Features: December 7th, 2007

By Lucy de Groot and Lee Digings

This article was first published in Public Management and Policy and is reproduced by permission of the Association. http://www.cipfa.org.uk/pmpa/index.cfm

Since the start of the 21st century public service reform has carried the labels of joined –up government, the Gershon Effciency Review and now the Transformational Government strategy and delivery plan. The authors expose some of the weaknesses in the quest for reform so far.

They question whether reform under the current ‘transformation’ label is really about changing cultures and transforming lives or just another government IT programme.

‘What would we do differently if outcomes really mattered’ is the challenge posed by Mark Friedman in his inspirational book Trying Hard is Not Good Enough (Friedman,2005). It is a call to action for public sector agencies and their partners throughout the world.

In councils, the central message about focusing on outcomes, breaking down departmental silos and building partnerships with other public, private and third sector agencies was taken seriously. It had to be, because that is what the public demanded of the customer-facing services that councils provide.

Leading local authorities created outcome-focused children’s services, integrated social care and health services and ‘street scene’ services long before they were contemplated in white papers and legislation. They forged successful partnerships to further urban and rural regeneration that were the precursor of today’s Local Strategic Partnerships.

But whatever happened to joined-up central government? And what about relations between central and local government? By the mid 2000s the ‘efficiency’ agenda had displaced talk of joined-upness. The Gershon Review came to be interpreted as a search for efficiency gains through smarter public procurement and the reorganization of back office functions.

We have witnessed an impoverished version of what was originally contemplated. As the Financial Times noted of Gershon: ‘It would revolutionize Whitehall, leading to the death of the “generalist”, with higher-paid, higher-skilled specialists working in competing policy and delivery groups across departments’ (15 February2004).

The professionalization of the civil service is certainly being pursued. From a local government perspective it is an alarming thought that it has only recently occurred to people that departmental finance directors and their teams, who are responsible for billions of pounds of public expenditure, should be professionally qualified. The National School of Government is playing a leading role in developing ‘professional skills for government’, and heads of profession have been appointed for all the major disciplines.

But what about those silos and the civil service culture? The ministerial baronies have proved a lot harder to crack than the empires once presided over by directors in local government. You can reshuffle ministers. You can break up or combine departments. You can try to performance manage permanent secretaries. But get civil servants to deliver for anyone other than their minister—that’s a different story.

And as for their view of local government? Civil service secondments have gone some way to building (mutual) respect on a personal level. But councils are still regarded as part of the ‘delivery chain’. They are ‘intermediaries’ in a system owned by government. Want to push through a new initiative? Make sure you have local government on the risk register. They might resist or not deliver.

Other countries (European and North American) are bemused by our system. Communities have a constitutional right to local self-government made real by fiscal autonomy. In England we feel grateful that our role as ‘place shapers’ has been acknowledged. But let us finance services to our communities through local taxation? The civil service is reluctant to let go (these, remember, are the people who lack accounting qualifications).

Local government isn’t just a delivery chain

So what would we do differently if outcomes really mattered? Government would commission outcome-focused policies and programmes from the best brains in the country, including civil servants ‘based’ in a particular departments and local government people (what Simon Parker of Demos has called ‘networked policy-making’).Citizens and front-line staff would be more involved in the design of programmes and public services and individuals would have control over the outcomes to be secured for them. The civil service would be held to account for results, open to external challenge.

Civil servants would be trained to believe that it is their job to deliver for the citizens and communities of this country not for their minister. Thinking of councils and the wider system of public services in localities as partners and equals united in a search for the best outcomes would be behaviour that is rewarded through the career structure.

In Innovations in Government (IPPR, 2007) Guy Lodge and Susanna Kalitowski call for a ‘whole of government’ (meaning whole public service) approach to reform and they discuss the capabilities are formed civil service might need. High among these they put network and collaborative skills, knowledge management and commissioning and contract management skills.

Remember the Transformational Government strategy? Transformation is the new modernization. Could this be the initiative that delivers collaborative government? Across departments? Between central and local government? Is this the one that gets public servants to think outcomes and account for results? Let’s wait and see. The cross-cutting ‘Service Transformation Delivery Plan’ promised in Budget 2007sounds promising. Let’s hope it is really about changing cultures and transforming lives and not yet another government IT programme.

Reference: Mark Friedman (2005), Trying Hard is Not Good Enough (Trafford Publishing, Victoria BC, Canada

By Lucy de Groot and Lee Digings are with the Improvement and Development Agency for local government (IDeA).