While four in five civil servants across the nine countries surveyed say their organisation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has helped it to develop significant new capabilities, the results also suggest that officials feel there are barriers to progress in times of crises and otherwise.
Performance: what we do
Appetite for excellence but room for improvement
Leaders in all nine countries were largely positive that their organisations excel at learning and responding rapidly to meet evolving citizen and end-user needs. This overall confidence was also evident within the Five Eyes group, where 71% of all civil servants agreed with this statement to some extent.
What is more, positivity rose as seniority fell. Among Five Eyes leaders, 67% were in agreement with the above statement. At manager level, seven in 10 agreed. However, among frontline staff, 73% agreed. Non-managers were most positive in the US, where 87% agreed with the statement.
However, it should be noted that the positivity around this overarching statement was not always mirrored in participants’ views on the drivers that influence how responsive an organisation is. These discrepancies may suggest that civil servants want to have pride and confidence in their department and their work, but the reality is that the systems and culture do not always match that desire.
The upshot is positive, however: the appetite for excellence clearly exists. The challenge is finding ways to achieve it.
Environment for change
Among all countries, there is great ambition to design and deliver services in new ways and to constantly adapt policies and services based on learning from successes and failures, with more than four in five leaders agreeing that they strive to do this.
However, only two in five said that they test, filter and refine possible solutions so that they can continually improve services. Just 61% of leaders – and 56% of all civil servants – agreed that they are able to quickly and effectively capitalise on opportunities that arise from uncertainty.
Since early 2020, all governments have been living with great uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, and different countries’ experiences of responding to that crisis are reflected in the results.
For example, nine in ten leaders in NZ strongly agreed that adapting to change has helped to develop significant capabilities within their organisation that were not present three years before the pandemic, compared with just 50% of US leaders. On the whole, New Zealand has successfully kept Covid-19 at bay, thanks largely to the speedy closure of its borders and immediate lockdowns when outbreaks occurred (see New Zealand profile).
Ability to move at pace
With the exception of Sweden, most countries acknowledged that they could become more fleet of foot.
Fewer than one-third (31%) of civil servants in the Five Eyes group agreed that there are few barriers in place to deploying solutions quickly. Views on this ranged widely between leadership cohorts from different countries: 73% of Swedish leaders agreed against just 19% of UK leaders.
A similar disparity was evident between countries on the subject of bureaucracy creating barriers (Fig 14). For example, in Sweden and Norway, 60% of leaders agreed that there was little unnecessary bureaucracy in their organisation but, in the UK, only 12% of senior civil servants said this was true, with 85% disagreeing.
Neil Amos, policing and justice lead at PA Consulting in the UK, says:
“Bureaucracy is not necessarily filling out lots of forms. One person’s bureaucracy is another person’s control and proper decision-making.”
He says a lot of civil service organisations decided to sidestep some of their usual ‘bureaucratic’ processes in the rush to respond quickly to COVID-19 but, in many cases, that created serious problems.
In the UK, for example, the government has been roundly condemned for awarding millions of pounds in contracts to buy pandemic-related items such as personal protective equipment to contacts of ministers rather than following normal procurement procedures.
“There’s a reason why those procurement rules are in place – to avoid corruption, to ensure government gets value for money and to ensure everyone competes on a fair and level playing field,” Amos says. “You can’t argue with any of that but, sometimes, organisations can be too risk averse and sometimes there is too much focus on process rather than outcome.”
Rapid response requires the ability to quickly build teams to meet new challenges, and almost three in five leaders agreed that their organisation provides an environment where people with a diverse range of skills and opinions are available at short notice to help problem solve. However, UK leaders brought this average down: just 38% of them agreed. Three of the countries with the smallest populations recorded the highest scores: Denmark, Sweden and New Zealand.
On the whole, with the exception of New Zealand, Nordic leaders had more confidence in their ability to move at pace than leaders in the Five Eyes group. Yet it is plain that civil servants in all countries have had to adapt to constant change over the last 18 months as the pandemic has played out.
From the UK Treasury building the furlough scheme in just a few weeks to New Zealand Customs implementing numerous new border directives as quarantine requirements ebbed and flowed, civil servants have been forced into rapid-response mode everywhere.
The opportunity that presents itself now is for organisations to translate these experiences into new ways of working that are sustainable during periods of business as usual as well as in emergencies.
Drivers: how we do it
Leadership, empowerment and risk appetite
Leaders generally have high opinions of their own leadership abilities – higher, in most cases, than the staff they manage. However, in the US where leaders were more modest about their capabilities, their lower-grade colleagues had higher opinions of their organisation’s leadership.
Confidence in an organisation’s leadership tended to be mirrored in views on staff empowerment and autonomy and its inclination to take risks and try new things.
US civil servants were most likely of all Five Eyes groups to say they have the autonomy to design and deliver their own solutions, and that staff are rewarded for pursuing opportunities for change, even if there is a risk of failure. Along with Canada, they were also most likely to say that decisions made by their line managers are always explained and understood by the teams affected – even though their leaders were least likely to claim this was true.
The US position contrasted sharply with New Zealand on many of these issues. New Zealand leaders scored themselves among the highest of Five Eyes cohorts on statements relating to leadership, empowerment and experimentation, but these views were not widely shared by their more junior colleagues. In one example, 80% of New Zealand leaders agreed that all ideas and innovations are equally considered, regardless of seniority level, against just 47% of the country’s total cohort.
Asked what might be behind these discrepancies, Janine Foster, head of security, risk and assurance at the New Zealand Customs Service, suggests that the timing of the survey may be a factor, with many civil servants burdened by the pressure of constantly responding to the pandemic.
“I can’t help but wonder if the timing had something to do with it with everything that’s been going on with Covid,” she says. “The diktats come from on high and people don’t have any option but to respond and make it work in a way that’s usable, practical and realistic.”
She says that for many civil servants working to deliver services or managing teams of frontline staff, this has required a huge effort for many months, evoking images of “duck feet paddling madly under the water trying desperately to keep going and make things happen”.
Whether this is the only explanation for the disparity in views between the different New Zealand grades, it should serve as a warning bell for all leaders managing teams that have spent the last 18 months mired in crisis response.
Among the leadership cohorts, Sweden again outpaced all other nations on questions of empowerment and autonomy – a reflection of the ‘high trust’ culture promoted by Swedish employers in all sectors (see case study). All three Nordic nations scored highly on it is always clear who is accountable for the actions and decisions made at each level of this organisation.
The Swedes’ willingness to trust their people also manifests in their appetite for experimentation and risk-taking – they were, again, the most bullish on most statements about supporting staff to develop new ideas and solutions.
In the US and Australia, the most junior grades were more positive than those at management level that all individuals are empowered and supported in making calculated decisions, suggesting that managers in those countries have successfully instilled feelings of trust and enfranchisement among their teams – yet the managers themselves do not share the same feelings of empowerment.
UK leaders are least confident that they give people dedicated time to pursue new ideas and solutions – an admission also reflected in responses from the wider UK group. UK civil servants were least certain of those in the Five Eyes countries that taking calculated, proportionate risks is encouraged and that ideas are never disregarded without due consideration.
Respondents in different countries had widely varying views about their use of technology to deliver effective government.
Leaders in the US, Norway and Sweden had significantly more confidence than those in other countries that the technology we require is available or can be developed and that digital technologies are fully embedded in policymaking and service design process from the outset.
Five Eyes respondents were not overwhelmingly positive about their organisations’ ability to hire new talent to support change: UK leaders were especially downbeat, with only 19% agreeing with the statement versus 62% who disagreed (Fig 18).
These results closely matched UK leaders’ glum views on budgetary capabilities too: just 23% agreed that they had sufficient dedicated budget for pursuing change, against 58% who disagreed. Most of the nations were generally dissatisfied with their budgets, however; Sweden was again the outlier in the leadership group, with 60% strongly agreeing that their budget was sufficient.
While the task of hiring was not generally felt to be straightforward, organisations believe they can achieve diversity when faced with challenges. In response to the statement we proactively bring together people with diverse skills, disciplines and approaches to solve problems, 69% of Five Eyes civil servants agreed to some extent and 45% strongly so. Even in the UK, two-thirds of civil servants agreed.
Combining these answers with those on operating an environment where people with a diverse range of skills and opinions are available at short notice, the relatively positive responses may imply that it is easier for some organisations to bring in contractors or consultants for short-term projects than it is to find permanent team members. Alternatively, they may reflect the differing approaches adopted normally and at times of crisis, when resource needs change quickly and usual hiring practices may be suspended.
There was unanimous agreement across all countries that respondents work well together in teams to generate solutions and implement them. However, this culture of collaboration and community within units did not extend so readily to teamworking between units. Across the leadership group, just 35% strongly agreed that information-sharing is always forthcoming and timely across different teams in our organisation.
Across the Five Eyes, just 26% of civil servants strongly agreed that there are few barriers in place to working closely with other departments. Interdepartmental co-operation was worst in the UK, where fewer than one-third (31%) of leaders agreed that we have an open workflow and knowledge exchange with other government organisations. The US leads the Five Eyes group on this: 64% of civil servants agreed to some extent.
Use of evidence and insights
The ability (or inability) to share information correlated strongly with the ability to source it.
US respondents had the most confidence in the Five Eyes nations that they can quickly source the data they need to make decisions, and that their organisation’s activities are strongly driven by data.
Among the leadership cohorts, Sweden scored highest on almost all questions relating to data, no doubt helped by its mature and successful digital identity scheme, BankID, which is used by the majority of the country’s population to access a range of public and private sector services (see Sweden case study).
However, most countries acknowledged they could make more use of data to inform decisions, particularly in the use of feedback from citizens and end-users. Only 52% of respondents overall agreed that wherever possible, our organisation uses citizen or end-user input to form policy and implementation solutions.
Australia and the UK trailed behind others in the group on almost all statements in this category, with negative sentiment shared by leaders and lower grades in both countries. For instance, only 31% of UK leaders strongly agreed that we have or can quickly source the required data, information and intelligence for our decision-making – with the same proportion strongly disagreeing.
Effects of trust in government and political consensus on responsiveness
In considering why Sweden and Denmark score relatively well compared to the UK and the Netherlands, PA Consulting public services expert Ernst Brand has two hypotheses. The first is their societies’ general trust in the government.
“In the Nordic countries in general, social cohesion and therefore trust in the government is very high – the highest in the world, probably. But trust in the government in the Netherlands and in the UK is much lower, currently.
“I think that makes it much more difficult for governments to respond quickly with one overall, collective, country-wide action because there are so many factions opposing your initiative.”
Brand’s second theory concerns difficulty in reaching a political consensus. “The political landscape has become very, very fragmented recently – in the Netherlands, we now have 18 parties in the parliament. That makes it much more difficult to have one goal, one political line, one direction. And it makes it more difficult for government agencies to become responsive.
“In the UK, it’s sort of similar – they don’t have as many parties but the parties they do have are very much opposed, similar to in the US. Maybe Denmark and Sweden are able to have more political consensus, therefore making the operation of government agencies easier and more responsive.”
Next, read the country profiles:
Australia • Canada • Denmark • New Zealand • Norway • The Netherlands • Sweden • United Kingdom • United States