There’s an interview in the Guardian with Mike Turley, the head of the public sector consulting practice at Toilet and Douche. A lot of what he says rings true from my experience of working in the public sector.
In which management areas does the public sector excel?
Public sector leaders have always been proficient at policy-making and the communications that underpin public policy.
Where does it fall down?
Public sector organisations are not so good at putting great ideas into practice. There is a gap between policy intent and actual outcomes.
That’s perhaps a little unfair to managers in the NHS and local authorities but it pretty much sums up the central government mandarins. I have met very clever people who are excellent at devising, and thinking through the implications of, macro economic and social policy but hopeless when it comes to implementing change in their own organisations.
What barriers prevent public sector organisations from taking action against poor performers?
Most commentators recognise that trade union influence on the workforce and human resources policy emphasises individual rights to a depth that is not found in the private sector. Culturally, public sector line managers may not have the skills or confidence to confront underperforming colleagues.
It’s not just the trade unions. There seems to be a culture in some parts of the public sector in which fairness and equal treatment are carried to the point of absurdity. For example, in one organisation, equal opportunities officers sat in on interviews, not merely to ensure legal compliance but as the guardians of fairness and equity. Such was their zeal that managers felt shut out of their own recruitment processes.
The most extreme case I came across of this fetish for fairness was an organisation that ran two grading structures in parallel. The old grading system had been abolished in favour of broader pay bands, for all the usual reasons; to allow greater flexibility across jobs and wider discretion on pay. However, part of the deal struck to get it through was an agreement that no-one should be worse off. Therefore the organisation maintained the old grading structure too. Each year, every employee’s new salary was compared with what they would have got under the old system and, if it was lower, an upward adjustment was made, sometimes of only a few pence a month. Much of the efficiency and savings that were supposed to be achieved by the new grading structure were eroded by the overhead of keeping the shadow structure in place.
Mike Turley’s comments of performance management are interesting too:
Are you saying that poor performance is more tolerated in the public sector?
On balance, this is probably the case, yes. Obviously, there are good and bad examples in both sectors, but generally speaking, the private sector tends to embed expectation of delivery and “hard” results in their appraisal processes.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with that. Smaller organisations with less slack are probably harder on poor performance, as are charities who just don’t have the money to carry passengers. But the unwillingness to tackle performance issues is endemic in the large private sector bureaucracies. Huge budgets mean that performance problems can be fudged until they get too serious to hide. Rather than use the disciplinary process, the more common solution is to offer someone a large amount of money to leave. The further up the hierarchy people go, the less likely they are to be dismissed on the grounds of performance and the more money they get to sweeten their departure. In short, the private sector appears to have fewer performance management issues because it just pays its poor performers to leave.
That said, though, Mike Turley is right in that the public sector needs to get better at implementation and at managing performance. Regardless of who gets into power at the next election, economic factors are likely to force cutbacks in public spending in the near future. When that happens, public sector organisations are going to need to get good at both implementation and performance management, and they won’t have a lot of time to learn.