Demos Daily: The Adaptive State


Our public services are under more strain than ever before. Our beloved NHS is working to the brink to tackle the coronavirus pandemic, with our doctors, nurses and carers literally putting their lives on the line. Retired workers are returning to the frontline; medical and nursing students have been sent to duty early; and well over half a million people have signed up to join a new NHS volunteering service. In 2003, Demos spoke of the importance of how public services react and adapt to rising challenges. The public sector has never needed to be more agile than now, and many of our public services are rising up to the challenge.

Read The Adaptive State here, and the foreword from a then-director of Hewlett-Packard, Paul Steels, below.


Public services matter to us as citizens, as members of our community and as the bedrock of business and economic success. The benefits of good education, high-performing healthcare, reliable local government and effective anti-crime measures are fundamental to a thriving society. In a world where risk is more and more individualised, the need for a public infrastructure that can underpin the common good is increasingly crucial.

But the ability of public services to deliver in a world of new opportunities, challenges and threats is being put to the test. People are less deferential and rightly demand greater accountability and higher quality of service. Choice is a given not an option, rights only come with responsibilities, and services are decentralising. Effectiveness is often found through the empowerment of citizens as co-producers. These dynamics are played out against a background where governments are struggling to maintain the trust of their citizens and continually have to demonstrate value for money.

The only constant is learning to live with change. How public service institutions and programmes adapt and learn to transform themselves from within is the critical challenge facing policy-makers, practitioners and public sector partners such as Hewlett-Packard (HP).

Following its recent merger with Compaq, HP has been a test case for successful transformation on a massive scale. At HP we know that technology can be a major enabler of change, if it is designed to support transformation as it develops. There are of course differences between the private and public sectors that have to be respected, but we can and must learn from each other.

Public services must be based on agile and adaptive platforms if they are to meet the challenges of continuous change. We are only now starting to learn what this means in practice, which is why this publication is tremendously helpful. It includes important contributions from the UK and across the world, from thinkers but also crucially from front-line practitioners. I am delighted that HP, working with Demos, has been able to make this contribution to thinking about the next stage of public service modernisation and renewal.

Paul Steels is director, public sector division, Hewlett-Packard.