Big bang ideas or back to basics?

Big bang ideas

You know the drill: new big bang ideas, techniques and processes are brought in with a big fanfare. Everyone rushes around doing loads of ‘stuff ’. The super-keen one amongst you all brush up the new jargon and new ways of behaving. And you start thinking about the best way to annoy those of your colleagues who clearly are stuck in the past of last week. Then, as often as not, nothing is followed through. It all goes quiet. And in a year (or next quarter if you are in the NHS) another one comes along, and people think, ‘Hang on a second, what happened to the previous one?’

Some may even not have noticed there was another one and are puzzled why this new way of doing things is exactly what they are doing now.

Warning. The non-rocket science pitch I am famous for follows. I have worked a fair share of the public service for many years and in the private sector before that. So, despite my youthful appearance, I have seen my reasonable amount of efficiency and improvement techniques both come and go. Heck, I have even played my part in inventing a few of them. Hybrid benchmarking was one of my favourites – a great mix of the solid sounding ‘benchmarking’ with a vaguely exotic ‘hybrid’. Nice mix and it worked well for a few years.

Aside from the application of technology, most of those techniques applied are basic common sense and improvement methodologies based on ‘old-fashioned’ approaches that have been around for decades. Even if they are increasingly packaged in a way calculated to appeal to our complex organisations. Complex organisational problems need complex solutions, goes the argument. That old fashioned method study much loved by industrial engineers of the past (readers under 35 can Google the term ‘industry’) turned into business process re-engineering, then six sigma then…you get the picture.

Given the scale of the continuing austerity agenda, which looks likely to continue until 2020 or so at least, there will certainly be a need for strong programme management to drive forward service cessation, reduction, change and efficiency programmes. All of which may be wrapped up in some great new language just waiting to be discovered. Despite the scale of that change, the programmes must still be underpinned by equity and rigour – the CIP programmes in the health sector and zero based budget programmes in other parts of the public sector are all about delivering more for less. The neat divisions government have achieved in service provision (mostly) can now pin reductions down to individual spending bodies and groups so they can determine how best they can meet local challenges. Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs) are a great example of this in health and serve as a lesson/warning for those in other currently localised supply markets like social care.

I would advocate you relying on applying common sense to what is a very basic, if very large, problem. The New Public Sector is a term I coined a couple of years back and this is now starting to emerge. Leaner, fitter, scarcer and harder than it’s previous form, this is the future and direction of public services. You may not like it if you work in it or are a user of it but get used to it. The fatter times are gone. The challenges of mismatched demand and supply remain and will need to be addressed. Get used to the idea that there is only so much budget to deliver so much service – even if pump priming change is likely to become the norm. See what the Chancellor managed to do in the budget with offering STPs, urgent care centres and adult social care short term funding to get on with making the changes needed. A great balancing act that made it appear more money was going into the system but at the same time, promising a green paper, a review or delivery of plans already on the blocks. Ideally, new and innovative partnerships and ways of working will emerge. There is nothing really new in any of that, other than maybe the pace of change and the impact it will have on people’s lives.

So when you are developing your approach to meeting the challenges of austerity and deciding how you can best position yourself and your service to meet the challenges of the New Public Sector, please bear that all in mind. But whilst the above may seem like a simplistic approach, remember, common sense is not that common.

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