30-second summary

  • Despite the risks of failure, governments around the world still continue to embark on “transformation” projects. But why?
  • Transformations are underpinned by the desire of political leaders to achieve an impact, as well as the need to adapt to disruptions such as rising citizen expectations, digital advances and megatrends such as demographic changes. 
  • While offering no guarantee, governments should focus on vision, planning, and implementation. If they do so, successful transformations are more likely to occur.

Look, I’m French. I know first-hand how difficult it can be for organisations to transform. President Macron knows too. His proposed reforms have run into widespread protests of late – a perhaps inevitable consequence of the scale and depth of his programme.

Yet governments – not just Macron’s but around the world – still repeatedly embark on this torturous journey, one pockmarked by challenges and pitfalls, dangers and downsides. So, why do they persist in doing so?

Transformations – why bother?

Partly, it comes down to old fashioned political ego. Leaders of any political stripe want to be seen to have made an impact. Not for them the peace and quiet of the status quo, accomplishing the big and bold offers the prestige that will see them take pride of place in the history books and, perhaps, ease their future re-elections.

But it also comes down to the disruptions that we’ve all become accustomed to. Better and more citizen-centric services? Check. Ageing populations? Check. Growing cities? Check. Artificial intelligence and digital advances? Check. Any one of these puts pressure on government, let alone all at the same time – no wonder public sectors have had to adapt to this changing environment. To do nothing would be a betrayal of their citizens.

But what do we actually mean by “transformation”? It’s one of those terms which means different things to different people.

For me, there are three main features to a transformation. Firstly, it involves a fundamental reset of public policy. Secondly, it is cross-issue and affects the way services are delivered to the citizen. And thirdly, it involves long-term change if it is in a small scope it can’t be considered a real transformation.

Transformations: public vs private

Comparing transformations in government and in business is complex. There are a number of similarities but the short answer is that it harder in government.

This is because policymakers have a larger and more complex landscape to manage, one that incorporates local government, Parliament, government agencies, NGOs, the media and so on. Clear objectives are also harder to set because you can have conflicting policies to take into account – it doesn’t come down to the bottom line, as it is in the private sector.

Then there is the prevalence of silos that exist between ministries and agencies because very often they can report to different ministers. Realignment is difficult because of the complexity of political life. And last but not least, when you work for the public sector you cannot drop the citizens who are the most difficult to manage. A private sector can decide it is not going to serve a segment of the population because it is too difficult or complex or expensive, but of course you cannot do this in the public sector and this is a challenge for all governments.

Why transformations can fall short

At BCG, we have interviewed a lot of civil servants, former ministers and public service experts about this and what comes up again and is the lack of clear objectives. In public sector transformations, too many objectives are very often set at the same time because of the complexity of political life. But this actually works against transformations being a success.

There are other issues also at play here. Funding is a perennial challenge – transformations themselves need to be funded, not just the services or departments they are seeking to transform. And then there is something CPI knows all about – the impact itself can go awry because of a lack of focus on the implementation. In too many countries, transformations can start quite well but they forget that making things happen on the ground takes huge effort and this is not always done well.

What to do: three key priorities  

Governments should focus on three key areas – vision, planning and implementation.

  1. Vision is about knowing what you want to do – setting up clear objectives and making sure that you have benchmarks and analysis which track closely to what citizens want and need.
  1. Planning comes down to accounting for the impact of the policy, what we call ‘value-based public policies’. This is about making sure that we allocate resources to have the best impact for the population.
  1. Implementation involves having a very clear as well as a very clear way to follow what is happening on the ground and to create confidence with the people who are implementing the plan. All too often, people on the frontline have difficulties but they don’t dare report them which means they can’t be corrected. So it is very important that trust and confidence exists between all the key players.

If these three areas are correctly addressed and prioritised then the goal of a fully transformed organisation, while not guaranteed, moves well within reach. And in these uncertain and unpredictable times, that’s a result that should be welcomed – by governments and citizens alike.

Read more: Mastering Transformation in the Public Sector


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  • Game changer: tales of transformation. Positive impact has underpinned Brad Carson’s entire professional career – from congressman to soldier to under-secretary of defense. He tells us about the secrets of his approach
  • The Transformeer. BCG’s Vikram Bhalla has spent the last 20 years working on transformation projects large and small. Here, he shares some of the key ingredients of a successful change programme
  • Some relationship advice… A successful transformation project depends on many factors, says Louis Watt. But prime among them is the relationship between the government ministry and its agencies on the frontline