Public Sector Focus


Is ‘good enough for government’ good enough for us?

pamela crop 636368343788763684Catch22’s new chief reform officer, Pamela Dow, who used to be the Ministry of Justice’s director of strategy, gives her perspective on what can be done to improve the way public services are designed and delivered. 

A good friend of mine and brilliant former colleague, Gabriel Milland, recently wrote an article on why companies need to be better at providing public services. He explains the shift in meaning of the American phrase “good enough for government” since the 1940s, from aspiration to irony. With some honourable exceptions, he points to a culture of ‘minimally acceptable standards’ in public service contracts.

Why has this happened and what can we do about it?

It’s not as simple as the venal profit maximisers behaving badly, constrained only by rigid compliance and regulation imposed by Whitehall. In fact, it’s that lazy assumption and expectation that may have caused the problem. ‘Good enough for government’ not being good enough is a problem for everyone involved in public services, from policymakers to commissioners, charity volunteers to voters, and we can all play a part in the solution.

Process over purpose

I work on the assumption that most people get up in the morning wanting to do a good job and make a difference, whether they work for Barnardo’s, Islington Council, or G4S. If people don’t or aren’t able to do the right thing it’s because the system has the wrong incentives.

Getting the process right is prized over getting the purpose right. Mandating the least that has to be done is emphasised over unleashing the best that could be done. Personal agency is designed out so no one feels, or is, personally and directly responsible for outcomes.

Governance structures look good on organograms but mean very little day to day. Initial specifications dream of ‘systems so perfect that no one will need to be good’*, instead of systems good enough that no one needs to be perfect, because no one is. But systems can and should expect people to be good, in the moral sense, because you need to be good when people are relying on your services to live a decent life.

What can be done?

For a many complex reasons – history, politics, fear, managerial bureaucracy, short-termism, lack of relevant skills and experience, bad knowledge management, etc. – too many government commissioning processes fail to create the right incentives. It’s as much a problem for charities or social enterprises as it is for businesses.

What can be done? I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I don’t think anyone does, but this might be a starter for eight:

  1. Simplify. Every stage of procurement should be half the time and every piece of paper a quarter of the length. Government ministers should insist on this, the Cabinet Office should give prizes for brevity and speed.
  2. Publish everything, unless a life is at risk if you do. All papers and meeting notes, all bids. You will end up being forced to do so if it all goes wrong so you might as well invite – welcome! – scrutiny and input in real time.
  3. Sweep away silos and create seamless delivery teams. People using a public service – and taxpayers – just want it to be good; they don’t care whether it’s delivered by a charity, private company, local authority or national government. The Grenfell Tower tragedy is already exposing this, and I suspect the inquiry will emphasise just how meaningless these hierarchies are for the residents.  
  4. Decrease the number of agencies and increase the importance of personal agency. Commissioners look to spread risk across many organisations (Primes, Tier 1s, Tier 2s, independent evaluators). All this does is squander already small resources, increase layers, confusion and duplication, and dilute responsibility and accountability.
  5. Learn from people who are good at this. Digital tech start-ups are pretty lean and get products/services to citizens pretty quickly. How? Ask them. Stop teaching generalist civil servants the outdated, cumbersome, architecture of Programme and Project Management (PPM). Teach and value design thinking.
  6. Speak up, whatever your seniority and whoever you work for. If a contract is badly drafted, say so. If it’s causing people to ‘game’, explain how, and change it.
  7. Celebrate things that seem to be working, quickly, and try to understand and explain why. The Department for Education’s (DfE’s) ‘Children’s Service Innovation Fund’ seems to be incentivising some early success, and nudging the right things. Are departments flocking to DfE to understand more? Are local commissioners heading to Crewe and Hertfordshire to see for themselves what precisely is making a difference?  
  8. Let robots be robots and humans be humans. Artificial intelligence and automated systems are good at dealing with large volume, predictable, routine tasks. Which is great, because these make for the most boring and joyless jobs for humans, who are not good at them. Excellent digital systems – to collect and analyse data, for example – liberates humans to do the things that robots will never be able to do: empathise, personalise, build trust, respond sensitively and flexibly.

* Choruses from The Rock – T.S. Eliot


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