Have you ever found yourself exasperated trying to contact organisations to refund a flight, hotel, car hire or all three? I have, and I’m sure over the past few years many people have. Perhaps you’re familiar with a call on hold for the third hour, your email disappearing into a black hole or a chatbot deciding after 15 exchanges that it can’t help with your first question. I’m sure it won’t be the last time that I’ll think ‘why would they want me to have such a miserable experience. Surely there’s a better way that’s more efficient for them too?’  

It’s a year since my blogpost ‘Efficiency – who’s judging?’. At the time HM Treasury was asking government departments to make ‘significant efficiency savings’ by 2024-25. I wrote about how tempting, but counterproductive, it can be to look at efficiency purely through your own organisation’s cost lens, having fewer people and stopping services. What happens after you make that one-off saving and start having to deal with the unintended effect of problems, demand and costs arriving from elsewhere? 

But there is a huge financial prize for government. It expects to spend around £400 billion in each of the next three years on providing services, grants and administration. Even small changes have the potential for significant financial savings and service impact. 

That’s vital in the current context. Across the board, more people and cash may not be an option. So, the question is how to improve services and reduce costs in a sustainable way. A way that isn’t just fighting one fire and moving on to the next. 

Government can achieve that if it improves the quality of services by changing how it provides them. That does help reduce cost and improve efficiency. You spend less time fixing things that go wrong or doing workarounds. Or, worse still, continuing with sticking plaster workarounds for so long that they become the norm.  

Building a practical guide for people to use 

We’ve just finished a series of workshops with people from a range of services in government. Our goal was to hear what it means to run a service day to day. To understand what’s working well for people and the challenges they face. What stops them providing a high quality, efficient service and what can they do about it? 

We had people from all types of organisations and services. From those dealing with high numbers of requests such as running tax and benefits services. To those dealing with fewer people, but just as important services such as complaints and deciding grant applications. 

We want to build on the insight in our 2021 good practice guide for senior leaders on improving services. That guide’s focus is opportunities for government to question why and what it chooses to do. To think about addressing service quality and efficiency issues in the wider system, and by organisations working together better. Our next good practice guide is a companion piece. It’s a ‘how to’ guide for people managing or providing a service every day. The focus is how you do the work and assumes you also question the why and the what.  

Sharing good examples and ‘how to’ guidance 

What struck me from the workshops is the similarity of challenges in different organisations and services. How the basic ways of thinking about challenges can be similar, even if the solution is different across service contexts.  

Despite that, it was revealing how little systematic learning is happening between government organisations or services. Blindly copying an approach from one service or organisation to another is not the answer. But you can steal ways of thinking with pride and adapt them for your own organisation’s context. People told us how they are experimenting and trying new approaches, which we’ll be showcasing as examples in our good practice guide. 

That’s how we’re looking to play our own part in helping government. By sharing insight from the workshops in a way that helps everyone running a service improve how they do it. 

People ask us often ‘what can I do’ or ‘who does that well’. Our new series of good practice guides will help with that. Giving practical insight on addressing the common challenges we’ve seen over the past 12 years. Those capabilities that government organisations struggle with but need to provide good quality efficient services.

We’ve starting with our insights and takeaways in three areas:

The first of these have now been published. If you’d like to be informed when we publish the others, or other work on operational services, then:

  • add your email address in the footer at the bottom of this page, under ‘Subscribe to our alerts’
  • when you are asked to choose subscription topics, make sure the box next to ‘People and operations’, under ‘Topics’, is ticked

Further reading 

Alec Steel

Alec has led our operational management work since 2010, and supports government thinking across the UK, Europe, USA and Australia. He has published good practice guides in improving operational delivery for both senior leaders and people managing government services day-to-day. He is an observer member of the strategy board for UK government’s Operational Delivery Profession.

Before he joined the NAO, Alec worked in strategy and change roles in the public sector.

Contact Alec about organisational change, service delivery and continuous improvement.