Lessons for the Public Sector from the Evolution of Early Life

Nobody is really sure how life first started on this planet but there are lots of ideas and we’ll have an answer soon. Fortunately for me this gap in our knowledge doesn’t matter because I want to focus on how life evolved immediately after its first appearance and something we know quite a bit about.

The first life was restricted to the ocean and ‘life’ back then meant a soup of single celled organisms floating around and not interacting much. This kind of life is known as ‘prokaryotic‘ – tiny single cells with hardly any internal differentiation – no nucleus, just a blob. Prokaryotes are still around today in the form of bacteria.

Then, about 1.5 billion years ago, an amazing thing happened.

Some single celled organisms found themselves on the inside of another single celled organism. Sometimes the big cell was ‘eating’ the other, but this wasn’t always an intentional move – it was just that one organism had somehow managed to cross the cell wall of the other:

This would usually result in the death of one or both of the organisms – or neither organism would really notice and nothing would change. And so it went on for millions of years. Sometimes though, when one organism consumed another there would be a wonderful coincidence which meant that both organisms benefited from the new arrangement.

CapturedSymbiosis – or to put it another way – teamwork!

This is how the first multi-cellular organisms came about, and these are known as eukaryotes. Humans are an example of a eukaryotic organism. Bear with me – I’m getting to the public sector bit……

Evidence supports the idea that eukaryotic cells are actually the descendents of separate prokaryotic cells that joined together in a symbiotic union. In fact, the power station of all our cells – the mitochondrion – seems to be the “great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great granddaughter” of a free-living bacterium that was engulfed by another cell, perhaps as a meal, and ended up staying as a sort of permanent house guest. The host cell profited from the chemical energy the mitochondrion produced, and the mitochondrion benefited from the protected, nutrient-rich environment surrounding it. This kind of “internal” symbiosis — one organism taking up permanent residence inside another and eventually evolving into a single lineage — is called endosymbiosis.

The 2 organisms working together are more efficient and have competitive advantage over the single celled guys. Natural selection did its stuff and……wind the clock forward a billion years…..to the arrival of us lot sat staring wistfully out of office windows.

It’s important to understand that each organism had to give up A LOT in order to make the symbiosis work. Taking mitochondria as an example – the host cell was glad to benefit from the energy produced by the mitochondria but as the new symbiotic organism grew and become ever more complex it absolutely depended on this energy. Similarly, the mitochondria loved the protection afforded by the host cell but it had to entirely give up some pretty basic controls – including the ability to reproduce independently.

The Eukaryotic Public Sector

SoupI imagine that you can see where I’m going with this. With very few exceptions our public sector bodies are like the single cell prokaryotes swimming about in a soup of inefficiency. But LOOK OUT – someone is adding a toxin to that soup – an ingredient called AUSTERITY. It’s time for us to evolve or die.

Now, it just so happens that my Council has an excellent ICT service (this is true) and that there is a bit of spare capacity within the data centre (also true). We would happily be engulfed by a, say, local NHS Trust and deliver their IT for them – in return we’d be rewarded with life giving cash.

And maybe that Trust, or perhaps a neighbouring university, has an excellent, say, Finance service that we could consume. Maybe there could even be a quid pro quo deal where we don’t need to exchange real cash. In this way the cell walls come down and a much more sophisticated set of public services evolves.

It’s not easy of course. As already noted it is necessary for each partner to give something up if the eukaryotic organisation is to be created. The thing that you’re losing is sovereignty over some functions. To my mind the kind of protectionism/sovereignty that we typically see in the public sector is a crime. ‘Sovereignty’ is really little more than macho chest thumping and posturing. It is a dog, scent marking its territory. We need to grow up.

Sure, it’s scary. If my Council does your IT then it’s going to be hard to roll that back – very quickly the new eukaryotic organisation can no more return to doing its own IT than I can get rid of the mitochondria from my cells and start generate energy by installing a solar panel on my head.

Nonetheless – it’s the right thing to do and, really, it’s the only thing to do. I’m not scared – if there’s any IT service out there (public or private) that can do a better job than ours at the same/lower cost then I absolutely 100% want them to take it on, because that’s the right thing to do for my organisation and the people we serve.

There are many services that we’re duplicating for no good reason. Legal, HR, IT, Finance, Audit, Procurement – there really is no local dimension to these services – they could be done from anywhere by anyone.

Symbiosis – yes please.


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