Transforming government for the 21st century

Written by Tony Blair , Executive Chairman of the Institute for Global Change and former Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The below text is reproduced from an original report published by the Tony Blair Institute

Technological progress has led to radical change throughout the modern world, with organisations built on internet foundations raising citizens’ expectations of what all services should deliver. Yet governments designed for the offline world are failing to keep up. It’s time to bring them up to speed.

Technology defines the modern world. You need only look around to see the revolutionary shifts that are taking place at the levels of both our personal lives and entire nation states.

In government, to match this wider progress, modernisation has often been a constant theme of progressive agendas. But what impetus there used to be in the UK, during my government and in the early days of the Coalition, has since been lost.

For the left, revitalisation of the public realm ought to be their political sweet spot. Yet it is consumed by an obsession over nationalisation, rather than remaking government and delivering better public services for all of society, with more for those in greatest need.

Similarly, on the right, public sector efficiency ought to be a signature issue. Yet here the government is hamstrung by an obsession over outsourcing, cost reductions and cutting government down to size, rather than a positive vision of what modern government could be.

Bar a few noble exceptions, this failure of leadership comes down to ignorance of and antipathy towards the opportunities of the technological revolution.

Preoccupied by ideological distractions and, of course, Brexit, both main parties are failing to grasp the opportunity to transform government for the 21st century and ensure that it is remade truly in the service of citizens and in support of the wider economy.

When so much of the world is unrecognisable from 20 years ago, it should be a source of shame that many governments still look much the same. Frankly, when everything else is shaped by technological change, it is bizarre if governments were not also.

Yet this is where we are, and the failure to keep up comes at a cost. Public services, delivery capacity and industrial strategy all lag behind where they should be.

Delaying the necessary change will simply make the problem worse. As people experience best-in-class digital products and services everywhere else in their lives, their expectations of what governments should deliver only rise too.

Progressive government for the modern era should therefore begin with the business of government itself.

Today my Institute sets out a package for the wholesale transformation of government to bring it up to the speed and standards of the 21st century.

The starting point for this revolution must be learning from the highest impact organisations of the internet era – those companies with technology in their DNA – to reassess how to govern, deliver and organise in the public sector.

The key lesson is that as the world becomes more interconnected and interdependent, aided by decentralising technology, command and control management is a poor fit for delivering change. Instead, governments should see themselves as conductors and convenors of the wider economy and society, setting the direction and creating the conditions for progressive change.

The report identifies three principles that should underpin this transformation: purposeful governance, enabling infrastructure and responsive institutions.

First, to deliver change in an increasingly complex world, governments must be strong in outlining their priorities. This means defining national missions that set the agenda for the nation and using the full range of policy levers at governments’ disposal to support others working to achieve them.

Second, governments should provide an electronic identity system and other digital infrastructure to support both teams across government and organisations beyond the public sector. In the internet era, governments should see software and data as an essential, enabling platform for others’ activity, with new security technologies now addressing previous concerns over identity systems.

Third, governments must build a new operating model focused on delivery. This means resetting the byzantine structures and processes that we still rely on to deliver change and that are so often a brake on progress. Governments must be more experimental and decentralising, empowering teams across the public sector – who are often best placed to know what needs to be done – to set and achieve their own goals.

Delivering this change will require dedicated, courageous political leadership. The status quo has remained strong due to entrenched interests and the powerful force of inertia, and leaders must work to break through this stasis.

Recruiting the very best into the civil service will also be essential to deliver these reforms effectively. Government can always tell a good story about its impact, but it must become an employer of real prestige to attract the highest quality people in from the outside.

This package is designed to reignite a necessary debate about government transformation.

In their interactions with citizens, businesses and other organisations, governments must understand that mostly what people want is the ability to get things done easily and quickly. Grasping this has been central to the most innovative companies today, and public services and institutions should be similarly responsive and empowering. Indeed, the failure to implement a proper identity system in the UK has been a major constraint on delivering this.

Countries at the forefront of this change such as Estonia, South Korea or Denmark are often lauded for the benefits they have delivered, but there is no reason to suggest any other country can’t follow in their footsteps.

Collectively, the package outlined in this report articulates the conditions, infrastructure and institutions that government must provide for others to take advantage of.

The time for radicalism is now. Technological change will only accelerate and the strain on public services will only increase. People should feel supported by government, not frustrated by it. Technologically-ambitious reform must be central to meeting these demands.

The political rewards for this undertaking will also be great. Turning government into a genuine source of experimentation and innovation will be no small task, but the first party to grasp the opportunity ahead of them and distil the public’s justified demands for change into genuine, effective reform should own the foreseeable political future.

This new report outlines a bold, exciting and necessary model for how this might work.

Key Findings

  • Governments should embrace technology-enabled experimentation and decentralisation to deal with increased complexity. As societies and economies grow evermore networked and decentralised, technology intensifies the system’s complexity, with many actors pulling in different directions. Command and control management is not well suited to delivering change against this backdrop. Rather, the most impactful organisations of the internet era show that experimentation, iteration and empowering teams’ autonomy are necessary conditions for navigating through uncertain waters.
  • Failure to keep up comes at a cost. Too often, citizens experience public services that feel like they belong in the past. Political leaders struggle to execute the agendas on which their mandate is based. Businesses and society more broadly face an uncertain future without the reassurance they need that governments are prepared for the path ahead.
  • Every advanced, modern economy faces these challenges. The combination of ageing populations, underfunded services, rising citizen expectations and low public-sector productivity will create increasing pressure for change in many countries, and incremental tinkering cannot keep up

Read the full report here.

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