Only one in every five government transformations — major projects that aim to overhaul a public service — is successful, according to a survey of public servants across 18 countries.
The McKinsey Centre for Government (MCG), the consulting group’s public sector research body, studied why some large-scale public reforms work, while the majority — 80% — fail. It claims that $3.5 trillion in public value could be created each year across the OECD if transformation projects met their objectives.
The researchers define transformation broadly, covering a wide range of local, regional and national projects that aim to “improve the accessibility or effectiveness of public sector services”.
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In the US, for example, the ill-fated insurance exchange platform HealthCare.gov — Barack Obama’s most critical domestic reform — flopped because government did not hire people with the necessary technical and implementation skills, the report said.
The UK’s FiReControl project, meanwhile, was intended to merge 46 local fire control centres into nine. A lack of communication with frontline workers crippled the project, as government failed to secure the support of individual fire centres before they were supposed to merge. FiReControl was cancelled in 2010 after wasting $700 million.
The need for sweeping transformations has intensified in recent years, as citizens’ dissatisfaction with government grows. MCG researchers found that citizens rank public services below every private service they use, including airlines, car insurance and utilities.
Trust in government is also failing: Edelman’s 2018 Trust Barometer shows that governments are now mistrusted in three-quarters of countries surveyed.
“Governments have never been asked to do so much — to deliver more, and better, for less”
“Governments have never been asked to do so much — to deliver more, and better, for less,” the MCG report states.
To improve their relationships with citizens — and contend with future challenges, from urbanisation to ageing populations and the automation of jobs — more governments, MCG found, are attempting large-scale transitions.
One example of a successful project was Mexico City’s Mapatón app. The city is battling with rapid urbanisation, which brings problems such as urban sprawl, overpopulation and congestion. It has struggled to catalogue a rapidly-growing network of 30,000 buses, many of which travel on unofficial routes.
Government tapped into an existing resource: the citizens who take 14 million rides daily. It built an app which gives commuters a game to play on their phones with commuting. While they play, it tracks the routes they travel using GPS. In return, players can win electronic goods and cash prizes.
With a budget of less than $15,000, it attracted 4,000 players in less than two weeks, and produced data on bus routes covering nearly 50,000 kilometres.
The report, which surveyed 2,900 public servants, identified five factors that the majority of the transformations studied had in common. When reforms have all five factors, MCG claims, they are three times as likely to succeed. “They may seem obvious, but our research shows that they are extremely difficult to get right,” the report said.
Committed leadership: The leader of the transformation should be highly visible, communicative, and willing to take radical risks, even at the expense of their personal or political capital. This means taking public accountability for success — or failure.
Clear purpose and priorities: One of the biggest mistakes governments make when enacting sweeping change is setting broad, ambiguous goals. Objectives should be few, specific and outcomes-based. Before setting these goals, leaders should find out what citizens, public servants and frontline workers want and need from the change, to avoid having to revise objectives once the project is underway.
Cadence and coordination in delivery: The key is maintaining “a constant rhythm of change” by keeping track of targets and changing course as necessary. Over half of the successful transformations studied had a dedicated change team in place to coordinate between agencies, solve problems, track performance and hold people accountable to goals.
Compelling communication: When MCG surveyed participants in unsuccessful transformations, 90% said their initiative would have worked better if there had been more communication with frontline employees. Leaders should have frequent, face-to-face meetings with those carrying out the day-to-day work of reform. One aspect of communication that government frequently neglects is storytelling, which can be crucial to selling a transformation to the public.
Capability for change: The change management team must be trained in the expertise required to conceive and deliver transformations. Government should invest in training to fill any gaps, including in operational and technical skills.
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