Responsibility and public services

Love this — an awesome table in the book on what to aim for

‘Running services from an economy of scale perspective ensures that there is little useful knowledge about how the system works.’

If you’ve worked in the public or voluntary sectors, I’m willing to bet a good wad of cash that someone has said to you that there’s so much that our sectors could learn from the private sector. In some senses that’s true. But a lot of the time, that transfer of practice without thought for context only results in carnage. If the private sector were unequivocally better than us at everything, what the hell happened to Carillion and Capita?

I’ve been reading Responsibility and public services by Richard Davis to get my head around how Systems Thinking and the Toyota Way might be applied away from a manufacturing environment.

Taylorism, the management thinking developed in the 19th century is still applied wholesale, despite the changes in how we work and deliver services in the 21st century. Taylorism embeds hierarchy and bureaucracy in what we do by assuming that the frontline is where the most savings can be made, even though we know that that is what people value the most. I’ve yet to meet anybody who really wishes that there were more layers of management.

Networks and knowledge

“For me this is the recurring theme — networks and relationships. Build and strengthen these and communities will tell you what they need, especially as they will have such a trusting relationship with their municipal and public agencies.”

One of the things that I found most interesting about the book is Davis’ focus on knowledge and where that lies. Maybe that’s unsurprising as this blog post in itself in an act of reflecting on my learning. But his focus on how knowledge lies with the people who access services means that people are no longer seen as passive recipients of services, and organisations no longer see service delivery as an end in and of itself.

This has two implications. Firstly, that there’s so much information out there about how people interact with public services that isn’t being harnessed. And secondly, that organisations aren’t seeing people as experts of their own situation, or looking to harness that knowledge.

To do that, we have to build on some of the softer skills that are usually ignored in order to build relationships with the community. Paul Taylor has written a great post on why leaders must emerge as trusted credible sources of information.

I love this point by Davis:

“The message is clear. Help people learn how to take control of their own lives, their networks and communities and then develop a pull system that responds to responsible needs. It is very affordable and you know the money is well spent — targeted at things that are going to work — by design.”

I also learnt so much from Professor Roz Searle on how levels of trust between staff are inversely proportional to the numbers of layers of hierarchy between them. You can see the implications of this for service delivery by looking at the findings of Professor Searle’s research in tandem with Max Weber’s theory of bureaucracy:

  1. Clearly defined division of labour
  2. Hierarchical structures of offices
  3. Written guidelines prescribing performance criteria
  4. Recruitment to offices based on specialisation and expertise
  5. Office-holding as a career or vocation
  6. Duties and authority attached to positions not persons

It’s obvious really that the way that we structure our organisations to deliver services builds in an inherent distance between decision makers and communities.

So how might we better harness data?

I’m really interested in how public services can make better use of the data that we have available to us. On a quantitative basis, Ben Proctor’s post on data maturity (or ladder of data awesomeness as he puts it) is really useful to help organisations understand the consequences of the actions that they undertake. The key is ensuring that the use of data is aligned with purpose so that it’s genuinely useful. This involves moving away from much of what organisations currently do, which is to base decisions on data that is easy to get hold of.

It’s really interesting to see how Anne Milgram applied the principles behind Moneyball to reform the New Jersey criminal justice system. It’s particularly worth checking out her interview on TED Radio Hour, where she also addresses issues of bias within the data i.e. if your datasets are structurally problematic, don’t be surprised if your conclusions are too.

I’m also really interested in how organisations can make better use of qualitative data. Too often qualitative data is used to justify service wide decisions, but instead I wonder how that data can be used to illustrate the complexity of the systems that we’re working in. This could help us move away from one-size fits all solutions.

“In the service sector, the notion of standardised units is always problematic. It implies that all customers are the same and the same response will meet all needs. It takes little thought to realise how stupid that is. People do not always have simple needs that can be resolved by a simple transaction.”

Research in Practice and Research in Practice for Adults are currently looking at our digital offer to our members. We are building personas to do that, and I’m particularly interested to see what that reveals about our user needs. I’ve previously used personas when gathering data at the Wales Audit Office, but this is on a bigger scale. I’m also interested in how Bromford Lab are developing personas, and the key is definitely to base these personas on real people so that you encounter real life pain points. If we base them on a perceived idea of need, then we can’t access the really useful learning that comes from having your perceptions challenged. As Davis says:

“Don’t try and fix anything to start with, just go and learn. Take some typical citizens in your system who probably need help and learn what has happened to them over time. Build some case histories and see what is and is not typical of your system.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the book but you’re a bit stretched for time, I heartily recommend checking out these really helpful slides that Andrew O’Hara kindly passed on to me. His colleague Jim Mather put them together, and they really helped me to understand the issues that Davis gets to grips with.

As public service organisations, we need to be much more inquisitive and unafraid to ask big questions. Consultations usually address the minutiae of specific policy detail. How about flipping that to ask an absolutely massive question instead?

“Take any chance you get to ask the key question of your citizens, ‘What would a good life look like for you?”



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Dyfrig Williams

Dyfrig Williams


Cymraeg! Music fan. Cyclist. Scarlet. Work for @researchip. Views mine / Barn fi.