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Forging the services of the future: what can the UK public sector and international development learn from each other?

Time (GMT +01) 12:30 14:30


Brendan Martin, Public World

Henry Kippin, Collaborate

Leni Wild, Overseas Development Institute

Varun Gauri, World Bank

The UK public sector is undergoing a profound transformation driven by changes in the economy, the political vision of leaders, and a challenging demand for services. Assumptions about the kind of services which are required are being questioned, and attention is turning to co-creation and co-production as ways of rethinking public services.  In the international development sphere, similar concepts are gaining ground. This reflects frustration with aid and development projects that produce less than hoped for results, and typical reform approaches that struggle to manage uncertainty and complexity. In response, there is an emerging consensus about the need to ensuring that interventions are locally-led, enable people to solve problems for themselves, and adopt ‘learning by doing’ approaches that embrace the uncertainty inherent in complex change processes.

In light of these trends, three organisations - Collaborate, Public World, and ODI - decided to bring together professionals working on or in the UK public sector and international development to share insights, challenges and ideas from across the domestic and international public sector reform debates.

Opening the event, Brendan Martin, from Public World, said the context in which the three organisations had convened the roundtable was one of dissolving boundaries between public and private responsibility, state and non-state actors, and providers and users, with profound implications for development models. This was followed by presentations by Henry Kippin from Collaborate, Leni Wild from ODI, and Varun Gauri from the World Bank.

Place social growth and collaborative services at the centre of policy design

Henry Kippin started by highlighting the complexity of the relationships between the private, public, and social sectors, arguing that traditionally perceived boundaries between the sectors are increasingly blurred.  He argued for an operational shift from public services to ‘services to the public’, recognising the ways in which actors across the spectrum need to work together to support the public.   He argued that government is increasingly being seen as a platform for service delivery, not the provider, and innovation can come from unconventional sources. In the UK for example, he has found that policymakers are increasingly recognising that leading edge practice is coming from Latin American, Sub-Saharan African and Asian countries which are creating new relationships within tight financial constraints.  Referring to a new Collaborate-UNDP report on Collaborative Capacity in Public Service Delivery, Henry proposed that future services to the public must find a better balance between collaboration and competition, and argued that building readiness for a different way of working should be a priority for governments at a national and local level.  The extent to which these governments can engage the ‘collaborative citizen’ to re-shape demand will define the sustainability of future services.

Develop solutions by testing, learning, and adapting

Leni Wild echoed Henry’s assertion that the way in which public services are provided must reflect the complex, uncertain nature of change processes. In international development, there has been great progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and yet, this progress has not been even, leaving the most marginalised people a long way from ever accessing basic services. As a recent report by ODI ‘Adapting Development’ argues, the international focus on financing for development has neglected what else needs to change in order to meet these gaps.

It has often translated into a preplanned, predesigned, linear approach to reform which has not been sufficient to deal with complex, adaptive problems. Instead, what is needed, she argued, is a different approach to development programming, which adopts a ‘learning by doing’ approach, through a systematic process of experimentation, testing, rapid feedback loops, and adaptation. There is a growing community of development practitioners who are trying to work in this way, under the Doing Development Differently network, but there are also considerable challenges, in terms of aid incentives and measurement issues, involved in taking a less conventional approach.

Make room for learning throughout implementation

Drawing on the findings from the 2015 World Development Report, ‘Mind, Society, and Behaviour’, Varun Gauri, co-director of the team that wrote the report, discussed the implications of behavioural economics for the way in which services are designed. He highlighted the need for public sector and development professionals to recognise their own biases, acknowledging that they often work on autopilot, or respond to social cues and preconceived ideas. With this knowledge, programme or policy makers should aim to discover what works for people by using experimentation to inform implementation, not only evaluation. Varun emphasised the importance of local context and the need to make room for adaptation in programme implementation because without this, there will not be space to apply on-going learning.


A lively discussion ensued in which numerous varied, yet connected, issues were raised. Common concerns included understanding demand for services compared to need, the political challenge of adaptive, flexible programming, and what drives cultural and behavioural change in the public sector. While co-production and co-creation were discussed as ways of understanding the different priorities of service users and providers, some argued that the public are conditioned to demand and expect certain services too. Discussion highlighted the extent to which changes to mental models may be required, and the need to consider the political economy of service delivery.

Participants were clearly enthusiastic about the potential that greater knowledge of behavioural and social norms could have for improving the effectiveness of the public sector, and of more adaptive approaches, but highlighted questions about how to operationalize this. These included questions as to the kinds of financing and monitoring mechanisms that can be used for flexible, adaptive programming, and whether politicians would be willing to risk supporting experimental ways of working. Some proposed that changes in the public sector must be introduced in small, ‘digestible’ chunks, developing a new narrative gradually by putting theory into practice. Others argued, however, that radical change is driven by a crisis, and that the risks which politicians are prepared to take, depend on the extent to which services are seen to be failing.

Closing the discussion, Brendan Martin said it had revealed the multi-dimensional character of the changes underway. These had profound implications for the way in which public service and development professionals work, with mutual learning between them and the communities they serve being central to new models of design and delivery.

In conclusion, three salient questions emerged from the debate, and these merit further collaborative work:

  • What can drive an entrepreneurial, experimental approach to developing and delivering services, both in the UK and internationally? How can a creative approach to reform be encouraged, and what kind of skills and organizational management are needed for this?
  • How is demand for public services shaped and managed? What is the relationship between a collaborative and participatory approach to service design and delivery, and the demand for particular services?
  • What is the political appetite for more flexible, adaptive public sector programmes in the UK and in international development? How can financing and monitoring be made politically feasible?

Next steps:

To enable further discussion of these shared challenges, the lead organisations are keen to continue this conversation, including by convening and facilitating practical discussions on the three questions proposed above and their operational implications. Please do get in touch with Clare Cummings at ODI ([email protected]) if you would like to join this conversation or find out more.


Profound shifts in economy, politics and society are changing the way that governments design and deliver public services around the world. In many countries, fixed boundaries between state, private and citizen roles are dissolving, with greater emphasis on co-creation, co-production and collaboration. In light of these trends, there may be greater opportunities to share learning and experience from different regions. 

This event considered key shared insights, challenges and ideas from across domestic (UK) and international public sector reform debates. 

View photographs from the event here