Public sector organisations around the world are wrestling with increasingly complex demands from the populations they serve and their political masters. The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has caused economic disruption on an unprecedented scale in peacetime, kindling the need for greater state intervention in the economy and the lives of most citizens for some time.
This disruption comes against a backdrop of longstanding, multifaceted policy questions. At an international level, these comprise questions around shifting patterns of global trade and net zero climate change commitments. At a national level, such as within the UK, these issues include addressing the educational disruption wrought by the pandemic, enabling much wider access to the housing market, and regional levelling up to address historical economic imbalances. Public sector leaders must not only respond to these issues and opportunities but be seen to respond in a way that aligns with the political will for change.
Public sector organisations are therefore confronted with the need to make profound shifts in the way that they operate. This is an enduring trend that will outlast the short-term fallout from the pandemic. It requires public sector leaders to make some fundamental choices about the long-term purpose of their organisations and the issues they ought to prioritise so they can deliver optimal value to the public.
This renewed imperative calls for a ruthless focus on the delivery of radically different outcomes. It requires bold, co-ordinated action, and for public sector organisations to think and act differently. It is an opportunity for leaders to ask if whether their policy and delivery agendas will have sustained value and are deliverable beyond the initial fanfare of their launch. Because all too often, an absence of effective strategy can cause long-term reform agendas to get lost in the gap between high-level policy and implementation. And where organisations do invest time to develop strategies to connect delivery to high-policy, often they can be skewed towards specific issues or functions, potentially influenced by decision-maker biases, too rooted in legacy and contemporary issues, or disconnected from external demands.
What should strategy creation in the public sector look like?
In our experience across the private and public sector, the best strategies are formed with an open and collaborative mindset. They’re built on a deep understanding of current issues, external drivers, and customer and stakeholder views, reacting dynamically while keeping an eye on the horizon. A more piecemeal approach that fails to tackle the root causes of performance or delivery problems will only deal with present issues, which will reappear, reducing the long-term effectiveness of the strategy. Developing robust strategies therefore requires time, space and investment of intellectual energy.
The ambition of any strategy must be nothing less than crystallising a binding vision and common sense of purpose. This needs to be translated into a meaningful set of objectives, underpinned by existing and future capabilities, which drive organisational priorities and investment decisions. Without this, divergent and conflicting activity will result in inefficient delivery, loss of control and, ultimately, less effective outcomes for the wider public.
For public sector leaders, the challenge is even greater. They need to consider not just organisational issues but a much broader range of drivers. Attention must be given to political changes which can often be uncontrollable, such as new ministers, changes in spending plans, and regulatory and legislative changes. The importance of strategy here is vital. Either leaders can acknowledge, respond to, and positively shape the response to such changes, or risk being caught in the undertow.
Take the UK Government’s focus on achieving net zero by 2050. This has informed the policy of ending the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans from 2030, with £1 billion committed to support the electrification of UK vehicles and their supply chains, and £1.3 billion pledged to support charging infrastructure across the country. Beyond these macro-level policy agendas, to prepare for the shift towards mass usage of electric vehicles, all tiers of government will need to work creatively with industry to explore a range of strategic questions. These include how they adapt local infrastructure, movement strategies and growth plans to exploit the economic potential of new technologies required to develop electric vehicles for mass consumption.
As public sector leaders aim to align their strategic thinking with this renewed imperative for change across government, they’ll need to ask:
- how do we provide clarity around a credible long-term direction that pinpoints the key issues that can and should be addressed to deliver enduring benefits?
- how can we control and bring order to change activities by focusing on credible yet ambitious plans with a relentless focus on value?
- how do we set out a view of the future that inspires confidence and makes the most of our organisation’s ability to innovate using all its expertise?
CONTEST, the UK’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, is an example of a successful strategy which has consistently answered these questions. A first version was published in 2006 and the overarching framework has been in place since then with a consistent focus on ‘the four Ps’: Prevent, Pursue, Protect, Prepare. It’s longevity and consistency has delivered effective outcomes in an area where the UK is seen as a global leader, providing a wide array of stakeholders – from intelligence agencies responsible for disrupting international terrorist plots to local education providers responsible for engaging children at risk of seeking fulfilment from violent extremism – with the clarity, control and confidence they require to inform their own strategically aligned planning and delivery.
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