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It's been quite a few years for the UK's public services. Sweeping cuts, combined with an intense political spotlight and rising community expectations, have ensured that they've rarely been far from the front pages. In a way, this is a good thing. Everyone, regardless of political affiliation, wants good quality services delivered at a price the country can afford. We all have a stake in ensuring that they're the best they can be. Debate and discussion about how to make them even better should therefore be welcomed.
Certainly, as chair of the Public Chairs Forum (PCF), I'm in something of a privileged position. Our cross-sector approach affords me a bird's eye view of concerted and successful attempts by our members to move with the times - rising to the challenge of delivering services with more limited financial resources than were previously available.
But this is just the beginning. In July 2015, the UK central government, fresh from a general election victory, unveiled plans for reductions of between 25% and 40% for non-protected departments in a bid to clear the public deficit. The scale of the proposals means that business as usual is no longer an option. It's time to transform - but how can this be achieved?
Public Chairs Forum: system spotlight
The PCF aims to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the delivery of the UK's public services. It's what we do; our purpose and our mission. These services are delivered through what can easily be seen - by the outsider - as a highly complex and convoluted system of central government ministries, each augmented by their own set of ‘arm's-length' bodies and organisations.
We've arrived at this point largely because, over the years, there's been a high degree of freedom to innovate, and individual departments have had the freedom to determine the kind of service delivery arrangements they want. Sometimes these organisations are at arm's length because of the need for some independence. Or sometimes it's down to the need for some technical or specialist knowledge that wouldn't normally be available within government. Or it could be traced to a specific issue that arose in the past and which needed to be addressed by a new organisation, and this organisation has yet to wind down.
Although complexity does not automatically lend itself to transparency and accountability, the level of the projected cuts means that the system has to be as efficient as it can possibly be. There's no scope for waste, so it should come as no surprise that almost all public sector organisations, large and small, have been reviewed in one way or another to prove that their work is demonstrably important. The priority now, though, is to ensure that, both individually and collectively, they can achieve the necessary levels of efficiency, effectiveness and improvement. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done.
This is primarily down to the fact that what's easiest to measure, and therefore to manage, is the amount of money spent. Not only is it more difficult to measure the bang than the buck, there remains a lingering belief that if an organisation spends 10% less then it will automatically become 10% more efficient. But of course it's possible to spend 10% less and be 10% less efficient because you're cutting in the wrong places. Similarly, the relentless grind towards lower and lower costs - salami-slicing - risks incremental degradation.
But there's another way to look at it. A transformational approach would start by considering how to do things differently, which, in turn, would significantly reduce the cost. It's a matter of looking at the challenge from another perspective, one that will help achieve genuine efficiency improvements rather than just reductions in spending. The fact that there's less to spend doesn't really go away, but what it might do is affect the prioritisation of where you spend it in order to get the biggest impact.
For this to happen we need a new mindset to develop, one that can overcome the silo-based structure that still exists in much of government. The PCF can help. We believe that a transformational vision is key to seizing the initiative and achieving fundamental reform - indeed, this was one of the themes of our recent conference.
There is now more of an appetite for change, one underpinned by the widespread recognition that more of the same will only deliver more of the same. Of course, radical change is inherently risky, but the chairs of our public sector organisations are in their roles because they care about the quality of the services they oversee. This ethos - one that is widespread and deep-rooted - will fuel the journey ahead.
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