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Matt Hancock says citizens and digital will be at the heart of public service reform

Matt Hancock outlines his agenda for public service reform.

When Matt Hancock MP came to the Institute in May, it was to give his first major post-election speech as the new Minister for the Cabinet Office. This week, he returned to outline his agenda for public service reform. Katie Thorpe analyses his speech and the discussion that followed.

The Chancellor has said that the Government needs to do “more with less.” Achieving this depends upon having an effective state – or a “smarter state”, as the Prime Minister has called it. Matt Hancock’s role in the Cabinet Office makes him central to the process of developing this. In his speech, Hancock spoke about three principles that underpin his mission to re-shape public services for the 21st century: empathy, curiosity and openness. 1. Empathy He started by stating the importance of putting citizens at the heart of public service design and delivery: “understanding the citizens we serve is central to what we are trying to do”. We welcome this emphasis – what gets in the way of public services being responsive to citizens’ needs is something we’re examining at the Institute in a piece of work on the local delivery of public services. Hancock cited how digital services are being developed as a key example of putting the user experience at the centre of design. He highlighted how new digital services are being thoroughly tested by service users before being launched, as happened in the simplification of the application for Carer’s Allowance and the development of the Verify platform, which allows people to prove who they are so they can access government services online. 2. Curiosity The next principle was curiosity – the need to find out what actually works. Government should seek to gather as much feedback and data as possible and base policy on hard evidence and real-world insights. Hancock cited the work of the Behavioural Insights Team and the What Works Network as bodies that exemplify this approach. There is no doubt that the supply of information on which to base decisions is improving, with the What Works Network successfully pulling together evidence and making it accessible to policy makers. Our report on the use of evidence in policymaking has argued that the demand for evidence also needs to be stimulated, and it is only by Whitehall departments ‘showing their workings’ and holding ministers and departments to account on their use of evidence, that we are realistically likely to incentivise a wider use of evidence in policymaking. 3. Openness The final principle Hancock discussed was openness. Arguing that the UK is one of the most open and transparent governments in the world, he pointed to the “digital glasnost” exemplified by government making over 20,000 datasets publically available on As well as improving services through requesting and acting on feedback, Hancock pointed out that “transparency creates trust, removing the need for heavy-handed regulation. It supports choice because you know you’re getting what you’re paid for”. Chair Peter Riddell then asked about capability in the Civil Service and the extent to which digital transformation was likely to fit with other priorities in the Spending Review. Hancock noted that the result of this process is likely to be a smaller Civil Service, but one in which each person feels more empowered to deliver continuous improvement. It will be important to work across silos, he said – departments should work together to develop digital platforms which are designed once then tweaked, rather than creating them in isolation. In response to an audience question about whether government has now overcome glitches in large IT projects, Hancock replied that there are always glitches – but there needs to be a process for dealing with these which are agile, iterative and forgiving of failure. Asked what the Minister would be saying to his colleagues about empathy and tolerating failure, he replied that he hoped working relationships could be based on trust and openness between ministers and officials. The Minister also argued that we should “favour liberal markets, properly run” when thinking about public services. As our work on government outsourcing has shown, the Civil Service needs to do more to develop the right mechanisms, skills and capacity so that markets are well designed, managed and stewarded. Again, this is an issue that will only gain importance as the Government relies on outsourcing to deliver savings – which is why we launched a new guide to public service markets this week, to start to tackle this issue. Digital transformation is undoubtedly a catalyst for improving public service delivery, and Hancock is right to emphasise the need to put people at the heart of those government plans. But for reforms to stick, there are deeper institutional barriers to change that need to be overcome. If citizens are to be offered a seamless service regardless of how many departments or agencies are behind the service, data will need to be shared in a more rigorous and structured way. Capability within departments also needs to be built so that transformation can be managed effectively, and legislation to allow adaptation of services will also be essential. If these issues are to be addressed, leadership by ministers is essential and Matt Hancock’s speech is a welcome indication of that. It will be clear after the Spending Review announcement on 25 November whether resources will be provided to build the “new model of government” that Hancock advocates. The Institute for Government will be looking at this area in the coming months. Matt Hancock was speaking at the first in a series of events on public service markets held by the Institute for Government in partnership with the Business Services Association. The full text of his speech can be found here.
Cameron government
Public figures
Matt Hancock
Institute for Government

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