How to bring private strategy thinking to the public sector

David Cunliffe, former leader of the Labour Party and current partner at Stakeholder Strategies, visited the GovTech accelerator to share his top tips on stakeholder strategies.

The GovTech Accelerator is not for the faint of heart. Our cohort is taking a new approach to problem-solving in the public sector. This requires the application of new way of working to big, complex public sector issues to create fit-for-purpose solutions. So how does this work in practice?

The cohort was lucky enough to have David Cunliffe, former leader of the Labour Party and current partner at Stakeholder Strategies come and speak about exactly this topic. David’s career has spanned both public and private sector roles at the highest level. He shared some perspectives with the teams on how private sector strategy can be applied to their projects to create breakthrough, scalable change. 

Navigating the public sector can be tricky at times due largely to the complex layers of hierarchy and the competing interests of stakeholders, both inside and outside agencies. Often the end-user who will benefit from your efforts is not the person who pays for the solution. The whole population of New Zealand is your target market and with the potential for a change in leadership every three years, it can be difficult to create long-term traction. The focus on intangible outcomes required by the wellbeing budget is also an important consideration for anyone working in this space.

These factors can be frustrating for a public sector worker and it is easy to become disheartened. David’s message was simple: don’t get discouraged. Change is more than possible in this space and all it takes is to know the rules and work within the system to get things moving. He shared three key ways to get the public sector’s intricacies to work for you. 

Start with success and work backwards 

In order to get to a specific goal, you need to start with a clear idea of what success looks like. This should be the first stage in any new project to ensure that you have a clear direction to guide every decision you make along the way. Once you have defined this future state you can work backwards to chart a path to success. 

This definition of success might not be specific in terms of defining a solution, but it should communicate the core values and overall objectives that you are trying to reach. It should also be realistic. In the private sector, brands often look to create ‘relative advantage’, in the way that Air New Zealand provides exemplary service while Jetstar offers affordable fares. Within the public sector, this involves identifying the resource and capability that is available and determining where and to what extent value can be created. This approach will aid in getting a project off the ground. 

Find a mandate and build understanding

Governments have mandates to deliver policies that their voters want. Agencies have mandates to provide evidence and advice to ministers. Workers within agencies have a mandate to fulfil the mandate of the agency. Throughout this, people have individual mandates relating to their values, beliefs and career aspirations. It is unrealistic to expect anyone within this system to act against these layers of expectations. In order to enact change, you need to work with the system rather than paddling against the current. 

Starting with a definition of success allows you to gain a top-down view of the issues that you are working to address. You can use this perspective to understand how your project fits into the overall mandate of the organisation. Framing the situation in terms of the whole picture is the best way to get buy-in from decision-makers. The higher up the hierarchy you get, the more top-level your perspective on these issues becomes. If you can show how your work will help these decision-makers satisfy their mandate they will be much more likely to throw their support behind your efforts. 

It’s not just about the narrative, it’s about success and success has a way of aligning interests.”

David Cunliffe
Stakeholder Strategies

Issues work from the bottom up

Before any real work can begin you need to define the problem that you are looking to solve and break this down into workable chunks. One tool that helps with this is an ‘issue tree’ which breaks down each issue into the things that are contributing to the situation. The resulting list of problems are much more solvable than the big issues at the highest level. 

David gave the example of creating competitive markets for global data engines. If you set out to solve this top-level issue, you will struggle to make a meaningful impact; what he calls “boiling the ocean”. However, once this issue is broken down through one or two levels of an issue tree, efforts can be directed towards regulatory, consumer and technology issues. Working at this more specific level ensures that your efforts are directed towards issues that can actually be solved. 

[David’s] talk highlighted the importance of understanding problems before attempting to solve them using logic and strategy. Misunderstanding the problem will send you down the wrong path from the get-go.”

Annabelle O’Donnell
Public Sector Innovation Strategy team

The key thing to remember is that it’s about acting small with a view to triggering large scale change. Start with the context, break down the issue into bite sized chunks and work away at these with the definition of success clearly in your mind. In this way, you can align yourself with decision-makers and make tangible contributions toward solving these massive issues. This is the strategic way to tackle the public sector and really gets to the heart of what the GovTech Accelerator is all about; creating a fit-for-purpose solution for complex government problems. 

David’s top tips

  1. Begin with the end in mind – define what success means for your organisation
  2. Be a true strategist – design your future state then work back from the future, not incrementally from the past
  3. Implement, implement, implement – the best strategy is worth nothing if it doesn’t get done. Design roadmaps, milestones and indicators to track progress.  
  4. Align your organisation – build shared understanding, align interests and build capability. 

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