A breath of fresh air is fine…

…but what if we need a howling gale? Joseph Schumpeter (insightful economic guru and general exception to many other economists) famously described the process of innovation as a creative gale of destruction. Its noteworthy that he never described it as a gentle breeze or a breath of fresh air. And this Dear Reader is the point in our text where we must introduce the “C” word; competition. Competition and the presence of a marketplace are as vital to the process of creative destruction as the Earth’s atmosphere is to the North Atlantic Gulf-Stream, the climate competition creates is the atmosphere in which the gale of creative destruction is generated and through which it passes. At this point I’m conscious that I may be coming across like a rabid capitalist, a self-serving greedy untamed product of the Thatcher years to whom private enterprise and the free market is everything…I’m not. I am an advocate for what competition can do and the benefits that it brings us all, not what it is for its own sake.

Competition, or for those in the Public Sector who are averse to the “C” word, the continual development and delivery of consumer led innovation as an alternative to monopolistic operating environments that neither encourage progress or excellence nor discourage complacent apathy and gaming (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?), is the driver of innovation and change; it is the reward that successfully competing offers that is the trigger for innovation and change that delivers benefit to customers and consumers…recall the famous and oft-quoted speech by the Chief Executive of Nokia as he announced to his employees, that they, tens of thousands of they, were standing on a burning platform (a dramatic analogy that certainly grabs the attention), a burning platform on which the flames were being fanned by first Blackberry and then Apple, as these fruitily named relative newcomers to the mobile phone market delivered innovation upon innovation that pulled Nokia’s once loyal customers away from the Finnish technology miracle in droves; the bar is raised, consumers decide, the market judges and progress is achieved.

But we in the Public Sector don’t like to talk about gales of creative destruction, we do, perhaps more understandably like to talk in politer terms about breaths of fresh air…maybe its the closest we get to addressing the unspoken but ever present need for radical innovation and meaningful change; the kind that competition brings. Oh, of course we in the Public Sector enjoy much more than our fair share of self-inflicted change; please don’t think for a moment that we stand still, no no no, that would be a mistake! No, we know how to run on the spot without moving forward like world champions; we are positively Olympian in the art of movement without purpose. We have mastered the art of implementing meaningless change and restructuring, the kind of playing with the chairs on the Titanic sort of change that succeeds in destroying our employees sense of purpose whilst lowering the expectations of all our other stakeholders; including our service users and the taxpayers that ultimately fund us. The tried, trusted and mistrusted method of the pointless reorganisation, which is a well used implement in the Public Sector management toolbox, is a blunt and lazy implement that succeeds in sapping the most morale and energy from people whilst creating just enough paranoia to distract them from focusing properly on the task they are supposed to be presently engaged with. Destructive it is, creative it is not.

If you are tempted at this point to feel that constant comparison of the Public Sector with the Private Sector is unfair or inappropriate, it may be worth remembering that in recent years public sector salaries grew very substantially at the most senior levels, and to justify this growth we have been subjected to countless well paid public sector executives taking time to appear in the media and tell us why their salaries are justified. This exercise normally takes the form of them comparing themselves with top executives from the private sector who are in charge of companies with similar numbers of employees or amounts of turnover; as if comparison of the numbers of employees and the levels of turnover are meaningful. I don’t buy this argument, and there would seem to be no good obvious reason for anyone else to buy it; importantly there is also no credible reason for any of us to think that a Public Sector leader would readily stand up and say, “Yes, I am overpaid”…that Turkeys wouldn’t vote for Christmas is now a well established truism. And yes, of course managers in the public sector often have significant responsibilities, but it is a mistake for public sector leaders (are you a leader if people aren’t following by choice?) to compare themselves to the private sector. Half a day attending a basic course on business strategy would show that overseeing the running of a public sector organisation with a captive audience, a guaranteed revenue stream and no competition is simply not the same as dealing with the uncertainties of operating in the private sector…and only those who haven’t ever worked in the private sector could possibly think it was.

Where can the Public Sectors creative gale of destruction come from? In the absence of a competitive climate to support constant reinvention and innovation it is difficult to see, but the first step that might be useful is for the Public Sector to acknowledge its blind-spots, to both itself and its external stakeholders, to engage in honest open dialogue about the challenges facing it and the cultural and operational limitations upon it. Peter Drucker said that the role of Public Relations was to help people understand the challenges facing an organisation, to educate them to the realities that are shaping its world that will in turn shape their expectations and experience…this open approach is very different to the form of PR the Public Sector generally engages in, which falls into the reactive categories of damage limitation (our horse has bolted), reputation management (our horse is about to bolt and we can’t stop it) or Cheer-Leading (isn’t our horse pretty just please don’t compare it with anyone else’s). So maybe we should start with our culture, let’s create cultures in which we can not only tell our story, but in which we give ourselves permission to find out and understand what our story really is and what we’d like it to be…and if that means talking Turkey with the Turkeys and currying the leftovers, then so be it. Happy New Year.

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