‘There’s a sense parts of the public sector are not working as well as they did’: how can governments become more responsive to citizen needs?

By on 17/05/2023 | Updated on 17/05/2023
A image of a chameleon to illustrate responsiveness in government

The 2023 Responsive Government Survey reveals that public servants’ confidence in their ability to respond to the changing needs of citizens is lower now than in 2021. What can be done to remedy this?

Public servants around the world have become less confident in their governments’ ability to respond to change. This is the stark finding of the second Responsive Government Survey, which recorded a significant fall in how public servants rate their department or organisation’s ability to respond across a host of areas, from overall responsiveness to the use of digital and data and confidence in contingency planning.

In particular, public servants were much less confident about how their department or organisation was able to respond to the changing needs of citizens – including creating a culture that embeds responsiveness to changing citizen needs.

Read in full: Responsive Government Survey

The biggest overall decline in responsiveness scores from the first and second iteration of the Responsive Government Survey is the proportion of officials who say their organisation has a cyclical improvement process that integrates citizen and end-user feedback. The proportion of officials saying that they agree has fallen from 58% in 2021 to 45% – and the same proportion of public and civil servants agree that their organisation has the necessary cyclical processes to support improvement. Plus, only around a third of respondents say their organisation considers wholesale system change for streamlined administration. And, despite leaders generally having higher confidence in organisational responsiveness than their rank-and-file colleagues, in this question of systemic change, leaders’ views match the overall response, demonstrating a consensus.

So, what can be done? Respondents agree there should be a greater focus on citizens when designing and delivering services. One respondent from Canada names timely responses to client feedback as the single action that the central government should undertake to improve responsiveness, while a senior manager in New Zealand’s Ministry of Social Development wants their organisation to align decision-making to community-led responses.

Positive leadership has a part to play too in helping to highlight success and countering the mostly negative feedback public servants often hear from conventional and social media.

According to Michael Wernick, the Jarislowsky chair of public sector management at the University of Ottawa and former cabinet secretary of Canada, leadership plays a part too. As public servants are also citizens, they get the same sort of information from conventional and social media – and what they hear is mostly negative feedback.

“Leaders can’t be passive about this – if they’re passive, the default is that confidence over time will erode. So leaders need to be out there telling the story in a non-political way about the things you’re doing, and why they matter.”

Professor Alexander Evans, who teaches public policy at the London School of Economics and is a former strategy director at the UK Cabinet Office, highlights that citizens always expect improving customer services, and “the sense that parts of the public sector are not working as well as they did pre-pandemic is self-evident”.

At a time when many governments are dealing with strike action and other elements of industrial unrest, there are “more reasons for citizens’ dissatisfaction against very high levels of demand”.

“There are increasing concerns about public service delivery in an era of accentuated public expectations where people are paying more in taxes. This has a second order effect in how civil servants see themselves, and how confident they feel about their organisations, their future and their adaptability.”

The research suggests that governments have not taken advantage of citizen or end-user input to inform developments and lack appropriate processes to support improvement. Herein lies the problem – but also, perhaps, the solution.

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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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