Rebuilding public sector capacity and capability after 10 years of decline


Here in the UK, we’ve seen a big reduction in public service provision and staff. All parties in the election campaign are promising real change and investment – but delivering this will need a vast effort to rebuild and recover public sector capacity and capability. Glenn Athey from puts down a few thoughts on the challenges ahead.

After nine years of austerity in the UK… we’re hearing it a lot from public servants – whether its the civil service, doctors and nurses, teachers, or local councils – they are running at full capacity, some beyond this with the burn-out it implies, with funding for public services stripped to the bone. There are stories of doctors and teachers who can’t wait to quit, and a civil service stripped of its most experienced staff. When Tata Steel recently wanted to sell off its UK operations, or might even close them – there was no civil servant with sufficient knowledge and experience of the steel industry to call in to help with negotiations. They’d all been made redundant.

There is also no headroom or reserves for any emergencies and exceptions that crop up unexpectedly, such as climate change. Thankfully in the UK general election, the main parties are promising to restore public spending… but with services, capacity and capability pared back so far it is undermining some of the public services very existence, who will be there to spend it and implement all the good stuff?

As an ex-public servant myself, who had to seek new opportunities due to these austerity policies in 2010, I have been thinking about this issue. There are a bunch of experienced folks who, unlike me (I tend to work for public sector organisations mostly on economic development and policy issues), have simply left public service for something else, and are probably doing quite nicely too – so why come back? Here’s a few thoughts on some of the big issues… and potential solutions.

1. Have a decent strategy and clear aims for public services and programmes – but don’t be too prescriptive about how it gets done

Folks, I have lost count of evaluations of public programmes and services which have found the biggest fault for underperformance as the founding principles, ideas, or goals for them in the first place. The rationale was fuzzy, the goals were not clear, the intended benefits were not stated. They were a knee-jerk reaction where someone was “told to go and do something about it…” So the project or service was ever in search of a rationale or a reason to be there in the first place. It can get messy.

Just as bad are policies and programmes which are overly-prescriptive, made by a public servant too far from delivery, the end-user or the public to actually understand what’s going to work and what’s not. Sure, set policy goals and the direction of intent, but let the folks doing the delivery design the response. Otherwise, we get grant programmes and service agreements which only partially address the issues, or exclude important beneficiary groups or change-agents.

Talented folks who feel its time to give something back to society – they don’t want to be told what to do and how to do it, and this will constrain their creativity and effectiveness. We have to create an environment where people can thrive, and meet the public policy and service goals we have set ourselves.

2. Don’t kid ourselves that the work and due diligence for accessing public funding will get any easier

Folks, I laugh at people who say they will not fill out the forms or go through the process and due diligence for millions of pounds of public money. Any private investor would make you go through the same for a loan, to get an acceptable level of risk. So government requires this level of scrutiny for a grant. Get real.

3….Or any faster

In my experience, a typical economic development project will take a minimum of two years from inception to delivery, usually three. I’ve seen faster, but that’s when big teams get thrown at it, and the politicians also push to make it happen. First you have have a decent plan, enough to get backing from policy makers, then to get the money, you have to tick all the boxes of due diligence, then set up the team to deliver what you said you would. It takes a while to build up a head of steam, a reputation, and the trust of those you are trying to help.

4. Embrace modern working practices. Don’t be too hierarchical, design organisations, terms, and services to attract talent – don’t push them away

The public sector does not have a monopoly on ineffective bureaucracies, but they are very slow to adopt modern working practices such as horizontal working and project teams, despite a lot of policy and delivery jobs being high-spec and high skill roles. Anyone who has worked in a school lately will tell you that the hierarchy of management is stuck in the 1950s.

To get effective solutions and services quickly, we need to adopt modern working practices, that pull in the expertise and capacity when required, and that can delegate to the right level of experience.

The labour market is tight, and many professionals would not aspire to join a hierarchical organisation with little room for creativity, trust and delegation. The public sector needs to adopt modern working practices, and have the best HR and recruitment for professional services.

5. The labour market in the UK is fairly tight for experienced, skilled staff – the public sector is going to need some top HR talent

Unemployment is pretty low amongst professional service staff. Many of them are now on private sector salaries. To be competitive in the labour market to hire people into the public sector – its going to need a decent HR strategy and approach. Will the regimented ranks and pay bands of public servants be fit for purpose to hire talent in 2020? I doubt it. Not even the final salary pension appeals to people. Most professionals won’t see themselves staying with one employer for 30 or 40 years. There’s definitely a need to think about how the UK public sector will attract and retain talent.

6. Don’t always reinvent the wheel – there might be some sage advice somewhere from old folks like me which is still relevant

Nine years is a long time, and a lot of the policy and corporate memory has fallen by the wayside – particularly if we think about delivering things like active labour market policies, neighbourhood renewal and addressing poverty. Its worth looking back at past policy and asking what worked, and what we can take forward into the next set of policies and delivery.

7. The private sector isn’t the only answer

Sure, private sector board members can bring a lot of experience and good contacts, but they are sometimes too narrowly focused to be able to relate to public service and public good. Many will need a lot of development, if they are willing to take it. Lets take the best and most willing for business, but accept that there’s a certain skillset for public service that they will have to relate to or be able to grow into. Let’s not assume all business people have this.

8. Don’t wait for the perfect, technologically enabled solution either

Finally – my years of experience tell me – its about people. Get the right people, motivate them, allow them to flourish – lots of good things will happen. But invest in designing a technology solution… 3 or 4 years later we are usually still waiting.

9. We’re going to have to put a load of trust in a new cadre of public servants, and take some risks too.

We’re going to have to hire capable people to get on and deliver services and assets that we need as a country. We’re going to have to take some risks. If we want to make any progress – we need to set the right plans, that make sense, have the right resources, that will stand a good chance of success.

10. Which takes us back to 1…. have a good strategy and plan in the first place

Folks, I tire of tactical politics, soundbites. I want a good old fashioned, well thought out policy that is reflective and can adapt, but with some coherent end goals. And is seen through over a 10 or 20 year period, longer would be nice. £10m here or there isn’t going to make a difference. Cutting a ribbon on one project in one neighbourhood isn’t either. We need a thousand projects and ribbons, and we need to invest in people more than we do buildings.

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