Who is talking to who in public sector reform?

Yesterday I had the privilege to hear Charles Leadbetter speak at research in practice‘s annual Directors Forum – an event they hold for leaders of children’s services to hear about evidence and reflect on how they can ensure their services best respond to it. This year their event focused on the design and redesign of services in the current financial climate. You can read more about the event and Charles’ talk over on our work blog here.

For now I wanted to pick up on a point that Charles made about public sector reform. Towards the start of his talk he made what was almost a throw away comment about the problem with public sector reform being that:

“most of the conversations about public sector reform are discussions between one part of the public sector talking to another”

Charles went on to highlight the difficulties with that approach (namely a preponderance of turf wars leading to difficulties in really innovating) and also to point out what might seem bleeding obvious, but is always worth a reminder, that the vast majority of people are not interested in the questions that the public sector are discussing between themselves.

This got me thinking and wondering how best we should be generating discussions, debates and solutions in public sector reform? How should we best share the learning and thoughts? Who is best placed to do so? My twittersphere seems to be full of lots of people with an interest in public sector reform but the arguments offered are often too extreme for me to believe they really will lead to solutions. Common arguments include:

  • pass everything to users, they know best

….I’m intrigued by this approach, will users really want to take responsibility for potholes and refuge collection, as well as the more exciting bits? My view is that service redesign should start from the end users perspective – but then Charles got me thinking on that too; maybe service redesign should be kept as far away as possible from designers, professionals, existing services and instead the focus be on *really* thinking differently and starting from scratch

  • employ an outsider – either a consultant, a social innovator, a designer – they will provide enough of a fresh perspective to be able to improve existing services

….granted this might seems logical but leads to the same challenge in terms of a focus on modifying/improving the existing services rather than doing something new

  • employ an outsider – either a consultant, a social innovator, a designer – they will bring their new idea and apply it to your situation or service

….have read a lot lately about people with solutions who are seeking out the communities or users that need them to solve their problems. Cant help but be a little concerned here, surely we need to know that there is a real need, and we need to identify the need from the people using services, before dreaming up solutions?

  • scrap everything that is current and just innovate your butt off

….the opposite end to the approach above. I think there is a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water on this one. I’d really, really encourage moderation in some situations. I can’t tell you how many tweets, news stories, blogs I’ve read where someone is talking about their latest idea/solution and I can immediately think of someone who has already done it or is doing it in a different setting. I’d really implore that we’re honest with ourselves about innovation.

There is a brilliant quote (which of course I can’t find right now) that talks about how there is no such thing as new knowledge, just new applications of existing knowledge. Now that is definitely up for debate but I think it’s as well to remember that there is highly likely to be a good chance that whatever we are doing someone else has tried it before, or is already working on something similar.

I’m really interested in what those of us involved in public sector improvement or reform can do to a) share knowledge and learning at every step of the way, b) support innovation and improvement, c) while all the time reminding ourselves that sometimes we’re at risk of turning into a parody of ourselves.

Photo by Horia Varlan

What questions are we really asking? What is really driving our work and efforts? How do we ensure that we don’t start turning ourselves into part of the problem? I’d really love your thoughts on this – especially if you’re *not* interested in public sector reform, after all we need to get the discussion far wider than the usual suspects.

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3 thoughts on “Who is talking to who in public sector reform?

  1. Where to start…

    Agreed that it’s by and large the public sector talking to the public sector. In fact, I think it’s policy sectors within the public sector talking amongst themselves (e.g. social care, housing, education etc.). That would therefore be my first bit of sharing/learning: there are valuable lessons from one sector that can be equally applied to others (even nothwithstanding the common issues of policy transfer).

    I’ve long advocated a central hub in government for what are essentially mergers and acquisitions (see here. And there are many examples of where other central repositories are created for sharing learning across many themes (e.g. I&DeA, Communities of Practice, Third Sector Futures run by NCVO). And for some people (by no means all), these repositories are hugely valuable and the first place they turn to.

    I don’t happen to think the problem is thus creating the learning, but sharing it or ensuring people use it. Theories of change tells you that it isn’t just providing these sources that matters – it’s ensuring people actually use it. How you do this, I’m not entirely sure at the moment.

    There’s so much more on this that could be written – particularly engaging your direct questions about who best to have these conversations. (One quick point: though not a solve-all solution, service users aren’t engaged enough in any part of the process, from understanding what needs to done, to service design, to service delivery, to service review. There are some huge wins that can be had here, for relatively little investment. The two keys to this are (1) senior managers understanding the value of this input, and (2) planning for user engagement, particularly in the timings of public service reform.)

    Overall, my feeling is that the human being is the common denominator to all of this, and that we’re not particularly good at sharing learning or engaging people beyond the circles we normally move in. This is exacerbated by any institutional settings (such as central government departments or local government itself) in which humans then operate.

    The key will always therefore remain effective leaders and managers of their organisations, suitably harnessing all of the experience and expertise available to them from every possible source, and being brave enough to understand that their success – both organisational and personal – is predicated on enabling this engagement and the things that flow from it.

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