In the past few years, the term ‘a perfect storm’ has been employed to describe the twin challenges of relentless growth in demand for public services at a time of flat or reducing government budgets.
UK debates tend to focus on England, as the largest jurisdiction, with far less activity from think tanks and academics in the smaller jurisdictions. This is why the Carnegie UK Trust, based in Dunfermline (20 miles north of Edinburgh), were delighted to work with Wales Public Services 2025 to better understand how small countries are ‘weathering the storm’.
Our hypothesis was that, as a small country, Wales should be in an enviable position – its size means that there is a real opportunity to think strategically about how public services are delivered in the 21st century. We wondered whether other small countries were responding to change in a strategic way, capitalising on their size, and if so, what Wales could learn from their experiences.
The report 'Weathering the Storm?' looked at how six other small nations (Scotland, New Zealand, Quebec, Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands) have been reforming their public services.
This rapid review found that small countries activities could be described using four categories: rethinking (a fundamental change in approach); reforming (improvement in delivery); restructuring (organising in a different way), and retrenching (reducing services).
To be classed as ‘rethinking’ approaches, the most transformative of our four categories, rather than reforming, we were looking for evidence that the approach cut across different public services and that we could find a ‘golden thread’ of logic across a range of different policy fields.
We found four methods that could be classed as ‘rethinking’ which repeated across small countries. First, preventative approaches to public services, such as the moves toward minimum pricing of alcohol and investment in ‘Change’ funds in Scotland. Second, co-production where governments work in partnership with users and citizens to develop new public service solutions, such as Mindlab, the public sector ‘innovation incubator’ in Denmark. Third, measuring public sector performance against outcomes rather than just inputs, outputs and processes, such as New Zealand’s 10 ‘results’. And finally, the use of technology and e-government to reduce costs where Austria and Denmark are both European leaders.
Where we found these approaches, we also found that they were mutually supporting: for example, outcome based performance management seemed to move public services towards preventative action; e-government supports and enables co-production with citizens.
We were looking for a strategic whole systems approach to the challenges faced by public services. What we found is that while a holistic rethink of public service delivery is possible it is by no means easy. In fact, while it was an aspiration, we found it difficult to find a golden thread in public service reform in most of the jurisdictions. We were able to discern a level of systems-thinking in Scotland, but it is still very early days and it is unclear how transformative this agenda will be.
Our research therefore poses the question – is systems-wide reform of public services possible? Or is it an ideal state, advocated by think tanks and other outside commentators, but unachievable in the real and messy world of public services?
Jennifer Wallace is Head of Policy at the Carnegie UK Trust and co-author of 'Weathering the Storm?'. Download the full report and the English and Welsh summaries. For more information about the research please get in touch with Jenny Brotchie, Policy Officer at firstname.lastname@example.org