Navigating across the new Performance Landscape
In one of my previous articles, ‘Public Services Wealth Warning’ I outlined the challenges that are facing many middle and senior managers as a result of the financial drought facing their performance landscape. The definition of Best Value, ‘do more with the same or do the same with less’ no longer meets the challenges of this new landscape; it is now ‘do more with less’.
This creates two critical success factors. The first is that leaders of all the public services, at all levels, need to be having conversations with each other about their strategies with dealing with this changing landscape. The second is that there are middle and senior managers who have the innovation, capability and freedom to perform the role we expect of them.
The mature discussion between the public services, starting with those who have governance, is essential if the confidence of the public is going to be improved. Any failure of communication is potentially disastrous for the public of the United Kingdom, as radical decisions are taken by each of the public services to survive the financial drought. I say radical because only radical decisions are going to be good enough to meet the prospect of financial cuts of between sixteen and twenty percent – and that is the amount that politicians of all parties are now talking about.
For every decision there is a consequence and these consequences need to be thought through with all of the other organisations it will impact on. Just consider the adverse publicity received by Leicestershire Police when a woman killed her daughter and then herself, having been hounded by local youths. A police Superintendent correctly stated that dealing with low-level anti-social behaviour has been the responsibility of the council since 1998. However, the public do not care whose responsibility it is; as ‘customers’ they just want their issue dealt with.
Imagine telephoning your gas supplier to report a leak. Do you care which company is responsible for coming out to repair it? Of course you don’t; what you can reasonably expect is that the people you have called will deal with the issue, even if it means them contacting another organisation who has responsibility for it.
A ‘mature discussion’ is needed because all of the public services will need to adopt new ways of working to meet the coming challenges. The outcomes of these discussions will need to be communicated effectively to the public, to manage their expectations. Some difficult messages will have to be given to the public as to what services they will receive – and what they will not.
Over a significant period of time the expectations of the public have been raised to an unsustainable level. Politicians have regularly made promises of better public services as a vote catcher. Staff working in the public services hear these promises, often with incredulity, but they then try their best to deliver on these pledges. This is because the majority of people who work in the public services do so based on their personal values of wanting to perform a role that helps others. Politicians know this, which is why they consider that they can continually put upon these staff to deliver their promises. Now, the same politicians are having to admit that the UK is so far in debt that they have over-promised what the public services can deliver.
Whilst many staff within the public services see mention of cuts as unpalatable they should see them as opportunities to do things differently. Innovative leaders will recognise that the politicians do not have answers to their problems of public service provision and take the opportunity to find ways of integrating some of these services to provide a better service to the public in a more cost effective way; which brings me to the second critical success factor. Through no fault of their own, we have a generation of staff, right through to middle and senior managers who have only experienced the period of growth. Most of those with the experience of the last recession of the 1970s have moved on or retired – and with them has gone the corporate knowledge of how to turn ‘cuts’ into ‘opportunities’.
At the same time as the prolonged period of growth occurred so did the ‘tick-box’ performance culture and organisations have been so concerned about league tables, quantitative measures and cost effectiveness our current leaders have been forced into becoming inwardly focused; often at the expense of public confidence. These same league tables and quantitative measures have also been under such scrutiny, whether from the Healthcare Commission, Ofsted, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary or the Audit Commission (amongst many others), that these leaders and managers have become risk-adverse. This is not surprising as, when things are going well, all is silent and as soon as a mistake is made there is an inquiry to find someone to blame.
Therefore, politicians and public alike will have to accept that, as our leaders regain their innovation and search for creative solutions to providing public services, mistakes will be made. This acceptance should also recognise that these mistakes are not malicious; they are often caused by staff trying to have a ‘can-do’ attitude with overstretched resources. If anyone is to be held accountable for these mistakes it should be the politicians who have overpromised the public in the first place.
However, all of the public services do have the responsibility to make sure that their leaders are given the right development to enable them to regain their innovation and navigate their way across this ever changing landscape.
It is only by addressing these issues that survival can be guaranteed and public confidence in the public services can start to be regained.