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by Knowledge Partner PA Consulting

In the past few years we’ve seen civil service departments and teams demonstrate their ability to respond to significant changes quickly and imaginatively, be it shifting citizen demands, national and international political shifts, and wider societal and technological disruption.

Where once it was claimed that change would take too long, the COVID-19 pandemic mobilised action and reinvigorated the public sector with a vital and renewed sense of purpose.

Stirred into action, we’ve seen governments across the world step up with better and faster delivery. In the UK, for instance, the UK Treasury built and rolled out the furlough scheme in just a few weeks. And the New Zealand Customs Service implemented numerous new border directives in almost real-time as quarantine requirements ebbed and flowed.

These pockets of progress hint at a broader opportunity for the sector. Many of these organisations were built for an era of slow-time, reflective delivery, with multi-year transformation programmes. These complex operating environments tend to be the last place you’d expect to encounter best practice examples of organisational agility.

Responsiveness in practice

Having witnessed what the public sector is capable of, we wanted to explore how well equipped the civil service is to seize this renewed imperative to maintain the posture and pace of delivery.

In partnership with Global Government Forum, we spoke with 867 civil servants across nine countries to explore their perceived adaptability and identify best practice. Our research sets the baseline for how the civil service is positioned to adapt in a world where the most responsive governments will be best positioned to succeed.

We discovered that civil servants across the world are largely united by the desire to operate responsively to a changing environment – and to do so at an ever increasing pace. And yet we found that:

  • one fifth (19%) of civil servants believe they are not learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs

  • the perception of being responsive largely outstrips reality, particularly in the UK and New Zealand

  • the UK scored lowest on responsiveness (5.6 out of 10), with Sweden highest (7.8)

  • major opportunities exist to improve tools and resources, the use of evidence to drive change, and the willingness to experiment.

All too often, we heard that respondents are hamstrung by unnecessary bureaucracy. While they have the willingness and ability to act responsively, progress is stifled by the nature of the organisations they serve.

The world has changed – and so must the civil service

This research highlights the opportunity for the civil service to go further, faster – and to learn from both the private sector and from other governments across the globe.

We explore which countries are taking a lead, mismatches between confidence and reality – and where the most significant improvements can be made. For instance, the UK scored the lowest for responsiveness across

our respondents and had the joint highest gap between confidence level and responsiveness score.

The imperative for change is clear. The world has transformed, and is poised to continue transforming at an increasing rate and on a greater number of fronts. The most successful governments of the future will be those best able to respond quickly to world events, to local and national incidents, and to provide citizens with enhanced accountability, capability and delivery.