By Suzannah.Brecknell

21 Dec 2011

International economic challenges and public service strategies were discussed at the first Global Public Service Leaders’ Summit, which brought together civil service chiefs from around the world. Suzannah Brecknell reports.

How many cabinet secretaries does it take to change a light bulb? At last week’s Global Public Service Leaders’ Summit there was an opportunity to find out: six very senior civil servants – including several heads of their national civil services – from around the world gathered at the Institute for Government (IfG) in central London. These top officials came together to hear presentations from world-class external experts on the global economic, technological, political and demographic issues affecting public services, and to share their own experiences of service implementation and reform. The event was organised by CSW publisher Dods in partnership with the IfG and Blavatnik School of Government, and supported by HP and Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Speaking to CSW before the event, the UK’s cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell said he hoped the discussion would be an honest one, helping to build relationships which will prove useful in addressing future challenges. And after the event, he told CSW that these aims had been achieved. “The key was that [the event] wasn’t too big,” he said, and that it was “high-level and informal”. He contrasted it with “other international meetings where the level of representation has drifted down and you end up with people who feel they have to read out prepared scripts. We didn’t have any of that: everyone contributed in a frank and personal way, and we had very high-level external input.”

South African delegate Dr Cassius Lubisi, director general of the President’s Department, believes that a space for “purely civil service dialogue” has been the “missing link” in the global village. Politicians come together to make joint decisions on global issues, he told CSW, but “once those decisions are taken they have to be implemented. In all the discussions that I’ve heard [previously] it was civil servants acting as assistants to political principals, but [this summit was] an attempt for civil servants to learn from each other, based on their own experiences of implementing decisions that are taken in a political sphere. I think that is a critical, a long overdue process.”

Economic climate change

To facilitate honest and informal discussion, all the proceedings were entirely off-the-record, though CSW was able to speak with delegates after the meetings to discuss emerging themes and lessons. On the first day of the summit, delegates discussed the global economic context, beginning the day with a presentation from Minouche Shafik, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund. James Johns, director of strategy for UK civil government at HP, summarises the message as: “This isn’t just a few bad [economic] winters, as it were; there’s a climate change element [to the economic challenges]. The presentation brought this home, showing the structural changes in public sector spending, particularly the rise in age-related healthcare and pension spending over the long term.”

Shafik’s presentation highlighted the issue of structural deficits in many countries, and Johns notes that the presentation and ensuing discussions set out “how important public sector reform is going to be in tackling that systemic challenge. There’s a need for different types of services, better targeting, more intelligent services.” The UK is “pretty near the front of the pack” in terms of effecting this kind of transformative change, suggests O’ Donnell. “We’ve privatised a lot; we’ve done outsourcing; we’ve done a lot of the things that other people are thinking about,” he says, but there are still areas where the UK can learn – for example, from the Canadians, who have developed services with more customer focus.

The UK government has already learnt much from Canada about successfully deficit reduction: the Canadian government went through a major programme of cuts in the mid-1990s. Wayne Wouters, now secretary to the cabinet in Canada, was closely involved with this process at the time. He points out the importance of winning public support for any programme of deficit reduction: “It is critical not only that you have some degree of political consensus; but also that your citizens feel this is important; that deficit reduction is the right thing for government [to do].” In Canada, the government won its population over using various methods – including television adverts – and Wouters suggests that this campaign, and the resulting public aversion to government debt, remains influential in Canadian politics. Nonetheless, he warns that “even if there’s consensus to reduce spending, you run into debates about where [to cut]”.

Technology trends
The way in which these debates are conducted seems now to be changing, suggests Johns. “One delegate made the point that the political context in which these decisions are made is changing; the way politicians are interacting with their citizens is changing, as a result of the technology changes such as social networking, the push for open government and open data.”

The role of political parties as a mediating channel of political debate is being reduced, continues Johns, as “governments – officials and elected politicians – have a much more direct link to the views of the electorate, enabled by technology”. Delegates also discussed the effects of new technology on service delivery. IfG director designate Peter Riddell, who chaired several of the sessions, says that there was great interest from all delegates in the potential to make government more responsive through the use of technology. There was, for example, discussion of the value of mobile and smart phones in providing services. “It was an amazingly common theme, in countries with vastly differing GDPs per head,” he says.

On the second day, delegates heard from technology experts HP on four key trends in communication technology, and how these may affect public services. These trends are: greater use of cloud technologies; ‘consumerisation’, the eclipsing of corporate customers by individual consumers; the potential provided by ever-greater levels of connectivity between devices; and the potential to use powerful analytics techniques to improve service provision.

Delegates raised a number of tactical concerns, such as security, but Russian delegate Dr Mikhail Pryadilnikov, head of the Department of Economic Policy Coordination and Development, raises a more strategic point.“In Moscow, we’ve introduced a lot of options for citizens to give feedback to the government through IT channels,” he tells CSW – but although “a lot of information is collated, the government is much slower to react, so we need to try to learn how to integrate all this feedback.”
Strategic thinking

The day’s second presentation was from former cabinet minister James Purnell, now an adviser for consultancy firm Boston Consulting Group, who spoke about the need for governments to think and act more strategically in order to effect real change. Building on arguments set out in a recent FT article, he argued that governments have become too focused on the tactics of achieving change and on reactive initiatives, rather than setting out clearly the type of country they want to build and developing a proactive strategy to achieve this. He called on civil servants to encourage and support strategic thinking in their countries.

Speaking to CSW after the event, Purnell discusses some of the factors which can militate against good strategic planning. In the UK, he says, the fact that many big decisions are taken during spending reviews means they “end up being made on the basis of horse-trading and received wisdoms” rather than ways which encourage officials to develop “complete solutions”.

The short-term nature of many democratic systems can also be seen as an obstacle, he says: “People sometimes say you can’t be strategic and think long-term because you’re only elected for a short period of time, but actually I think there are different ways in which you can stretch the horizon as a politician.” Implementing major reforms early in your term or at a moment of crisis, and then “pursuing it effectively such that the opposition, once they get into power, don’t feel they can overturn it because it’s become part of the received wisdom”, is one way to achieve this, he says, pointing to the Labour government’s approach to NHS spending or Thatcher’s union reforms as examples.

Ultimately, it’s politicians who must make decisions and choose whether or not to follow a strategic approach, but Purnell believes civil servants have a role in ensuring that the process is in place to ensure that strategic issues are taken into consideration.

Wouters tells CSW that politicians in general do want to act strategically, but “the transactions of the day get in our way, and I think that therefore as public servants we need to find a way that long-term strategic thinking resonates [for politicians].” He also emphasises the importance of retaining a capacity to think and plan strategically, even if this isn’t in immediate demand from politicians.

Canada was, until recently, led by a minority government and much of the focus was on the short term, Wouters explains, but senior civil servants “felt we needed to maintain the capacity to do longer-term strategic work”. So Wouters set up five committees of permanent secretaries to consider major challenges that Canada might face in the next five to ten years. “When the government came back as a majority with the longer timeframe, we had the capacity and some of the work already done to support [them]. I’ve often said that good strategic policy work will some day find the light of day,” he says. “It may not today or tomorrow, but don’t lose that capacity, because it’s hard to get it back.”

Wouters’ focus on preserving key skills may be influenced by the fact that the Canadian civil service is currently experiencing a talent shortage at certain grades: a hangover from the recruitment freeze in the mid-1990s. The government is taking care to ensure that the current round of downsizing does not prompt a similar skills drought. “The government has accepted that we should not have a [recruitment] freeze; while we will be reducing the size of the public service, we should still be able to recruit in strategic areas where we continue to see growth, so that we’re always renewing our public service even in a period of fiscal consolidation,” he says.

Questions of workforce development seemed to be an area of great interest to all delegates, suggests Johns. Sir Gus, too, notes that while facing the challenge of reforming services and delivering better for less, “we’re all thinking about capabilities, skills gaps” and how others are addressing the same issues, “particularly things like what should be done by the public sector and what should be done by the private sector”. Maarten Wevers, chief executive of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, New Zealand, also highlights the importance of ensuring there is a “flow and exchange of ideas and mutually supportive relationships” between public and private sectors, so that countries can “harness the skills of both sides of that economic divide in the interests of the nation”.

This was an area with great potential for shared learning: several delegates were keen to find out more about the capability reviews undertaken by the UK and New Zealand governments, while Pryadilnikov tells CSW he will be asking delegates to send over examples of performance management tools they use, so that his government can use them to develop its own system.

Another theme which Sir Gus observed in discussions around workforce reform and development was that of how civil services must adapt to reflect the changing profiles or expectations of populations. Several other countries, he says, spoke about the challenges of “putting your civil service together when you’re bringing it together from disparate groups” – such as South Africa post-apartheid or the various ethnic groups in Russia. For the UK, he suggests, there are lessons to be learnt about the need to ensure that the civil service reflects the country’s increasingly diverse society.

Delegates also showed great interest in a presentation by David Halpern, the Cabinet Office’s adviser on behavioural economics. He shared examples of how the UK is using these techniques in a number of policy fields, and was then showered with questions about how his ‘Nudge Unit’ is working with other departments. Sergey Myasoedov, vice rector of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration, was particularly interested in the potential of these techniques. Approaching public services from the “platform of industrial economy” can mean “you pay too much attention to systematisation, regulations, putting everything in a proper order”, he says. While this has benefits, as services are modernised “we should think about the [psychology] of any system we design.”

So what of those cabinet secretaries and the light bulb? Sadly, this was one question that remained unanswered: thanks to the IfG’s reliable maintenance staff, no such emergencies interrupted proceedings. On the more serious question of changing public services across the world to meet the challenges of a changing economic environment, though, while delegates didn’t come up with all the answers, they set off for home with ideas and lessons which will inform politicians’ choices and public service reforms all over the world.

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