Wake up to redesign or we're doomed
18 January 2012
We need to stop thinking about public sector restructuring, says Ian Briggs. It's time for radical and imaginative redesign as the workforce shrinks
The public service workforce has, by some estimates, been reduced by over 100,000. The driver for this is economic and not a fall in demand for public services; indeed one can argue the opposite.
However a fundamental question remains about "rightsizing" the organisation – the minimum staff level required to maintain a coherent organisation capable of delivering to community and individual expectations. A key opportunity lost in the overriding concern to rightsize organisations is to have a new, radical look at how the overall organisational design should evolve in line with the reform of all public services.
We need to stop thinking about restructuring, and start to think about "de-structuring" the organisation, or to be more precise applying an absolute minimum of structure. This is a minimal structure that offers cohesion to what will still be a complex set of interrelated activities, while allowing innovation and creative thinking to fall through the gaps that have been created by loosening the tight, formalised and rigid network that nearly all local authorities are, irrespective of size.
The major source of theoretical understanding on rightsizing is, unsurprisingly, drawn from the commercial sector. Here intelligent rightsizing describes when customer demand is in equilibrium with maximum capacity to deliver products and services. Much remains to be done to establish whether this conceptual approach fits public service organisations. To try and answer why we have relatively few emergent examples of radical organisational redesign we have been talking to some senior leaders and the results are shedding some light on the reasons:The way we engage with trade unions and employee representatives
Daggers are drawn, trade unions are doing what it says on the tin, defending jobs and working conditions and doing what they can to represent the interests of all their members. For the most part they do this well. But it could be better. Better on both sides – employers might be sadly lacking in imagination in putting forward a stronger case for a refreshed look at what public service organisations are in existence to achieve, to offer employees a better deal, to demonstrate what engaged workforces can achieve. For the trade unions it is a major challenge in far too many cases to talk to them about an agile and engaged workforce without the default button being pressed that reverts to short-termism.Elected members who are poorly informed of the possibilities offered by de-structuring organisations
At times of upheaval and significant change the role of the councillor is vital. They are, after all, the employer and they have a responsibility to deploy people effectively. The cases where councillors themselves are driving this argument are indeed few and far between. They do exist but so far they are very hard to find.
There is a need to bring elected members to the table to put aside their prejudices and preconceived ideas of what a good council structure should look like and to explore what questions they need to be asking of the executive in how the workforce is deployed.
They need to be sympathetic to the role of HR professionals, for too long forced into a corner where the only role they have is managing the downsizing, ensuring that due process is followed. HR staff have, by and large, become hypnotised into thinking that is their only role. True, it is critical they manage this process well, but it leaves them little or no time to explore alternatives. The time might be ripe for a new concordat to be negotiated around how we use our people talent better, and it is elected members that should be leading this.Senior manager defensiveness
Top and senior managers are feeling the strain. They are under unreasonable attack. Yes, some are very well paid and there may be a few who are in positions they should have vacated decades ago, but the strain they feel takes their attention away from the reflective and innovative thought and action needed to transform organisations. I have seen some worrying examples where senior managers are demanding change and sacrifice from staff but are not making any demonstrable change themselves.
Over the past two decades we have invested a fortune in leadership development for senior managers. Now is the time to dust off the handouts and rediscover that an engaged staff is a predictor of performance, that leadership is a contact sport and that if you wish to change what your staff does you have to change yourself and set a positive example.
But these recent conversations also point to another worrying trend. When asked to describe what the organisation might look like in two to three years' time many senior managers and members are painting a picture of councils that are largely the same but smaller. This is not the way to progress. British society has changed. Citizens are seeing choice and involvement as a way of life; unless we wake up to this in public life we are doomed.
There is hope though; we are finding a few totally radical and imaginative approaches. At INLOGOV we are trying to unearth examples of new organisational de-structures and the development of agile workforces and to better understand what are the predeterminants of this shift. We will post case studies at www.inlogov.ac.ukIan Briggs is a senior fellow with the Institute of Local Government Studies (INLOGOV) University of Birmingham email@example.com
He will be chairing Public Service Events' Redesigning Local Services conference