Seven things we learned from the Responsive Government Survey

By on 16/11/2021 | Updated on 16/11/2021

The Responsive Government Survey 2021, conducted by Global Government Forum and PA Consulting, gathered views from civil servants about their confidence in their organisation’s ability to respond and adapt effectively to change. Here’s what we learned.

Civil servants think their organisations are responsive…

Civil servants in all nine countries surveyed generally perceive their organisations to be capable of operating a responsive government.

The survey, which received 873 responses, including 133 from senior officials, across nine countries, found that almost three-quarters of participants (72%) agreed with the statement “My organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs”, with just 19% disagreeing.

This overall confidence was also evident within the Five Eyes group (US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand), where 71% of all civil servants agreed with this statement to some extent. What is more, positivity rose as seniority fell. Among Five Eyes leaders, 67% were in agreement with the above statement. At manager level, seven in 10 agreed. However, among frontline staff, 73% agreed.

…but the systems don’t always make it easy

Despite the high levels of confidence, it was not always reflected in respondents’ answers about the drivers that contribute to responsiveness. This suggests that civil servants have pride and confidence in their department and their work, but systems and culture don’t always match their ambition.

Indeed, civil servants in most countries identified room for improvement in collaboration between departments, communication of decisions through the ranks, empowerment of staff and giving permission to try and fail, and ensuring end-user input to the making of policy. But the most negative scores related to organisations’ ability to move at pace – respondents in most countries complained about being hamstrung by unnecessary bureaucracy.

UK officials are least confident in their government’s responsiveness

Average weighted scores found that the UK had the lowest overall score with its leaders particularly downbeat on questions around bureaucracy, budget, technology, human resources and collaboration.

Only 12% of senior officials in the UK agreed with a statement that there was “little unnecessary bureaucracy in their organisation”, with 85% disagreeing. UK officials were also sceptical that their organisation provides an environment where people with a diverse range of skills and opinions are available at short notice to help problem solve, with just 38% agreeing, compared to around three in five more widely.

Senior managers in the Canadian civil service were more downbeat than middle management and operational colleagues

Civil servants at management roles in Canada are considerably less confident in their organisation’s responsiveness than their leaders or their colleagues in non-management grades. This disconnect between grades was more pronounced in Canada than in any other Five Eyes civil service.

Only 22% of managers agreed that bottlenecks are avoided by holding all staff accountable for results, against 61% of leaders. While not a single leader disagreed that failure is tolerated as long as lessons are learned, 28% of managers did.

Variations were also pronounced in other countries. In the US, across all categories, non-management staff were significantly more bullish in their responses than their more senior cohorts while in New Zealand the opposite was true – leaders in that country recorded higher scores than their more junior colleagues.

Canadian leaders were also the least confident that digital technologies are fully embedded in processes from the outset. Only 30% of leaders said that they agreed digital was well embedded, and little more confident that the “technology we require is available or can be developed in time to support our requirements” (56%).

Paul Glover, president of Shared Services Canada, the agency responsible for providing IT services across the government, pointed out the organisation was only ten years old this year and is just beginning to emerge into what he called “the opportunity zone”. Introducing new systems gives people “tools that really work for them better than what they had previously, which also address issues around interoperability and security, but that does mean a bit less choice, a bit less ‘do it however you want’,” Glover said.

Size matters

The size of a country’s population and the structure of its government both appear to impact agility; leaders in nations with smaller populations and less complex parliamentary and governance systems tended to exhibit more confidence.

For example, three of the countries with the smallest populations recorded the highest scores for government’s ability to provide an environment where people with a diverse range of skills and opinions are available at short notice to help problem solve: Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand.

Leaders in the Five Eyes countries were, on the whole, less bullish about their capabilities than their Nordic counterparts. Yet several of the Five Eye countries appear at the top of studies that externally assess government capabilities, such as the Incise Index and World Bank’s Good Governance Indicators.

New Zealand’s adaptability helped it tackle COVID-19

The coronavirus response was an important context for the report, with governments having had to prove their responsiveness in the last 18 months like never before.

We asked civil servants whether adapting to change had helped them to develop capabilities that were not present pre-pandemic. Four in five civil servants across the nine countries surveyed say their organisation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped it to develop significant new capabilities. However, the results also suggest that officials feel there are barriers to progress in times of crises and otherwise.

In New Zealand, nine in ten leaders strongly agreed that adapting to change has helped to develop significant capabilities within their organisation that were not present three years before the pandemic, compared with just 50% of US leaders. On the whole, New Zealand has successfully kept COVID-19 at bay, thanks largely to the speedy closure of its borders and immediate lockdowns when outbreaks occurred.

Janine Foster, director of risk, security and assurance at the New Zealand Customs Service, highlights the importance of its agile response. “I would have to say that Customs has been more responsive to new demands in the last 18 months than it could ever have imagined. If someone had said to us two years ago, ‘do you think you could deal with this sort of change?’, no one would have said yes.

“I do think people feel more confident that even if they don’t know everything, actually it turns out they don’t need to – they can still make a good decision based on what they do know, and change it later if need be.”

Top US officials are the most modest about their abilities

Leaders generally have high opinions of their own leadership abilities – higher, in most cases, than the staff they manage, the report revealed.

However, in the US where leaders were more modest about their capabilities, their lower-grade colleagues had higher opinions of their organisation’s leadership.

In response to the overall statement – my organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen needs – 87% of frontline civil servants agreed compared with 67% of leaders.

As well as being more negative about most performance indicators than their more junior colleagues, US leaders were also more downbeat than their peer groups in other countries.

For example, they scored lowest overall on the statements about leadership and organisational vision, staff empowerment and autonomy, and among the bottom two on statements around environment for change and moving at pace.

Confidence in an organisation’s leadership tended to be mirrored in views on staff empowerment and autonomy and its inclination to take risks and try new things.

US civil servants were most likely of all Five Eyes groups to say they have the autonomy to design and deliver their own solutions, and that staff are rewarded for pursuing opportunities for change, even if there is a risk of failure.

The US position contrasted sharply with New Zealand on many of these issues. New Zealand leaders scored themselves among the highest of Five Eyes cohorts on statements relating to leadership, empowerment and experimentation, but these views were not widely shared by their more junior colleagues.

Read the report in full

Global Government Forum and PA Consulting will present the findings of the Responsive Government Survey during a webinar on 20 January 2022 – register here.

The 2021 survey is a pilot project that will expand in scope and coverage in future years.

About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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