Boosting the bond between the frontline and centre

Ever been caught speeding? Hopefully not, but it’s likely that many drivers, at one time or another, will fall foul of a speed camera. In some countries, punishment is swift – pay a fine online and off you go. In the UK, however, you might have to brace yourself for a far lengthier process, one that may involve appearing in court and receiving your punishment in person.

This is by no means a solitary example of how the UK’s courts system does not place efficiency front and centre of its operations. In criminal trials, defendants who are being held in prison may be taken to court from their cell – an expensive and complicated process – for a pre-trial hearing, where the judge asks them to confirm their name and their plea. A few minutes in the dock and they are then shipped back to prison again. Combine this with the fact that the utilisation of court space is highly inefficient – courts only operate between 10am and 4pm, with an hour-long lunch break thrown in – and the reasons for the massive transformation programme currently under way are all too clear.

But plans on paper are one thing; actually achieving them is something else entirely. The impending transformation – ambitious, necessary, sweeping – should result in a very different courts system, one designed around those who use it. But getting there, just as in any other big reform programme, relies on many moving parts, not least a strong and supportive relationship between the central government department and its operational partner.

In this case, it’s the Ministry of Justice and its operational partner is HM Courts and Tribunals Service, but this is an issue that tests many a department – so how can a strong relationship be secured?

Courts reform: strong foundations

In any transformation, the relationship requires careful nurturing in order for the best results to emerge – which is easier said than done. This is because the culture in a government department is often one where policy is king and the path to advancement is rooted in your perceived proximity to the minister. This means that the mindset is hierarchical – people look up rather than out to the frontline. Similar challenges exist in the private sector. Corporate parenting – the question of whether a group headquarters should intervene more actively in its portfolio of businesses or hold back and allow for more autonomy – is a key question that all CEOs need to address.

There is no single right answer. In some cases a business may work best when fully devolved, whereas others can go the way of centralisation and make certain that all major functions like finance, HR and IT are controlled from the centre. However, a key starting point is to ensure that an organisation has a truly shared sense of what the relationship should be. Any disconnect between what the two sides are aiming for needs to be quickly closed down or, better still, never to materialise in the first place.

Another important aspect is how those at the centre view the activities and importance of their frontline colleagues. Here, it’s worth echoing the viewpoint of Sir Michael Barber. In the delivery unit he ran for Tony Blair, and in the other units he has advised in countries around the world, he has stressed the importance of pushing the credit for any successes away from the centre and back to the frontline.

Although each country needs to create its own delivery model, he believes that it is the people doing the actual delivering who are most important. Far better, he adds, to create networks of public officials so they can learn and adapt lessons from other areas, building them into the system as they go.

Steps to success

Of course, relationships are just one element of what it takes to deliver a successful transformation. As my colleague Vikram Bhalla attests, there are many more to consider – leadership alignment, capacity-building, engagement, communication and persistence, to name a few.

But equally, there is no doubt that creating a strong relationship between the centre and the frontline is a critical aspect that cannot be ignored. Transformations are difficult. They are testing and offer up challenges large and small on a daily basis. Those that see myriad teams working well together, supporting each other through the twists and turns that abound in any major project, are those that are best placed to turn ambition into reality.



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  • Pushing power out. The time has come for an injection of people power, says Simon Parker. The director of the UK”s New Local Government Network explains why locally-led initiatives lead to greater public impact
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  • The God Revolution. Public impact is easier said than done, admits former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O”Donnell, who explains why impact is rarely viewed as a key priority among policymakers
  • Voices of delivery. A selection of government delivery leaders reveal how they seek to implement policy proposals