Saturday, June 27, 2009

A World of Change

Whoever wins the next general election, it is now clear that from next year onwards, we are facing the fiscal equivalent of the battle of the Somme. A defining challenge will confront the UK's public managers: they will need to be more efficient with public money while not undermining the effectiveness the population now expects of public services.

Yes, it seems a tall order. But while many predict a 1990s-style meltdown in public services, I, for one, don't believe this will happen. In fact, I think there are reasons for optimism.

First, this is because in future there simply won't be the resources to fund the cycles of structural changes in public sector organisations that have marked the past decade. Beyond a painful early adjustment to the new financial reality - in which many public managers will, unfortunately, lose their jobs - I predict we will see a period of enforced stability, which will enable public managers to cast their gaze outwards, on the needs of the public and the improvement of services.

Second, command-and-control is in retreat in the public sector. Centralised models of management are well known to be inimical to individual initiative and organisational effectiveness, even in organisations that are accountable to politicians and the public. Public managers need the power to manage and this could lead, in time, to a decline in the back-covering, "wading-through-treacle" side of public management.

Third, the coming crisis will invite massive levels of individual creativity from public managers. Crisis begets invention and the "mavericks", who think and do things differently, will be in high demand. The state sector could become a far better place for "public entrepreneurs" with a talent for piecing together new approaches, rather than people exclusively skilled in working the bureaucracy. Such mavericks are already plentiful in the public sector, but have often been marginalised or forced to leave to work in other sectors where their talent is valued.

So what will the successful public manager of 2020 be like? She will be outward-looking and deliver clear results, attested to by users, communities and partner agencies as much as by her own bosses. She will be able to work the politicians and defend herself, but she will be judged on her results. She will be able to do clever stuff with resources, marrying public money with other resources, and she will build first-class relationships, while keeping her own staff "people-facing".

The successful public servant of 2020 will not be a lifetime public servant. She will bring a world view, skills and experience from other sectors and take learning back there. The career civil servant will be virtually gone.

This is a world away. We could regress, but I don't think we will. People expect world-class public services, even though the levels of public investment of 2003-10 may never occur again. We have to find a way to bridge that gap through empowerment, creativity and entrepreneurialism during a very difficult time.

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