Plugging people into public sector reform

The deficit hawks have been circling for weeks now, as widespread media coverage is given to the deficit and the new conventional wisdom that the only way to resolve it is through cuts in the public sector. Now our colleagues and partners in local authorities and NHS organisations around the country are treading water as they wait for the emergency budget to be revealed by George Osborne next week.

Conversations with clients understandably focus on nothing else: it is easy to underestimate the significant pressure under which they are placed as they witness continuous threats to their supposedly ‘gold plated’ pensions (typically actually worth about seven grand a year) and a freeze on all service developments.

Apart from the fact that this assumption is regarded in many quarters as “extremely costly and quite ineffective” (and is arguably being ineffectively challenged by opposition parties or the media), the emphasis is now on service redesign. But, as this researcher’s blog discusses eloquently, there is much debate about how and when to involve consumers and stakeholders in the process.

It should be a given that, regardless of whether consultants like us are involved in organisational change like this, service users and other stakeholders should play a significant role: hopefully the days of services being developed in any way without the consumer being placed at the heart are over.

My conversations with progressive organisations are taking this further: how can we bring about social change as well as organisational change in order to help improve our communities as well as save money. In North East Lincolnshire, for example, they’ve not only made significant improvements in the day to day lives of young NEETS who previously lacked aspiration and suffered health inequalities but also reduced A&E use and saved cash.

Key to this? Engagement with young people to understand their behaviours, barriers to change and the competition and exchange involved. But to deliver effective social change the public sector also needs to review how they currently operate – from being an organisation ‘in charge’ to a facilitator, from telling to listening, slow to respond to fleet-of-foot, inflexible and bound by internal rules to flexible (but within necessary parameters).

Consultants often focus on new technologies, processes or changes to the physical environment to redesign services. Just as consumers of services used to be ignored, unfortunately I’ve witnessed service staff being left out until last minute communications plans are required. To turn into the lean and efficient machines they are under pressure to become, public sector bodies need to not only look outwards at their consumers but also inwards at staff behaviour, skills, knowledge and culture.

That’s the key to saving money and making happier lives.

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