Ten thoughts from 10 years in the Public Sector; #1 Ideas…

it is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory – W Edwards Deming

The public sector seems to like the idea of ideas but not the ideas themselves. The unquestionable commercial reality of Demings statement above has not reached many parts of the Public Sector, the absence of competition means that the laws of competitive evolution don’t apply. The Public Sector has traditionally had no need to change, it has survived (sometimes thrived) using outdated business models, often providing services that are inconsistent in quality and sometimes no longer relevant. Think of Job Centres, should the public purse still be funding Job Centres when less than one in ten people needing a job and less than one in five employers use them? If you were a private sector business that had been around for forty years with so little market penetration and success, you would have shut down many moons ago.


Even this age of austerity has not produced the benefits of increased effectiveness that it could have; yes it has resulted in more partnership and collaborative working, and this is to be welcomed, but in the absence of a customer focused approach this just leads to a Public Sector that does more of the wrong things better. If the Public Sector is going to become more relevant to the public it serves and value for the tax revenue it receives, then a radically new perspective and genuine innovations are needed now more than ever. Fresh thinking and new ideas are required.

The scale of the challenge to successfully implement new ideas into the Public Sector should not be underestimated. The idea of new ideas is something that is constantly discussed, the need for “new approaches” and calls for “innovation” and “blue skies thinking” all feature heavily in a great many Public Sector strategy documents, but the genuinely innovative thinkers, the new ideas themselves and the innovation that they would lead to seldom see the light of day. Occasionally the great and the good will come together at expensively hosted events and strangely titled workshops under the guise of “thinking outside the box” and “collectively seeking new solutions”; but then when they disperse it is as if nothing had happened and nothing has changed. More often than not the discussion of the new ideas acts as a sort of vicarious substitute for implementing the new ideas themselves.

When those fortunate new ideas and innovations that are deemed safe enough to use are actually implemented, they are clumsily placed onto old established cultures where they are generally viewed with great suspicion. Wary employees who have, “seen all these new fads before” will fall in line and play the game for as long as they feel it works for them. In short, a set of quick-fix techniques are implemented with no real understanding or stakeholder buy-in as to why they are being implemented. It is therefore no surprise that most new initiatives in the Public Sector do not find roots within their organisations and do not succeed. They are consigned to the bin with the label of “flavour of the month” attached to them. This pattern becomes self-reinforcing and creates a culture in which each new initiative is treated with the same token attention until it’s time to be consigned to history arrives. Evidence shows that when there is no shared buy-in or understanding there is no commitment to implementing change, however small or large.

Beware the man who says he has twenty years experience when what he has is one years experience repeated twenty times – Anon

Are we being fair and realistic to expect that someone who has never worked in the private sector and is steeped in decades of Public Sector culture can retain the capacity and importantly the desire to understand the outside world? Should we introduce fixed terms of tenure for Public Sector leaders as a way of getting fresh ideas and  innovation into the Public Sector? Should we look at fixed terms of employment within the Public Sector and public service? After all keeping up with developments in the world of commerce is hard enough for those who are immersed in it every working day. Perhaps Public sector bodies should swap out the leaders, directors and staff from their organisations into other businesses to help them understand what goes on outside their organisation, at very least they should ensure that leaders, directors and staff engage in regular networking with other bodies and with the private sector…

…of course if you have any other suggestions they would be very welcome!


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