Published on 23 May 2022
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What is a twenty-first century civil service for?

Early career researchers and policy professionals awarded for their innovative ideas and generative solutions to current public policy challenges.

Calls for civil service reform are frequent, and the criticisms strident, as government institutions have grappled with the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic and economic crises.

Amidst these challenges, the Bennett Prospect Public Policy Prize 2022 invited early career researchers and policy professionals to answer the question: what is a twenty-first century civil service for?

Over 50 short essays and films were submitted by early career entrants from across five continents for the opportunity to win the first prize of £5,000 and two runners-up prizes of £1,000.

The Bennett Prospect Prize for Public Policy is awarded annually by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge in partnership with Prospect magazine. It aims to showcase the thinking of early career policy professionals and researchers on some of the big challenges of these turbulent times.

This year’s winner is Walter Pasquarelli – a policy research manager and consultant in the Tech & Society practice of Economist Impact. His short film titled, “Towards a semantic civil service,” argues for a civil service that is decentralised, grants personal control of data to citizens, and creates more bespoke and better processes.

Prize winner, Walter Pasquarelli makes the case for a semantic civil service

He says that this modernised civil service would be decentralised (controlled by the user), break down data silos (joining up across departmental services) and be automated through smart contracts (with access granted by the user). To get to the semantic civil service, there is a need to: invest in tech, open data, and infrastructure; develop a culture in which users have more responsibility, and; establish supporting policies for mitigating risks such as data privacy and bias in decision-making.

One of the two runners-up, Oliver Marsh, submitted an essay on “Civil Service and Human Connection”. He argues that a twenty-first century civil service should be reconfigured to create much-needed human connections between citizens and government. To explore this idea, he focuses on one practical proposal: linking civil servants to specific constituencies.  He draws on his experiences as a former civil servant and a current Demos Fellow and Hon. Research Associate for UCL Science & Technology Studies.

The second runner-up, Marc Le Chevallier, is a research intern at the Local Trust focussing on the Community Wealth Fund, who wrote about “Serving in the age of crisis: resilience-building as the future of the civil service”. He presents a model of the civil service built on four pillars: foresight and preparation; decentralisation over centralisation; flexibility and innovation, and; leadership and meaning.

The judging panel included two former cabinet secretaries – Lord Gus O’Donnell and Lord Richard Wilson, the editor of Prospect magazine – Alan Rusbridger, Chair of the Bennett Institute – Dame Fiona Reynolds, and Co-Directors of the Bennett Institute – Professor Diane Coyle and Professor Dennis C. Grube.

“The judging panel were really impressed by the full breadth of entries, which showed real innovation and a willingness to re-imagine what the Civil Service should look like in the twenty-first century,” says Dennis C. Grube, Professor of Politics and Public Policy, who leads the Bennett Institute’s research programme on decision-making in government.

“The winning entry offered a thought-provoking deep dive into the possibilities of the digital age. The entries of the two runners-up were equally marked by a determination that fundamental changes are possible without diminishing the core strengths that the civil service provides.

“Without necessarily endorsing the ideas on offer, the panel felt that all three winning entries creatively contribute to the ongoing conversation on what a twenty-first century civil service is for.”

Read more about the Bennett Prospect Public Policy Prize and view the winners’ entries.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s).

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