…I’ve learnt a lot since entering the Public Sector; some of which I’d rather I hadn’t but they do say that uncovering a myth makes you a wiser man, and so I’m grateful for new knowledge and I still try to treat every day like a school day. But I’ve come to see that one of the biggest challenges for the Public Sector and for anyone working within it is the lack of aspiration that dominates great swathes of the landscape.
As a youngster I still recall my Mum telling me that I shouldn’t be worried about being teased for wearing second hand clothes because half the world was living in poverty and many people were starving and so the fact that my trousers had been worn by someone else wasn’t really a big deal…she was right and yet I felt no better. In short, my Mum was using the age old tactic of trying to make me feel better by comparing me to something worse. I imagine we’ve all experienced this in our personal and professional lives haven’t we; “if you think its bad here you should look over there” or “if you think that’s poor just wait till you see how we used to do that”…the list of things that are in a seemingly worse state goes on and on. But comparing yourself and your situation to the lowest common denominator has never struck me as a good recipe for improvement, in fact it strikes me as a complacent recipe for disaster at worst and a celebration of mediocrity at best. And that’s the trap that large parts of the Public Sector has fallen into to.
Of course, if you are part of the Public Sector you may well be recognised by other parts of the Public Sector as brilliant; a leading light, perhaps even award winning and referred to as being ahead of the curve; but being ahead of the curve in the absence of anything to compete with doesn’t really count for a lot…it’s like being told by a young child that you’re good at painting or fast at running; it might make you feel warm and fuzzy but it’s not an evidence based assessment of your ability or a reliable indicator of your capacity to succeed in the face of real competition.
When I joined the NHS nearly three years ago an experienced former colleague advised me against moving faster than the system would expect or could handle…they politely and sincerely explained to me that because we had been seen to have done more than enough in the first six months of the year we would probably not be expected to achieve anything more for the rest of the financial year. Those of you reading this from the Private Sector are doubtless choking on your coffee right now, but this was not a bad person telling me this, it was simply someone who had learnt to adapt and survive in a dysfunctional system that neither rewards excellence or penalises incompetence.
Some of you may be familiar with Red Queen theory, the theory takes its name from a comment made by the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland in which she states that it takes all the running you can do just to keep in the same place…I guess we can all identify with this from time to time! Those of us with many years of Private Sector experience would explain it less esoterically as the theory of competition; no-one lets you runaway with a market place and all its rewards without putting up a good fight. And therein lies the problem, the absence of competition in the Public Sector generates complacency and inward looking behaviour; why worry about running if no-one is trying to catch you, why focus on development if there are no opportunities to use what you have developed, why seek to delight your service users if your funding streams are guaranteed from the tax-payer and why seek to get better at what you do if you will only be expected to do it again and you won’t get rewarded for excelling?
The Public Sector, especially the NHS, has a mental barrier to the concept of competition, they seem blissfully unaware that it is not what competition is that is important, it is what competition and competing achieves that really matters. Competition and the enterprising climate it creates generates innovation and no comparable substitute for it has yet been found. If the Public Sector can find another way of creating innovation and building excellence, then let’s hear it…let’s just not hold our breath waiting for the answer.