping the post-apartheid government establish the Department for Public Service and Administration: “I happened to mention to somebody in our Treasury that the South Africans had a very interesting approach to running their Parliamentary select committees. I said: ‘I think it’d be interesting for the Treasury to…’ and the official looked at me and said: ‘South Africa? I don’t think so.’”

But Goldsworthy believes greater international exchange is key to improving public administration, echoing the views of several senior government officials interviewed by Global Government Forum: “I think there’s a huge amount to learn from each other.”

Looking at other countries’ experiences of improvement can also save time, she argues, recalling a conversation she had with the former Danish ambassador to the UK in the late 1990s. The UK had just launched the first Next Steps agency as part of an initiative widely regarded as highly radical when her team found out that other countries had long done the same: “This lovely guy from the Danish Embassy said: ‘I just thought you might be interested to know that we’ve had agencies in Denmark for several hundred years.’ We had no notion – all our development of our concept had been based solely on internal evidence about what needed doing.”

After almost 30 years as a British civil servant and 17 so far as a freelancer, Goldsworthy’s mission to enable governments around the world to learn from each other and improve their systems is still going strong. Will she retire soon? One day, she says. At the moment, she is back and forth between her London home and projects in Myanmar and Uganda.  Coming and going – “not becoming part of the furniture”, means that she feels “refreshed every time.”

Her motivation comes from strong conviction: “Governments can’t work if you don’t have good public administration, and I think people deserve that. I think the poor and downtrodden – just as those in more wealthy economies – deserve to have the best government they can get. Since you can’t always rely on the politicians, let’s at least try to make the public administration work well.”

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World – the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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