How can we make public services public again?

Technology Eye | Feb. 13, 2017

The basic idea with public management is to get wanted things done. What we are experiencing around the globe is that we do not get things done any more. The expectations of citizens are not met through political processes and public management. The management of public services is more often seen as part of society's establishment that has let its citizens down.

In many countries, there is a widening gap between stated policy goals and the actual delivery of services that benefit citizens on the ground. It is known as the “delivery gap”. The delivery of public services has been created under an era of Weber's concept of bureaucracy , Taylorism and top-down organizational structures. The distribution model has been copied from the industrial sector; public factories have duplicated identical services to all citizens.

With the new public management came even stronger influence from the private sector; increased efficiency by using tools familiar in corporate management. The focus has been on increasing the efficiency, not increasing public value or solving the problems, which are more often wicked by nature.

There are many reasons for dissatisfaction with the delivery of public services. As citizens become increasingly educated, informed and empowered through the spread of information and communication technology, they are not ready to settle anymore with ill-functioning services that do not meet their needs. Educated citizens require more individual and tailored services, and possibility to influence.

Slow GDP growth has put pressure on financing public services. In many developed countries, ageing population raises age-related public costs. In search of well-being, the newest research stresses the importance of an individual’s ability to be in charge of one’s own life.

We must find new ways to increase public value to society. Increasing public financing is not a sustainable answer. The traditional tools for government to get things done – legislation, budgeting and organizing – are also important in the future, but they are not enough. We must increase the capacity and tools in the government toolbox to cope in complex and unpredictable circumstances.

Public trust is a slowly renewable resource. Traditional governmental tools are based on the use of strong authority, which often burdens trust. In most OECD countries, it has been spent faster than it has renewed. That has led to the situation where decisions are not done because of lack of trust. The outcome has been a vicious circle; decreasing trust makes decision-making impossible, which decreases trust. The circle must be turned around.

We must learn to look at creating public value from a new perspective. The idea of separating thought and action, thinking and execution, has been thoroughly taken into use in public services. It is the politicians and the leadership that think and plan, and the civil service that executes replicable and standardized services to citizens.

The revolutionary shift happens if we, instead of providing public services to citizens, learn to achieve results with citizens. This means a fundamental change in how the identity of citizens is seen; a shift from consumer-citizens to value creator-citizens. Thought and action are brought back together again. The wanted changes in society should be made by minimizing the use of authority and maximizing the value outcomes. That is possible only by involving the citizens in the process of creating public value. Bottom up-steering mechanisms, experimenting and user-centric service design can speed up the renewing of public trust.

The information and communication technology makes it easy to connect, communicate and develop services together, in a network. Digitalization decreases the transaction costs dramatically while digital transparency makes responsive coordination possible.

The start of the platform economy (also described from different perspectives as the sharing economy, gig economy, on-demand economy, creative economy) – where needs and offerings can find one another easily without huge organizations – gives enormous possibilities for the public sector. It makes it possible for the public sector to create platforms where the increase of public value can happen.

The increase of public value does not happen in public organizations, it happens in networks between politicians, civil servants, citizens, scientists, private companies, NGOs and the media. The Finnish model of seeing mobility as a service is one example of such platforms. Such platforms must be developed with the whole system approach. The platform should be based on supporting the development of capabilities, open dialogue and stakeholder involvement. The leadership of the platform emphasize strategic vision, trust creation and building a learning environment with feedback loops. The main focus is not only on what is done, but how it is done. Ecosystem experimentation is the heart of these platforms, where public and private are intertwined. These platforms are the "public agency locations" of the future.

When public value is created in networks and through human interaction, context becomes king. The needs of citizens differ, and there is more need to cope with the complexity of expectations. The best way to do it is to increase the public sector’s ability to innovate, to design the services with citizens. That requires the use of a common language with different sectors and the citizens, possibility to tailor services from the citizens’ point of view despite administrational silos. Tools must also be created to encourage a citizen-oriented approach in service design. Open data gives possibilities to combine citizens’ abilities to control how data is used and shared (Mydata) and value creation for public service and commercial purpose.

All this is happening; the technology is there. The friction comes from the behavioural side, the existing ways of organizing and doing things. We continue to operate on the premises that are no longer valid. We are caught in an intervention trap. It is the current world view that should be changed. That does not happen rationally, but through experiential learning, by helping people to observe, learn and unlearn, reflect and be part of the change. We must learn to create collective impact through adaptive action. Let us make public service public once again.

SOURCE: World Economic Forum

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