Change and the Public Sector

For the past few months, I have had niggling thoughts about the cuts to the public sector. There has been a lot said and written about the cuts (I particularly liked Francesca Elston’s open letter(s) to our beloved leader and FlipChart Fairy Tales’ take on the difficulty of reforming the public sector). There have recently been many contradictory reports of the extent and impact of the cuts in specific areas and services. The basic mantra seems to be “you can’t make such large cuts and not affect ‘front line’ services”. (Once more, FlipChart Fairy Tales has a good post about this.)

I want to take a different perspective. It seems likely that the cuts will go through whether I want them to or not. What worries me is quite how they’ll be implemented.

I am not sure I have made that strong enough. It really, really worries me.

I have had various conversations about this – like I say, it has been niggling. I am not sure if I have my thoughts neatly lined up yet – perhaps writing this is all part of that process…

What I find most worrying is that the people making decisions about the cuts really aren’t equipped to do so. I have a lot of respect for people working in the public sector; but one thing they are not good at is change. And to really make cuts of the sort planned work, change is going to be essential.

From what I have been reading, central and local government have responded to the Treasury’s call for cuts in the region of 25% by looking at what they can cut easily in the short term – the low hanging fruit, as it were. In recent weeks, the talk has been about drastic reductions in library services and cuts to support of local volunteering.

Essentially, government at all levels is saying “this is what we do… let’s do it but 25% less”.

This might work at some levels, saving 5 or 10%, say, by putting services through the salami-slicer and taking a bit of the end (hoping that no one will notice, of course); but it can’t work for 25%.

Instead, to achieve such drastic reductions requires a new perspective: new ways of working, radically different business processes: because the old business processes won’t be able to cope in the face of the cuts. You can’t take 25% out of the current systems and hope that they will continue to function.

That takes consideration and vision. Things that, for all the good that the public sector does, it is not renowned for.

Bureaucracies work best in stable situations: rules work, processes are followed. The cuts required by the Treasury instead need rapid change, across the board. The people in the public sector aren’t really the people to deliver that – their work experiences haven’t prepared them for change, and, at best, they will need a lot of help.

Doug Shaw has written about the results of a recent survey of public sector employees. They are understandably poor results – with so much uncertainty, it would be surprising if they were otherwise. But this doesn’t bode well for implementing change.

I’ll watch what happens with interest – and concern.


2 thoughts on “Change and the Public Sector

  1. John

    That level of change also takes tough, consistent leadership over a fairly long period. That won’t happen in the public sector because that is something politicians can’t do. Maybe it’s impossible with a press that can and will magnify very small but paper selling failures into “scandals”.

  2. Doug Shaw

    Hello Patrick, thanks for the mention I do appreciate it. I hope you are wrong to be so worried though your point about consideration and vision lacking in public sector…worries me! I’m looking forward to following your continuing thoughts on this.

    Cheers – Doug


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