Public Sector Futures in The Connected Republic VI
If you had to describe two or three scenarios that describe your sense of what might happen to the public sector over the next 20 years, what would you write?
Here are three that occur to me:
· Reformed and relevant – the rise of the public purpose sector
· Slow, but steady decline
· Virtual disappearance
I’ll sketch each of them just to prompt some discussion. You may have much better ones or want to take some issue with the ones I’m offering. Please pitch in…
Reformed and relevant
The public sector’s indispensable currency is relevance. As an institution and as a group of agencies and individuals it earns the respect and trust of the community it serves and the governments to which it is accountable by virtue of its ability to offer ideas and solutions that are relevant to the challenges a society faces.
But in this scenario, the public sector earns its claim to relevance at least partly by virtue of its willingness to embrace significant reform, especially:
- Dramatically opening itself up to work with a much richer mix of people and interests inside and outside government in a more open, dynamic and distributed model of creating ideas, knowledge and solutions
- Recognising its increasingly important role as an orchestrator of a more complex mix of public, private and nonprofit expertise, creating not so much a “public sector” in the traditional sense but a “public purpose sector”, recognising that important public work is not always going to be executed by a public agency
- Being willing to dramatically overhaul its work practice and work culture to create the kind of flexible, connected and highly distributed work model which increasingly characterises the new world of work, especially for younger workers who expect broadly the same set of tools, assets and values to be available in their work as they reflexively use in the other parts of their lives.
So, in this best possible scenario, the public sector renews its role as an essential institution of public life by embracing big reforms to its culture, purpose and work style.
Slow, but steady decline
If the reforms outlined in the first scenario don’t happen, or don’t happen fast enough, another scenario is the slow, but steady decline of the public sector as a vital national institution.
More and more of the advice that governments and communities want so they can deal with the challenges they want to resolve will come from outside the public sector (something that has been happening to a large extent anyway over the past 10 years or so, or maybe even longer). Alternative sources of ideas and insight will spring up and challenge for air time and influence in the policy making process.
Gradually, the public sector ceases to be a source of independent and rigorous advice and turns into basically an administration machine, basically responsible for relatively low level operational tasks required to put the ideas and solutions developed somewhere else into legislation and then administrative action.
The third scenario is really an accelerated and extreme version of the second. Maybe in the end, without significant reform and new, bolder leadership, we’ll see the public sector pretty much disappear from view altogether. Smart people anxious to change their world or effect some improvement in areas thy know and care about will cease to join the public sector and opt instead to work for a lively civil society organisation or maybe even a private company.
Here’s how a colleague of mind recently described the potential impact of the kind of hyper-connected, networked model of political engagement which characterised the Obama campaign especially…
“In the same way that the introduction of computers into business more than two decades ago resulted in a disintermediation -- i.e., middle management jobs were eliminated -- so too, with ubiquitous networks and PCs/smartphones in the hands of citizens, there is the possibility of a new disintermediation. This time it would chip away at those institutions in society that filter communications between leaders and citizens, including the paid professional civil service. Leaders can now use collaborative tools to cause public goods and services to become available through coordinated citizen action. This would especially threaten the elimination of those jobs in civil service that are the first line of interaction with citizens and which do not require any more expertise than any experienced citizen might have.”
The more mundane work of administration and implementation will be taken over by some variation on the outsourcing theme, private companies perhaps arising to provide these ‘commodity’ services’ more cheaply and efficiently that the traditional public sector.
Perhaps we end up with the barest layer of in-house administration, responsible only for the highest level political advice and, at the other end, the most basic of ‘hygiene’ responsibilities with pretty much everything else the responsibility of a virtual, and practically invisible, public sector.
Perhaps these three options are too simple or too limited. Interesting question – which of these (or other scenarios you could imagine) is most likely to happen and what might be the factors either for or against each of them turning to reality?