Features: February 21st, 2003

Delivering Performance Improvement From The Centre Of Government

By Peter Illsley, Jim Knox and Neil Amos

Reproduced by permission of the Public Management and Policy Association.

How can Government departments deliver substantial and sustained improvements through ‘in-house’ public services given that that they are often at one or more levels removed from the workers who serve the public at the front line? The primary method used by the centre to communicate instructions to the field is “issuing the circular”, sometimes informed by pilots or bolstered with guidance. Our argument is that civil servants need to widen their approach to change management if they are to succeed.

Models of managing change in public services

Four broad approaches to managing performance change in public services are described below, which differ mainly in the extent to which the change effort is influenced by local circumstances. These are the:

  • Centre-out model – issuing circulars
  • Local audit model – diagnosing local services to catalyse and direct improvement programmes.
  • Local support model – providing implementation support to providers
  • Decentralised model – levering knowledge management technology to capitalise on motivated professional enterprise.

Each is discussed below.

Centre-out model

At its simplest, a circular is issued to all providers – from the “centre out” – describing the desired outcome, and some time later there is a check to see whether what was asked for materialised. The centre does not trouble itself unduly with what the position may look like down at ground level – that being the concern of local management. There are variants to this theme which include:

  • Issuing of guidance
  • Running of regional seminars
  • Use of pilot sites to prove feasibility and inform central guidance.
  • Frequent checks on progress, and pressure applied to those performing poorly

The centre-out model can only work where the centre is very clear at the outset about what it wants to achieve, its achievability, that the skills and motivation required are sufficient to deliver. Resource requirements – certainly at the centre – are low. By focusing on desired outcomes rather than prescribing processes, it empowers service managers to develop locally appropriate solutions. However, the centre-out model is unlikely to succeed where the change is complex, or in services which do not have a strong managerial culture.

Local audit model

The local audit model has two main elements. The first is to carry out a national study of the particular service area to identify what constitutes best practice, variation in performance and scope for improvement. The second element is the design and rollout of a programme of audits of local performance. The national study and local audits act as catalysts to drive and direct improvements in local services towards best practice standards. This model has been used for many years primarily by the Audit Commission to improve the value for money of local government and health services. However, similar approaches to raising standards are used by inspectorates, such as the Social Service Inspectorate and the Office for Standards in Education.

In contrast to the Centre-Out model, it is not necessary to know exactly what improvement you require at the outset, since the national study will uncover the standards of performance required.

The methods for conducting the local audits are designed during the course of the national study which, in addition, to an analysis of national data, will include examinations – or trial audits – of a number of service providers. Local auditors are supported through training, audit materials, and sometimes by the continuing support of the national study team, which will have developed a fairly high level of subject expertise.

The focus of resources in this model is diagnosis – examination followed by the production of a set of workable solutions that can be customised into a local performance improvement programme. Initial testing of solutions and discussions with professional experts ensures a fair level, of confidence that these solutions are both workable and will enjoy the support of the relevant professions.

Armed with the local audit recommendations, service providers are left to their own devices to make the changes happen on the ground, and most would not want it any other way. In a follow up visit, the auditor will ask the provider to confirm that has happened.

Managing change, however, is not just about knowing what to do but how to do it. What seems like a sensible and achievable set of audit recommendations may prove devilish to implement in practice. Initial momentum generated by the audit can be slowed to halt by a series of implementation obstacles.

Local support model

The local support model is similar to the local audit model in that it also uses a national study to identify best practice and performance variation. The key difference is that local providers receive support from an expert team during implementation (see Error! Reference source not found.). There is no one-off, in-depth local audit, but continuous performance monitoring, feedback and bursts of analysis over a longer period. The team not only supports by identifying specific problems and designing effective corrective action, but it continues to persuade reluctant providers of the need for change.

Clearly this model is suited to change initiatives where there are likely to be implementation complexities. An example is where the change requires action by more than one agency, where the support team can act as an independent third party to broker agreements and reduce inter-agency conflict.

The longer term nature of the relationship through the implementation phase informed by continuous monitoring means that the change resource can be constantly shifted so it remains focused on those providers which can have the most impact on the national picture. It also means that the support team can devise solutions to problems that have emerged since the policy launch – policy shifts, developments in adjacent areas and difficulties that were not predicted prior to full-scale implementation.

Since resources are spread over the implementation phase, multi-faceted subjects that require full and detailed diagnoses in each locality will be unsuitable for this approach.

Decentralised model

In the decentralised model, the centre sets out the broad policy outcomes it wishes to see, and then leaves local service providers to decide how they will deliver. This hands-off approach relies fully on the motivation and skills of professionals working in accordance to a set of values shared with the centre. The policy outcomes may be closely prescribed at the centre, or more broadly expressed, allowing local agencies to fine-tune them to meet local needs.

Local enterprise is facilitated through the provision of knowledge management systems (often Web-based), which enables providers to share approaches and compare results. These may be provided by the centre or through professional bodies. No notion of best practice is uncovered and universally applied. Instead, local initiative is encouraged to generate innovative and effective service responses. Professional staff are freed from excessive and intrusive central intervention, and are able to fully use their skills to develop bespoke solutions.

Whilst there are some clear advantages to using the decentralised model, an inevitable consequence of encouraging local responses will be a variation in methods and outcomes – “postcode” service provision – which may not be acceptable to the public or politicians.

Increasing the chances of success

So what should a central government department embarking on a major change initiative consider when planning their approach? We believe that there are four key points to address.

Scaling the challenge. The task of identifying the right change approach needs insight into the practical realities of service delivery. The assessment of complexity should include: extent of the change required; timescale; number of geographical areas; number of agencies and individuals; number and strength of external uncontrollable factors; potential resistance to change, local skill levels, available resources. Insufficient expertise at the centre to conduct this assessment will weaken the quality of advice and undermine the credibility of the centre with local areas.

Flexibility: different models may be more appropriate at different stages of a change initiative, or in different local areas where circumstances differ (such as managerial motivation and competence, the scale of problems faced, etc). The centre needs to recognise this and continually review the appropriateness of the approach as circumstances change.

Resources: the centre will need to ensure not only that local areas are adequately resourced but also that there are sufficient resources centrally to manage and support change, both in the quantum of resources and right mix of skills (policy, managerial, technical, and so on).

Change will be made much more difficult if objectives are continually added to and refined. Local managers need to be given a relatively small number of change priorities and be allowed to focus on them. Fewer targets and objectives, means more achievement.