Features: December 9th, 2009

Moving from where public services are now to a Total Place approach will require radical transformation. Whatever measure is used to calibrate the scale of the change, be it number of people, work traditions, money involved, they are all at the top of the scale. The change management challenge is massive and no one would expect it to go smoothly. The first glitch has appeared with Whitehall departments failing to get the message out to people on the ground.

The pilots have gone very well, some better than others. But beyond the pilots the picture is far less rosy. Major change must be integrated into existing strategies and the web of systems and procedures. The sooner this is done the better because strategies drive long term decisions on such issues as contracts or recruitment. Communities and Local Government is an example of how this works. For some months now some initiatives have been slowed, others put on the shelf because everything is being driven by Total Place. It has become the hub around which everything else revolves. The department’s Total Place strategy has also spawned new developments such as extending scrutiny powers. This is how strategy alignment should work.

The Publicnet survey revealed that Whitehall departments failed to tell people on the ground about Total Place and its effect on what they do. So it is reasonable to assume that so far there has been no strategy alignment across primary care trusts, police and fire services, criminal justice agencies, Job Centre Plus, Government regional offices, economic development agencies and the Learning and Skills Council regional offices.

The success of the initiative so far can lead to a false sense of security because the pilots are influenced by the ‘Hawthorne effect’. People under the spotlight behave differently to those who are not exposed to the glare of publicity. When the roll out of Total Place starts and becomes the responsibility of the massed ranks of public servants across the country, the outcome may be quite different.

So how do you encourage people to make a paradigm shift in thinking when they come from such diverse backgrounds as the disciplined uniform services to caring professionals helping those in need? The culture of an organization, the way things are done around here, binds everything together and gives it sustainability. The glue-like quality of culture is great in a stable situation but finding a solvent that will allow change is difficult. Modifying the very different cultures to achieve some harmony and understanding is an enormous challenge. If evidence of the complexity of the problems was needed it is there in the thrust for joined up working. For over a decade people have struggled to make it work, but in many cases the barriers have remained in tact.

Leadership styles vary across the different parts of the public sector, but there are similarities. Autocratic leadership can be found in most places as can the bureaucratic style: ‘we do things by the book around here’. But far less common are transformational and participative leadership styles. Total Place needs transformational and participative leaders.

Working collaboratively requires different skills, particularly different people skills. Acquiring these skills is time consuming and in some cases quite beyond the capacity of some to make the change.

Asking someone for directions sometimes prompts the response: ‘I wouldn’t start form here’. Certainly a green field site would provide a better prospect for success, but the public sector is not a green field. Total Place starts with a patchwork quilt of organisations with different cultures and traditions, diverse views on how jobs should be done and distinct attitudes on management and leadership.

Seven months have passed since Total Place was launched in April 2009 in the Treasury’s Operational Efficiency Programme What is needed now is a change management strategy which addresses the key people issues and crucially seeks to get everyone on board.