News and Comment

25th anniversary guest blog series: Contribution before Comparison

Monday 15 September 2014

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The drive for improved public services is critical to the progressive development of society. Public services can be improved in many ways. Top among these are relevance, effectiveness, responsiveness; cost; and empowerment.

They can also be made more relevant – for needs are fluid while services often seem frozen and rigid. They can be made more effective – too many services are only weakly effective in achieving their aims (hence ‘evidence based’ policy making). They can also be made more responsive to the personalised needs and requirements of service users and be delivered at lower cost to the taxpayer as well as to the service user.  And they can be designed to be more empowering to citizens and service users.

From these truisms, however, the policy question becomes, ‘how do we assess whether public services are becoming more relevant, more effective, more responsive, less costly, and more empowering?’. And this is where comparative mindset starts its deathly grip.

But why do we compare? I suggest that it is because the performance management paradigm is so strong in British public services. Performance management infuses every area of public service. And why not? For surely it has helped to improve schools, improve hospitals, improve police services, and improve Councils. And to a large extent it has. The service performance of a public agency can be compared to its past performance – is it getting better? It can be compared to a benchmark or target – is it achieving its declared goal? And it can be compared to a universe of other public agencies that are delivering like public services – is it good or bad relative to others?

These three sources of comparison enable a multitude of rank ordering and ‘league tables’ to be constructed. The problem is that public agencies then devote an enormous amount of their strategic talent to managing their position on these tables relative to other agencies. A peculiar mixture of fear, embarrassment and careerism act to fuel progress for positive change. This has become the British way to change public services for the better – construct complex comparisons so as to encourage improvement. My suggestion is that there is a better way.

People are inspired to do better, to improve, to be more relevant, to be more cost-effective by knowing the direct impact of their efforts and energies. People are driven to contribute. They don’t want to be engaged in pointless, ineffective activity.  They need feedback every day, every month, every year on the nature of the difference their efforts are making. Not a simple minded assertion that because they are making great efforts, they are making a positive contribution. But instead a hard nosed appraisal of whether their efforts are making any contribution at all.

Knowing how their efforts compares with others can help, but it’s very much a secondary consideration. Above all, people are intrinsically motivated by a contributive principle. It’s part of our humanity. No one has engraved on their tomb stone, ‘he was better than his brother but worse than his sister’.

So my suggestion is that we encourage public agencies to develop a strong contributive principle – in how they manage their staff and in how they serve the public. If first we can address the question of what we actually contribute to society through our actions, then maybe we can move onto how we compare with others who are trying to do likewise. In this way the contributive mindset can help us break out of the iron cage of comparisons.

Barry Quirk is the Chief Executive or the London Borough of Lewisham

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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.