Challenging the public sector’s Business-as-Usual culture

Why does the public sector culture of ‘Business as Usual’ often fail to deliver effective change? Romy Hughes, director at Brightman, explores

Those who have seen my articles before will be familiar with my thoughts on the critical link between organisational culture and effective change. An organisation’s culture runs deep and influences all aspects of it, from the processes it develops to the people it hires, the behaviour it encourages, and the way in which it organises, and approaches change. An organisation which is continually developing new products or experimenting with new approaches is generally better suited to change, because change is intrinsically part of its DNA. Its people and processes are already used to change, so they will be more willing to embrace it. By contrast, those organisations that deliver services in a more routine or highly regulated manner tend to be less open to change because it’s more alien to them.

Public sector organisations tend to fall into the latter category because their culture is intentionally geared towards repeat processes and Business as Usual (BaU). This results in a largely conservative workforce that is generally awarded for change avoidance, while discouraging risk taking or innovation. This culture can hamper the public sector’s ability to deliver effective digital services for example. These sentiments were echoed in a recent NAO report which criticised government officials for lacking the experience necessary to lead digital transformation. While the report didn’t mention BaU culture directly, the prevalence of such a culture would be a large contributing factor to the lack of digital experience among senior leaders highlighted by the report, in addition to its criticism that decision makers ‘do not listen to, support or understand [senior tech staff]’.

Governance models award conservative behaviour
The NAO report stated that: “Initiating digital change involves taking a difficult set of decisions about risk and opportunity, but these decisions often do not reflect the reality of the legacy environment and do not fit comfortably into government’s standard mechanisms for approval, procurement, funding and assurance.”

The government’s ‘mechanisms for approval, procurement, funding and assurance’ to which the report refers lies at the heart of the cultural challenge facing public sector organisations and the reticence to embrace change and risk. Public sector organisations are primarily designed for record keeping and repeat delivery, not ambition and change. In the interests of protecting the public purse, every penny spent must be accounted for. While this level of scrutiny is good and necessary for protecting public funds and guarding against the type of corruption which can so easily occur, it comes at the cost of innovation. When it comes to meeting today’s need to develop digital services for modern Britain, the shortcomings of this BaU culture derived from strict governance is being brought to bear.

All public sector budgets must be tied to measurable outcomes for example, but transformation requires an experimental mindset where the outcomes might not be immediately clear or even tangible from the outset. There is simply no space for experimentation in the public sector governance model, so it is easy to see why the culture encourages people to stick to their lanes. Contrast this approach to what happens in the private sector, where companies continually invest a proportion of their profits into R&D, irrespective of whether every penny can be directly attributed to a new product or service. It is difficult for public sector organisations to just take a good idea and run with it because the governance framework does not support this way of thinking.

Can a balance be found?
Budget scrutiny is a good and necessary practice, but a balance between scrutiny and flexibility must be found if the public sector is to navigate itself out of this digital quagmire and encourage more innovation into its culture. This could be achieved by reducing the requirement for such stringent outcomes for every budget request, or in specific circumstances. This does not mean a loosening of scrutiny across the board, but for specific projects. Another solution would be to reflect the private sector approach of allocating a limited budget specifically for experimentation with no specific outcomes at all. By adopting a ‘fail quickly learn fast’ mindset, any ‘failures’ would be limited in scope and far outweighed by the broader success of other aspects of the project.

By challenging the public sector organisation’s Business-as-Usual culture, we are aware this could be viewed as challenging everything the organisation stands for. By challenging the culture, you’re potentially challenging how people are rewarded, how they’re tasked, and how they’re measured. i.e., everything that is considered ‘good’ within the organisation. Some pushback is to be expected. While there are already some public sector organisations which have excelled at digital transformation by challenging the status quo and adopting a more experimental culture and governance model, they are still too few and far between. We need a broader questioning of the current model to bring more acceptance of change across the public sector so that digital transformation – and indeed any other reforms – are not held back by the persistent Business-as-Usual mentality.

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