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September 2021
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Governments across the world can be a traditional conservative affair. Our models of teaching, nursing, policing, justice and welfare are a hundred or more years old; the structures, power centres, laws and management models to control the state have barely changed in decades; the evolution of Departments, Councils and services might be measured in geological terms. One could be forgiven for thinking the way we govern and manage today is unquestionable, a fundamental truth, fait accompli, so what is this whisper of revolution?

Throughout history revolutions have been sparked by recession – drought, poor nutrition, rising prices. For instance the 632 BC Greek constitutional crisis, 476 AD Roman Empire collapsed, 907 Tang, 1368 Yean and 1644 Ming Dynasties fell, or the 1789 French revolution. The global recession that began in 2007 is now expected to create a decade of austerity for the UK public sector, without any change in efficiency, the impact of this recession on vulnerable individuals, families and citizens is unimaginable. This is the crucible for revolution.

And there are other catalysts to change in government such as greater availability of information, data and flow of ideas, changes in technology opening up democracy and open-government, better understanding of how humans and societies work, localisation, co-production, and new ways of leading. This is the fuel for our revolution.

So what is this revolution and how will it change government? Maybe you’ve seen the signs already? Doing services to people vs with them; knowing the costs of everything vs understanding the value; command-and-control vs facilitative style leadership; risk aversion vs risk management; fewer, larger providers vs smaller, more local providers; standardisation of services vs innovation and personalisation; targets vs outcomes; centralisation vs localism. At every point in government there is a struggle between these concepts, with one incontrovertible fact: our current model for government is unaffordable and as demand grows the challenges get worse. We need this revolution.

The changes we are seeing are caught up in the move from reductionist thinking to systems thinking. From a command-and-control model of government to one that is about understanding the outcomes we want, understanding the system that achieves the outcomes, and then designing, nurturing and leading these new services. There are now many examples of 50%+ radical efficiencies because forward thinking civil servants are taking a new entrepreneurial approach to systems and services, how do we take this revolution to scale across government?

Let’s imagine we are buying paperclips for the civil service to get efficiencies: we’d rightly use reductionist methods such as competing providers in a bigger market, maybe we’d buy paperclips as part of a larger stationery category, or sign up for a cheaper 10 year paperclip deal. Translating these approaches has only limited impact of maybe 10% on complex services, such as the £350bn of health, justice, welfare and local government. For 50%+ radical efficiencies we need systems thinking, and we need to scale up this thinking across the workforce.

Efficiencies from systems thinking come in four flavours:

1. Optimise resources by getting the most from all public spend in an area, from the buildings, workforce and hidden community resource, and re-design all of these resources around specific citizen outcomes. Service leaders only control a small amount of the resource that will achieve the outcomes they want – so influence and facilitation become much more important.

2. Target those we want to support and ensure they access the resources and services. But make sure that those who don’t need a service or resource don’t use it up. Identify the right point in an individual’s pathway to target the resource, such as intervening earlier when the cost of support is much cheaper with better results.

3. Choose the right package of different mechanisms to achieve the outcome efficiently, such as new procurement techniques, payment by results, influence over partners, relationships, choice, market management, co-production, etc. There is a large choice of mechanisms to achieve the outcomes we want, but too often we use traditional service models. Interestingly, our understanding of how the human brain works is starting to open a very different choice of mechanisms such as nudge, behavioural change and socio-engineering.

4. Design for the whole system. Understand the outcome we want (surprisingly in many complex services we are not sure what outcome we want), understand the best interventions, and design the system of communities, providers, businesses and Government.

Any serious revolution needs its cavalry of soldiers; for government these soldiers with a new systems thinking perspective on services and outcomes are Commissioners. There are wonderful stories of the changes created in pockets of government, the new Academy for Commissioning announced by Cabinet Office is an excellent start, and the increase in the number of people called ‘commissioners’ has been extraordinary.

But this revolution must be more than just in name – how can we scale up, change our thinking, and deliver radical efficiencies for the most vulnerable families and communities? Whisper it: will you sign up to la Revolution?

Richard Selwyn is a Senior Consultant at Cognizant, and author of The Outcomes & Efficiency: Leadership Handbook.

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