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Government departments are making plans for achieving substantial efficiency savings by 2024-25, but what might this mean in practice?

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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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