• November 14, 2018
  • 9 minutes
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Reading list for the future of government: 9 books and reports

Government is changing — and civil servants need to evolve, too. Here's how

The challenges government faces — from automation to digital disruption — are fast-changing. In order to meet them, civil servants need to evolve too, learning new skills and keeping on top of trends.

To help with that, we’ve created this reading list for the new age of government. Several of these books and reports deal directly with how the civil service operates. Others offer lessons from other industries. From how to apply a startup mentality to the public service to the role of art in policymaking, here are our top nine instructional and inspirational reads for civil servants.

We hope you’ll find it helpful, and feel free to add your own ideas for ones we’ve missed in the comments below.

• For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.

If We Can Put a Man on the Moon: Getting Big Things Done in Government
John O’Leary

One of the best ways to improve policymaking is to help governments learn from failures — which is what this book is devoted to. It takes a fine-tooth comb to policymaking mistakes made by the US government, from the war in Iraq to the response to Hurricane Katrina to Healthcare.gov, and gives practical advice on how similar crises can be averted in the future. It argues that the reason governments fail at large-scale transformations is that public servants and politicians keep falling into the same traps. This book is an essential guide to improving government by learning from policymaking pitfalls.

Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days
Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, Braden Kowitz

Government tends to move slowly — but with the rise of innovation labs, that’s changing. “Agile government” may be a buzzword, but it’s now what many departments are aiming for: faster design and delivery of policies and services. The “Sprint” formula for testing ideas was developed at Google and has been taken up in more than 100 organisations, from schools and startups to non-profits and large companies. The process is designed to take an idea from prototype to decision in just five days, which could save government time and money and cut down on unnecessary red tape.
Bonus: For more on the agile government movement, see the Agile Government Handbook.

Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good
Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson, Dominic Willsdon

People often think of policymaking as practical and technocratic, but a growing movement of civil servants in the US, UK and beyond are working to bring art and other creative pursuits into the process. This book — a collection of essays and art projects — argues that civil servants should be engaged with art and artists if they want to have better conversations about the future of government. Art can help us manage these changes, the authors say, and shape the landscape of government into something more human. This book will make you question what you know about policymaking and rethink the role of creativity in the public sector.

The Algorithmic Accountability Toolkit
AI Now

The growing significance of artificial intelligence to government can’t be overstated. Even if your job has nothing to do with technology, an understanding of how algorithms are used to provide government services, allocate resources and make decisions will be critical to the future of government work. This toolkit is a comprehensive but easy-to-understand look at the implications of AI in government, and where its use could go wrong. It highlights the importance of transparency, oversight, accountability and citizen input — particularly in critical areas like procurement — and delves into algorithms’ vulnerability to human bias and error.

Simpler: The Future of Government
Cass Sunstein

Cass Sunstein spent four years as Barack Obama’s “regulatory tsar”, during which time he led a revolution in how government regulates industry. His work made federal rules more effective and easier to understand, and catalysed changes from simplified mortgages and student loan applications to the improved labelling of food and energy-efficient appliances. These regulatory changes now help citizens save money and time, improve their health and live longer lives. This book is a guide to using evidence-based policymaking, citizen engagement and behavioural science to make government less bureaucratic.

What is Public Sector Innovation?
The Observatory of Public Sector Innovation

Often seen as an oxymoron by outsiders, government innovation is a concept many public servants have heard about, but few can define. Having a shared understanding of innovation matters: without it, it’s hard to get support for the field and the people who work in it. If you’re confused about innovation and its ramifications on government at large, this is what you should read: OPSI’s deep dive into what public sector innovation is and how it can be harnessed.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
Nir Eyal

Let’s face it: the private sector is simply better at building products and services that people want to use. Citizens dread visiting government offices to apply for a driver’s license, replace a birth certificate or get a marriage license. Perhaps if governments took more of a cue from the private sector, they might be able to design services citizens are happy to use. This book outlines the “Hook Model”, a four-step design process that helps nudge user behaviour and encourage habits. Even if you aren’t involved in service delivery, this book will help you understand the importance of good design.

Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion
David Zweig

This book is for civil servants who work tirelessly for the public good with little to no recognition. Some of the world’s most important work is done by “invisibles”, from engineers to interpreters to government employees. These professions require expertise, skill and dedication, but the public is scarcely aware of the work they do. In this book, David Zweig explores how they find job satisfaction, what motivates them and how they define success. He found that many of these people share the same core traits, and identifies how the rest of us can live more fulfilled lives if we follow in their footsteps.

Getting the Work Done: What Government Innovation Really Looks Like
Hana Schank, Sara Hudson

This report is a frank and insightful look into what’s working in the field of government innovation – and what isn’t. More than 60 interviews with city managers, services designers, product managers, engineers and chief innovation officers offer unprecedented insight into what the day-to-day work of government innovation is like. It delves deeply into the major barriers that plague the field, including its lack of community and professional development opportunities. It’s recommended for any public servant interested in integrating innovation techniques into their work. — Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash/Sebas Ribas)


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