Way back in the mid 1990s, I remember meeting two American guys, Ted Gaebler and David Osborne, who had written a book called Reinventing Government. The book was picked up big time by those charged with changing things here in the UK. Gaebler and Osborne attracted loads of interest and spawned many implementations across the world. And they had a great world tour on the back of that.
So does their work have relevance today in this increasingly austerity-riven, less government world? And what can we learn from looking back at the book’s key messages?
After the government’s focus on productivity this week, I wondered if George Osborne had maybe found a dusty old copy of Reinventing Government propping up a Number 11 table leg whilst writing his budget script.
You can probably guess at the thrust of the book from subtitle: “How the entrepreneurial spirit is transforming the public sector”. Radical stuff back then. Creating arms length bodies to do their own value-creating thing was very new. (Well, for central government anyway; local government was 10 years ahead of the curve, even back then).
The book was not just about reducing the scope and scale of the public sector. There was some real radical stuff about making the public sector much better at achieving those outcomes. Productivity and efficiency were the key messages. Sound familiar?
A much quoted example from the book about fire services improving their value by greater focusing on preventing fires in the first place is now old hat. And we have fewer firefighters in fire services, less fires and less deaths from fire. Productivity and efficiency at work. Logical now perhaps but a hot topic (couldn’t resist) back then because it reduced the numbers working in the public sector.
The book contains lots of other examples of “reinvention” from across the pond that have since become a common feature of UK public services. And a good few that have not.
So aside from gaining better favour in some political circles than others, Gabler and Osborne had an enjoyable time in the sun. So which of their principles still offer us value and direction today? Well here’s a quick ten-step summary. You can decide yourself if it’s worth a read.
- Catalytic government: steering rather than rowing – focus on achieving objectives rather than thinking the state has to do it all itself.
- Community-owned government -empowering rather than serving including third and fourth sector involvement, social enterprise etc.
- Competitive government – introduce competition into service delivery which was, and remains, a little controversial.
- Mission driven government – transforming rule-driven organisations and outlining what is required rather than the how.
- Results-oriented government – funding outcomes, not inputs which is now the norm in most government activity.
- Customer-driven government- meeting the needs of the customer, not the bureaucracy, and servicing the public.
- Enterprising government – earning rather than spending and charging more fees for services and public assets by using them to compete with the private sector.
- Anticipatory government – finding the prevention rather than just the cure.
- Decentralised government – moving from hierarchy to participation and teamwork.
- Market-oriented government – leveraging change through the market such as use of pricing and taxes.
Not all of the ten had legs in the UK back then. Some of the ten still don’t apply so easily to our public services. But the list serves a sensible starting point for those managing our public services to consider how to frame their response to austerity.
The proposed £18 billion reductions in public spending, coupled with the economy-wide thrust on productivity, will certainly bring some new challenges. And some opportunities. And given there is nothing new about the concept of productivity, you could do worse than looking for lessons from the past.