Seeing sense and serving civic society

*disclaimer: deliberately grandiose title born out of a love of exuberant alliteration .

There are many wonderful things about the civil service. Not least the notion that there are a bunch of people living their lives in servitude of civic ideals.

There are also many highly frustrating things about the civil service. Not least the notion that 50% of what the civil seem to do is ask the other 50% what they are up to. (don’t quote me, it was a friend of a friend of a colleague who shan’t be named)

Leading on from that, some have postulated that you could cut the civil service by half and things would be ‘better’ and more ‘efficient’.

Im not sure that is entirely fair but one thing that has struck me recently is how myopic the view is of those inside the civil service walls. The ones who have dedicated the majority of their working lives, often for all the right reasons; passionate about civic service, making things better etc.

I have noticed that, for some, there is not the weight of responsibility with regard to being a direct cost to the tax payer. And i think this is less than ideal for them, for the work they do and of course for the tax payer.

Of course, it’s not their fault at all. For them to see sense (note: forced reference to opaque title) they need the right leadership, governance structures and, increasingly, the right tools to know if, when, where, how (and by how much) they are adding value.

By way of example I was recently at a cross government session on the future of analytics. One keynote was from a government team working with behavioural insights (otherwise known as ‘the nudge unit’). Much of their work is about analysing where value can be added in a service, introducing small changes and making users take ‘preferred’ actions, the better to release said value.

As part of the Q&A an astute question was asked by a colleague along the lines of:

What is the cost of the work you do to unlock the value?

And their response:

Well, most of the work we do is done by an in house team. We don’t outsource very much.

Granted, this is a very minor example. But it points to a truism within the civil service that ‘internal costs’ are generally not on the forefront of most civil servants minds. Outsourced people or tech are seen to be the more significant costs. Of course there are reasonable reasons for this and it is not too dissimilar from the commercial sector except of course for the source of funding.

My hypothesis is that the public would be best served by civil servants who have a good sense of what value they, and the work they do, brings to society. My proposal is that we should create tools, and utilise those that already exist, to make the evidence of value vs cost visible to individuals on a daily basis.

This is much easier said than done of course — I just said it and it’s still not done. Working out how much ‘bang you get for your buck’ is hard becuase you need to define what the bang is. It’s easy when the bang is a ‘thing’, like a call centre, or some software or a Mars bar. They map easily to bucks. It’s really hard when it’s more ephemeral like confidence or unlocking of potential.

However, I belive that even these more ephemeral qualities can be assigned a meaningful value. One suggestion is to take the same approach that a digital product team might do when estimating the backlog of work. For those that don’t know, a common approach is to size up items or tasks according to their complexity to develop/complete. This might be 1 to 9 point scale or a small/medium/large. It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that the team does it consistently and regularly so that over time a reliable taxonomy is formed that presents relative value. Then, given a certain burn rate (the rate at which a team works through a backlog) more accurate delivery timescales can be made.

The net result being that a team, and individual members of a team knows quite explicitly what value they are adding every day.

Knowing what value you add can only be a good thing. Lets do it.