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People and operational management

    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.

  • Improving services is a team game

  • Posted on April 28, 2021 by

    Imagine being asked to design and provide a service that meets the needs of everyone in your street. This crossed my mind when the borough where I live in London became a surge testing location for coronavirus. For me that means producing a service that works for Margaret and David, the retired couple that have lived next door for what seems like forever. But also Ed, the single parent with two teenage children across the street at number 42….and everyone else living in the 40 houses and flats in the street.

    And then think about designing services not just for your street or town, but for the whole country. No matter how well I think I know my neighbours, it’s hard for me to truly know the complications of each of their lives. Can I be certain what each of them might need from a service – let alone the rest of the country?

    I was thinking about this as I ordered a home testing kit so that I could take a coronavirus test a time convenient for me. I had to return the test to a local site. One of the three sites was only five minutes walk away, so it was easy for me to drop it off. Less easy, I guess, for people in other parts of the borough.

    What struck me as I dropped off my test was how easy it was to do, really well organised, but also how everyone returning tests, or queuing to take a test, were a similar age and ethnicity. This despite the borough’s demographic being 30% ethnic minorities and 10% people over the age of 65. I wondered how effective the surge testing service was at reaching all people in the borough. People that spend their working day in another part of the city, people who have caring responsibilities, and all the hundreds of other personal characteristics that inform our daily life.

    How do you design a service for such a range of circumstances? 

    That’s the huge challenge that government has to strive to get right. Whether it’s long-term policy outcomes such as achieving net zero, creating new services such as test and trace, or working out how to provide benefits in a better way. Get it right and government can be more certain of putting to good use the £456 billion it estimated to spend on public services, grants and administering services in 2020-21. Get it wrong and not only is that money put at risk but also the experience of the people using the services.

    I’ve been lucky to see up close how government deals with service delivery challenges. From seeing the lived experience of immigration enforcement officers and the people they come into contact with, to work coaches helping people find jobs. I’ve worked with 40 government organisations and seen how they provide over 120 services. Our recent good practice guide collects what we’ve learned in one place sharing practical actions, questions to ask, pitfalls and warning signs to look out for.  

    We’re sharing our learning to help government think about these challenges and benefit from our insight. That tells us there are five areas to get right: 

    Adopting a whole-system approach 

    1) Aligning objectives, funding, governance and accountability  

    2) Closing the gap between policy design and service reality 

    Managing operations in your organisation 

    3) Building technical and leadership capability 

    4) Meeting diversity of users’ needs 

    5) Taking an end-to-end service perspective 

    Success isn’t based on individual heroics. It comes from different organisations, inside and outside government, central and local government and people in headquarters and front-line roles working together. It requires all sorts of people to play their role in translating a policy idea into a lived experience for people across the country. It’s easy to see a service challenge through the lens of our own experience, our own role or our organisation’s perspective. So it’s crucial that people designing policy, deciding funding, providing front-line services, or overseeing whole sectors or policy outcomes understand how their contribution affects people using services. And then work together to make it a success.

    How will the way I think about my part of the wider system influence the overall outcome achieved? 

    It’s crucial to think about questions such as: 

    Are we clear on each other’s objectives, whether they align, and how to resolve conflicting priorities?  

    Do we have shared understanding of the problem to fix – whom to involve in achieving it, and whom it will affect? 

    Are we making decisions based on a detailed understanding of the actual or likely impact on different types of people using our service? 

    Is performance measurement based on averages, masking service problems that affect particular groups?

    Providing services for government’s diverse range of users is not easy. But government has a better chance of getting it right if it thinks about the questions and the pitfalls from our experience. A better chance of knowing Margaret and David’s needs and how to change a service to more closely meet them.

    A summary of the main points in our good practice guide is available here 


    Alec Steel

    Alec Steel
    About the author: 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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    Our experts share their views about issues and common challenges facing government, what public sector leaders should look out for and how organisations have addressed issues. Our posts draw together threads from across our reports, share secrets spilled in events and reveal our experts’ expectations for the future.

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