Public sector reform – the answer starts with…?

I hate posing a question when I don’t feel I have something to contribute to the answer. So when asked what needs to happen to make the step changes required in our public service organisations, I felt challenged by the complexity. The truth is, the smallest local authority in this country (and I’ve worked with some) is way more complex than the largest global private sector company (and I’ve worked with some). So how do we make real change happen.

There’s a number of facets to this but let’s look at the starting point.

Energy and focus. People need to know what they are working towards and feel inspired and accountable for that. Most people in, for example, the caring professions got into that because they wanted to make a difference to people’s lives. They didn’t take it up to manage, or even improve, the efficiency of service delivery.

I recently worked with some senior people from Health and Social Care. It was quite striking that when these very clever people discussed impact measures, they kept reverting to process improvements (integration of Health and Care). When forced to look at patient outcomes (people self-sustained in their own homes) the lights went on. They really got the necessity of working collaboratively – “We can’t do this on our own,” and they wanted to make it happen – “You know, I’ve just remembered why I got into this profession.”

Of course we then get the barriers – “But you can’t do these things in the public sector.” How do we tackle that? For my next rant!

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Real Change or Rhetoric?

There’s a lot of rhetoric around doing things differently across the public and voluntary sectors. The current and increasing budget challenges are supposed to make everyone think of new ways of delivering the same or better outcomes with fewer resources.

The reality is rather different. 1970’s industrial re-engineering seems to be the order of the day. Take three departments, merge them into two, strip out management costs and ask people to do more work.

Now there is scope for this. Undoubtedly there is management overpopulation and, while it’s a complex world, does it really have to be so complex? There is also a lot of activity that is unproductive in terms of good outcomes or inefficiently delivered.

So, yes there are opportunities for traditional efficiency drives and these are being taken. The real prize is something different.

The key is in the phrase “ask people to do more work.” We need to shift people from concentrating on how they do the same things with fewer resources. At all levels, people need to focus on how they can have a bigger impact, how they can make a difference. And they need to do this in a tight financial framework. Shifting plans and accountabilities from activity to impact will be a massive cultural shift with a need for radical internal and external collaborations. The payback will be equally massive.

While the prize will be won when we get a critical mass of people thinking and operating differently, it starts at the top. The leadership of our public bodies need to show the way. Let’s not underestimate the personal and professional challenge for them, but do it they must.

Are you in the middle of all this? Are leaders – and that may be you – genuinely up for it?

Public sector = Bad people?

There’s a move afoot. People in the public sector are having to shift how they think about their job and how they work. Four years into the Scottish Government’s outcome-based approach, the advent of Scotland Performs and Single Outcome Agreements, the power of outcome-based planning is starting to be understood – if not realised.

Over generations, public sector workers have been held accountable for activity. Put together a plan at the beginning of the year and review progress on that plan. Success was largely about whether you did what you said you would do – or made a case for why it couldn’t be done.

Now we are moving to a world where plans start with the difference we intend to make rather than the things we put in place. This means that simply delivering what you said will not be enough – if it didn’t make the difference you intended.

Many public sector organisations are way more complex than private sector companies. Getting things done means collaborating with varied interest groups, in your own organisation and others. Making a difference means doing that – plus doing it in a much more flexible way.

Middle managers in particular now need to think in terms of the impact they have on citizens and service users, not on the programme of work they have committed to. They need to reflect on the effectiveness of what they are doing; monitoring impact, changing course in mid-stream and taking complex partnerships with them as they adapt.

The deep organisational culture change implicit in this is the single biggest lever in delivering efficiency while still delivering better services for citizens. To achieve this we need to see accountabilities deep in public sector organisations shifting dramatically. People need to see their roles framed differently and managers need to be able to coach and support staff through the change – and beyond.

There is a human danger in this. People who have worked in one way and with one mind set, for their entire career, will have to change. Many of them know only an output-based or process-based world. Indeed, either through career choice or inertia, they have selected to work in this world. They need to change. Some will not want to and we need to allow them to leave with dignity. Others will find the changes required difficult to understand or implement – they have no experience of this new way of working.

The danger is that they are branded as “bad people.” The reality is that this kind of fundamental shift can be enormously difficult. Trouble is I hear a lot of talk about service redesign (“real or imagined” is for another blog) but little focus on organisational and human development to make the change work. We need a step change in culture and in management capability if we are to meet the coming challenge.

Are our public bodies taking this seriously?