Is Patrick Dunleavy the new Columbus?

For many years, people believed the world was flat. Recently, Professor Patrick Dunleavy from the London School of Economics sailed into town to bust another myth...

Photo of two shipsI had the great opportunity of listening to both of Professor Patrick Dunleavy's recent seminars – although somewhat ironically, like London buses, you wait ages for one then two turn up at once.

Without a hint of white coat, wild hair, or even vaguely resembling Emmett Brown, the Prof argued convincingly that the productivity of government services is not flat, and this misconception has been kept alive by a lack of serious study of what goes on at the public service coal-face. Great Scott!

Like Columbus, Professor Dunleavy, along with co-author Leandro Carrera, has embarked on a myth-busting voyage, but, instead of boarding the Santa Maria, they have a written a book.

Professor Dunleavy’s message is that public services now find themselves sitting at the intersection of advances in digital technology and the rise of austerity and tight public spending. Public services have started to switch on to the potential of fully digitising administrative processes, but there is a long way to go.

He related how, in previous decades, the relative costs of public services have risen because productivity lagged behind that of advanced private sector industries, characterised by economists as the Baumol effect. Professor Dunleavy thinks that halting or reversing this trend is now possible.

Two of the Professor’s UK examples that stood out for me were the:

  • tax agency HM Revenue & Customs – four-fifths of self-assessment tax forms are now submitted online, with extensive productivity benefits.
  • Customs Service – a new digital system for imports and exports replaced the previous paperwork-based system. Redesigned checking processes shifted from random sampling (that is, opening every nth container) to an intelligence and risk-based system. UK Customs now opens the smallest proportion of containers for random checks of any country in the EU, without any apparent decline in outcome quality.

All exciting stuff for those of us of an “audit persuasion” – clearly, I need to get out more!

You can access the slides and an audio recording of the seminar online, but some of my takeaways were:

  • In the short term, be tenacious about productivity improvement, focus hard and continuously on it, make it part of BAU. Create services that are “born” digital, not old services converted using digital smoke and mirrors. Professor Dunleavy says public sector innovation is twice as vital for productivity growth as the private sector, so start innovating. I would add that having an organisational culture that supports innovation is a must-have if you are to realise innovative opportunities, as we found with our recent work on social media.
  • In the longer term, develop a mixed economy approach to competition as a way of reducing oligopolies among suppliers. Try to develop digital public services that are free, scalable services. Think about co-producing services with citizens - that is, joint services that citizens can use for their own purposes (for example, TradeMe).

Professor Dunleavy also believes that digital has much more to give, so public services need to think carefully about how “digital native” citizens work and incorporate this into digital service design (for example, social media’s potential for radically improving information provision and responsiveness in online public services).

Professor Dunleavy is a blog advocate for both academic and public services. He sees potential for blogs to replace websites (with their complex and costly content management systems), especially those that reflect past bureaucratic processes. His research shows that few public services use blogs to their full extent, although they are widely applicable to public sector needs.

So, the earth isn’t flat and neither is public sector productivity. With a radical message like that and the huge possibilities of digital technology, Professor Dunleavy is not just the new Columbus, he may herald a revolution like Gutenberg’s.