The Raven's Blog

28.07.17

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

Comments

There are no comments. Why not be the first?

Add your comment

 

public sector executive tv

more videos >

latest public sector news

'Pioneer' Wigan Council CEO announces retirement

15/10/2018'Pioneer' Wigan Council CEO announces retirement

The chief executive of Wigan Council Donna Hall CBE has announced her retirement, after winning national acclaim for forging a new model of local... more >
Study shows English councils suffering ‘territorial injustice’ from government spending cuts

15/10/2018Study shows English councils suffering ‘territorial injustice’ from government spending cuts

 Research from Cambridge University has revealed that English councils have been hit twice as hard as councils in Scotland and Wales by spen... more >
Inspiring leadership in social value

15/10/2018Inspiring leadership in social value

We have learned a lot since the last National Social Value Conference, with many organisations both in the public and private sectors now embeddi... more >

editor's comment

25/10/2017Take a moment to celebrate

Devolution, restructuring and widespread service reform: from a journalist’s perspective, it’s never been a more exciting time to report on the public sector. That’s why I could not be more thrilled to be taking over the reins at PSE at this key juncture. There could not be a feature that more perfectly encapsulates this... read more >

last word

The importance of openness after Grenfell

The importance of openness after Grenfell

Following the recent Grenfell Tower tragedy, Lord Porter, chairman of the LGA, argues that if the public are going to have faith in the safety testing process then everything must be out in the o... more > more last word articles >

the raven's daily blog

What cities should become

15/10/2018What cities should become

Tom Leaver, project manager at Future Cities Catapult, examines the rationale behind the creation of the City Data Sharing Toolkit, and explores how this is driving a seismic shift in how cities evolve into our data-rich future. We’re used to big-screen sci-fi future cities being dystopian monoliths to everything wrong with the worl... more >
read more blog posts from 'the raven' >

comment

Inspiring leadership in social value

15/10/2018Inspiring leadership in social value

We have learned a lot since the last National Social Value Conference, with many organisations both in the public and private sectors now embeddi... more >
Is fair funding possible, or pie in the sky?

15/10/2018Is fair funding possible, or pie in the sky?

David Phillips, associate director at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, discusses the current health of local government finance, and how a bette... more >
Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

15/10/2018Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

On 6 September, the biggest decision-makers of the north joined forces to celebrate and debate how to drive innovation and improvement through th... more >
The Convention of the North

15/10/2018The Convention of the North

Steve Rotheram, mayor of the Liverpool City Region, discusses the findings of the very first Convention of the North, which was held in Newcastle... more >

interviews

Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

15/10/2018Keeping the momentum of the Northern Powerhouse

On 6 September, the biggest decision-makers of the north joined forces to celebrate and debate how to drive innovation and improvement through th... more >
Michael King: Time for Ombudsman reform

06/08/2018Michael King: Time for Ombudsman reform

Michael King first joined the Local Government Ombudsman service back in 2004 as deputy ombudsman. At the start of 2017, he was appointed as the ... more >
Helping a city understand itself

06/08/2018Helping a city understand itself

SPONSORED INTERVIEW The urban landscape is changing. How can local authorities keep up with citizen behaviour? Stephen Leece, managing directo... more >
Modern policing: the future is bright

06/08/2018Modern policing: the future is bright

SPONSORED INTERVIEW The public sector, and policing in particular, has often been criticised as being slow to adapt to change. But now, says L... more >

public sector focus

View all News