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August 2021

    Efficiency – who’s judging?

  • Posted on August 26, 2021 by

    I stumbled across the television programme ‘Undercover Boss’ last week. I’d never seen it, but the premise is simple. The chief executive of a company dons a disguise and spends a week working undercover in their own organisation to see what it’s really like. It reminded me of ‘Troubleshooter’, a similar show in the 1990s that was about helping businesses in trouble – minus the disguises. It would focus often on boardroom tensions over the company’s strategic direction or ignoring great ideas from the ‘shop floor’. Inevitably the advice was typically about opportunity for efficiency and better products.

    Government has more complex challenges but a spending review is looming. It will undoubtedly need to address the cost of the pandemic as well as providing existing and new services. HM Treasury has asked government departments to make plans for achieving substantial efficiency savings by 2024-25. But what might this mean in practice?

    It’s tempting to look at efficiency in government through a cost lens. To reduce costs by having fewer people or stopping activities altogether. But what next after one-off savings? How do you know there will be no impact on the outcomes achieved? How do you ensure that what makes sense from a department’s viewpoint doesn’t have unintended consequences and push problems, demand and costs elsewhere? Such as happened in the past when HMRC’s tax services moved online but demand for telephone advice stayed the same and service deteriorated.

    Perhaps the more searching question to answer is, efficiency in whose eyes? What does efficiency look like through the lived experience of those impacted? Efficiency is achieving more with the same. Or achieving the same, or more, with less. Government needs to judge the outcome side of the equation to know if it’s making a difference.

    Looking at efficiency through the lens of the user can help to ensure services aren’t adversely affected. Understanding service users and what they value, helps predict how they will react when services change. You can make the right improvements if things aren’t working and take out unnecessary activity. Get this right and efficiency will focus on what’s important to the people using the services.

    I’m lucky in my role. I’ve spent 10 years being able to play a version of the undercover boss seeing how government departments and services work. That’s shown me plenty of untapped potential for improvement and efficiency.

    Our good practice guide on improving operational delivery points to three underlying questions to focus efficiency on outcomes:

    Why: is it clear what our priorities are?

    This will help government align on and inform cross-cutting purpose, objectives and investment. Departments can make consistent trade-offs where priorities seem to conflict. (See how government has used the public value framework to inform priorities and outcomes in spending reviews)

    What: is real life experience informing our chosen approach to achieving our priorities?

    The experience of people impacted needs to inform and continue to challenge the chosen approach. (See Are you making a bid for design? for how government is encouraging such an approach)

    How: is there a better way to do our work?

    It’s rare for new ways of working to be perfect. But people doing the work understand what is and isn’t working in the services they are providing. Supporting them with the capability and time to identify opportunities, innovate and solve problems will improve services. (An ambition set out in the Declaration on Government Reform).

    All three questions matter. Efficiency is about getting better at how we do our work. But that raises the risk of ‘doing the wrong thing righter’ – perfecting work that isn’t important. Stepping back and questioning why we do something, and our chosen approach is trickier but vital. That challenges our long-held views, assumptions and the status quo.

    Our recent report, efficiency in government report, has lessons on identifying, planning and embedding efficiency. It’s the first in a series, outlining how government can use the outcomes that matter as the basis for longer-term decisions, rather than just seeing efficiency as a short-term numbers game. Combining this with good operational management will provide the adaptability that government needs to cope with changing whole-system demands.

    About the author:

    Alec Steel

    Alec Steel

    Alec has led our operations management specialism since 2010, and supports government thinking across the UK, Europe, USA and Australia. He has authored reports on subjects ranging from major project assurance to the use of consultants, and his assessment of operations management capability across central government in 2015 drew on learning from 32 organisations and 86 operational services.

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  • Six reasons why digital transformation is still a problem for government

  • Posted on August 4, 2021 by

    It’s revealing to look at the timeline of digital transformation initiatives over the last 25 years. Government’s ambition for ‘world class’ services using joined-up systems and data goes back to the mid 1990s, from where we can trace a steady stream of policies and initiatives right through to last autumn’s National Data Strategy. Most of these cover similar ground, which shows how hard genuine transformation is.

    Repeated cycles of vision for radical digital change have been accompanied by perhaps an overly simplistic view of the ease of implementation. Government is not a greenfield site where brand new systems can be created at will. New ways of doing business and services need to fit into a government landscape still dominated by legacy systems and data. As a result, well-intentioned initiatives have petered out, falling short of achieving their intended outcomes.

    It’s important not to see this report as just another commentary on project and programme management failures. In business transformation initiatives with significant digital elements, the intangible nature and use of novel technology introduces many more ‘unknown unknowns’. Contrast this with infrastructure projects, where people can visualise the end product within the laws of physics. This allows a clearer sense from the outset of what is realistically feasible.

    Digital leaders bring experience and understand the challenges well. But they often struggle to get the attention, understanding and support they need from other senior decision-makers. This is borne out by a recent government review into Organising for digital delivery which identified a significant challenge of low technical fluency across the civil service leadership generally. This contrasts with the commercial world where technology is increasingly seen as a critical delivery lever and senior leaders are expected to have a clear understanding of how to deploy it effectively.

    Six reasons why

    We wanted to shine a light on the systemic issues that need to be tackled before a programme even gets underway, using our past reports as illustrations. When implementing digital business change programmes here are six things to get right at the outset.

    1. Understand your aims, ambition and risk by:
    • Avoiding unrealistic ambition with unknown levels of risks
    • Ensuring the business problem is fully understood before implementing a solution
    • Planning realistic timescales for delivery, which are appropriate to the scope and risk of the programme.
    1. Engage with commercial partners through:
    • Spending enough time and money exploring requirements with commercial partners at an early stage
    • Adopting a more flexible contracting process that recognises scope and requirements may change
    • Working towards a partnership model based on collaboration with commercial suppliers.
    1. Develop a better approach to legacy systems and data through:
    • Better planning for replacing legacy systems and ensure these plans are appropriately funded
    • Recognising the move to the cloud will not solve all the challenges of legacy
    • Addressing data issues in a planned and incremental way, to reduce the need for costly manual exercises.
    1. Use the right mix of capacity, make sure you:
    • Are clear about what skills government wants to develop and retain, and what skills are more efficient to contract out
    • Better align political announcements, policy design and programme teams’ ability to deliver through closer working between policy, operational and technical colleagues.
    1. Consider the choice of delivery method through:
    • Recognising that agile methods are not appropriate for all programmes and teams
    • When using agile methods ensure strong governance, effective coordination of activities and robust progress reporting are in place.
    1. Develop effective funding mechanisms by:
    • Ensuring that requirements for both capital and resource funding are understood and can be provided for.
    • Seeing technology as part of a service that involves people, processes and systems in order to better consider the economic case for investment.

    We recognise that addressing the challenges around digital business change programmes is difficult but using these six lessons will support practical improvements. If you want to find out more, our report The challenges in implementing digital change looks into why large scale government programmes repeatedly run into difficulties.


    About the author: 

    Yvonne Gallagher

    Yvonne Gallagher

    Yvonne is our digital transformation expert, focused on assessing the value for money of the implementation of digital change programmes. Yvonne has over 25 years’ experience in IT, business change, digital services and cyber and information assurance, including as CIO in two government departments and senior roles in private sector organisations, including the Prudential and Network Rail.

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