It’s a pleasure to be back in the Gulf among friends.
I was here in Dubai in October last year for the GITEX conference to discuss the digital revolution – from the opportunities of big data to the challenges of cyber security.
This time around we’re talking about the future of government services - digital technology is an absolutely crucial part of this, although there are many other ingredients too.
In the UK, public sector reform has been an immediate response to the urgent need to reduce the national deficit. But there is a greater prize at stake - the opportunity to create 21st century services: cost-effective and sustainable for the future, but also faster and more responsive to people’s needs.
Of course no 2 countries have exactly the same experience. But around the world governments are facing similar challenges: squeezed budgets, rising expectations, low growth. So we need a new paradigm for government services. One that delivers better services focused on user need, at much lower cost, in a way that supports economic growth.
It gives governments a clear choice. Indiscriminate salami-sliced cuts to front line services; the soft option path of least resistance. Simpler for the bureaucrat, who doesn’t have to face the political consequences of service cuts. But the second - the high road - of cutting government’s own costs and driving innovation and change - is the way to go.
Thats what we did in the UK. It’s tough. It’s means unrelenting hard practical work. But it can bring about lasting change.
All round the world I’ve seen governments wrestling with the same problems.
I’ve seen how Singapore’s Public Service 21 programme encourages staff to question assumptions and seek new ways of doing things. I visited India too, and saw how they recognised the importance of improving their civil service through training.
And I’ve seen how countries like Estonia and South Korea are leading the way in digital.
I was particularly taken with the Korean phrase “Bali-bali”, meaning “quick! quick!” - surely a phrase that’s stamped across the heart of anyone in politics? Certainly one that my own long-suffering staff have had to learn to live with!
The UK has a long history of cooperation, friendship and open dialogue with our Gulf partners. And while there is no single formula for success – especially in a region with distinct cultures and differing political systems - there is still much we can learn from each other about the future of government.
So today I’m going to speak about 5 principles that characterise the UK’s approach to public service reform since the coalition government was formed in 2010.
I stress that we did not start with these principles. We started not with the theory but with the practice of making changes to test what worked and what didn’t. These principles are distilled from that practice and that experience. They’re pragmatic, not ideological. I think they can be of widespread application, for governments of all origins, whether right, centre or left. We all face the same challenges and we can all learn from each other’s experiences.
The first principle of public service reform is openness.
Using transparency and open data to bring about continuous improvement can help governments to address rising public demands and the challenges of austerity.
This won’t always be comfortable. In fact transparency can be extremely uncomfortable – open data exposes waste and taxpayers are able to see exactly how their money is spent.
But this sharpens accountability and informs choice over public services. And combined with ever increasing technological capability, it will ultimately create more accountable, efficient and effective governments.
Open data is also a raw material for economic growth – supporting the creation of new markets, businesses and jobs.
In the UK we have committed to enhance the scope, breadth and usability of published contractual data which will help stimulate greater diversity in government suppliers.
And last year, G8 governments came together under the UK Presidency to agree a landmark Open Data Charter. This sets principles for the release and re-use of data and for its accessibility. Having these principles on openness is a critical element in encouraging growth and ensuring consistency, helping governments and businesses to operate more closely together.
Transparency is an idea whose time has come. And it is the friend of the reformer. Governments that work with it, and go with the grain, will be stronger for it.
Tight centralised control
My second principle is that tight control from the centre over common activities – like property, IT, procurement, management information, and oversight of major projects – reduces costs and encourages collaborative working.
Back in 2010, when the coalition government was formed, the UK was spending £4 for every £3 it raised in taxes. Billions of pounds got frittered away on wasteful consultancy, superfluous advertising and disastrous projects. And no effort was made to get to grips with the millions lost every year to fraud, error and debt.
Many of the fundamental components of efficient management and effective oversight had been conspicuous by their absence.
So within days of coming to office we introduced tough spending controls on discretionary spend in central departments.
Immediately we started renegotiating contracts with our biggest suppliers – dealing with them as a single customer instead of letting them play one part of government off against another.
We have also reduced the size of the civil service by more than 15% which allowed us to cut the cost of the government estate by vacating buildings that were no longer needed.
And we created something that had been lacking in government for too long – a strong corporate centre. Known as the Efficiency and Reform Group it works across artificial departmental boundaries to implement cross government solutions to cross government problems.
It’s about making government work more like the best-run businesses; ensuring every penny of taxpayers money is used to maximum effect.
And as a result of this tough-minded approach, in our first year we saved £3.75 billion, in our second £5.5 billion, £10 billion in our third year.
And in the first half of the current financial year we saved £5.4 billion – 73% more than we had saved at the same point last year.
But we need to do much more to balance the books – we need to find new and better ways of working.
So my third principle is that tight control over the centre must be matched by looser control over operations.
Spin-outs and services commissioned outside the public sector should become the norm.
Public service mutuals, joint ventures and charitable enterprise are attractive alternatives to the old binary choice between delivering services in-house or full red-blooded privatisation.
That was a stagnant, rigid and unimaginative model which stifled innovation.
So in the UK we are breaking the public sector monopoly over service provision. We already have around 80 live and trading staff owned mutuals, up from just 9 in 2010, with responsibility for well over £1 billion worth of services - everything from libraries to elderly social care.
They foster a sense of ownership and empowerment. Everyone understands their role. Everyone has an incentive to make it work.
And it frees public sector workers to do their job as they know best - because the people who know best are not politicians or bureaucrats, but those who deliver frontline services day-in, day-out.
When this public service ethos is married to entrepreneurialism it can be an incredibly powerful force.
It’s part of a mindset which elevates the service that the public receives above the structure that delivers it.
My fourth principle is about digital.
If a service can be delivered online, then it should be delivered only online.
This is the approach which is guiding the transformation of 25 of the largest transactional government services in the UK so they are simpler, clearer, faster and - most importantly - designed around the needs of the user.
Every superfluous page, every unnecessary question, is another dead end for an angry, frustrated and confused user.
So by digital by default, we mean creating digital services that are so straightforward that all those who can use them will choose to do so, and those who can’t are given the support they need.
It’s an iterative process - building and testing in small chunks and working quickly to make improvements along the way. The feedback continues – so do the refinements – and over time the services will evolve to keep pace with new demands.
And we can achieve huge cost savings by doing it this way.
In the past, governments seldom – if ever – consulted people about the services they were using. It was a “Big Bang” approach which sent money and expectations hurtling down a black hole.
The first the public would see of a service was when it went live, by which time it would be too late to make any changes if it didn’t work.
But that’s completely the wrong way.
Only when you find out what people want, how they want it delivered and how they intend to use it do you even begin to think about designing the service or building the technology.
And digital public services can also stimulate a generation of world-beating software and service businesses.
By committing to open standards and open source software, governments can create a more open market for IT suppliers, increasing competition, lowering licensing costs and advancing innovation.
I’ve talked about new ways of doing things – new models of delivery, new digital services and a new attitude toward openness and growth.
All this requires the right the skills and culture within the public service, so my fifth principle is innovation.
Public servants must be given the flexibility to try sensible and innovative ideas, rejecting those which don’t work and adopting those that do.
Risk and recklessness are not the same thing – risk, if managed properly, can be pioneering, original and transformative.
And the real error isn’t making a single mistake – new ones are forgivable, repeated ones less so. The real error is never to try anything new in the first place – or to continue doing something that isn’t working.
So we need a culture that is more open and less bureaucratic, focused on the delivery of outcomes rather than the process or the structures.
Where people feel able to challenge - so the status quo receives the same scrutiny as a new idea.
And where public servants are afforded the training and skills they need with the responsibility to do their jobs and to be accountable for what they achieve.
And what sort of skills do I mean?
I’m talking about the commercial skills necessary for public servants to feel confident commissioning services from the private and voluntary sectors.
The digital skills needed to design online services based around user needs.
And the leadership skills necessary to embrace the changes needed to deliver government priorities and projects on time and on budget.
All institutions must keep pace with changing circumstances - the best organisations continually seek to improve themselves.
And in the public sector, success must be measured not in staff numbers or hours worked, or in spreadsheets and emails, but by the answer to the question: “How has my work today helped people?”
Open, tight, loose, digital, innovative.
These are what I believe should be the characteristics of productive, effective and successful governments, now and in future.
But this is a race with no finishing line – we will never be able to say “mission accomplished” or “job done”.
The work of making government more efficient never ends.
Because organisations are either getting better or getting worse. There is no in between, no steady state. If you think you’re staying the same, you are getting worse.
So where the UK has expertise we want to share it – and where we need to improve, we are ready and eager to learn.
And I look forward to our discussions today.