Ten years ago to the day, New Zealand faced one of its worst disasters when the Christchurch earthquake struck, killing 185 people and devastating the centre of the largest city in the South Island.

In the months and years following the devastating quake, we saw an unprecedented level of cooperation, led by the government, with the aim of rebuilding the city and healing the community.

The Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) was set up to coordinate the recovery and regeneration process. A wide range of public and private sector authorities and departments shared information to aid in that task. Town planners, construction firms, and infrastructure agencies worked from the same blueprints to rebuild the city. Community groups and public health bodies coordinated their efforts to make their meagre resources go further.

It wasn’t perfect. The current earthquake recovery process is taking longer than most people thought it would — and has also cost more. But that unified vision and the collaboration it entailed showed the great potential of our Public Service to deliver. Eventually, CERA was shut down and Christchurch companies went back to business as usual, in some cases competing with each other rather than collaborating, working in silos rather than together.

Oneness of purpose

During the COVID-19 outbreak, we are again seeing a high level of effective collaboration between public agencies and across the whole economy in response to the crisis. So, how do we embed this culture in the public sector so that unity, collaboration, and sharing of resources are our default settings?

We need to seek out the sameness. It involves identifying the oneness of purpose that exists and making sure we capitalise on that to deliver better services to citizens more efficiently.

That ‘sameness check’ is often carried out in government departments that are embarking on major change projects. At Datacom, we are continually impressed at the ways our public sector partners tackle major social, economic, and environmental problems facing the country. But, too often, we also see issues tackled in isolation.

Important projects and initiatives spring up, creating overlap and duplication where a common approach, co-design, and leveraging of the same resources could achieve a better outcome for everyone. The barriers to collaboration are sometimes too great.

Our public sector leaders haven’t been incentivised to look beyond their clearly delineated areas of responsibility. That focus and autonomy has its uses, but can also lead to poor use of resources and, at worst, ineffective and expensive delivery of public services

The new Public Service Act 2020 strives for something better.

“Under the Act, the public service shifts from a primary focus on agency leadership to an additional strong focus on system leadership,” the Public Service Commission notes.

It advocates “building the right culture and behaviour first, rather than relying on rigid systems and processes”.

By seeking out the sameness across government and the wider economy when it comes to the purpose, design, implementation, and delivery of public services, we can achieve better results.

This is not about finding a one-size-fits-all approach for the needs of our citizens. It does not need to stifle innovation in the public sector. By identifying common goals and working together to achieve them, we become more innovative.

With a stronger up-front focus on identifying areas of commonality, co-designing, and delivering services on common platforms, we can make our precious tax dollars go further and deliver the types of public services our citizens need the most.

Seeking out the sameness – what we can do now

  • Public sector CEOs (chief executive officers) should increasingly work together to find commonality in mandate and goals and develop a methodology for public service delivery that involves greater co-design and less duplication when it comes to implementing and delivering services
  • Major technology and service procurement processes should require a ‘sameness check' across government to identify areas of commonality of need and potential for joint procurement efforts
  • Public services should maximise the use of data sharing provisions, scalable platforms, and open standards to future-proof government services with a view to more use of common infrastructure and delivery approaches
  • Technology vendors need to have honest conversations with their public sector partners, alerting them to areas of unnecessary duplication and identifying areas of potential cross-government collaboration.

Hazel is an emerging technology practice lead at Datacom. Her expertise and interest encompass many technological topics from product development, design, and innovation, to the trends, applications, and impacts of emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence and spatial computing.

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