Will UK Government Reforms Inspire Obama?


Union JackSome of the initiatives undertaken in the early days of the Clinton-Gore reinventing government initiative were inspired by reforms underway in Britain. This included customer service standards, performance contracts, audited financial statements. That might well happen again! Prime Minister Gordon Brown has released his government’s latest round of reform initiatives, entitled: “Working Together.” Some may inspire potential initiatives by the Obama Administration.

The British reform efforts, begun in 1997, have moved to a new stage.  Brown says they now face two challenges: “how do we ensure [public servants] who deliver public services can respond in new and innovative ways to the diverse personal needs of those they serve?  And, how can we ensure that the quality, sense of personal touch, and responsiveness that exists in the best of public and private sector practices is available to all users of public services?”

He said that the earlier phases of reform entailed setting clear national standards and targets to drive performance, and now – that services are “repaired and rebuilt” – the next phase is to drive change from within the civil service and from citizens by providing more “freedom, flexibility and incentives at the front line to push progress.”  This will mean fewer (but sharper) targets and standards and “new freedoms for front-line staff and institutions  . . .coupled with greater choice and diversity for citizens.”

The British reform is organized around three principles:

Empowering citizens.  Put people first by placing power in the hands of those who use the services by personalizing services and providing greater choice by “democratizing information.”  This will rely on “an information revolution to enable parents, patients and citizens to share information and experiences on the performance of schools, hospitals and police forces.”  While citizens can access other people’s reviews on Amazon or eBay, “we do not yet have systematic access to other people’s experiences when choosing” among public services (e.g., nursing homes, hospitals, schools). 

“We are ushering in a new world of accountability in which parents, patients and local communities shape the services they receive, ensuring all our public services respond not simply to the hand of government, but to the voice of local people.”  This includes “open-source, real tie data on the performance of services” and having the ability to provide feedback to these services and share comments with other citizens.

Ensuring a new professionalism.  Provide front-line professionals and local service deliverers with the space, the skills, and the power to respond.  Boost skills and attract “the brightest and best into our public services. . . “ and give “front-line workers the power to identify and cut unnecessary bureaucracy, and the support they need to innovate and improve services.”  . . . this certainly sounds a lot like what the Gore Reinventing Government initiative attempted to do with its streamlined waiver process!

Providing strategic leadership.  The white paper offered a lot of specifics around what government might do to make government more strategic. It focuses on creating a government that “leads an effective system where empowered users, incentives, and accountabilities drive improvement.”  This means providing more information, technology tools, and opportunities to “foster a dialogue about public services and policy with citizens and professionals.”  Specifics include:

  • Focusing on delivering 30 medium-term objectives via Public Service Agreements.
  • Ensuring transparency that delivers accessible and useful information on the performance of services and outcomes they achieve based on the principles of open information, open innovation, open discussion, and open feedback.
  • Increasing civil service accountability and performance via simpler, more transparent departmental performance assessments, better assessing departmental capabilities, and improving the quality of leadership and management.
  • Driving improved productivity and efficiency by, for example, streamlining back-office functions, shared service centers, asset sales, strategic sourcing, etc.
  • Transforming mission-focused systems via “public value program” projects.
  • Fostering innovation by launching a Public Service Innovation Lab to incubate radical innovations that address long-term challenges;  by harnessing the innovation of citizens via better feedback and a stronger voice in how services are run;  and by engaging front-line public servants in service redesign to cut waste and improve services.

The Obama Administration is still building its reform agenda, according to a recent article by Government Executive’s Elizabeth Newell, “Obama Performance Agenda Takes Shape.”  In fact, some of the themes in the British approach seem to be reflected already. But it might be worth looking a bit more into some of their ideas!


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