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Christian Bason’s background in design thinking and public policy innovation gives him a broad perspective across government and one that favours a citizen-centred approach. We began our conversation by asking about the current focus on efficiency in government – whether this is in any way helpful and what the alternatives might be.
Christian replied: “A lot of government efforts are framed in the context of efficiency and this tends to feed into a narrow and restrictive view of productivity. Of course, there was good reason to rein in spending after the global financial crisis, but there’s a real risk that efficiency becomes the sole purpose of government. My fear is that government may have lost sight of why it is there.”
“There are counter-trends too – a new focus on happiness and well-being, for example – but I don’t see much in the way of policies that face in that direction.”
For more efficient government, start with what citizens value
For Christian, the way to achieve more radical government efficiencies is not just about looking at expenditures. So what should we consider first? “To radically transform how government spending makes a difference you need to start with an outside-in perspective of how citizens and other actors engage with government. From that vantage point, it is possible to explore how we might create much more value at lower costs over higher efficiencies. If you start with the money, the money is likely to be the only thing you change – and often at a cost to citizens.”
Christian also points out that today’s discourse around efficiency is increasingly focused on technology and the various ways we can leverage it, from drones to artificial intelligence to blockchain, and so on. “There’s a risk also that we simply grasp at the next big technology as a cure-all for whatever challenges government is facing. But the truth is that technology alone will not save us, especially if it comes at the expense of a more human government”.
“I firmly believe in a more people-centred empathetic form of government. But if government practice becomes more technical and more digitally focused, where does that leave the human aspect? It’s not clear how we relate increased use of technology to the need for government to be more human.”
The truth is that technology alone will not save us, especially if it comes at the expense of a more human government.
Treat citizens as citizens, not as consumers
Is the current consumerist approach to providing government services compatible with a more human form of government? Christian believes not: “Treating citizens as consumers reduces the relationship between citizens and government to a transactional one as if we are simply customers in a bank or supermarket. But government is so much more than that”
Christian explains that the consumer logic undermined the very purpose of government. “It’s quite a dangerous place to go because it assumes we are paying as customers for an individual service. But the premise of government is the opposite. Government exists to provide goods and services with outcomes that are greater and more significant than the individual transactions and individual needs.”
“If we had always taken this view of citizens as customers then we would never have created a post office or telecommunications system. These are systems that rely on the idea that some people receive services that are extremely costly to deliver (for example to those living in rural areas) whereas others receive them cheaply, but everyone still pays the same.”
Government exists to provide goods and services with outcomes that are greater and more significant than the individual transactions and individual needs
Reviving the idea of government for the greater good
Christian tells us that seeing government as transcending individual, atomised needs is crucial to creating a vision for a cohesive society. “The reductions of citizens to customers actually risks breaking the social glue and our sense of solidarity as citizens. If we begin to view government simply as a shop where each of us can go to get something that we need, it can be potentially divisive.”
“Historically, we have built the public sector, including basic infrastructure, on the premise that the role of government is to provide something for the greater good and so we should keep seeing it that way. And this is true of all our public endeavours including in safety, healthcare and so on. It also applies in social areas, where we carry out interventions and preventative work, where it’s not a question of what people say they want or need but rather of what we believe advances the good of society as a whole.”
If we begin to view government simply as a shop where each of us can go to get something that we need, it can be potentially divisive.
We need a different kind of leadership
Despite many misgivings about current approaches to government, Christian remains excited about the power of government to transform people’s lives. “We are seeing innovation happening everywhere in the public sector. However for real shifts to happen, we need to fundamentally change the ways of governing and of doing policy. We need to shift our mindset towards what I call human-centred governance.”
Christian tells us that human-centred governance is more suited to today’s hyper-complex reality. “I don’t think that we can govern in this world we’re in today, with the high degree of prescription and control and the same amount of regulatory and process levers as we could in the past. For this reason, management, as we conceive it today, is no longer fit for purpose. What we need is a different kind of leadership that is a more relational, networked, interactive and much more reflective when it comes to running organisations. By empowering this sort of leadership at all levels of government, we can create a more human but also more efficient public sector. This brings me hope for the future of government.”
VIDEO: The Future of Government according to Christian Bason
We’re speaking to government leaders and civil servants around the world to understand how they’re thinking about the future and shaping their organisations for the challenges ahead. And we want to hear from you too.
To get the discussion going, complete our Quickfire Future of Government Questionnaire. We asked all our interviewees to complete it and it’ll give us a flavour of your vision for the government of the future. Take a look at some of the answers Chrisitan Bason gave to the questionnaire.
At the Centre for Public Impact, we’re exploring and debating the implications of enablement as part of our Future of Government project. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you work in the public sector or in government and would like to contribute your thoughts and reactions to this debate.
We’re speaking to government leaders, civil servants and public sector workers around the world to understand how they’re thinking about the future and shaping their organisations for the challenges ahead.
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