Public services need better leaders

Leaders with exposure to modern ways of delivering services are essential

As we head towards a general election, the Civil Service is under enormous pressure. Teams will be expected to deliver more, at a greater scale than ever before. That’s especially true for digital teams.

In these conditions, it’s critical that leaders do two things:

  1. Set the direction: make it clear what outcomes teams should be aiming for. 
  2. Create the conditions for success. 

But these two tasks are difficult for today’s leaders in government. Many of them don’t understand what modern approaches to service delivery can achieve, and are stuck repeating the mistakes of the past.

To set direction, you need to state clear outcomes

Technology literacy in government is better than it was ten years ago. But it has focused very narrowly on capabilities rather than potential. 

For example, leaders might well be aware that a back-office supported by a mix of paper and digital processes isn’t ideal. They might know that a standardised case management system could improve it. But, for many of them, that’s the end point of the conversation: install the new system, make it all better. So, digital teams are set Sisyphean tasks to replicate existing processes. Users are left with the same unnecessary complexity – but now it’s online.

It takes experience to step back and think carefully about the actual outcomes you want from a team. In the above example, there could be an opportunity to radically rethink the service. 

Setting clear goals creates space for teams to develop their own solutions. 

During the pandemic there were a lot of opportunities to do that. The need to respond rapidly meant teams with the skill to take an outcome and gun for it were highly valued. 

At the Ministry of Justice, a new service was rolled out that enabled prisoners to hold secure video calls with family and friends. With national lockdown preventing in-person visits, this swift response ensured prisoners could maintain relationships, a crucial factor in reducing reoffending

During that time we worked closely with the Department for Education to get teacher training materials online within three weeks. And it’s not just under crisis conditions that teams have tried new approaches. We’ve been helping the department shift their digital delivery to a multidisciplinary, iterative approach. Small teams are doing great work to align around a challenge and find solutions fast.

Leaders are setting direction, and trusted skilled digital professionals are delivering results. 

Leaders need to understand collaboration and iteration

Civil Service leaders have mostly come up through silos. They don’t have the muscle memory for foundational, cross-department collaboration. Projects are mired in disproportionate governance. Senior leaders don’t have the expertise or confidence to change that. That’s why the digital infrastructure to support transformed services doesn’t exist. 

Very few of the outcomes government wants to achieve fit neatly into departmental silos. Take tackling youth offending as an example, any initiative needs to take health, education, and social support into account.

On top of that, most genuinely new services won’t be right first time. They need to start small, and grow in scale as confidence in the delivery approach increases. That kind of model is anathema to traditional procurement processes. Agile, iterative approaches deliver value fast (or, at least, they fail early and cheaply). That’s not how central government projects typically run: Making Tax Digital has been delayed four times, with estimated costs at £1.3 billion; Capgemini’s Aspire systems continue to plague civil servants despite attempts to replace them for nearly 8 years. The Civil Service fails slowly, and it fails big.

Good leaders see these conditions and work to mitigate them. They do what they can to connect people, or give teams cover when they’re in pursuit of a clear goal.

Government can get better by adopting modern approaches to risk management. Having no appetite for risk is understandable when the default is to spin up massive teams for every project. But right-sized teams use collaboration, agility and iteration to learn the route to better. 

If you’ve never encountered those approaches in your work before, it’s tough to imagine doing things differently. That’s why leaders with exposure to modern ways of delivering services are essential.

Digital teams should be core operational teams

According to a recent report by the Institute for Government, policy professionals are still “culturally and numerically dominant” in the top tier of the Civil Service. These people “have less outside experience”, with just 30% recruited from outside the Civil Service compared to 80% of delivery professionals.

That said, the type of experience that operational leaders recruited from outside government have matters too. Working on a streaming platform or an e-commerce site isn’t the same thing as understanding the complexities of using digital in front-line service delivery. 

In essence though, people in positions of power in government tend to have a lot of experience with the way things work today.

Despite this, in the last twenty years more people with operational backgrounds have risen to leadership positions. They have a deep understanding of what users need, and what life is like at the blunt end of service delivery.

In theory that means that leaders with digital experience are growing into authority. But, in practise, digital teams are isolated from operational teams. They’ve either been bundled with the back-office or hived off into “innovation”. Neither fish nor fowl.

On top of that, an owner of a digital service will typically report into the owner of a service directorate. That person may have strong digital literacy, but it’s not a given. Digital service owners can influence what outcomes their team are on the hook for, but they probably can’t define them. 

So, meaningful understanding of digital delivery is kept in a box, isolated from power and responsibility.

That’s a tractable problem: those teams can be pulled into the wider operational group. Digital skills and traditional delivery can share knowledge and expertise. But, so far, digital professionals have been hugely resistant to that kind of change. 

To some extent you can see why: having a special status has protected budgets. It isolates digital teams from wider instability in the public sector. But digital leaders are also cutting themselves off from meaningful power. 

Not bridging the divide means that operational leaders don’t have the depth of knowledge they need to make good choices. And policy professionals still see digital merely as a tool to effect policy, rather than a mechanism for testing and improving it.

Serious work needs to be done to bridge those divides. To find and accelerate the paths to leadership for talented digital professionals. To give everyone exposure to the ways those other teams work. That’s going to pave the way for better conversations about the direction and the conditions for success.

Now is the right time for better leadership

The last year has been dominated by conversations about the use of AI technologies in the public sector. It sounds like we’ll see some interesting experiments to test how it could shape policy and delivery. But government must avoid the trap of thinking that AI alone can solve the fundamental barriers to public sector reform. Strong leadership is a much better start. 

Digital talent is blossoming in government. These teams are stretched thin, absolutely, but they are delivering better services. We should know: we’re helping them do it. 

What they need now are leaders who understand how to use their talents. Who understand the outcomes they want those teams to achieve and clear the path to support them.