The soft power of government innovation

By Adrian Brown

Adrian Brown of the Centre for Public Impact argues how good government is a matter of good foreign policy.

In 1992, a book was published that arguably remains one of the most influential ever written on public administration. In Reinventing Government, journalist David Osborne and city manager Ted Gaebler put forward a powerful argument for why governments were failing and how they needed to be reformed. Their thesis was straightforward. Governments, they argued, were stuck in an outdated, bureaucratic paradigm that prized process over outcomes. Inflexible and hierarchical, bureaucracies had grown to serve their own ends rather than the needs of the citizens they were supposed to be helping. The result was frustration, misallocation of resources, inefficiency, and waste on a vast scale.

Their solution was that government needed reinventing through the adoption of managerial practices from the private sector. A greater focus on outcomes and data would force public sector managers to drive up results and drive out inefficiencies. Championing the customer would ensure services were truly focused on user needs and decentralisation would empower local managers to take the decisions necessary to meet them. Competition for resources, whether through internal markets or the outsourcing of services, would create powerful incentives to improve. In short, governments would be radically repurposed through “the tremendous power of the entrepreneurial process and the force of the free market”.

The soft power garnered by those countries, such as the UK, that were seen to be at the forefront of this movement, was significant. For example, the model of the UK Government’s Delivery Unit, a small group of individuals working at the heart of government to drive forward a small set of priorities, has been replicated globally. I myself worked in the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit for Tony Blair in the early 2000s and almost every week, a different delegation from a foreign government came to visit to learn more about our approach.

But now there is a growing sense that the current models of government, which have achieved important gains over the past 20 or 30 years, have reached the point of diminishing returns. Two challenges with the current model are frequently mentioned.

Firstly, governments are increasingly failing to achieve the outcomes people expect. While health, education, and welfare outcomes have all improved, people’s expectations are rising even faster. At the same time, so-called “wicked problems” such as obesity, homelessness, and poverty remain as stubborn as ever.

Secondly, global leaders are facing a crisis of political legitimacy. Trust in government is at a record low in many countries, with large sections of society feeling marginalised and ignored. Too many citizens in too many countries simply do not believe their governments represent them or have their best interests at heart.

At the Centre for Public Impact, we define legitimacy as “the reservoir of support” governments need to achieve impact — meaning these two challenges are interrelated. Disappointing outcomes lead to reduced legitimacy which in turn, make achieving impact all the harder.

Moving forward from here will require more than iterative reform — we need to fundamentally reimagine the role of government. Once again, those nations that are seen to be at the forefront of a transformation that delivers better outcomes for citizens and enhances government legitimacy will be a beacon for others. As other governments seek to understand how it can be done, the international attention and admiration will ultimately accrue as soft power abroad.

So how can we reimagine government to address these dual challenges? While we have yet to see a fully-formed new model, four emerging elements — outlined below — constitute something we have termed The Shared Power Principle.

1. Pushing authority to information. Our government structures are still predominantly hierarchical. This works well in situations where the information to inform those decisions can be easily codified and passed up the hierarchy, but many of the challenges we seek to address are complex and require judgement and local knowledge only accessible in situ. As such, we should explore ways of distributing decision-making rights to those best placed to make those decisions. This means putting real power in the hands of frontline workers, communities, and even citizens and residents.

Buurtzorg, the Dutch home care organisation, provides an interesting case study of what adopting a self-managed approach looks like in practice.

2. Thinking in systems. Our models of change are often linear when the problems we face are complex. If the outcomes we seek are emergent properties of complex systems, then there is no point trying to “manage” or “deliver” them in a traditional sense. Instead, systems thinking helps us to focus on those aspects of the wider context that are likely to lead to better outcomes. For example, the extent to which information sharing and learning are encouraged between different players.

The Centre for Community Child Health in Auckland, New Zealand is challenging the traditional role of evidence by adopting a more experimental, innovation-led approach.

3. Being more human. Managerial reforms in recent years have emphasised technical efficiency but arguably under-invested in the more human side of change. This includes the important role that public service values have to play for those working in our public services as well as the need to take a more human-centred approach to the way we design services. It struck me that whilst everyone in the public sector is expected to have basic Excel skills, it would be more useful if everyone had basic ethnographic skills. Wigan, a local authority in the UK, has transformed the relationship between the community and the council by adopting a human centred approach at scale.

4. Opening up accountability. Democratic governments are already far more accountable than most other large organisations thanks to elections and constant public scrutiny. However, it is also clear that many of our current accountability mechanisms, such as multi-year election cycles, are insufficient or even broken. New participatory and deliberative mechanisms, such as citizens’ juries, are opening up decision-making and accountability in interesting ways and worth exploring further. In addition, continuing to pursue the aims of open government by making as much of government business as transparent and accessible as possible also helps strengthen accountability and citizen participation.

Ireland used a Citizen’s Assembly to explore the contentious issues around abortion and are now embarking on a similar process for climate change.

At the moment though, these experiments tend to be happening at the edges, in small teams, and despite the system rather than because of it. We need to bring them into the mainstream. Could Brexit provide the opportunity for the UK to do just this – and the opportunity to lead government transformation globally once again?

Meeting the dual challenges of effectiveness and legitimacy will likely require some bold steps. Our current model of government (hierarchical, linear, technocratic, closed) has served us well but has run out of road.

Those governments that can drive the next wave of public sector innovation will be seen as leaders and examples for emulation by their international peers. That admiration will give them convening power in government reform and allow them to influence the shape of public policy and administration in the future.

The Soft Power 30’s research has shown that the Government sub-index of the measurement framework holds the greatest weight among all other categories in determining a country’s relative soft power. Now is the time to reimagine government. Those countries that can lead the way will benefit at home and abroad.

This essay was first published in the 2019 Soft Power 30 report. You can read the full 2019 Soft Power 30 Report, see full analysis of the data set, and a list of most up-to-date country rankings assessed by their soft power assets here:

Adrian Brown is the Executive Director of the Centre for Public Impact. He has held a range of positions in the UK government, including stints at the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit, the Strategy Unit, and as a policy adviser in the Prime Minister's Office.