With spiralling demand for services, rising expectations and significantly diminished budgets, leaders have faced a constant battle to deliver more and better with less.
Many have recognised that technology can be part of the solution. Yet, until recently, few have gone much beyond using it for good record-keeping, improving their websites and making a few public-facing transactions available online.
That is changing and changing fast. The latest generation of digital technologies, such as cloud, mobile, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and blockchain, promise to deliver efficiencies, but also to support entirely new ways of working and to alter radically the relationship between citizen and state.
If they only use these tools to optimise their existing ways of working, the best they can hope for in return are incremental improvements
New technology makes spotting risks and opportunities simple
Consider just a few examples. For as long as governments have existed, their ability to process information has been limited by the number of administrators at their disposal. Today, any organisation can access unlimited processing power with cloud computing. Thanks to artificial intelligence, that processing power increasingly includes the ability to automate complex analysis of virtually limitless amounts of data to offer useful insights.
In place of the default mode of public services addressing failure after it happens, predictive data analytics can help identify buildings at risk of fire, children at risk of harms and road networks at risk of serious accidents before the fact, leading to earlier intervention and prevention.
Where once frontline staff had to go about their work with paper records, software-as-a-service makes it possible for everyone from police officers to social workers to have real-time data on the case they are handling, in the field, to improve their decision-making.
And while technology in the form of social media has often been blamed for undermining democracy, a new generation of digital tools is being used to re-engage communities by enabling citizens to crowdsource ideas, co-draft legislation, propose how local budgets are spent and vote on the best ideas.
Public sector leaders must make the most of new technologies
Collectively, these new technologies have the potential to be genuinely game-changing. Yet realising that potential will require a new approach from public sector leaders.
If they only use these tools to optimise their existing ways of working, the best they can hope for in return are incremental improvements.
Instead, their challenge is to match the level of innovation seen in the technology with equal innovation in the structures and ways of working to which those technologies are applied in their organisations. They must explore whether they can use these tools to enable fundamentally better ways of addressing the social challenges they are tasked to address.
New technologies require a new mindset. Our public sector leaders must be ready to adapt
To achieve this, leaders need to shift their organisations to more agile ways of working to experiment with new tools and see what works. They must ensure their organisations have the right skills to do so effectively. They must be willing not just to adopt new technologies, but also to open up their inner workings to public involvement in way that may push them well out of their comfort zones.
If all that sounds daunting, there is also an empowering message for leaders. They can get off the treadmill of trying to deliver more and better with less, and instead focus on delivering less and better with more. They must focus relentlessly on the areas where the public sector is uniquely placed to make a difference, while making full use of a more powerful array of tools than has been available to any generation of leaders before them.
Those new technologies require a new mindset. Our public sector leaders must be ready to adapt.