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Executive Summary

Civil servants have pride and confidence in their department and their work, but systems and culture don’t always match their ambition.

Civil servants in all nine countries surveyed generally perceive their organisations to be capable of operating a responsive government. Almost three-quarters (72%) of the total participants agreed their service excels at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs, with 19% disagreeing.

However, this confidence was not always reflected in respondents’ answers about the drivers that contribute to responsiveness. This suggests that civil servants have pride and confidence in their department and their work, but systems and culture don’t always match their ambition. Alternatively, it could be that they are working hard to effect change despite those systems and cultures. (See Figs 1-8, below)

Civil servants in most countries identified room for improvement in collaboration between departments, communication of decisions through the ranks, empowerment of staff and giving permission to try and fail, and ensuring end-user input to the making of policy. But the most negative scores related to organisations’ ability to move at pace – respondents in most countries complained about being hamstrung by unnecessary bureaucracy.

Among the senior grades in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand (referred to from here as the Five Eyes group), civil servants in New Zealand were the most positive overall. But even their exuberance was outpaced by leaders in Sweden, whose aggregate scores across all categories made them easily the most positive of all the nine countries.

Average weighted scores found that the UK had the lowest overall score with its leaders particularly downbeat on questions around bureaucracy, budget, technology, human resources and collaboration.

The survey also reveals variations in how leaders and their teams perceive their organisation. In the US, across all categories, non-management staff were significantly more bullish in their responses than their more senior cohorts while in New Zealand the opposite was true – leaders in that country recorded higher scores than their more junior colleagues. Canada was different again: those in middle management grades were significantly more downbeat about all topics than the senior leaders above them and their non-management colleagues below.

Civil servants across the board were proud of their teamworking abilities, but were less confident regarding collaboration with external organisations. There was positivity about staff development but less optimism about available budget and ability to hire talent as required. With the exception of leaders in Sweden, none of the nations were satisfied with their budgets generally.

The size of a country’s population and the structure of its government both appear to impact agility; leaders in nations with smaller populations and less complex parliamentary and governance systems tended to exhibit more confidence.

Leaders in the Five Eyes countries were, on the whole, less bullish about their capabilities than their Nordic counterparts. Yet several of the Five Eye countries appear at the top of studies that externally assess government capabilities, such as the Incise Index and World Bank’s Good Governance Indicators.

Are civil service leaders too self-critical in response to highly combative media and political cultures? Do the negative responses of UK civil servants reflect the impact of a bruising period of political division in which they were often vilified publicly by their ministers? Or does the optimism of the Nordic leaders reflect in part the fact that these leaders work in countries that not only are considered to have high-functioning democracies and state institutions, but also consistently rank highly in happiness and quality-of-life surveys?

Certainly, we can see that civil servants’ answers are influenced by the underlying culture and values in their countries; Nordic employers, for example, are renowned for promoting a high-trust environment where employees are empowered to make decisions and take risks, and this is reflected in the positive responses from those nations.

Responses are also influenced, of course, by the events and policies with which civil servants have been grappling in recent years.

Overshadowing almost everything else is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has coloured every aspect of life and work for nearly two years. We asked civil servants whether adapting to change had helped them to develop capabilities that were not present pre-Covid. Three of the four countries with the highest confidence here (New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark) were also the most confident that being able to adapt to significant change is part of their long-term strategy.

The same three countries’ leaders were also highly positive that they proactively seek to anticipate and respond to changing citizen/stakeholder needs, operate an environment where diverse teams can be assembled at short notice to solve problems, and continually develop the skills and capabilities of their workforce.

These results suggest that organisations that plan ahead and seek ways of pre-empting and adapting to change in normal times benefit from this in a time of crisis.

That said, even the most prepared and successful organisations can be knocked off course by sudden shocks or extreme pressure. As the world begins to emerge from the worst effects of the pandemic, civil service organisations around the world are faced with not only employee burnout and navigating the economic impact of the pandemic but also the challenge of keeping staff motivated and sustaining innovation as the adrenalin of crisis response gives way to business as usual.

There will be opportunities too, however; many organisations have had to work in entirely new ways to respond to the pandemic – and this progress must not be lost.

Looking ahead, the challenge for civil service organisations is to embed what they have learnt from the emergency situation and adopt more sustainable practices that enable them to respond rapidly and effectively to changing needs, wherever and whenever they arise.