Just Because You Can Doesn't Mean You Should

Reading Bill Taylor's excellent and though provoking article on the, I immediately thought of all those activities that we do in the public sector either because we can or more likely because we always have done.

Reading Bill Taylor's excellent and though provoking article on the Harvard Business Review Blog, I immediately thought of all those activities that we do in the public sector either because we can or more likely because we always have done.

Bill Taylor's article is aimed at large corporates and the private sector in general. However, his challenge is even more pertinent to the UK public sector especially at a time of severe budget restraint, expenditure cuts and changes in demand for services. Whether it is local authorities, the NHS, the police, the criminal justice service or any other part of our public sector - those responsible for budgets, strategy and strategic commissioning have to ask four key questions about every activity and every line of expenditure. These are fundamental questions. They require honest informed responses based on the values, statutory duties and objectives of the organisation concerned. The questions being:

  • Why do we do this and what are we seeking to achieve?
  • What would be the consequences if we stopped doing this or did it in a fundamentally different way?
  • If the activity is needed, could someone else do it more effectively and more efficiently and if so on what basis - us transferring responsibility and/or resources; creating or facilitating the creation of a new body; outsourcing to the third, social enterprise or private sectors; partnership; enabling co-production or self-production; or however?
  • Do we have to have to take this action - are we obliged to do this; if not what will the consequences will be and can we truly justify this action to citizens and other stakeholders

As Bill Taylor identifies in the private sector, so there are also occasions when public agencies do things and take action simply because they have the power to do so, irrespective of the consequences and the actions contribution to their strategic goals or the potential irritation and bewilderment which is caused with the public. Often they fail to consult or to heed the views of the public and other stakeholders; or do not successfully explain what they are doing. This is a shame as such actions are the ones that the media highlights and which remain in people's minds crowding out the public sector's other effective and positive interventions. In this context one is reminded of some of the more bizarre health and safety interventions; the complicated and frustrating attempts to contact public bodies to undertake mundane transactions; or the byzantine public transport ticketing arrangement.

There are many reasons why the organisations in the public sector, like the private and third sectors, continue to do what they have always done or take the wrong action only to unnecessarily upset or confuse the public. To challenge this is not to be critical. However, if the reason for perpetuating some activity or expenditure, which no longer adds value or adds value less effectively than some other use of scarce resources, is inertia, a lack of will to question and change or the protection of vested interests being put above the public good - then this has to be unacceptable. Every pound not spent in the most effective and efficient way is a pound not available for some other important service.

This is not a plea for the public sector to abandon services or interventions that are important for the country, communities and/or individual citizens - any more than it is a proposal for doing everything for the lowest possible cost. It is a call for some robust challenge, the application of common sense and a clear focus on outcomes and value.

The challenge process should be politically driven but this does not absolve senior executives and indeed all staff from the responsibility to challenge, and themselves to focus on outcomes and public value.

Any challenge process should be driven by the values and the strategic objectives of the organisation concerned. Often a strategic commissioning approach of identifying needs and determining required outcomes will play a key role in the process - commissioning should always be about challenging and questioning as well as focusing on outcomes. A public body must ensure that it fully engages all its stakeholders in the process too. Most importantly, service users and the wider public must be engaged as must staff and their representative bodies. So should be other public sector partners; and most critically so should be potential alternative service providers from the third, social enterprise and private sectors. Local authorities have to ensure that local businesses, and local communities and community organisations can contribute to what must be serious and comprehensive processes.

Decision makers - political, professional and managerial - have to commit to listen and to be challenged themselves. They have to be willing to change course and to respect what they are hearing from key stakeholders. Of course, they have a responsibility to ensure that the deliberations are informed and that stakeholders understand the available choices and "trade-offs" for the available resources. Consideration needs to be given to increasing income as well as to re-profiling expenditure and budgets.

Ultimately politicians, be they councillors or ministers, have to take decisions, often based on political as well as evidential drivers - and be accountable for these. They will not always wish or be able to agree to all stakeholder views.

In his HBR Blog piece Bill Taylor wrote "Businesses that prey on customers are perpetually vulnerable to their pent-up hostility. Sometimes all it takes to drive mass defection is the appearance of a customer-friendly competitor."

For many public services, service users cannot defect - though increasingly this option will open up where services are personalised with individual budgets - so the political and executive leaders as well as the commissioners have to ensure that they represent and advocate for service users and the wider public interest.

Without massive change - and this has to include stopping doing things and doing other things very differently - much of the public sector will find itself unable to garner public support and public authorisation. Without tacit and explicit approval, it will be increasingly hard to justify both their existence and their consumption of public tax monies.

Bill Taylor's challenge should be the challenge for every public sector leader!


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