Ten thoughts from 10 years in the Public Sector; #3 Outputs…

chasing the target and missing the point; its the most logical thing to do in the Public Sector.

I sat across the desk from the Chief Exec of the Quango I worked for, I explainedPIC that I’d become very concerned about the quality of the courses, publicly funded courses that our organisation was providing. In my role as the project manager I’d attended some of the workshops that our contractor was delivering. I explained that our contractor was presenting old material to young people using an old fashioned manual projector with hand written slides. The course leader was an elderly gentleman with some interesting views on technology; he didn’t think the internet was going to have a big impact (it was a fancy unproven new technology) nor did he have an email address or a mobile phone. In exchange for this service, tax-payers were shelling-out hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. The Chief Exec seemed puzzled by my concern and smiling at me over the desk said, Tom, you worry too much,  ***k the quality and just make sure we get the numbers.

There were two things that bothered me about this response; the first being the absence of morals. As old-fashioned as it may sound, since I joined the Public Sector ten years ago I’ve thought that working on behalf of the tax-payer is a privilege and not a right; after all it is other peoples money we are spending. Unfortunately in the Public Sector the link to the tax-payers pocket gets lost in the translation of their money from tax revenue to government department, its like a strange form of money laundering in which tax-payers cash turns into the property of government departments leaving no trace of its origins and no boundaries regarding how it can be used. I sometimes think that if Public Sector managers had to ask for their money directly from tax-payers they wouldn’t be so nonchalant about spending it? The second thing that bothered me was that I began to understand that the systems of monitoring that have been set-up in the Public Sector, mean that this type of behaviour is rewarded, even encouraged. The traditional building blocks of successful business, great products, great marketing and great finance, don’t apply in the Public Sector. In the Public Sector the numbers, the outputs, these substitutes for commercial success, in the absence of anything more meaningful, these are upheld as the definitions of success in the Public Sector.

This focus on semi-meaningful numbers and outputs means that successful managers in the Public Sector are those that have mastered the art of the management of credit. The Public Sector provides a unique commercial environment, where to succeed you only have to be able to count the outputs…there is no point focusing on the creation of great products because there is no competition, and you don’t have to worry about getting your marketing right because your customers are not your service users, your customer is the department that funds you. Ironically in the Public Sector, if you focus on delivering great products and services, the ones your service users actually want, then your finances may suffer. In this environment its no surprise that people will game the numbers and play the game.

When I worked in manufacturing in the Private Sector I didn’t hear anybody say that quality didn’t matter; to stop focusing on the quality would have been the most obvious and predictable route to commercial suicide.

It’s going to take a lot of fireworks to clean this place up.  Homer Simpson

Time and time again in the course of my conversations with the users of publicly funded services I have realised that there is a gulf between their expectations of the service they should get and what is actually provided to them. So why do consumers continue to tolerate the difference, why do we reward those companies that excel in the marketplace, the real commercial world, yet when it comes to the Public Sector we continue to expect and tolerate mediocrity. Its as if the link between the Public Sector and the people it is funded to serve has been severed. There seems to be no recognition that the services the Public Sector provides should exist for the benefit of the consumers of them. The process of designing Public Sector services seems fundamentally flawed, the public are rarely if ever genuinely consulted or asked about what they want or need from Public Sector services and the services themselves are often not even designed to be accessible when they are needed by the people that might want them.

Its worth reiterating at this point that the Public Sector is not full of bad people, its just awash with bad systems. And unfortunately the motives for intervening in areas of social need are not always as you would hope. The following passage is taken from a superb and very readable book called “It’s not how good you are its how good you want to be” by Paul Arden, Paul was one of the worlds’ foremost advertising talents.

For six months we worked on a government scheme devised to help school leavers get jobs. The best people in the agency worked with passion to help solve a social problem. The resulting work was marvellous, and there was a lot of it. It was rejected. All of it. We had failed to understand, not the brief, but the politics that lay behind it. All the minister wanted was for the public to know he was spending x millions on advertising for the scheme. To let people know he was doing something about it. It was a PR exercise for him. It had nothing at all to do with humanity.

We are more often treacherous through weakness than calculation Francois de la Rochefoucauld but often is not always…

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