Public Sector Quality Improvement

I was a Quality Manager in a large Government department for a while over a decade ago, so I have an interest whenever Governments start making noises about renewed efforts to drive out public sector inefficiency. I’ve heard it all before, of course, but this time it’s seems to be different. This time failure seems like its not an option

The old obstacles are still there, though. The main one being that the systems are not actually designed to be efficient. That is no comment on the will, commitment or talent of the people who work there, you understand, but just on the way the system is set up. It is unintentionally designed to resist efficiency. I will elaborate

There are significant features of public sector systems that make them resist efficiency

  • The way budgets are set up and managed
  • The system is designed to try and protect its own equilibrium

Budget underspend is a problem not an achievement

As a manager I had a budget. I was given that budget at the start of the year and told to make it last. So I did. I knew that I’d be in trouble if I overspent. I also knew I’d cause myself a headache if I underspent. So I did neither. I, like all of my peers, made it last. This was generally achieved by a combination of two quarters of cautionary spending, followed by two quarters of progressively care-free spending (depending on how much I had left and how quickly I had to get rid of it). If I didn’t spend my budget I knew I’d get less next year, and I didn’t want that if I could avoid it, especially as there was no reward in it for me for giving anything back, and it would only give my staff a harder time next year. So why would I try and save? Who would?

The status quo is the safest option

Every two or three months I would be asked by the Chief Executive (via his secretary of course) for some “words on quality” for his ministerial briefing. It was my job to make sure he had plenty to talk about, so we did a lot of things on Investors in People, EFQM, Chartermark etc. I don’t want to sound big-headed, but I have a way with words and I could make these activities sound pretty impressive – I knew what they wanted to hear. No-one ever asked me to justify anything or put numbers on anything (god forbid), so the “quality improvements” it could have been argued, were almost entirely cosmetic – smoke and mirrors. And that, at the time, was good enough. No-one really wanted any of these improvement projects to put anyone’s nose out of joint, so we were channeled towards safe territory. We redesigned forms, we moved photocopiers to reduce travel time, that type of thing. We never did anything like ask “You see that fellow over there? What does he get paid? More to the point, what does he actually do?”  I’ve since heard it called “the elephant in the room” syndrome. Things like identifying underloaded jobs, or over-staffed departments would cause managerial problems and we didn’t need go round creating any of those. Provided we showed a bit of willing, we’d be left alone. That meant the equilibrium of the system was not upset. No-one lost their jobs, had their budgets cut or anything like that. So no-one complained. Then after a while the Government as usual got distracted by something else and we were completely off the hook for a while. You could buy a lot of time with great anecdotes …

Things might be different this time round. I get the impression that this time words will be no good. They’ll need deeds, and deeds with numbers attached. Governments are spent up and need to make some savings to off-set all of those so-called “financial stimuli”. Consequently the option of cosmetic improvement may well be removed this time round, and kicking things into the long grass may prove more difficult

That made me think. If I was a manager in the public sector right now, what would I do? It’s a fair bet that “quality improvement” and “efficiencies” may well become the buzz-words once again, but would I try to steal a march right now and put myself ahead of the game? Score some early points maybe? I’m not sure I would

It could actually work against me. I could end up with the worst of both worlds if I made my savings before I was asked. The big risk would be that I’d make my command a lot leaner, but then this new “lean” position would be used as my starting baseline and I could be asked to deliver yet more on top of that, with no credit being given for my earlier voluntary endeavors. Better I sat and waited till I was ordered to do it, I might decide. That way I’d have more scope to find improvements with it being in its current inefficient state

Now all of those features and quirks I’ve described might sound just plain wrong, immoral even, considering its public money we’re dealing with. But that is the way the system is set up. Don’t blame the people. You would do exactly as they do in the same position – I guarantee that. It will be interesting to see if the new reality acknowledges that the way systems behave are generally down to the way they are designed


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