Risk versus reward: why the public sector should fail more often

By on 11/12/2020 | Updated on 11/12/2020
Failing safe: Officials need a culture that gives them freedom to try new things, even if they don’t make the mark. Credit: Pixabay/Pexels

At Innovation 2020, senior leaders discussed the opportunities and challenges associated with commissioning and deploying new technologies. Governments’ risk-averse cultures are a barrier to developing public services, they agreed – but there are ways around the problem. Natalie Leal reports

“We need the freedom to explore ideas much more [than] we have today,” said Stefan Schlosser, a policy adviser working on digital issues in Germany’s Federal Chancellery. “We need a culture of failure,” he added: one in which civil servants are allowed “to do things wrong.”

Stefan Schlosser, policy Adviser at the Federal Chancellery, Division Digital State in Germany

Schlosser was speaking at Innovation 2020, a two-day event hosted online by Global Government Forum. The previous day, senior officials from around the world had chaired workshops for different groups of civil servants, exploring how to commission and deploy new technologies. And at this panel discussion, several workshop chairs came together to report back on their groups’ views and provide their own perspectives.

During this third panel session – which followed panels on skills and tools, and on better use of data – issues around organisational culture received a lot of attention, alongside ways to balance the risk versus reward equation, and how to keep existing services going whilst trialling new tools, systems and approaches.

Risk culture

Chris Ferguson, director for service design and assurance at the UK’s Government Digital Service.

New and emerging tech such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, chat-bots and big data hold enormous potential to transform public services. But for innovation to flourish, people need the freedom to experiment ­– something considered risky in government.

“Innovation requires experimentation and, inevitably, failure,” said Chris Ferguson, director for service design and assurance at the UK’s Government Digital Service (GDS). This is accepted in the private sector, where venture capitalists expect a 20% or 50% success rate, “but in government we are obliged – by our governance and use of taxpayers’ money – to promise a 100% success rate,” he said. So while civil servants can be encouraged to work in more innovative ways, their need to avoid taking risks with public funds means that “an immediate cultural barrier comes into play.”

Indeed, culture is the biggest inhibitor – or enabler – of new technologies, according to Mark Palmer, head of public sector for Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Google Cloud, a knowledge partner at the event.

But the pandemic has shown what’s possible when it comes to deploying new technologies, said Palmer – while demonstrating the power of digital technologies to deliver the “rapid change” required this year in government services. Palmer gave the example of a welfare agency in Spain, which deployed a chat-bot to manage a surge in payment enquiries – allowing digital channels to handle questions that would otherwise have gone into telephone call centres.

Getting the balance right

Mark Palmer, head of public sector for EMEA at Google Cloud

One consideration in balancing risk and reward is the pace at which to adopt new technologies. “One of the members of my workshop asked if the public sector should be an early adopter,” Schlosser said. “We all agreed that we don’t have to be an early adopter, but it’s very important that the public sector is up to date.”

Others, however, felt that the public sector should be more proactive about new technology. “In the digital world, the role of the civil service will change,” said Hans-Jörg Schäper, deputy director general of the Information Technology directorate at the Federal Ministry of Finance in Germany. Civil services will need to retain human-led front offices, but their internal operations will be transformed: “We will use new technologies like web-based portals, online services, artificial intelligence systems and blockchain, chat-bots and big data analytics,” he said. “I think we have to adopt this new role, and even to be innovators in the digital process.”

Citizen-centric approach

While there are opportunities in deploying these technologies, it’s important to make sure no one is left behind. “There’s all kinds of implications for our users when adopting new technologies – whether it’s voice tech, AI or anything else. That raise questions about the accessibility of services and public services need to be accessible to everybody,” said Ferguson.

Melinda Johnson, commercial director at the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care

This highlights an important distinction between the public and private sector. “We’re not taking a commercial decision to say: ‘Well, it’s okay if 20% or 30% of the population don’t want to use us’,” Ferguson added. “We are the monopoly of public service provision so we have to make sure that we’re not alienating or excluding people by adopting particular technologies – that’s important.”

It is also important to keep existing services running while testing and experimenting. “You can do both,” said Melinda Johnson, commercial director of the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care. “Keep doing what you’ve been doing and then pilot something new at the same time,” she advised. If the pilot is a success, then “scale that up and replace the existing thing.”

In fact, argued Schlosser, innovation can be as much about letting things go as it is about implementing new ideas. His workshop discussed “exnnovation,” he said, meaning abolishing things – such as systems, processes, practices, technologies – that are no longer needed.

Public goods in a digital world

Hans-Jörg Schäper, deputy director general and the Directorate General VI – Information Technology, Federal Ministry of Finance, Germany

One interesting question for civil services to consider in future, said Ferguson, is how to reconceive the concept of public goods for the digital age.

“In the past we’ve had police forces, streetlights, things like that, that are paid for out of general taxation but are there for everybody,” he observed. “I find it hard to believe, given the digital and technology revolution, that governments around the world shouldn’t be thinking about what are the public goods? What are the things that everyone should have access to and be able to use that is provided by government?

“I think that’s a fascinating question to think about as we move into the next phase of digital, data and technology in government.”

Innovation 2020 comprised over 20 workshops for civil servants from around the world, each addressing different aspects of innovation; those workshops’ chairs then sat on five panel discussions on the second day of the event.

The first panel discussion covered the skills and tools required to innovate. The second covered better use of data. This report covers the third panel, which focused on how to commission and deploy new technologies. We’ll publish reports on the other panels soon.

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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