Some ways to change government practices

By Tony Collins

Mark Foden, a consultant to the public sector, says that transformation is much more likely to come about through collaboration and small incremental changes than strong-arm tactics such as mandation and regulation.

He also suggests that rather than pay high-cost contractors, government should pay more for talented specialists – and possibly pay them much more than their managers.

Foden has worked within government for many years and has seen some of what works and doesn’t. He advocates the use of internal social networks within and across departments.

He sets out his views in a critique of a report of the Public Accounts Committee on Information Communications and Technology in government.

Foden’s views are to some extent in line with the so-called “nudge” non-regulatory approach to behaviour change. Nudge was used originally by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein who define it as:

“… any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not”.

These are some of the points Foden makes:

Systemic change. It isn’t enough to change policy, process and structure and hope that deeper, more systemic, changes will naturally follow.

Targets. There is a deep-grained, almost unquestioned, culture of using targets to control performance. “Often, targets drive target-meeting behaviours rather than performance-improving ones…Measuring, on the other hand, is crucial; but it must be used in the spirit of learning and developing rather than explicitly for controlling…”

Language. Be careful how you use expressions such as “buy-in” and “deliver”.  Buy-in suggests something that is decided by one group of people then ‘sold’ to another. This is just not a great model for helping civil servants feel involved and empowered. “If people are going to play an important part in achieving something then they must be, and feel, involved from the beginning. Just using terms like this creates the wrong dynamic. Rather than cautioning about not achieving buy-in the Public Accounts Committee should be encouraging more-open, more-inclusive behaviours.” Deliver, says Foden, is too transactional. “I just can’t get the ‘deliver a parcel’ sense out of my head: something neatly packaged then sent to a recipient at a specific time. Managing change is just not about this.”

SMEs. “To get benefit from working with SMEs Government will need to bend, in perhaps significant ways; and people will need to behave differently. This is new territory: time should be taken to experiment and find out what approaches flourish. The useful approaches should be developed – incrementally – in much the same way the strategy proposes IT be developed. And this may take years.

Lean. “Change cannot be made by feeding new policy into an old machine. “Government will need to reshape (and that’s not ‘reorganise’) itself dramatically – perhaps using ideas like Lean – and, to do that, it will need to foster new behaviours; like being more open, being naturally collaborative and being more entrepeneurial. The Efficiency and Reform Group [of the Cabinet Office] should attend explicitly to nurturing such new behaviours.

Pay specialists more than their managers? “If government wants more talent, then it must be able pay the market rate for the people it needs and then provide them with hugely satisfying work in an affirming, supportive environment so that they stay around. This will be far cheaper and, in most cases, better than hiring long-term contractors. If this means paying specialists (sometimes considerably) more than their managers, so be it. There’s a real cultural hump to be got over here.”

More on Mark Foden’s views

One response to “Some ways to change government practices

  1. There’s a lot more than you stated about government practices in projects. I have published a large series on this very topic, you can find it here. I hope you’ll have the chance to read it as consists of 15 articles!


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