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Rethinking responsiveness

Despite declining confidence in government responsiveness compared to 2021, the majority of public servants (67 percent) feel that their organisation excels at learning and rapid response. Leaders are more confident than any other group, at 76 percent. And, when it comes to adapting policies and services based on learning, 63 percent of public servants and 71 percent of leaders agree this is true of their organisation. Importantly, this includes learning from both successes and failures, demonstrating a willingness to improve.

While the majority of public servants agree that their organisation excels at being responsive to change, the past year has seen a dip in confidence, highlighting room for improvement. Public servants are less confident about the future preparedness of their organisation or the direction in which it is headed. Only a third of respondents feel there are few barriers to quickly developing policy ideas into implementation plans. Respondents also identify resourcing as a clear barrier, with less than half of officials (45 percent) saying they can quickly allocate budget and resources to priority initiatives.

When asked what single action they believe the centre of government should undertake to improve their organisation’s ability to become more responsive to change, most respondents name addressing funding and resourcing roadblocks. The route to responsiveness lies in overcoming these obstacles.

“Budget constraints will be significant in the coming years,” says Kim Lindskov Knudsen, Denmark-based public sector partner at PA. “Financial reform in the public sector will result in more focus on prioritisation and redistribution of budgets rather than new funding.”

Agreement with the survey statement: ‘We are able to quickly allocate budget and resources to initiatives identified as priorities’

Unnecessary bureaucracy plays a part too, with 58 percent of all respondents agreeing that their organisation is stifled by red tape. The response is even more stark in the UK, where 64 percent are concerned about unnecessary bureaucracy. This perception is similar in the US at 62 percent. In the free text section of the survey, one senior public service manager in the Canadian government adds that while there had been a “great response to [the] pandemic,” government was “still not focusing on the right areas.”

More officials in Denmark and Norway agree than disagree that there is little unnecessary bureaucracy, aligning with wider confidence in their organisations’ overall responsiveness. When it comes to agreeing that their organisation excels at learning and responding rapidly to change, Sweden and Denmark come out on top at 84 percent and 81 percent respectively.

In Denmark, the high percentage can be attributed, in part, to the government’s well-coordinated response to COVID-19 and a new majority government with an ambitious reform agenda.

Agreement with the survey statement: ‘There is very little unnecessary bureaucracy within this organisation’

Michael Wernick, the Jarislowsky chair of public sector management at the University of Ottawa and former cabinet secretary in the Canadian government, warns that the year-on-year decline
in confidence scores was a ‘dashboard warning light’ for government.

“There seems to be a very clear pattern of slowing of momentum and confidence. It could be a cumulative impact of the wear and tear of pressure on public servants both pre- and post- pandemic.”

However, a free text comment from a public servant in the Netherlands highlights that “the measures to save the economy from COVID-19 have proven how quickly we can respond when clear choices are made and responsibility is taken.”

Next steps for responsive governments

To ensure future readiness, governments need to rethink responsiveness by embedding greater flexibility and forward-thinking.

Rather than reacting to issues as they arise, governments can apply past learning to develop proactive strategies, aided by organisational scenario planning to prepare for events in advance.