If Steve Jobs did government…

7 October 2011

The massive outpouring of geek-grief over the untimely death of Appleman Steve Jobs highlights some distinctive traits which resonate with what we need from our political leaders.

Adopted child, college drop-out, phoenix businessman, global technology superstar – Steve Jobs is the latest incarnation of the American dream.  But the interesting thing about Steve Jobs is how he broke many of the rules and succeeded magnificently because of it.

The first rule of business is to focus on the customer. The Jobs difference was to do the reverse – to invent products where the first consumer reaction was “what is the point?” – which rapidly transformed into a “can’t live without” fan base.  Of course, it worked because Jobs’ judgement really was better than the collective wisdom of consumers (Dragon’s Den weekly line-up of misconceived products shows that simply not being wanted now is no guarantee of success).

One of the big changes over the last 20 years is the rise of focus group government pioneered in the US – but another successful American export. But that means government which follows rather than leads. The last political leader we have had who regularly acted ahead of where the public were was Mrs Thatcher. As our policy reunion showed, her government acted ahead of public opinion on flagship policies such as privatisation and council house sales – but (by and large) public opinion caught up.

The second Jobs difference was a relentless focus on design and excellence. As we have argued in our policy making work, this is often the missing link in government – where we assume that policy concepts  translate seamlessly into delivery – without putting in the effort to make sure that the policy is deliverable by the people who need to deliver it. That means prototyping, testing and insisting that things work before they are unleashed on a waiting public. It also meant an insistence on excellence with which people who run government feel naturally uncomfortable. Steve Jobs would have undoubtedly been put in the “not a team player” box if he had ever been tempted to work in government.

The third Jobs difference was the celebration of the upgrade. Microsoft upgrades always seem to be rather dull changes which remove as much functionality as they add and just move things around for the sake of selling you another package. But Apple upgrades became events to anticipate. In government we have U-turns rather than upgrades. We commit big and early and then find it difficult to change course – and throw brickbats at Ministers who try. What Apple’s success shows is the benefit of releasing a good product – but then continually adapting to make it better. Our System Error report argues that this agile approach should be used for government IT. But maybe policy making would be healthier if we could celebrate policy upgrades rather than talk of policy failures.

One of the many articles today argues that Steve Jobs changed our view of the omniscience of the market – by showing that an  individual could change the direction of the market. This ability to change the game is what marks out great political leaders from the political managers. Maybe at the moment we need to be looking for some Jobs like political leaders.

Meanwhile, maybe I need to overcome my personal iPhobia and finally switch my nine year old Nokia for a tribute iPhone to see what all the fuss is about.

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Comments (6)

  1. Karen Wilkinson on 7 October 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Spot on. Something worth tying in with IfG’s forthcoming report on Candidate Selection – look for the creative thinkers as well as those who pass “competency frameworks”?

  2. Phillip Ward on 10 October 2011 at 2:19 pm

    I once attended a lunchtime event led by Steve Jobs in No10. That demonstrated a different side to the Job’s formula for success. His focus on who worked for him – who they were – where they were and what skills they had. He was passionate about making them feel included and valued as well as making sure they all had and understood the corporate message.

    This is harder to translate into a neutral civil service where it is still regarded as slightly suspect to get too enthused about a political direction and the upper management levels are chosen largely for their intellectual skills – or walking critique machines as I have heard them described.

  3. Sarah Lewis on 10 October 2011 at 4:16 pm

    As you say, breaking new ground, old moulds, thinking sideways, and thinking through something new/different before trying it out for real, making certain that it works as intended – all are some of the hallmarks of creativity. As is the self-discipline that makes all things happen. All these qualities, and more, are why the present coalition government is giving the (seemingly ignored) electorate such a hard time. Where is their creativity, their thinking things through?

  4. Robin Tucker on 15 December 2011 at 11:01 am

    Jill, I think your analysis is accurate but misses a key driver that I spotted soon after moving from the private sector to the public one.

    Let’s say you do three things, two work, one fails. In the private sector, you make a net profit and you’re a hero. In the public sector the failure is attacked by the NAO and PACs, and splashed over the newspapers.

    This breeds enormous risk aversion in government and civil service. I’m saying nothing new – Yes Minister joked about ‘courageous decisions’ years ago.

    How to reduce risk? I agree the biggest problem is between policy and delivery. This is true in the private sector too (except there policy is called strategy). The key is to ensure that the policy is developed and made specific in all relevant dimensions, and to do this _at the same time_ as developing it, not afterwards. By doing this, I was able to reduce one area of a quango’s costs by ÂŁ9m (30%) where their previous attempts had stalled.

  5. Jill Rutter on 16 December 2011 at 9:27 am

    Robin — thanks — very interesting point. You are right on need to integrate delivery into policy thinking — we aregu this in our policy making work. Also totally agree that there is a big difference between risk/reward in private sector (try lots of things, a few work well — and that is a great result) and the public – try a few things, one doesn’t work — a lot of criticism. I used to say that the difference was that the private sector operated net; public gross — and in the public too often its better not to do something, than to do something worth trying that then is a legitimate failure.

    Interesting to reflect on whether ALBs have more political space to innovate

  6. Robin Tucker on 16 December 2011 at 3:34 pm

    I can comment on ALBs directly from my experience as Exec Director at one of them, working with several others, and trying to set up a social enterprise to take on some public activities. The short answer is “it depends”, but I appreciate that’s not very helpful. I’d be very happy to discuss further if you would like to get in touch.

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