The power of purpose in the war for talent

Chess-Pieces

When it comes to competing with the commercial sector in the war for talent, government has always had a secret weapon: Purpose. People are drawn to government service because of the impact they can have. I have had the privilege of working with many talented government employees who could have easily made more money in the commercial sector. But their attitude can be summed up quite simply as, “I don’t do this to make money, I do this to make a difference.”

But watch out, now the commercial sector has caught on! In its research, the Leading Edge Forum (LEF) has discovered various ways that successful organization attract top talent. Traditional factors like compensation come further down the list of priorities compared to factors such as the need to work with organizations with an exciting purpose or that are ethically aligned to the talent’s own values.

The Digerati have taken note. How should Government respond? In its seminal work Building a 21st Century Organization, the LEF offers this advice, “Enable your organization with compelling digital identities and narratives that will attract the best staff and provide industry-leading services.” Which brings us to the challenge of how to turn not-very-usable public services into industry-leading services, with a digital side. Making government services more modern and usable is just really hard—it can often burn people out, and takes real determination. Being more explicit about the values that push us forward helps when things are tough.

Three values drive my work on more usable, more digital government:

  1. Self-determination

I should start by acknowledging that I have control issues. I want to do things I care about and I want to do them my way. For example, I will go to great lengths to give detailed feedback (negative AND positive) in a survey. However, if the survey form forces me to fill in some field I don’t care about then I’ll immediately abandon the survey. Another pet peeve is websites that are structured around some arbitrary tree of step-by-step menu options, or that are obviously aligned with your org chart rather than my needs. Force me to do something your way and you’ll either get nothing or malicious compliance. I hate using badly designed services, especially online. Bad usability irritates me.

What really irritates me is the feeling someone who has some kind of power over me at a particular moment in time has decided that they just don’t care whether or not I waste my time. And since I spent years writing code for a living I know that well designed services are quicker and less expensive to develop than badly designed services! Bad design wastes time and energy twice: first when the services are digitized and later when they are consumed. We should make services usable because unusable services are ineffective and inefficient.

  1. Fairness

Commercial enterprises can provide differential service levels to different clients. For example, a bank can choose to serve only wealthy clients, and ignore others. Governments don’t have this latitude, they strive to be fair to all. Hard-to-use public services are unfair because highly skilled, highly educated people can navigate through maze-like processes and successfully achieve what they were setting out to achieve. Less skilled, less educated people are more likely to get lost in the process and fail to complete whatever it was they were trying to achieve.

This pattern means that highly skilled people are more likely to get public services they ask for, and more likely to meet their legal obligations when it comes to activities like paying taxes or obtaining licenses and permissions. Less skilled people are disproportionately likely to fail to get the services that they try to use, and more likely to face penalties for failing to fulfill their bureaucratic obligations to the state.

Making a service more usable has a disproportionately positive effect on people who need all the help they can get to successfully interact with state institutions. Good service design certainly helps everyone, but it helps the less skilled more, narrowing the gap between them and fortunate people like me. We should make services usable because unusable services are unfair.

  1. Transparency

I should start by stating that transparency is a core personal value. I see transparency as an end in itself, not just a means to an end. It should come as no surprise that I also strongly believe that transparency drives governments to serve their citizens better, to make fewer mistakes, and to course-correct more effectively.

One of the terrific things about high quality digital government is that you can sometimes introduce transparency without having to fight and win giant political battles. This is because there’s a ton of information that governments have that is hidden — but not because it’s a state secret. It’s just obscured because, prior to the internet age, government didn’t have a great way of making it easy to access.

Thanks to the internet, it’s now possible to share and see lots of this stuff that wasn’t secret, but merely obscured. Even better, this can be done as a legitimate part of a performance-focused digital overhaul, one that’s aimed mainly at better services. Consider two examples: the US government’s analytics.usa.gov, and the U.K. Government’s performance dashboards. These make transparent a whole load of interesting and potentially actionable stuff that wasn’t public for any other reason than the fact that it wasn’t easy to make it public.

Your turn

I’ve used this article to outline some of the values which drive my passion for better, more usable digital government. Now it’s your turn. What values drive your passion for better, more usable digital government? How can you infuse those values into the services you deliver to citizens? How can you use them to create compelling digital identities and narratives? How can you combine them with your organization’s purpose to express a compelling vision that will attract the best talent? How will you leverage your values into a digital strategy so your current employees can place themselves one degree ahead of the target and drive forward?

Credits: This article was inspired by Tom Steinberg’s article why even bother with a user-centered digital govt?

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