Benjamin Taylor, CEO of PSTA on the future of the Building Back Better public services.
Benjamin Taylor, CEO of Public Service Transformation Academy (PSTA) gives us insight into Building Back Better public services during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, he answers questions on the significant shifts, the challenges and opportunities the pandemic has provided for government at all levels, and central ideas for standardised processes in the event of another economic shock.
1. What have been the most significant shifts with regards to delivery of public services by government from pre-COVID to the present?
I think that now more than ever it’s important not to talk about ‘government’ as an undifferentiated mass – and, indeed, to start to break down the distinction in the delivery of public services and realise that communities, the voluntary and social sector, local government, the different branches of central government and various arms-length bodies, are all public service providers. And what the COVID crisis has shown is that business is also a critical providers of public services.
It’s also true that this has shown us that while we very easily slip into the role of ‘service provider’, we need to really keep front of mind that we’re all citizens, all the time. There was a relatively familiar and predictable pattern: first, communities pulled together, organised mutual support, checked in on one another, and ensured survival and connection. Then, local and larger charities came in with their planned approaches and a need to impose certain elements of governance, risk management, and structure. Next, local government and central government took turns getting involved, producing a mixed bag of successful efforts and delivery, and some less so. The big shift here is the potential for us to start to learn how our interlocking systems of governance and delivery cross and interact in a whole complex system. A shift from political and consensual government to a more urgent top-down, less risk-averse and more sharply delineated formal and informal command-and-control approach both enabled massive achievements and created precisely the kind of risks we suspected.
Potentially the most important part of the big picture is the a huge number of technical shifts – what has been achieved with digital, remote working, and the breaking down of barriers and approaches, and the sudden ability to manage in different ways, is incredible. What was ‘not quite possible yet’ was done, often in a single digit number of days, and taken on beyond that without drawing breath.
And there has been the incredible speed and agility with which services have been stood up – a legacy of positive success – as well as all the stress, overload, trauma, and hardship which has been part of us all suffering together through the crisis, albeit in different ways. Lessons are now being learned – the huge risk is that we now pull back to the boundaries of our siloed organisations and departments, re-establish governance and management in the old style, and lose the flexibility, informal networks, and delivery capability. Where human dynamics are exacerbated by the varied and emotional experiences of different groups in the pandemic, if we put people ‘back in the old box’, we will face massive conflict and problems. But if we create new systems and structures that build on the best of what we achieved in the crisis, we’ll enable the energy and sense of purpose.
2. What is the generally accepted main focus for government to support recovering businesses delivering public services?
It’s hard to see clearly the situation of business right now, with the great success of ‘Eat out to help out’, and apparently somewhat resilient consumer spending, but the ongoing furlough scheme and short-term support as well as most significant economic impact since the second world war potentially running head-on into the looming threat of a crash-out “Brexit”.. The main focus has to be absolutely reliable, consistent, and persistent control of COVID infections and impact – without which there will be no certainty and little optimism in the economy. Secondly, and dependent on this, is the urgent need for restored business, especially for those organisations hit hardest by the problems – small businesses and charities that fell through the funding gaps, industries yet to recover. And, of course, high street shops and the potential knock-on impact on local economies is front of mind for many.
We should remember, too, that the disruption and trauma we are dealing with in our own workforces – and, for example, the big shifts like increased numbers of people likely to take early retirement – will be happening in the private sector, too. All the shifts to home working, digital services, new models of governance and management that we saw in public services have their echoes in the private and community and voluntary sectors, too – office working as we knew it is not coming back in a hurry, for one thing, so there will be a significant realignment of property use, patterns of travel, and patterns of economic activity. We know there are always losers from these kinds of shifts, even if the economy transitions successfully, and we know that, as with those most hit by the pandemic, these are likely to be in the most excluded and disadvantaged groups, so attention must be paid to supporting those who lose out.
3. What are the main priority areas for government when it comes to building back better public services during the further easing of lockdown, and post-COVID?
It’s hard to know if we can talk confidently of a post-COVID future, and certainly too early to do so yet. But the priorities are to build on the freedoms and enabling systems which allowed dynamic action while bringing back in risk management (there will, of course, be a massive surge in fraud and error), and democratic governance and scrutiny at all levels.
Catching up with the backlogs, dealing with the emotional impacts, and moving forward down the avenues opened up by the shift to digital, distributed working and services, will be equal and competing priorities.
4. Moving forward, are there plans to create a more standardized process for government and industry to follow in the event of another unprecedented economic shock such as this pandemic?
Yes. Every organisation we work with has about four groups of people working on how to achieve this – of course, we had enormously detailed plans across public services for precisely this kind of event (most explicitly around both swine flu and bird flu), and the fact that we did respond so well is largely thanks to the ‘muscle memory’ of these which survived the ten years of austerity we’ve all been working through. As budgets continue to be cut, with much more severe cuts coming up and the likelihood of up to 50% of local government hanging on the edge of financial crisis (the ‘Section 114 notice’ which, given local government is statutorily forbidden from running books that do not balance, means an instant freeze on nearly all spending), the risk is that the capacity to develop new processes is reduced, or that we end up with centralised direction which we can hope will be successful in its own terms, but as we have seen, is likely to cut across more local efforts. But the capability and smartness of industry and public services seems to be near infinite, and we certainly have rich learning about what worked and what didn’t work, which presumably will be summed up both in direct formal learning and a public inquiry in due course.
5. Can you give us, in a nutshell, what are generally agreed to be the biggest successes and lessons learned from government’s responses to COVID-19?
What is clear is that we have proven that all levels of government have the ability to take decisive action recognising real conditions of complexity and uncertainty, without ever tipping over into chaos. I hope that we will begin to see that strong fact-based decision-making and shared vision, alongside really significant levels of discretion and devolution, offers a model that works far better than our default.
6. What are the main takeaways people can expect by attending the OPSI event on 17-18 November, Government after shock – an unconventional event for unconventional times?
Government After Shock (https://gov-after-shock.oecd-opsi.org/) is a global networked event coordinated by the OECD’s Observatory of Public Service Innovation that explores the future of government beyond crisis. It is also an experiment in convening different audiences around the world to contribute to one big dialogue around the pandemic, the associated crisis and its implications for governments and their role. It will involve a mix of technologies, event types, different sectors and jurisdictions.
Over 100 days in the heart of the first COVID crisis, the PSTA’s learning community to build back better in the days after worked together to try to make sense of things. Over 120 people who care about citizen and community outcomes came together to learn together. Organisations and spaces they came from included housing associations, charities, health, police, local and central government. And a really interesting smattering of international people, transformational linguists, systems and complexity thinkers.
The journey of the group included:
- focus on ‘what will we face in the days after’ – appreciating the multifarious and overlapping challenges
- scenario development to consider the possibilities and asking ‘what do we want our new future to be’?
- open space development of key focus areas – from new forms of leadership, to the revolutionising of adult social care commissioning
- third horizon thinking to consider what potential realities we can spot and seek to bring through into the new world
- identifying the prospects for radical rebuilding in the days after, and developing a full vision on ‘what we want to be valued’ in the days after
- identifying barriers to the achievement of the vision – and how we can model and share these values, and the shared collaborative learning process which led to them
- along with ‘spin-off’ events on post-crisis communications, 'five worlds' for place-based working, and deep engagement – connecting, reflecting, sensemaking
Our Government After Shock event on 17 November will pick up the threads of ongoing connections and learning from our community, develop our connections and welcome new members, and lead into the key Government After Shock questions:
1. What do we need to leave behind? What are the things that no longer fit with the world we are heading into, what are the structures and processes that have revealed themselves to be inadequate, unsuited or inappropriate for the world emerging from the crisis? What did the crisis show was no longer appropriate, or what has emerged from or been exacerbated by the crisis that we need to stop doing?
2. What do we want to keep? What do we hold dear or value from before or during the crisis that we want to keep or sustain? What things might we cherish but need to adapt to the changed context?
3. What should we do differently? What could we do differently given what has been revealed by the crisis? What should we change, what should we experiment with and what should we attempt now?
This will be part of a ‘day one’ global dialogue made up of local conversations held all around the world.
18 November will be a high-level forum convening leaders and practitioners to reflect upon the crisis, the gaps and opportunities it has revealed and challenging them to think about the future of government beyond crisis. Government After Shock is supported by the European Commission through the Horizon 2020 Programme.
Benjamin Taylor is the Chief Executive of the Public Service Transformation Academy, Managing Partner of public service consultants RedQuadrant, and a director of the charity Systems and Complexity in Organisation, the systems thinking practitioner professional body.