Managing change in the public sector

6 December 2012

Reform held a policy seminar on managing change in the public sector on 27 November 2012. It took place under the Chatham House. Stephen Kelly, the Government’s Chief Operating Officer, gave opening remarks. It was held with the support of AOM international, an organisation which has helped public sector organisations in the UK and abroad (including one of the largest providers of citizens’ services) to deliver against their efficiency and performance transformation targets.

Change is on the Government’s agenda. In his foreword to this summer’s Civil Service Reform Plan, the Prime Minister argued that, “The sheer scale of the challenges that still face us – and the need to hold our own in a competitive world – mean that we need to change the way government works.” Speaking to the CBI in November 2012, he made his latest call to government to accelerate its pace of change, in that case by reducing the use of judicial reviews.

The Reform seminar made absolutely clear that transformative change is not only possible but is happening already. The case study presented at the seminar demonstrated how the process of handling more than 4.5 million complex citizen transactions per year had been changed to become more agile and capable of predicting and responding to peaks and troughs in the flows of work. Managers across the network of more than 50 separate local offices were now operating more as a single national network – systematically using spare capacity in some areas to manage peaks in demand in others.

Since 2009, this organisation had managed to reduce headcount by around 20 per cent, and vacate more than 25 per cent of its office space while handling increasing work volumes and introducing significant policy reforms. Although this case demonstrated the immediate efficiency benefits from this investment in management capability, surely the most valuable impact was that the managers were now more confident in their capability to deliver business change in the face of variations in demand.

One key finding of the seminar was directly in line with the Prime Minister’s words. Central government can contribute in many ways but above all it can promote a “risk appetite” among public service leaders. That “risk appetite” must include a willingness to rethink services from the ground up, around the needs of citizens, which is an idea that Reform has discussed a great deal recently in terms of health and criminal justice reform. Taking steps to build up capability in planning and controlling operations might provide the platform to encourage this type of innovation in the design of services.

Central government can also help by joining up its own efforts to achieve change, bringing together the plans of the Cabinet Office, Treasury and spending departments. But generally the attendees strongly agreed that while good policy and good execution are both important, the latter is the priority. Attendees responded very strongly to the idea that there should be more “people on the field of play”, directly engaging in change, rather than “watching” and evaluating it. Central government can certainly help by communicating excellent examples of change around Whitehall and the public sector.

All attendees agreed that the “burning platform” of fiscal pressure is the ideal backdrop for a change programme. My own feeling is that the platform is only now starting to burn in the minds of many people. Those people will have expected the fiscal pressure to be a temporary phenomenon. They are realising that it will be a feature of the rest of their working lives. It may be a little overdue but the argument for change is now particularly strong.

Reform roundtable seminar on “Managing change in the public sector”, with Stephen Kelly, Chief Operating Officer for Government, on Tuesday 27th November.

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