FutureGov has a solid reputation in the UK for pushing public sector organisations to think differently about how they design services in the internet era. This week CEO Dominic Campbell gave a compelling keynote at the company's virtual Transitions event, where he discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has given government organisations the opportunity to radically rethink how they deliver services, how they operate and how they work with communities.
Campbell didn't seek to offer up a gold standard for how this should be approached, but rather took the opportunity to try and get leaders to think differently about what is possible in the coming years and months ahead. The result was definitely thought provoking and worthy of attention for those that realise that the pandemic crisis offers a unique chance to change things for the better.
The central takeaway is that 2020 has shown us all that rapid change is possible - COVID-19 has forced the entire world to pivot overnight and lean into digital structures, tools and services. There have been plenty of successes, but the speed at which this change has occurred also means that some work needs to be done in other areas. But, for Campbell, any thinking being done by public sector leaders about what they are going to do in the coming months needs to be centred around communities. He said:
For those of you who don't know us, we're an organisation passionately committed to the rather untrendy idea that strong modern public institutions remain a force for good in our communities. Now more than ever.
Yes, communities have acted fast. They've acted in hours and days to help respond to the crisis, but alongside them have been strong local public institutions acting in days and weeks to help take us forward, supported again by central government to scale the level of response we've all needed. For us, this is what makes great public services. This brilliant partnership between communities and the organisations around them.
It's no longer enough for us to just think ‘what makes the best public service institution'. Those institutions still need to change and change fundamentally. In many ways, more this year than in the last twenty years. But alongside that, we need them to stand strong with communities; for the two to weave together and learn from one another in order to get the best from all of our strengths in local areas and national government.
How do we reflect?
Campbell posed the question - how do we build capacity and capability into our work in order to be much more resilient, responsive and effective as we respond to similar challenges like climate change going forward? 2020, which has seen changes that were happening slowly, all of a sudden happen overnight, should serve as a period of reflection for how we want to do things in the future. How do we take advantage of what we've proven is possible this year?
Campbell wants organisations and leaders to think about being radical. He said:
Obviously, we're building on radicalism. It's not like we don't know how to be radical in public services, whether we're talking about co-op councils, Easy Barnet's or housing delivery vehicles. These are major structural reforms and radical policies that people have led the delivery of previously. But so much of it has been led through governance and structural change without thinking more broadly about what truly can radicalism mean.
Campbell offered up the example of retailer John Lewis as an approach that should be considered by public sector organisations. John Lewis published a pledge in July - entitled ‘Driven by Purpose' - which sought to bring customers, suppliers, partners, and employees into the fold to help design their future. This isn't just about retail and profit anymore, based on the feedback it has received. For example, John Lewis is looking at how it can use its shop footprint to create affordable and social housing. Radical thinking. Campbell said:
How do we learn from that in the government sector? First, we have to think about what makes 21st-century organisations.
Many of you reflecting honestly on your organisations will probably recognize that yes, we've moved forward significantly in terms of our technology, this year more than most. We've thought about the business process and increasingly around service design. Culture is starting to get there, but I think many of you will agree it's starting to strain after six months of homeworking, and there's more we can be doing to design purposeful elegant organisations.
But the thing that we've hardly started on at all is our business models. How do we think differently? How do we think about what 21st-century, truly digital age organisations work, what their operating model is and how we can start to deliver much better, much cheaper public services?
Campbell is urging us all to think deeply not just about digital service design, but organisation redesign. These are questions that can be applied to the private sector too, but FutureGov is obviously clearly focused on public service delivery. He added:
How do we actually learn from our experiences going through this era to consolidate and move forward, but deliberately design our organisations as we move forward?
This is all about the transition to 21st-century public services. How do we consolidate the opportunities in front of us?
Learning from others
Campbell spoke about how we should be inspired by the work of people like Mariana Mazzucato, who talked about how all of the technology behind the iPhone was essentially developed through government funding and government stimulation. Knowing that, how can we look to the future and bring public services right into the heart of the critical work that's needed for the world beyond 2020? He added:
How do we take inspiration from things like SpaceX? And while obviously, we don't want to outsource public services necessarily to people like Elon Musk - we want to draw on the best democratic legitimacy, funding, governance and experience of fantastically entrepreneurial civil servants - there's a lot to learn from the way that SpaceX has taken what was a legacy service from NASA, delivery of humans to the space station, and actually reduced the cost by 80%, improving the experience and improving the outcome, as you'll have seen on TV in recent days and weeks. How can we learn from that?
FutureGov, Campbell explained, has been working with eleven chief executives and their teams across the UK to think about how public sector organisations move beyond "maxed out incrementalism" into radical innovation at scale. He said:
To think back to the first principles of how we deliver our public services and imagine how they could and should look if they'd been started today in 2020. In order to do that, how do we move them outside the gravitational pull of much of the bureaucratic barriers, governance and hierarchies that we find in all of our institutions, for good or bad, into a space where they can have the freedom to be reinvented from the outside in but remain within public ownership, for the people with the people.
You've all made the impossible possible this year. You've all done things that I bet you can't quite believe you've achieved.
So how do we move forward, how do we consolidate those gains, how do we liberate our imaginations to imagine a world ahead of us that we can aim for and aspire to, but importantly, how do we invest in the journey ahead of us? How do we put back the capacity that has been taken out from public services?
Campbell's keynote is worth watching in full, as it offers much food for thought on how we should be thinking about how we approach change in our organisations in the future. They key thing though, I think, is that Campbell and FutureGov aren't simply focused on the art of digital service delivery because of the tools that are now available to us. Instead, at the heart of it all, it's a discussion around the art of digital service delivery with communities at the centre. And that's the key.