Whitehall isn’t Walt Disney World – but government could learn from the home of Mickey Mouse

The Windrush scandal again shows the need for government to address departmental culture. Companies focused on customer service can help provide the answer

Photo: PA

Back in 2006 the then home secretary John Reid described his department as ‘dysfunctional’ and the Immigration Service as ‘not fit for purpose’ after he was forced to apologise to Parliament for quoting incorrect figures supplied by his officials. With the Windrush saga, we're in the same place, with more calls for the break-up of the Home Office and radical reform of a culture portrayed as having a custodial sense of purpose and a punitive and judgmental DNA.

Civil servants abide by the civil service code – advising ministers, and then doing what they are told – but in an ever more complex and fast-paced world this is increasingly demoralising, inefficient, and sometimes even impossible.

There are lessons to be learnt from people-centred cultures like the Walt Disney Company in building a more human, risk-tolerant, and blame-free culture. Disney has deliberately designed its organisational culture around a framework that motivates human beings, not automatons, to use their common sense and judgement while still upholding very clear boundaries.


Micro-managing every detail of how people should behave is demoralising, inefficient and impossible. A culture is needed that gives everyone the clarity to stay on the same course, whilst simultaneously empowering them to take spontaneous, creative and flexible decisions. This is one of the biggest lessons from the success of the Disney culture, its encouragement of improvisation. The trick is how to channel this improvisation so that it enhances the workplace environment and benefits departmental performance. This may seem paradoxical: designing a system that encourages spontaneity, but the alternative of dehumanising tight scripting doesn’t work; neither does a free-for-all. People are too often recruited for their ability and enthusiasm but then neither empowered nor equipped to make good, consistent and customer-led decisions – leading not only to unhappy customers, but also to unhappy employees.

Government departments, just the same as commercial organisations, need to be crystal clear on their actual purpose: a statement that encapsulates precisely what they do for their range of ‘customers’. It shouldn't be a fluffy statement that is divorced from stakeholder needs or the reality of what we can deliver. Rather, a well-designed purpose should articulate precisely what an individual, or a collective such as a particular section of the community or business sector, is really seeking to accomplish. For example, Disney takes the view that families want to have a happy time together, so its purpose is “We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere”.

Having a clear organisational purpose is immensely valuable. But on its own, knowing that our responsibility is to ‘create opportunities’ or ‘improve the nation’s health’ can leave employees feeling short of guidance on how to behave. Fundamental to Disney’s customer strategy and sustained commercial success is having a small but defined set of standards and behaviours that give employees the next level of detail about their customers’ expectations. These standards and behaviours should be observable, measurable and coachable. For example, an airport with safety, comfort, ease and speed as its standards has “I pick up rubbish” and “I report an area that needs attention” as behaviours associated with ‘comfort’. Similarly, the behaviour “I display a calm tone of voice” is associated with “ease”.

To permeate a more spontaneous and human culture, it is crucial to use each and every human resources mechanism to reinforce it. All too often, HR focuses only on hygiene factors: decent working conditions, humane management practices, fair pay and conditions – particularly in ‘protected’ markets like public services. Cranfield research consistently shows that organisations with a clear purpose and that also engage all their employees in creating value for customers are happier, and have higher levels of employee engagement and therefore customer satisfaction. Employees who are clear about customer expectations and who are equipped and engaged will be willing to do more, and crucially will focus more precisely on what is important.

This can be achieved by actively recruiting applicants who fit with the departmental purpose; accentuating culture as well as developing skills through learning and development activities; using internal communications to show people how they make a difference to customers, and rewarding and recognising people who are delivering the purpose, provided they are also supporting the defined standards and behaviours.

Departments aren’t well-oiled machines controlled by AI, but complex social systems, where mistakes will always continue to happen. It’s critical that employees at all levels – including senior ministers – avoid becoming paralysed by fear of the public, the media, as well as their colleagues and bosses. Getting the best out of talented people means putting more work into departmental cultures, into what makes them more human, and more flexible. Cultures like the one maintained so successfully by Disney are a good place to start looking for ways forward

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