Archive for April 28, 2009

Posted: April 28, 2009
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Getting public sector efficiency off the ground.

soutwest-landingI’ve been in the UK recently, among other things dabbling in the Public Sector and with never before seen pressure on public spending it should be a particularly interesting time to be hanging around the black hole into which our hard-earned is pitched, but is it – interesting that is?

A recruiter friend of mine told me this week that his firm is busier than ever right now handling briefs from the public sector, which he assures me is falling over itself to adopt a private sector mindset.  Discounting for a moment the fact that we have heard this before and putting aside the obvious need for the struggling recruitment sector to give a positive spin on recruitment opportunities, as a UK taxpayer, I find this news encouraging, but if the public sector is to undergo the kind of culture change it must, there is a long way to go.  The dilemma is, where to start.

I know that there are success stories, but there’s no doubt about it, the public sector generally really does need to get down to business.  Among other things it seems they have been slow to realise that the difference between success and failure in any sector is efficiency, but even when the penny drops, there’s confusion in the ranks between efficiency and bureaucracy or systematisation which, as any private sector chappy knows, are different things entirely.

Without fundamental efficiency, little else counts, but in order to measure efficiency, you have to start with a clearly-defined objective to aim “efficiently” for.  And in my experience its right here, at the very first step that things usually go wrong.

Despite the progress that has already been made in some areas, the public sector’s greatest impediment to what we private sector jocks would consider best practice, is its own culture.  Like all big organisations, the sector discovered early on that the easiest way to make things happen consistently on a large scale was to bureaucratise and, in a short-term sort of way, it worked for a while, but as commercial organisations worldwide realised pretty quickly, long term, bureaucracy is a recipe for disaster.

The Communists in Central and Eastern Europe, kept things running for a while by giving people in every area of life step-by-step instructions on the minutiae of their life (A bit like Labour have done in the UK, come to think of it), leaving nothing to chance and preventing anybody from using initiative.  Its an idea that might fly provided the dictators are smart enough to predict every possible eventuality and legislate for it, but the reality is, nobody’s that smart and we couldn’t possible hope to envisage every eventuality, so ultimately the system breaks down at the first sign of something unexpected.

However, even that doesn’t necessarily spell curtains, provided the people at the sharp-end have the initiative to respond to the situation in a way consistent with the overall objective.  But there’s the rub.  Having created a community where you could leave your brain at home when you leave for work each morning and not realise until you came home and had to turn the video on, it stands to reason that the people who make it their home and settle in for the long term are those who aren’t really that good at the initiative thing.  I could expand on this thought, but it would take for ages and I think we are probably on the same page already.

I’m not suggesting that there’s no place in a modern business for processes.  Of course we need them, but we equally can’t afford to be totally reliant upon them.  To achieve efficiency these days requires that operators at every level of the organisation are smart, have the initiative and are empowered to apply what they know, equally to both predictable and unforeseen situations.  Migrating to this point from a bureaucracy doesn’t happen over night for any organisation, but the (some might argue unnecessary) scale of most public sector organisations makes it a daunting task for them.

If you get the opportunity, as I have, to talk to the people who are supposed to be making strategy and setting objectives – our MPs and senior civil servants – you would find that intentions are as admirable and awareness of issues is as high as you will find in the best-run commercial organisations. The initiatives that they launch however, because of the weakness of the bureaucratic process, become ineffective and inefficient at the point of delivery.  That’s why we get situations such as that which I heard of where a guy responsible for the web site intended to drive private sector involvement in a government scheme was adamant that it was inappropriate to have a proposition on the home page because it ” … commercialised the subject …” and in his world (wherever that was) social isues should not be sullied by the “C” word.

I have also recently come across a public sector new business leader and a sales team actively chasing sign-up targtes for a programme that there was no resource to deliver and another where targets for a three-man “sales” team required no more than one sign-up between them every two days when more than that were already walking in the door every day!  I have also just seen a business plan that by its own analysis was fundamentally un-executable. Room for efficiency improvement I think!

The problem is everyone is working to different objectives.  For example, the web guy sees the role of his organisation as being to enrich people’s lives rather than to drive business growth.  The new business guys see their task as being to get as many meetings with potential clients as possible and the sales guys are chasing a sign-up target with no thought to resourcing or what happens when they achieve it.  The bottom line is that programmes fail on every level, leaving disillusioned stakeholders in their wake and wasting sheds-loads of taxpayers cash.

There are two things missing from this picture.  One is a Brand Model that clearly defines the organisation’s philosophy, character and what they are there to do, neatly summed up in what I call the Brand Promise.  The second is an internal marketing programme designed to ensure that everyone in the organisation understands and is on-board with the objectives, equipped and fully committed to playing their part in the delivery of the Brand Promise.

One of the founding principles of Full Effect Marketing is that an organisation will only maximise ROI when a proportion of their marketing investment is diverted from making a Brand Promise towards the task of delivering it.  That’s an internal marketing strategy and I have created more of them than I care to remember.  Its not particularly difficult and, because my approach involves key employees in the process, just going through the strategy development starts the paradigm shift.

Organisations that do this well are people like Southwest Airlines, who prove that its not just a marketer’s latest plaything by succeeding dramatically on just about every measurable commercial parameter.  Happily, we now have consensus that its the only way to go, so, as a UK taxpayer I’d like to see our public sector jump on this particular band-waggon post haste.

If anybody from the public sector is listening (yes, I know, but I’m an optimist!), I’d be happy to help out with this particular cause.