Creating public sector implementers


  • Picture of Richard Davis FRSA
    Richard Davis FRSA
  • Public services

The most recent RSA Journal explored some of the big questions facing public services, other than austerity. Richard Davis, a new Fellow and former public servant welcomes the debate and suggests that the huge challenge is to change our expectations of those charged with implementing policy.

I was very encouraged to see much of the most recent RSA Journal devoted to the quality of government in this country. This is an issue that sorely needs attention and I cannot fault Ian Burbidge’s masterly analysis ‘Altered States’ of the failings of our bureaucracy. The evidence he cites accords strongly with my own experience of working in the public sector. His goal recognises the complexity of the issues we face, advocating that public servants adopt a new mind-set in which they think like actors in a wider system and act like entrepreneurs.

The question that then arises is how we facilitate such a change of mind-set in many thousands of public servants? This in itself is a policy question for civil servants that is as important as how policy can better support wellbeing (addressed by Gus O’Donnell in the same edition) and Matthew Taylor’s call for politicians and policymakers to be capable and empowered to understand problems more deeply.

We already have enough policy. The problem is that the politicians and policymakers attempt to over-control its implementation because they cannot rely on the competence of the large number of public servants who have to carry out their policies. Complexity reveals itself in the continual emergence of situated variations to the general analysis and if implementers are unable to judge what will best achieve the intent of policy, then the system – as Ian points out – is condemned to fail.

To rely on the judgement and skill of ‘implementers’ requires that they are equipped appropriately and that requires a very substantial investment in them as professionals, as a policy in itself. I have worked in both defence and health in the public sector where there is a marked contrast between the investment made in developing the competence of the deliverers, the military or clinical practitioners, and that of their administrators. Government policy rightly keeps its fingers out of both military and medical operational decision-making because it cannot contribute much useful to them: the people in these areas are extremely highly trained and know what they are doing. In contrast, their administrators lack the level of appreciation required of complexity and systems in their own subject to be successful, particularly in the areas of strategy, finance and contracting. It is here that ‘acting like an entrepreneur’ is vital to successful implementation, and it will require a substantial investment in people’s training and development to achieve.

What then is at the core of effective vocational development for administrators? Indeed, what are those military and medical experts taught? Their domains may be poles apart but their development has much in common: they are taught the vast body of knowledge in their subject, to notice everything relevant to their purpose, to recognise patterns and interdependencies in what they see, to compare the patterns with what they and others have seen before, to create and assess options, identify where to focus, and act continuously reassessing what they find as they do so.

This knowledge and these skills take years of education and practice to develop fully in any domain. But we desperately need them in our public administrators across services. And we could have them if politicians and policymakers chose to make a substantial long-term investment in developing the capability in the public sector.

What would the outcome look like? Citizens would be more likely to trust that their future was in the hands of people who know what they are doing, that they were dedicated to doing a good job whatever it took and were not pursuing hidden agendas. Being judged competent would be highly prized so that instead of being defensive when challenged, public servants would welcome scrutiny and be open to ideas, demonstrating that they were completely determined to be at the top of their game. They would have the confidence of professionals to be open about problems and to give balanced opinions. We would not see people keeping their heads down, muddling through, hoping for the best but expecting to be found out eventually. Ultimately the quality of our discourse about improving public services would be higher, as would those services themselves.

Richard is researching social issues and contributing to the development of several VCSE organisations in the South West


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