News and Comment

25th anniversary guest blog series: Think function, not form when it comes to public service reform

Monday 13 October 2014


‘Public Service Reform’ is a phrase on everyone’s lips. Accompanied by buzzwordy encouragements to be radical, innovative, creative, etc. All part of an essential lexicon for the modern day, thrusting public sector progressive looking to impress.

And, of course, there’s nothing wrong with nurturing ambitions to be forward thinking for our citizens –  not least because public policy and the financial imperative of deficit reduction are driving a smaller state in which citizen self-reliance is intended to have more prominence (and councils less). So, not just cutting the cash, but changing expectations too.

And in this rush to be leading edge, our vocabulary has also been augmented by the sexy pillow talk of ‘completely reinventing local government’. Most frequently, there are tales of shared services (yawn) and, a bit more exciting, mutuals (or cooperatives or employee owned do dahs, or whatever!).

Again, nothing wrong with this either. But, for me, to start with structures is to neglect the key dynamic in any change programme – the human beings themselves; and the values, culture and behaviours that they need to hold and exhibit if we really are to have a revolution in public services.

Here in Birmingham, a place not unaccustomed to the pressure to reform and improve, and in my role as SOLACE President, I am concentrating as much (in fact, a little bit more) on thinking through the questions of what are our values, purpose and workforce requirements as much as I am considering what service models will work to the best advantage of our communities over the next 10 to 15 years. Or, to use a much shorter and well-worn maxim, function before form.

This is simply because we know that it’s not enough to say ‘let’s be radical’ for radical to happen. Of course, I regularly and disingenuously invite my colleagues at the drop of a hat to use their imaginations to the full and ignore the shackles of the organisation’s historical customs and practices – but such mandation does not a revolution bring. Real, tangible change will only be the result of creating a story – a narrative (yes, I have my own jargon habits too) – that is written by the organisation itself about the kind of people it needs to come up with the right kind of changes for the future – and then make them happen.

So, as part of a zeitgeist (not that I’d know a zeitgeist even if it came up to me and smacked me on the chops) that gaily heralds a new era of revolutionary public service operations, there also needs to be a beating heart that’s interested in the public servants themselves and, from my perspective, seeks to strengthen and/or engender such qualities as empathy, respect and trust as the pre-requisites for creating a brave new world.

Amen brothers and sisters.

Mark Rogers is the Chief Executive of Birmingham City Council


About the series

OPM is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and as a public interest organisation, we’ve always contributed to the debate about the future of public services.

With this and the next general election in mind, we’ve asked a number of senior thinkers to give their views on the challenges and opportunities facing public services and society in the near future.

This is one of a series of guest blogs, which we’ll be adding to in the coming weeks and months. To read previous posts in the series, go to our news and comment page.