When running a public sector organisation is like playing a late night game of poker

Elizabeth Jenkins-Smalley

Elizabeth Jenkins-Smalley

Editor In Chief at The Executive Magazine

Richard Hall, Director at Edge Public Solutions, writes for The Executive Magazine on the dilemmas facing public sector organisations

Whether to stick or twist….to raise or fold. We’ve all been there. But senior officers entrusted with the future of our public funding have not only this dilemma when considering how to navigate their management boards to a secure position but they arguably have ‘bystanders’, the politicians, who ironically cannot see the cards they have in their hand, breathing down their necks and telling them how to go about the game.

I jest but there is a serious point. Public sector organisation have a dilemma. They need to make big efficiencies and these are often only possible by delivering complex and capacity hungry initiatives. Initiatives that are commonly part of a transformation programme requiring a cultural change and a performance shift. At the same time they are commonly desperate for competent managers with enough free time from their demanding day jobs to concentrate on transforming the way things are done.

Surely the solution is obvious. Buy temporary help by taking on interim capacity or securing performance based partnerships with expert deliver companies.

This has surely got to be the card to play. Without the additional investment in capacity, identified efficiencies will simply not get delivered. We have seen how sustainable changes, impetus and capacity to see things through are lacking when left to an internal team with too many ‘priorities’. It’s an even more powerful argument to play this card when it is considered that the costs associated with this help are usually far smaller than the financial benefits.

But there is a sticking point. How can paying for external help be squared with the council tax paying public when at the same time many organisations are making or about to make staff redundancies? This situation is a politician’s worst public relations nightmare and therefore in so many cases the delivery teams have been forced to ‘get on with it’ themselves with very little chance of success. The politicians end up picking the card that looks good but has very little chance of winning in the context of the wider game.

There is absolutely no doubting that expenditure on consultants has represented a grotesque waste of money over the years. The announcements from Government in 2010; that expenditure on consultants could no longer be tolerated in Whitehall, seems to have rippled across the world of local government too in the last four years. In many cases this has been right and it was a sensible message if considered in the spirit that it was meant. Indeed, in many cases local government does not need complex strategies and schemes developed at astronomical costs which have little hope of delivery.

But I argue that public sector bodies need focussed delivery help in carefully developed programmes of change. What’s more, officers know where they need this help too. They know which card is the best to play. But they are not being allowed to make these decisions or, let’s face it, are perhaps too ‘brow beaten’ and battle weary to argue the case in the current climate.

Now is the time to stand up and play the cards right. Some organisations are too often folding in the hope that they have enough capacity internally to get the job done.

This low risk strategy of today which is clearly about politics is incredibly high risk tomorrow which is about financial security. Politicians have to make the right choices by understanding the implications of their decisions. Officers must be robust and insist on playing the right cards.

For some a reference to poker playing in these incredibly challenging times may appear a little flippant. Whilst this is not intended I accept that many will be more comfortable with a purer learning analogy. Perhaps we should learn from 2 Corinthians 9:6 and whilst you reach for your bibles ponder the view that if we take a short term approach to investing in the quality help required to achieve changes then we compromise successful delivery. If we rely on the slim hope that the cards will fall in the right way then we will not likely deliver very much at all.

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