How do you create an agency from scratch?

Advice from the UK on restructuring government departments.

If you stroll for long enough in Singapore, you’ll come across a building being constructed, demolished, or refitted. The same is true when covering its system of government. The city-state is constantly adapting and reshaping its organisations to meet the needs of the time. It is an ever-changing landscape of gleaming agencies with new purposes and towering aspirations. This week, the government announced plans to merge part of the Infocomm Development Authority with the MDA to create a new media regulator – the IMDA. Meanwhile, another part of the IDA will lay the foundations for a totally new edifice – the Government Technology Organisation (GTO). The GTO is fascinating, because it is an idea whose time has come. Most governments now have digital services, but few have a single organisation that also pioneers government use of sensors, analytics, artificial intelligence, robotics and the most cutting-edge technologies. This agency shows ambitions to implement futuristic schemes. It also shows the importance of the industrial internet. However, changing government structures requires creative thinking and problem solving. GovInsider spoke to Jonathan Pearson, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, to discuss the creation of new departments in the UK – and what was learned as a result. The challenges The obstacles differ for the new agency (GTO), and the merging one (IMDA), Pearson says. For a new agency, the biggest challenge is strategic. “If it’s a brand new agency, you’ve got no blueprint for how this was done previously,” Pearson notes. That gives a lot of scope, because there will be limited expectations, but equally, there is no obvious way to benchmark delivery and measure success. The GTO must also consider its place within the broader landscape of government, he notes. Pearson cites the UK’s pioneering Government Digital Service as an example. Its role was clear until it started helping agencies drive their own digital transformations through small in-house teams. What happened to the GDS once departments had their own capability was left unclear – and is still being resolved. The GDS recently saw a great deal of churn in its senior ranks. For the merging agencies, “depending on the organisations, you may have two different working cultures that you’ve got to push together,” Pearson says. Senior officials must create a vision that speaks to the whole organisation but, equally, must be “realistic” that not everyone will be in the same mode on day one and may have their own way of doing things. “Rather than go for a big bang on day one, it’s much more about building confidence that you’ll continue to do what you do well traditionally,” he says. Three key steps Pearson points to three key approaches that agencies have used to overcome these obstacles. 1. Internal storytelling For new organisations, it is important to build a single culture – and storytelling is a great way to do this. The UK’s Department for Work and Pensions has used this to great success, he says, as did the newly formed Competition and Markets Authority (which combined two different agencies into one). Internal comms teams found “interesting and engaging anecdotes about work that demonstrated the values of what was wanted at the new organisation,” he says. These helped translate the high level vision into a new culture. “In a change management sense, this is really important because it’s not patronising and speaks to what people can do to commit to a top level vision.” 2. Tweak, don’t retreat When merging agencies, there will inevitably be staff concerns. Leaders must be receptive to these, Pearson notes, while maintaining confidence in the strength of the overall vision. The UK’s Competition and Markets Authority chief executive had a policy of “tweak, don’t retreat,” Pearson says. “You need to keep confidence in the process of the merger by showing that you’re receptive to concerns but not retreat on the basis of lots of complaints.” Both agency chiefs must present a series of values to their organisation, he adds, and help staff understand the strategy by working backwards from a point in the future. What will people be saying about the agency in five years’ time, and how can staff help it get there? 3. Think external while you shape the internal Internal restructuring can be time-consuming, but an agency should not wait to consider its place in the larger landscape of government. “When you’re part of government, you have big chain dependencies. All those organisations are working on getting their vision right - don’t try to design things in isolation and push them onto other organisations,” he says. “If you’re designing something for other bits of government to use, plan quite early and be receptive and understand the culture of the wider system as well,” Pearson adds. This is not to suggest that Singapore needs architectural advice when reshaping its system. Plenty of senior civil servants have experience donning their hard hats and restructuring agencies. But, as in architecture, it’s ever-useful to learn from elsewhere.