From Inverness to Ipswich, from Belfast to Bangor, public sector bodies face disruption on a scale unprecedented in more than half a century. Across the entire sector, senior leaders are wrestling with sweeping forces that challenge traditional services, delivery models and organisational boundaries.

The ever-increasing expectations of citizens, reductions in human and financial resources driven by austerity measures, and rapid digital developments are just three forces creating an imperative for transformational change.

The response so far

Some action has been taken in response. Outcomes-focused programmes, new delivery models, collaborations with private and third sector providers, organisational mergers, and the digital transformation of services are evidence of this.

Yet we continue to see organisations focusing on quick wins. Some are taking 'salami-slice' approaches to cost reduction, while others are misrepresenting system implementations as digital transformation, or addressing multi-faceted challenges through narrow functional lenses.

We believe most public sector leaders understand the need to reshape their organisations to become 'different by design'. Indeed, public sector HR leaders identify organisation design as the most critical trend impacting them, according to our Global Human Capital Trends report. Some 87 per cent flagged its importance, with many suggesting they are planning a redesign in the coming year.

But while terms like 'transformation' and 'agile working' have become popular public sector buzzwords, talk is cheap without meaningful action and real change.

The rise of teams

To become more adaptable and future-ready, both the public and private sectors are starting to consider how networks of teams can be built into their organisational design.

In a public sector environment where complex problems abound, with no clear solutions and multiple opinions on the best way forward, the case for teams is overwhelming. Indeed, if teams can be defined as 'groups of people with complementary skills and abilities who are mobilised to achieve results by working interdependently', they are tailor-made to address such challenges.  

As our report highlights, using agile multi-disciplinary teams for specific projects offers a way for organisations to break down existing hierarchies. By quickly bringing together skilled individuals from different departments and agencies, mission-specific teams can gather a range of perspectives to propel projects forward. World-class project delivery has become essential to public sector transformation.

Building a new organisation design

Networks of teams will help the public sector respond to evolving threats and opportunities. But this approach cannot be introduced overnight. Real action must now be taken in the following areas:

  • Clarity over priority outcomes. Leaders must be clear on the contribution of their organisation to citizen outcomes – not just on the delivery of functional organisational goals.
  • World-class project/team leaders. New project and team-based approaches often prove daunting for senior leaders who have built successful careers within traditional hierarchies. The identification of the right leaders for the right roles is essential, as are high-quality interventions that support capability and capacity build.
  • Sustainable models. New organisation designs must be developed with flexibility in mind. They should bring teams together quickly across traditional organisational boundaries. But leaders must not forget the need for strong functional structures that deliver deep expertise and provide a home that team members can return to post-project.
  • Structures are only half the equation. The formula for successful change requires both the ability and willingness to transform. New designs may support an organisation's ability to transform. But the willingness to do so will rely on leadership, culture, and the careful use of levers such as communication, people development and performance management.

Questions for public sector leaders:

  1. Have you clearly articulated your contribution to citizen outcomes?
  2. Are you confident your organisation possesses the world-class project and team leadership capabilities required?
  3. Does your organisation design support both teaming and the deep functional structures you require?
  4. How are you ensuring people in your organisation are both able and willing to transform?

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