Can The Public Sector Leopard Change Its Spots?

Can the public sector changeI went to an event very recently where a number of public sector and not for profit organisations were shouting very loudly about the joined up way in which they were working together and the great benefits that were being delivered to their customers.

On the face of it, this was exciting news but was everything as it seems? I can hear readers now thinking ‘he is going to have a go at the NHS’. Well in a way you would be right and in a way wrong. It is brilliant that service deliverers can improve and extend the range of services and observe genuine results.

So where is the problem? Well, the biggest one comes when someone reminds us that ultimately these organisations are spending our money. One of the people present who commissions services provided compelling evidence that these services were being effective. Commissioners have predictions for future service demand. This helps to ensure the amount and type of services required are actually there. The commissioner stated that demand was increasing much less than predicted which implies that prevention is working.

Well, that’s that then? Not quite. A gentleman asks politely but in a very ‘civil servant’ type of manner, what evidence he can put on the table at a meeting he is going to attend the next day. He wants facts (and lots of them) as do his colleagues (anyone with the word ‘Manager’ in their job title). We have a whole raft of people whose job it is to justify and account for spending.

The organisations are delivering new or altered services (great) but underneath they are fundamentally the same. This is a little like saying that a supermarket chain is changing and supporting the environment whilst all it is doing is stocking some local potatoes and getting rid of some plastic packaging.

We should remove whole swathes of middle management. We could then fund many more services if we could only change the way in which these organisations work. The public only turn their attention to accountability when the services they seek are not there. When GP visits are easy to make, when libraries are still there and functioning well, when refuse collections do not result in piles of waste on the street, we are all happy.

For a small example of how this can work see my article Ban The Boss – see the BBC’s Business Doctor at work. Its an hour long programme but well worth it.

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Leading Public Sector Change

In the current economic climate the public sector in the UK is under extreme pressure to continue to deliver the services that we need while cutting budgets. The remedies adopted by those who class themselves as leaders seem to fall into two categories:

  1. slicing thorough the organisation
  2. undergoing some form of ‘transformational change’

The first remedy is easy to implement. If we need savings of 10% then let us trim 10% from everything. This takes no account of what we do, it is just simple belt tightening and when services start to suffer our leaders just cry ‘we had to do it to make ends meet’ and ‘its all the fault of the government’. For those who cannot understand why this approach is bad, let us use the metaphor of a soccer team. A club that has a large ground, a reasonable squad of players and ground and catering staff. Times get tough and the accountants in charge cut 10% off everything each time there is a round of spending cuts. What can happen?

  1. We lose seating capacity in the stadium (10% each time) so eventually we have to lock out fans
  2. We lose ground and catering staff so eventually the pitch does not get prepared and we are also unable to generate extra revenue through match day catering and functions
  3. The number of players eventually falls below 11 so that we do not even enough players to form a team
  4. We can no longer function

In these situations common sense should prevail and we should prioritise but compare this to the public sector where this course of action is being actively pursued.

And now we come to the dangerous part. For those who have realised that simply hacking off 10% is not good we now introduce the ‘Transformational Change Programme’. My own personal view is that if an organisation must change then it is up to the leaders and managers to first of all decide on the reason for the change, what the post change organisation will look like and then make the change happen. However, it appears that many public sector organisations are  embarking on a course of action that goes something like this:

  1. Decide on an arbitrary cost saving
  2. Create a transformational change programme at a cost which will save an amount equal to or more than the above
  3. Draft in one or two outsiders who have successfully achieved this elsewhere (unlikely as this is not a good way of doing things)
  4. Set up a standalone project to analyse the organisation using ‘Lean’ or similar techniques
  5. Implement the streamlined processes

On the face of it this looks like a good plan but there are flaws. LEAN is meant for manufacturing or situations which can be treated as such, with highly replicable processes and little or no scope for the ambiguity that humans introduce. LEAN does not cater for humans.

Next, because of cutbacks the composition of our change projects means that they are staffed internally. This can mean that one or both of the following happen:

  • Staff are taken away from their ‘real’ jobs, leading to an accidental accelerating of our 10% cut strategy
  • Many staff are untrained for carrying out the required business analysis or project management tasks with little context specific knowledge

This may then lead to a lean looking set of business processes which can be flawed but which are then forced upon largely unsuspecting employees, reducing motivation and increasing fear and uncertainty in the current economic climate. Many leaders will say that they will ensure that this never happens but both of the above can never achieve their desired objectives.

What does work then? Well a system that:

  1. Gains buy in from front line staff
  2. Increases effectiveness
  3. Reduces management overhead
  4. Can reduce the need for compulsory redundancy
  5. Uses your own staff with minimal outside intervention
  6. Is low cost (compared to the alternatives)

Such a methodology exists. Colleague Dr Paul Thomas has coined the phrase Simplexity as a combination of simplicity and complexity theory. It has now been successfully trialled in a number of organisations. Get in touch to find out more, or see my other blog posts Ban The Boss and Ban The Boss – update.

 

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Social Innovation- is this the way forward?

Is Social Innovation the way forward? Being an advocate of social innovation I would say ‘of course’ but it depends on your definition and what your own particular situation is. I will start by making things complicated and offering two not entirely unconnected definitions.

Forget the use of the word ‘social’ to mean outside work and think of what it could mean. When we are being social we are interacting, sharing, caring and even building. We are essentially social beings (although some do like being alone) so why not focus on a type of innovation that makes use of our social characteristics?

In simple terms, think of innovation as a ‘people thing’ rather than a ‘gadget thing’. That is not to say we cannot have shiny gadgets, but that we should focus on how they got to be there (innovating rather than the innovation). This then leads to the possibility of innovating even when the output is not an innovation (perhaps a process innovation). Such a type of innovation is thus appropriate both inside and outside of the workplace.

So what about the other kind of ‘social innovation’? This is most definitely linked to the community/region/country as a whole. You should be thinking of innovation in community projects, healthcare, employment opportunities, arts etc. A good example might be the micro finance initiatives that have sprung up in many developing countries. We need this kind of innovation too.

Many countries are in a mess (the recession) and are cutting costs (in the public sector). We need to revert to being social creatures again or there will not be any people with any money to buy the shiny gadgets that we used to think of as innovation output. Businesses producing shiny gadgets will go bust leading to more misery. The UK government’s idea of ‘The Big Society’ to counterbalance the public sector cuts will fail dismally without a modicum of social innovation.

So the answer is that YES we most definitely need social innovation however you define it.

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Should The Public Sector Be Quite So Public?

Is transparency costing us dearly?

I was speaking to Dr. Paul Thomas (of BBC’s Ban The Boss programme) and something that he said stuck in my mind. He stated that ‘monitoring costs’. This is so obvious but I had never heard anybody say this before. Each time that we want to monitor something we have to define a process or assign someone to keep a lookout. In many cases, we might have to create a job for someone to oversee this. Thus, a seemingly simple act might cost say £15,000 to £20,000 per year minimum. Why do we need to do this at all?

All across the country there are groups of people who are demanding to know how much their local council is spending on paper clips and they are justifying it by saying that if the waste is eliminated our council tax will go down. Similar arguments are put forward for the Health Service and other public sector bodies. Why not simply say to the nosey parkers that the records are there for them to look at if they wish to fish in the filing cabinets and let our public sector workers do the work that they should be doing?

Isn’t it about time that we began to trust each other again? So what if my local council spends an extra £100 on paperclips as long as they deliver the service that they should? On the flip side, public sector employees and managers must understand that they are required to do their jobs as efficiently and effectively as possible. £100 on paperclips or £20,000 to monitor the stationery budget? It is a no brainer.

Recently I have spoken with many public sector managers, and budgets are being cut but the demands for accountability are increasing which are pushing up costs!! Since this is a zero sum game,  something somewhere is suffering. It is, spending on actually delivering services is being reduced.

Let us trust one another a little more and reduce the bureaucracy and overheads associated with monitoring and accountability. Let us reduce the number of managers, and learn to manage our public sector in a different and more effective manner. We really could reduce costs and maintain the standard of our services for long as possible. Let us be a little less public!

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Yes There Is Hope – Public Sector Innovation

TV viewers here in Wales, UK may seen a documentary entitled ‘Ban The Boss’. It was made in conjunction with Dr Paul Thomas at the University of Glamorgan. The title was a little sensationalist to say the least, but the programme itself was very interesting. Following my article last month on what is wrong with public sector innovation I thought it right to shine some light on how things could be fixed.

Despite the fears of those involved the idea was not to cause anarchy or make large numbers of people redundant but simply to make the changes necessary to create an organisational form that is relevant for the future. The programme focused on two main areas of Blaenau Gwent Council, Environmental Services (refuse collection) and Transport Services. Those who are involved in change know that there are essentially two options, top down and bottom up. In large inflexible organisations change orchestrated from the top is slow that it is ineffective. In the public sector the changes often take longer than the time for which key people are in post, making the whole effort grind to a halt.

Dr Thomas went into each department and effectively banned all middle and senior management from their posts for a week. The idea was that the front line workers could organise themselves. As you can imagine, there were many different types of reaction. The bosses felt aggrieved, workers were suspicious and in some cases workers were wondering who would make the decisions. After a week workers were asked to vote to find out if they wanted their bosses back. Some were invited back but not in their original capacity but nobody was made redundant although some workers chose to leave of their own accord.

It was clear to see that in the cases where workers had made the leap, their workplaces were happier and more efficient places to work with the flexibility to take on the challenges of the future. Rather like pouring concrete when building or filling a vessel with water, people and organisations find their own ‘levels’ and the previous structures were ineffective but were actually sapping the organisation of energy by just maintaining them.

The benefits were greater efficiency, less red tape and increased motivation and performance to name a few. But what were the main factors that caused this to succeed?

  • Peer pressure and equity theory causing a waterfall effect
  • Simple demonstration that front line workers can organise themselves
  • Rapid introduction to the concept of shared ownership and responsibility
  • Sharing in the gains made
  • Commitment by those at the very top that jobs were safe
  • Transparency at all stages of the process
  • Constant availability of project personnel

Overall it was a tough process but one which appeared to be working and one which is highly recommended to the public sector both in the UK and elsewhere.

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