Skip to main content
Civil Service

This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Empathy, curiosity and openness

Rt Hon Matthew Hancock
Rt Hon Matthew Hancock

Yesterday I gave a speech on how we should approach public service reform in the 21st century.

The question posed by history and by new technology is how do we harness that human ingenuity, using the best of the modern world to deliver better public services?

I want every civil servant to be part of this effort, seeking and striving to serve our country better, as part of a team with common purpose. 

At the heart of reform is the transformative potential of technology. Over the last 5 years we’ve learnt that we can use tech to redesign the way we serve citizens, delivering services that are cheaper, faster, more accessible and more secure.

Yet it’s crucial to realise that technology is just a tool. It’s a means to an end. The end is a service that just keeps on getting better.

In the speech I set out 3 principles for harnessing ingenuity.


First, our starting point must be empathy, because understanding the people we serve is central to everything that we do.

When we build a new digital service, for example, we get real people to come and sit in a user lab and put that service through its paces, adjusting and improving it in response to their feedback.  

The lessons aren’t just relevant to digital services, but for continuous improvement across public service reform.

But there’s much more to do.


The second principle of public service reform is curiosity, curiosity about what actually works.

Today the best reformers are mining the data for insights, trialling out variations of a policy, discarding the ideas that don’t work and iterating the ones that do.

Instead of telling people what to do, increasingly the job of ministers is to give people at all levels of government the freedom, the tools and the data to apply their own ingenuity.


Being more curious about our effectiveness also means being more open about the results.

It’s why we’re opening up our data, open sourcing our code and making sure the Civil Service is open to all talents.

Crucially, we’re also open to citizen feedback. This is critical, because being open on service performance drives improvement and enables choice.

It’s why I want every online service to be rateable, and for the feedback to be available in an accessible format. Feedback will allow us to spot problems and intervene early, helping us prioritise areas where government action can really make a difference.  

Empathy, openness and curiosity: these aren’t rules but guiding principles. It’s our duty to put them into practice.

That means embedding an iterative culture across the Civil Service, giving civil servants the power and self-confidence to drive continuous improvement, using technology to tackle bureaucracy and opening up more of our data.

It’s how we will deliver for the citizens of this country: by harnessing human ingenuity, by unleashing human potential.

I hope you enjoy the speech, and play your part in the continuous improvement of the services we offer to public.

You can view the full speech here or read a copy of it here 

Sharing and comments

Share this page


  1. Comment by Mr M posted on

    Will managers be adopting the same prinicples when dealing with their staff? For many it appears that this is overdue.

  2. Comment by Matt posted on

    Will the Govenement be looking into paying a Living Wage as per 20 FTSE companies now do?

  3. Comment by Caroline M Thacker posted on

    For reference:- Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within the other person's frame of reference.

    Most staff empathise with taxpayers, when having to show the taxpayer the door - when they come to the office asking for help understanding their taxes/tax credits. Staff would rather be more compassionate and helpful.

    My understanding of a conversation is that it is a two way thing. If it is only one direction talking and not listening to responses from the other side, then it isn't a conversation. Ministers aren't talking and having conversations with us and the taxpayer - they are telling us and the public, how it is going to be in the future. If they were having a conversation they would be listening and taking notes.

  4. Comment by David posted on

    While I agree with much of what the minister says, I do think we should beware of embracing and using new technologies purely for the sake of doing so. If a current system is simple and efficient and works well, it should be left alone. For instance, the system of submitting passport applications by post worked well for decades, whereas moving online was costly, caused all sorts of technical problems, and exposed (and continues to expose) our customers to fraud, data interception, and misrepresentation by third-party websites on a grand scale. In fact, far from improving our service, the decision to go digital precipitated the biggest crisis in the history of the Passport Service and led to huge expenditure on overtime and large-scale recruitment to clear up the resultant mess and manage the new post-digital reality.

  5. Comment by Steve posted on

  6. Comment by John posted on

    Is I.T. the real issue. Deal with the basics first. Simplify! Civil Servants in my experience spend too much time correcting errors and trying to assess payments in systems that are far to complex. We should never be in a situation where, for instance, one benefit is affected by another. They should be either/or cases. For example Employment Support Allowance Income based attracts a premium when carers allowance is paid but then the carers allowance itself is offset. Surely we should either pay the individual as a carer or as someone unable to work and therefore unable to be a carer for a third party (either ESA or Carers Allowance). Similarly, pay ESA for six months for short term ailments then if long term pay PiP but dont pay both together - especially with a premium because they get PiP! .

  7. Comment by Carl posted on

    i would love to see a reply from anyone who is involved in the shaping of the future civil service. however as we have seen time and time again it never happens
    it never happend with the summer budget or staff survey so not expecting anything here.
    its almost like they are scared

    • Replies to Carl>

      Comment by Susan Chan posted on

      Empathy, curiosity, openness: the knowledge management community is on the case.

  8. Comment by Alan Colquhoun posted on

    I have just read the speech and found a lot of it inspiring. I have a also just met Ruth - The Autobot on HMRC's website. It took me less than ten seconds to realise that Ruth was not a real person but just a predictive text reading program with algorhythms for answers. I am greatly concerned that the Public (people who use public services) will soon become aware that they are not being offered a service - personal or otherwise. Once they realise that no money is being spent on them they will be asking where there hard earned taxes are going. I hope that Policy Makers remember that they are here to serve the public and that it is not the other way round!

  9. Comment by Michael posted on

    Can I just say well done to the vast majority of colleagues on here who have absolutely nailed the situation we find ourselves in through no fault of our own! I only wonder how long these truthful comments will remain on this post before they are took down by the truth police...

  10. Comment by Kuldip Dhaliwal posted on

    John nailed it pretty much.We could include promises of Quango culling which never happened. Inflating Lords does cost the common man in more than the financial (waste of space payments) . Oh and how many civil servants and other consultants are being paid more than the prime minister himself so how about austerizing them first. Sorting out the NHS would be a better idea than just promises of throwing money at it. Seeing what all the above boils down to basically is money then how come now that we being in a position Can but Won't sort it out.

  11. Comment by Simon posted on

    I am fairly content with my lot i do have enough to get by ... just enough to get by . I am deeply concererned that i cannot do my job and earn enough so i do not have to claim the benifits i administer that makes me sad a nation that disrespects those who choose to work for the country .
    I' m not living in a city center situation where prehapse Prision seems a safer place than the "out side " .
    I have "lived "on benefits so do know what it was like 20 years ago .. before food banks and the generosity of people who help .
    So if you sir do have faith in the system and truly belive it works then why not try "benefit living" for a couple of weeks ?
    ThereIi have put out the challenge.....

  12. Comment by Anthony posted on

    Saw you yesterday on BBC's Breakfast TV, trying to justify the cuts to Tax Credits.
    Cameron says "we're all in this together" & "Britain needs a pay rise" unless your a Civil Servant in which case you can have 1% for the next 4 years and like it. Yet you and the rest of the MPs award yourselves an 11% rise. Next year (April 2016) we can expect a rise in National Insurance, which will wipe out the pay award for many. Time you read these comments and as Barry Stone says got out of your Ivory Tower and into the real world.

  13. Comment by Mr C J Bone posted on

    I must disagree with John and Barry - as a community we were all to blame for the finacial crisis, banks lent too much money to people and companies who were too greedy to wait until they could afford to spend it. The banks were greedy in trying to make more money by lending more than they should, so it is six to one and half a dozen to the other whether you like it or not. Borrowing money for poor investments and money wasting projects will always lead to disaster. As Civil Servants we still waste too much money, which is taken from people who find it hard to make ends meet. We contract out changing light bulbs that now cost £60 each to change in some places; we contract out cleaning of Government Offices because that saves money - the contractors pay minimum wages to minimum numbers of staff. It only looks good value because Civil Service management overheads are so expencive. We must get better at looking at unintentional consequences and longer term results.

  14. Comment by John Armstrong posted on

    This article is an insult to my intelligence, the more so in view of Mr Osborne's recent antics.

  15. Comment by Mike posted on

    Firstly, well said John-every word true, should be compulsory reading for Daily Mail readers!

    Secondly, it's good to see that the minister is so dedicated to improving the customer experience of public services. It seems a little odd then that he is part of a Government with an ideological hatred of public services (unless run by a private company to the detriment of the workforce and customer), comprising creeping privatisation, wholesale redundancies, closures of regional offices/courts/tax offices et al and a determination to see that whilst "Britain deserves a pay rise", civil servants don't, all thus ensuring that they are fully engaged in helping provide that improved customer experience.

    It is to the great credit of the majority of civil servants that despite, not because of all the attacks by their employer, they remain committed to the principal of providing a high quality public service. I will play my part in continuing to improve the services we offer the public without needing to "enjoy the speech" thank you!

  16. Comment by Terry posted on

    Agreed John. The hypocracy of theses "statements" by Mr Hancock beggars belief. This lot will not ever admit that the reason we are in the state we are is because of their dogmatic policies and cowtowing to their buddies in the financial sector whose refusal to lend money to each other, effectively going on strike, forced tha last labour government to pump billions into the system to prop it up. Strange that the banks weren't taken to court over their strike action. All they have done is feather their own nests in collusion with those in Parliament, with a nod and a handshake that they will have a job with them after.

  17. Comment by Sharon Kinsey posted on

    Paul - its called free speech.
    Sometimes I wish MP's would leave Civil Servants to get on with their jobs and stop trying to tell them how to do it. The public service needs to evolve, but it does not help when successive Goverments have meddled. We need to go back to why the civil service was set up and its principles and then look how it can be brought into the 21st centuary. At the end of the day - we the civil servants know what we need to do - MP's like Matthew Hancock need to listern.

  18. Comment by Paul Harcombe posted on

    I'm more than a little amazed that comments were enabled on this posting, they certainly weren't for the Prime Minister's message a few months ago. Can't imagine why ...

  19. Comment by Barry Stone posted on

    Have to agtree with John 100% your Government has been in power for almost 6 years now, and as a Civil Servant, I am no better off than I was before you came in. All we've suffered is a constant brow beating of Austerity, cuts and "we're all in this together". Added to this the relentless denigration of Public Servants, service cutbacks and wage freezes (for some, hope you are managing to get by, after your 11% pay rise). Step down from your Ivory Tower, and take a look around you at the Real World, where people are struggling to make ends meet, even though in most cases both are working full time, Where people are having to rely on the modern day equivalent of the Soup Kitchen (and not just those people who are now classed as "workshy" or "Benefit Scroungers", we are actually talking about people in full time employment. Spare us your pithy plattitudes

  20. Comment by John posted on

    As a conservative MP you cant have a straight face and be talking about how the government can actually work for 'working people'. The government works for a very small minority of 'working people. From your party wants to raise £billions off the backs of 'working people' who might qualify for tax credits rather than the banks that brought the world to a standstill. its no joke, saying the banks ruined the economy isn't just a rebellious sound bite, its actually true. If we had the £100s of billions we gave them, would we need austerity? no. So, before you insult our intelligence or our short term memory and start talking about how the government can work for 'working people' resign your job, read all of the research that the government has commissioned over the past 50 years into the social determinants of health and income inequality and then talk to me about how the government works. The government works at keeping the status quo and keeps the rest of us busy by fidlding with policies that make no material impact, keeping us talking about a few quid here and few quid there and this imaginary trickle down. Because at the same time as the trickle down, there is an upwards tsunami of wealth moving from everyone else to a very small minority at the top. this causes social division, lower levels of trust, it makes status matter more, which in turn makes people more willing to step on one another. We don't need nice speeches or bitty policies, we need economic revolution right now and until then we cant have a meaningful discussion about whether the government works or not - apart from recognising that it doesnt