Corporate cannibalism and stealing good ideas: how the civil service can eat itself fitter

Most officials will be aware of cases where “perverse incentives” hamper better service delivery. Joshua Chambers takes a global view of how corporate cannibalism and bare-faced theft can be a recipe for success

By Joshua Chambers

22 Jan 2016

Cannibals get a bad rap. While they’re not the most sociable of creatures, they’re a necessary part of any organisation.

Just look at Kodak. They failed to invest in digital photography because they feared it would hit their core business. Contrast this with Apple, which is always launching new products that render its existing – popular – products obsolete.

This mindset is necessary in government. There are some great examples from across the world of units that have launched new services, even though they disrupt existing delivery models.

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Take Hong Kong. Its Efficiency Unit runs a central government call centre for departments, known as 1823, which handles citizen complaints. Technically, because of its funding model, it benefits financially when government agencies receive more complaints.

But its civil servants had other ideas: they wanted to cut complaints. The team used analytics to judge the most common complaints, and found that often government communications were unclear and hard for ordinary citizens to follow.

The team found the specific mail-outs, used complaints data to rewrite them, and then shared new versions with departments. This helped cut complaints by over 50% for one department, and 47% for another, the Efficiency Unit head, Kim Salkeld, told me. Not great for call centre funding, but much better for citizens.

Meanwhile, Singapore is trialling a novel approach in its transport system. A small team of officials in the government’s data science team found that some citizens had to take three different forms of transport to get into work – often a bus to the closest station, a train and then another bus.

This seemed inefficient, causing lengthy commuting times for the people concerned. So the officials looked to see if they could reduce the amount of time spent on public transport

The result was the Beeline scheme, an on-demand bus which takes people from their houses straight to the office. They used ticket purchasing data to see common routes where people have to take both buses and trains. The team combined this journey information with an app that allowed people to request routes that would go from their home to their office. As a result, they had very precise information on customer demand and viable new routes.

The department then approached private bus companies, showing potential new routes for them to run. A fleet of minibuses now provide a cheap way for people to get directly to work – often in groups as small as 12. The companies saw a business opportunity, while the team improved citizen transport journeys – even if it does cut public bus and train revenues.

As the team’s lead official, Liu Feng Yuan, told me: “If you can’t monetise it but it benefits society, you should do it because that’s where we tackle problems that a startup wouldn’t take on."

Estonia has a third great example of cannibalism. When a child is born in the country, the government sends parents an email asking for their offspring’s name and the bank account that should receive the child’s allowance. Government then registers the child and takes care of all of the other paperwork – including providing text message notifications for upcoming deadlines like school registration.

“The best service is the one that you do not have to do anything for, but gets taken care [of] for you – even before you realise you need it,” the Estonian prime minister recently said.

Three things are clear from these examples. First is the power of analytics to show problems and create new responses. Second, the solution often involves a digital response. And third, the solutions weren’t dreamed up by a central innovation lab, they were proposed by ordinary civil servants, seized upon and tested out.

A final ingredient has been a willingness to steal ideas from other places. The Beeline scheme was nabbed from a company in Silicon Valley and adapted to work in the public sector. Estonia, meanwhile, has said it has been inspired by the simplicity of AirBnB’s online service.

So there you have it. What are the key approaches of a 21st century civil servant? Theft and cannibalism, it would appear. Happy New Year!

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