A row has broken out in the Guardian’s public sector management section. Last week, interim manager Hilary Husbands wrote an article arguing that public sector managers who have bottled out of making radical change should be replaced by bolder interim managers who will cut through all the crap and do what needs to be done:
Sometimes ideas about savings are lost through unwillingness to stand up and be counted, or a reluctance to embrace radical change and upheaval.
Don’t be surprised then to find that managers and directors who could have made changes but didn’t, are subject to a drive to replace them with the brave.
Many of the brave may be experts in business efficiency, turnaround, and particularly in delivering complex and fast-track change against the odds. Enter the professional interim manager. This should be their hour.
This provoked a furious response from Blair McPherson, a former director of Lancashire County Council. Angered by the suggestion that public sector managers lack the balls to deliver the necessary spending cuts, he wrote this piece in reply. He points out that decisions about savings in public sector organisations are mostly political.
He’s right. Unless you have tried to make changes in a public sector organisation, this is something that can be difficult to grasp. You can only go so far before you run up against local or national political considerations. Sure, any organisation can make efficiency savings but to cut costs by 25 percent or more means that councils, NHS trusts and government departments will have to stop doing some things. That means political decisions have to be taken. And, as Blair McPherson says, it doesn’t matter how brave the directors are, it’s the elected politicians who need to have the guts to make these decisions:
Once the management structure has been streamlined and back-office services rationalised, members will realise that the size of the savings required means cutting frontline services.
Seasoned public sector directors are, he argues, much better at managing this process. They have a political awareness, built up over many years, that interim managers lack.
But political considerations can lead to some bonkers decisions. This quote from public sector consultant Mark Warren succinctly describes an all too common process:
[T]oday’s public sector has become so complex and political that leaders become almost ‘paralysed’ when asked to make a decision. They try and take into account too many influencing factors – the political agenda, the position of senior bosses, what the media might say – and are terrified of making a mistake. They then either procrastinate and do nothing, or go for the ‘correct’ thing to do depending on who has the highest influence – even if that decision seems like craziness to everyone else.
Which is where bringing in someone from outside can help. Unencumbered by the history and culture of the organisation they can work around or simply ignore many of the political issues. They often, therefore, present politicians with candid and succinct arguments and a narrower range of options.
Another of Blair McPherson’s criticisms is that interim managers are short-term and therefore don’t have to live with the results of their decisions. But this too can be an advantage. It means that the interim can be Mr or Mrs Unpopular and take a lot of the flack for everyone else. Having less invested in the system, interim managers don’t have to defend their position which enables them to say the unsayable and say it more directly. It’s a lot easier to tell elected councillors what they don’t want to hear if your career is not dependent on their patronage.
But there is another reason for bringing in executives from outside the public sector. Hilary Husbands is not the first person to raise questions about the quality of public sector management. This CIPD report from earlier this year was scathing:
There is a management crisis looming in our public services. Whichever party wins the next election will be targeting major changes in public service delivery. But there is an elephant in the corner that is completely overlooked in most of the current political debates over service reform, which is the poor quality of people management at the sharp end of public service delivery.
The report warned that weak management is often “at the heart of catastrophic service failure.” The authors also point out that their findings are not new – almost every report on service failure has drawn similar conclusions. They sum up:
Einstein’s definition of madness – ‘doing the same thing again and again hoping for different results’ – is often overused but is depressingly appropriate in the context of previous attempts to make efficiencies and reform the public sector. The last ten years has seen very significant government investment in the public sector’s workforce and its infrastructure; however official figures suggest overall public sector productivity has declined over this period.
It is extremely unlikely that public sector managers will be able to re-configure the delivery of their services and take out the necessary costs without bringing in external help. While, as the CIPD says, there may be pockets of excellence, the overall picture of management in the public sector is not good. So far, progress on efficiency savings and productivity has been slow – too slow for what is now required.
None of which is to say that the public sector should import private sector personnel and practices wholesale. As Tracy Corrigan says in today’s Telegraph, there is a lot of crap management in the corporate world too and the government should be picky about which private sector techniques it adopts and who it chooses to bring in. That includes its choice of interim directors.
The best interims are those who work with the local managers, rather than riding roughshod all over them. Interim directors who value the political nous of long-serving public sector professionals, treat them as partners and learn from them will ultimately deliver better results. They should always be sensitive to the fact that the locals have to carry on working the farm long after the hired guns have ridden off into the sunset.