John Edge - Change Will Not Occur in Public Sector Services Without Everybody Being Involved

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Sep 22, 2017
by Oscar Tollast
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John Edge - Change Will Not Occur in Public Sector Services Without Everybody Being Involved

Co-founder and chairman of ID2020 discusses bringing an entrepreneurial perspective to public sector discussions John Edge at the sixth meeting of the Public Sector Strategy Round Table

John Edge, the co-founder, and chairman of a public-private partnership called ID2020, came to Salzburg Global Seminar to provide an entrepreneur’s perspective to the sixth meeting of the Public Sector Strategy Round Table - In the Spotlight: How Can the Public Sector Excel under Changing Dynamics? At the Session, Edge wanted to explore the opportunities for applying private sector innovation, entrepreneurial strategies and tactics to public sector transformation.

In Edge’s mind, the public sector “by nature” does not transform as quickly as the private sector. Speaking to Salzburg Global prior to the Session, he said, “There are very good questions to why that’s the case… One of the challenges is how do you explain to your public that you have taken a risk and failed? [The way] the public sector can and do breakthrough transformation is inhibited by [its] ability to take risks.”

If the public sector is unable to take risks, it is unable to change quickly. One way to resolve this, according to Edge, is to look at how new public-private organizations could be created, which take on the requirements of the public sector’s mission but also have the ability to take risks in the way a private sector company does. As things stand, Edge said the compensation models within the public sector do not incentivize risk taking.  

As governments come to terms with the rapid pace of the digital revolution, Edge put forward an alternative proposal: “You look at it and go, ‘Well, everyone’s got a mobile phone in their hand – give or take – so that’s infrastructure that’s already out there. So, why do we have to go through the government to get new services?’ Maybe we should be building new services that citizens want and asking the government to integrate or let those services run in a free market. It’s a very good question.”

Edge said he had asked himself what the role of government was and, for the time being, had settled on an answer from the Greek philosopher Plato: “Plato goes with [the theory that] the government’s job is the distribution of scarce resources. That’s about as good as I’ve found. That can make perfect sense to me. If you’ve got a population and you only have a limited amount of resources, then if it is the strongest resource, you’re going to have a tale of the weak who get nothing and that creates inequality in society. Inequality in society creates problems. That’s where you end up in war.” Edge said if it came down to the distribution of scarce resources, then the question concerned whether the model of government was up to the distribution of said resources.

Speaking ahead of the Session, Edge discussed what he hoped to learn from his fellow participants. “There’s no substitute for experience,” he said. “It’s important to come to these forums to get an understanding and insight into how the world’s currently working now. It’s all good and well to come up with a model for change but if you don’t have context on what’s going on in the current environment then you won’t get effective outcomes.”

Recently, Edge has been working with the U.K. government through a private sector start-up, which has built a system for the distribution of digital cash. Commenting on this project, Edge said, “That is at a fraction of the cost. It’s more accessible and provides better services for citizens. That is a good example of building a new way of doing things using digital technologies.” By doing something new and efficient, you are affecting something older and less efficient, Edge believes, adding that the challenge of improving the public sector is to make the incumbent people feel incentivized to make it happen.

In his position at ID2020, Edge is looking to solve a problem that affects more than one billion people – the lack of an official recognized identity, which is especially vital for accessing online public services. He said, “I founded ID2020 because I saw a technology emerging – or a set of technologies emerging – that indicated they could be very useful in the provision of identities for vulnerable children – specifically stateless vulnerable children. The idea that if you happen to be not born in a state, how do you get a birth certificate when there’s no one to issue it to you? Yet, if you look at refugee camps, everybody’s got a phone. If everybody’s got a phone but no one’s got a birth certificate, there’s something in that.”

With ID2020, Edge hypothesized creating an alliance similar to Gavi – the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations. He said, “If we have 1.2 billion people without [an official] identity, the chances are that the current way of doing things has a problem. [We’re] creating a specific organization to look at improving the efficiency of a public sector gathering of organizations to get a better outcome. Gavi has proven it – and there are a number of others – and that’s what ID2020 is aiming to do for identity.”

In addition to his work with ID2020, Edge is the co-chair and founder of the Whitechapel Think Tank, through which the Bank of England, the U.K. government, regulators, and the private sector have come together to collaborate on the potential for blockchain and distributed ledger technologies. Edge said, “The outcome of that was the U.K. managed to establish itself – for a time – the leading player in this space because the government understood it to be a transformative technology quicker than other governments did.” The purpose of the forum was to enable stakeholders to feel comfortable to ask the question: what is this?

Discussing the benefits of these forums involving different sectors, Edge said, “I think that it is valuable at the start to make sure that topics don’t get killed. It becomes challenging when you talk about actually getting stuff done because you run straight into the blocks of, ‘Why would we do this? What’s the upside? Why should I take this risk?’”

For the past three years, Edge has been focused on bringing private sector innovation and an entrepreneurial approach to the public sector, something which Edge describes as “darn difficult, to say the least.” However, our approach toward this moving forward is what might make all the difference. He said, “We can either look at it negatively and say society is going to break, or positively in that there’s a whole new model of technology-led services on the way and maybe we could look at what roles the public sector plays and [ask] do they need to be playing all those roles?”

As the Public Sector Strategy Round Table goes forward as the new Public Sector Strategy Network, Salzburg Global Seminar, its partners and Fellows will continue to address these fundamental questions – and develop coherent answers.


John Edge attended the sixth meeting of the Public Sector Strategy Round Table – “In the Spotlight: How Can the Public Sector Excel Under Changing Dynamics?”. This meeting was convened by Salzburg Global Seminar in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Court and apolitical, and with the support of Chatham House. More information on the session can be found here.

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