10 May 2009

Public Service Reform...?

Given my interest in Local Government, IT and left-of-centre politics it was an easy decision to attend the recent Compass talk on Public Service Reform...But Not As We Know It! based on the new book of the same name by Hilary Wainwright.

We were presented with the case study of Newcastle City Council where the union took the lead in ensuring that back office services that were under threat of outsourcing were kept in house and were transformed to deliver improved performance at reduced cost.

It was a pretty good story that was well told by various participants in the project. I was especially pleased to hear that front-line staff have taken a leading role in redesigning the services as this is one of the tenants of Systems Thinking, i.e. those that do the work know most about how the work is done.

However, I was less convinced by the argument that what worked at Newcastle can work everywhere else. For example, I am aware of case studies that show how effective outsourcing can be, when I worked at Lambeth we tried the in-house approach and that failed completely, and residents' surveys locally always show that the best council service is the outsourced refuse collection.

I was also a little concerned that the needs of the service users seemed to play a lesser role in the transformation that the needs of the staff.

Despite the success of the in-house approach, Newcastle continues to face pressure to outsource various services (as a cost-reduction measure) and the irony is that the in-house transformation would not have been attempted if not for this pressure.

The discussion on public service reform still has a long way to go but it is good that, in some places at least, that staff are being actively engaged in that discussion.

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