What is Transformation All About?

Maryantonett FlumianMaryantonett Flumian is the President of the Institute on Governance responsible for the development of the Institute’s vision and strategic direction, project and partnership development and promoting public discussion of governance issues.

Nicholas CharneyNicholas Charney is a Senior Research Officer for the Institute on Governance (currently on interchange from the Government of Canada), working at the confluence of people, public policy and technology.

The ultra-fluid consumer experiences created by market leaders such as Google and Amazon are driving up the demand for seamless citizen experience. While citizens can’t be reduced to consumers – the former implies far more than the latter – how people form their expectations and how they interact with both private and public services are at least analogous; and while the demand for citizen centric services is real, it is also unmet. Surely, we could find sympathy with the argument that governance is a complex undertaking, that it cannot be either served up instantaneously or achieved effectively with the quick click of a mouse. These are old institutions and the price of longevity is often agility.
As the pace of private sector innovation accelerates the gap between what citizens expect from their governments and what governments can actually deliver grows. Design thinking, behavioral economics, and communications technology are increasingly seen as the new tools of transformation and modernization, but few governments have the resources or depth of expertise to lever them effectively individually let alone in concert. As governments across the Commonwealth stare into the growing innovation gap the temptation to grab onto these new approaches will likely be great. However there is much to be said about not only looking forward to tools and approaches that we think hold promise but also looking back and examining what worked in the past and why.
For example, in the early 1990s vocational technical education in Singapore wasn’t seen as a viable alternative to other forms of post secondary education. The vocational system was plagued by high drop out rates and those who did graduate were generally underprepared for the workplace. The curriculum, pedagogy, and student experience all needed to be addressed; the system needed an overhaul. The solution was to create a new public institution, the Institute of Technical Education (ITE), whose mandate was to establish a clear and vital role for vocational technical education in the national education and training system to better meet the needs of knowledge intensive industries.
The Ministry of Education worked closely with industry, community leaders and the general public to brand the institution, redevelop existing vocational curriculums and raise the public profile of vocational training. The ITE has since gone from being a last resort for students with no other alternatives to a prestigious post secondary institution that actively contributes to the country’s high youth employment rate, provides students with quality education and relevant skills and heralds Singapore’s success to foreign investors. It has grown to be both a principal provider of career and technical education and key developer of national occupational skills certification and standards. It has developed three distinct colleges, won numerous awards and signed memoranda of understanding with other countries looking to lever its knowledge and expertise (e.g. Germany, Switzerland).
As Singapore was rising to meet this challenge, the Canadian government was facing a somewhat different problem: service expectations were outstripping government capacities and the policy environment was becoming more complex. In 2003, the government had just introduced the Public Service Modernization Act while concurrently committing to putting all government information online over a 5-year period. This was a difficult one- two punch to execute given that the majority of the government’s work was still paper-based and tied to legacy processes and technical systems. While the government may have put their best foot forward with a vision, the vehicle for the delivery on that vision was still facing major challenges. The solution was to consolidate five social policy departments into one: Service Canada. The move brought greater coherence to policy and programs in the social and labour market areas, re-organized services around citizens (rather than bureaucracies) and offered a single point of contact over multiple channels. In 2003 the Government of Canada would introduce the Modernizing Service for Canadians Initiative an endeavor that combined the principles from the 1993 consolidation with 21st century business practices and technology. The initiative rested on four interrelated pillars (focusing on the citizen, integrating and simplifying service delivery, managing on an enterprise-wide basis and using partnerships as strategic leverage) and shifted the focus from citizens transacting with their governments to the ongoing relationship between citizens and their governments. Service Canada quickly became an international model of success. As a “one-stop-shop” it provided better access to government services and benefits through a centralized toll- free number, and a single online window supported by a national network of brick and mortar service providers that, when combined handle approximately 1 million transactions per day. Singapore has learned from this experience and leapfrogged Canada in its service transformation achievements.

The Australian experience in the 1990s was not too dissimilar to that of their Canadian counterparts. Government services were organized along program lines and as a result more closely reflected the needs of the bureaucracy than the needs of the citizenry. Technology wasn’t being levered effectively, call centres were overburdened, applications were paper based and siloed delivery was needlessly multiplying costs. Unsurprisingly, citizen satisfaction was extremely low. The solution was to create Centrelink, its own national “one-stop-shop” for government services. The new service delivery model was based on a “life events approach” that focused more on the user experience and less on the internal machinations of governments. Centrelink replaced the patchwork of different departments and agencies with a single, citizen- focused, outcomes-oriented and cost conscious government organization. It provided services for 13 client departments in the areas of employment, youth and students, retirement, families, children, disability, housing, multicultural services, and indigenous services. Its performance/provider model clearly defined both performance and accountability expectations. Though the Australian Government had to weather an intense period of cultural transition and consolidation, the service has effectively achieved a number of its goals and boasts enhanced call centre capabilities in over 80 languages, reduced the paper burden, increased service delivery in rural or remote areas and more effective emergency services. Today, Centrelink continues to expand its delivery of citizen-centric services by levering its position and service delivery channels to extend the reach of other departments and agencies (e.g. Medicare Australia in 2011).
So what do all of these transformations have in common besides timing? Why mention them at all? What can we learn from looking back? As a starting point, they are all evidence that government can in fact be a part of the solution. Governments have already demonstrated the capacity to respond to the increasing demands of citizens and businesses. They have also demonstrated that they can deliver more timely and personalized services while concurrently lowering costs. To many it may seem obvious, but in an age overtaken by austerity it merits explicitly articulating that government can indeed be part of the solution, which presumably brings us to the question of how these three transformations found success.
The first reason was trust. Each of these transformations was possible because of the trust between citizens and their governments. The latter worked closely with the former to address their needs in context. These weren’t ivory tower bureaucrats working their magic from afar. These were professional civil servants who invested time in understanding the changing role of governments and citizens and the relationships between them. While each of these efforts also levered technology to integrate services and balance preferences with needs and resources they all relied far more heavily on active citizen participation to improve the responsiveness of these new public systems. Technology is not a panacea, but active citizen participation might be close. Active citizens provide valuable insights by giving governments a sense of what works and what doesn’t from the perspective of the end-user. This type of feedback is invaluable and governments ignore it at their own peril. However public trust is a complex phenomenon. It is earned, not given; and it erodes faster than it is fostered. It is critically important that citizens, not just civil servants, see government as part of the solution. The two need to work in concert to understand and articulate current needs, an ideal end state and the engagement and co- creation processes that take their input and use it to help shape the journey from one point to another. In this vein, one of the core challenges facing contemporary transformations’ efforts is likely to be that faith in public institutions is eroding; that public trust is being overtaken by public apathy. Key considerations for leadership in this type of environment revolve around the challenge of how to best engage with a polity that may be implicated in the problem but has no interest in engaging in the solution.
One approach might be to experiment with more collaborative governance models, as did each of the aforementioned examples. Each relied on a number of collaborative partnerships both inside and outside government boundaries and engaged significant procurement processes that brought private sector partners into the transformation. Far too often there is a tendency to privilege in-house solutions over cross- jurisdictional or sectorial ones. But if we recognize the true complexity of public problems we understand that both jurisdictions and sectors are little more than the arbitrary taxonomies around which we have tried to organize solutions. Besides, the problems spill over constantly and going it alone creates vulnerabilities. Luckily advances in communications technologies are radically driving down the hard costs of coordination. However, while speaking directly with partners and constituents has never been easier from a technical standpoint, the soft skills required to do so aren’t as universally accessible as the technology itself. That said, soft skills are equally, if not more, important to transformation than technology. Generating momentum by multiplying the number of actors pushing the ball forward is an important skill. So too is the ability to craft a narrative and rally people behind it. In other words, its one thing to have everyone pushing on the same object, it is another thing to have them all pushing that object in the same direction. Mastering the fine art of collaboration and coordination among a variety of stakeholders and across multitude of processes is no easy task. It requires hard work, dedication and most importantly, sustained leadership. In fact, sustained leadership was the single most important element in the transformations in Singapore, Canada and Australia. It was – and still is – the difference between overcoming barriers and succumbing to them. It implies vision, the ability to plan, to understand how to resource, to deal with challenges and proactively assume and manage risk. While changing organizational structures is usually the primary focal point of public sector transformations, the key to their success isn’t a first draft of the final institutional form but rather the creation of an environment that allows for multiple iterations as the organizations adopt, adapt and scale their approach. In other words, leaders create environments that allow people to take small foundational steps because they know that it can unleash incredible amounts of creative energy down the line. They work to create zones of agreement between the bureaucracy and the duly elected governments they serve because they understand that alignment between them shortens timelines, makes resources more accessible and allows them to create that important environment of frank, honest and sometimes hard conversations.
The lessons of the transformations in Singapore, Canada and Australia in the 1990s are clear: the key to transformation is sustained leadership that actively builds and levers trust with citizens and to co-create collaborative solutions to shared governance challenges. A simple statement that gives rise to a complex question: How do we operationalize this lesson in contemporary context? First, equip leaders with the skills they need to engage more frequently with their stakeholders and give them room to maneuver. Second, retool organizations to better support that engagement. Third, get out there and actually do it, engage people, build trust and solve public problems. That’s what transformation is all about isn’t it?