Crossing the Divide

A few weeks ago the kind folk at FutureGov invited me to speak at Disruption Summit Europe. I was speaking about my experience leaving the public sector to work back in the private sector. In fact, my talk was focussed on what the private sector can learn from the public sector — something that’s so often ignored in the world of work.

My talk was actually called “Putting People Back at the Heart (of the private sector)” and you can find my slides here. However, I think crossing the divide sums it up way better.

Basically, across the board, people are pissed off. It doesn’t matter what market you’re in, what service you offer or what part of the country you operate in. People are unhappy, no service is perfect and we’re in a state of constant uncertainty and it doesn’t look like that’s going to change anytime soon.

So, what do I think the private sector can learn from the wise world of the public sector. Well, quite frankly, so much. Too much to write about, but here’s a condensed list of my thoughts.

Be better at being empathetic — build for human needs

I’ve written before about the fundamentals of why the government exists. The public sector exists to meet human needs. Its purpose is to provide services that enable citizens to survive and live happy, healthy lives (whether this is the reality is up for debate but bear with me here).

With a core that’s rooted in meeting human needs, the presence of human-centred design and empathy-driven design and development is rife. In so many ways, the public sector is paving the way for how services can be designed, developed and delivered around core human needs.

The focus on its users and their needs put the public sector leaps and bounds ahead of the private sector, whose main focus has more often than not, been profit. To build truly profitable businesses, products and services need to be sustainable, adaptable and truly agile to adapt to changing needs across different markets. In order to do so, organisations need to replicate the user-first, empathy-driven approach that the public sector takes to maintain market viability and to remain competitive in an ever-competitive market space.

Bureaucracy can be broken

Bureaucracy is hard to break. Culture is even harder to change. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it right?

At the heart of digital transformation, the public sector is chipping away at breaking unnecessary bureaucracy and designing more inclusive, forward-thinking cultures to set them up for long-lasting positive change. With the trend of “intrapreneurship” (don’t get me started) and a surge in internal research and development teams and co-inhabiting tech incubators; it’s clear that larger multinationals and large scale organisations are trying to do the same thing — just in different ways.

Being inside of large government departments and then working as a consultant in the public sector, I’ve seen how long it takes to create systemic change. I’ve also seen the results of that change and the benefits of real digital transformation that cuts across barriers, teams and ways of working. There’s so much the private sector needs to learn.

The first is how to let go of historic power dynamics, open the doors to differences and allow bureaucracy to be broken. Because, if the public sector is doing it, why aren’t you?

People over product

People are everything. People are the foundation for every organisation, whether it’s your users, stakeholders, investors or employees — without a network of people your organisation will fail. That is true for both the public and the private sector.

What the public sector does really well, is put in the measures to make sure it’s staff live happy lives. People are always put first. Overtime is given back, people get the holidays they need and there’s a support structure that powers an empathy-driven first approach to service design, so that everyone’s mental health is looked after.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect but the public sector does a good job of trying to maintain a good work-life balance for its employees.

Indeed, from my experience, the public sector does a pretty good job at practicing what it preaches. It goes above and beyond to try and have a work force that reflects the society that it is trying to serve. However, a common problem for both sectors is that decision making and power still sits in the same hands that it did a decade a go. We’ve come a long way to diversifying out workforce but still have a long journey ahead of us to including that diversity in any decision making.

Trust and autonomy works

Like a true designer, I redesigned the brief. I couldn’t just focus on what the public sector could teach the private sector and I needed to get in at least one thing that the public sector could improve — because that’s only fair right?

Going back into the private sector has shown me how trust and autonomy in your employees can unleash their superpowers. When you strip back the bureaucracy and break down the walls to creativity, you open up your productivity and see a much higher and better quality standard of work.

There’s a lot of restriction in the public sector. It’s still seen as a job for life, which means there’s a lot of focus on your grade and climbing the career ladder.

The private sector has changed. There’s a lot less focus on years on the job and much more of focus on your skills, experience and expertise that you bring with you. It flips traditional business structure on its head and means that there’s a much healthier conversation around innovation, change and bringing new ideas to the table.

But, fundamentally, the most important lesson is…

We can change things together

The most important thing, when you zoom right out and look at both the public and private sectors is that neither can do everything.

Both the public and private sector have to work together to create the changes we need to see in society so that there’s still a society for generations to come. Each sector exists in a delicate dichotomy, each needs the other to survive. Most importantly, as citizens, we need both to access the services and products that we need and want. Across the board, there are amazing examples of digital transformation that we should be proud of. Conversely, there are amazing examples of where it hasn’t worked and there’s so much to learn from.

If we want to change things for the better, we need to change things together.