What might service transformation learn from the world’s most fearsome mammal and a wax-eating bird?

honey badger and honeyguide

My fiancée and I are hoping to go on an safari honeymoon in Africa later this year.

If we go, I would really like to see a honey badger and a honeyguide.

The honeyguide is a bird that likes beeswax but can’t break into bee hives. What it does is catches the attention of a honey badger, which loves honey but isn’t so good at finding the hives.

Off they go together, the badger following the bird till they reach the hive. The badger then rips open the hive and both get their reward.

Both these independent organisms can exist without beeswax and honey and without one another, but they combine their skills in a wonderful manner to achieve a shared goal.

These special symbiotic relationships happen throughout the natural world. I think that they ought to happen in the world of public services too, especially in the context of citizen engagement with public services online.

The goal of public service transformation is to make it easier to access more accountable services. Digital media has spurred on this development and in recent years we have seen a number of service-orientated sites blossoming. Some are about delivery; some are about accountability. Some are run by public bodies; others by civil society organisations. All look to create opportunities for citizen or user engagement.

I wonder if these organisations might learn from the honey guide and honey badger, and perhaps even go one better. Maybe as well as co-existing they can also co-produce. Combining their resources and skills to best serve the public and getting to a better insight into one another’s enterprises.

Possible scenarios:

  • Cohabitation… two organisations operating the same site. The service delivery organisation manages the transactions, information and data available, and the civil society organisation provides an independent mediator of engagement with service users, carries out analysis and reports back on progress as a result;
  • Consultancy… the civil society organisation provides consultancy to the public sector body on how to engage online with users and champions the citizen-voice expressed as a result;
  • Correlation… the public sector body runs a straight ‘transaction and information’ site, and the civil society body runs a straight ‘discuss and rate’ site. They exist as independent sites but are inextricably linked: citizens use the transaction site knowing that it has been subject to ongoing scrutiny to which they can contribute via the discussion site, but they also know that if they use that discussion site that there time isn’t being wasted and something of substance can happen as a result of their engagement because of the committment of the service delivery body.

Otherwise, what we might end up with is:

  • Divided attention… the existence of multiple sites focussing on the one service, which could confuse and diffuse the user-base;
  • Diminished returns… sites competing with one another for URLs, search engine positioning, the attention of the media and the confidence of policy makers;
  • Diluted power… instances where a civil society has all the people power and a public sector body has all the statutory power, meaning transformation is made inefficient and slow.

Who can initiate such a relationship? Either party, at any point (though easier at the design stage). What it needs is research, planning and networking between social innovators, digital engagement specialists, grassroots organisations, policy makers and those responsible for service delivery.

It also needs a mindset that trusts that both sides are looking out for the best interests of the public and that they can be better together.

It’s a new way of working but the results could be sweet.

One thought on “What might service transformation learn from the world’s most fearsome mammal and a wax-eating bird?

  1. Ross,

    Neat idea – crying out to happen. But, how to overcome the suspiscion of civil society about independence beign impaired and the fear of government that exposure/discussion might not reflect the “message” that government is trying to get across. What kind of concordat would work? Are there any examples or obvious 1st choices for this approach?

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