Sue Goss responds – How to survive ‘perma-austerity?’

There is something heartbreaking about public servants expected to treat austerity as ‘just another managerial challenge’. I facilitate awaydays in which good people calmly discuss when and how to shut down children’s centres, libraries, youth services, lunch-clubs and care for older people – knowing that a hugely unfair proportion of cuts has fallen on local government – and knowing that it is their very competence in protecting residents from the impact of cuts that has led government to come back for more.

Senior managers are expected to remain unemotional while undoing projects they set up, or reversing initiatives they created. Good leaders can help their managers and staff by honouring the services they are having to dismantle, and recognising the sadness in making good staff redundant. What they can’t, mustn’t do, is to expect the staff left to do the work of their departed colleagues. I have coached people in tears and suffering severe stress who have cancelled holidays, who work every weekend, who put in seventy hour weeks – ‘just to get the job done’. Something has to give.

No-one I work with thinks austerity is going away any time soon. So how do we survive and keep our energy into the future?

One thing that seems to make a big difference is to dig deep and talk about the values that drove us into public service in the first place. This is not simply a managerial task – for many, it is a mission, a passion, a care for others. We need to discuss this, talk things out – what are we trying to protect? What do we stand for? And of course we need to do this in dialogue with politicians and with our residents, but we can recognise and honour the commitment that we and our staff bring to serious conversations about what matters most.

Once we are clear about our values and those of our colleagues, we can start to apply these fearlessly to the assumptions that are being made about what is efficient and effective. Is it ‘more efficient’ to send undertrained youngsters on zero hours contracts to care care for the elderly in 15-20 minute time-slots? Is the 111 service an effective use of public money? During the Blair/Brown years when public spending grew by 60 billion, we built a vast regulatory and compliance machine. Hilary Cottam at Participle points out that social workers can spend 80% of their time in front of computers or in meetings, and even the time spent with families is often used to fill in forms. Is this the most effective service we can provide? Now that 60 billion has been taken away – don’t we need to challenge more?

Professor Partick Dunleavy at the LSE has recently completed longditudinal research into public sector productivity. His findings run counter to the assumptions government makes about what works. He shows that the two things that increase productivity are remodelling and redesigning services, and going digital. The two things that most reduce productivity, are bringing in consultants and out-sourcing!

So we need to redesign our services for the 21st century, but we need to challenge a lot of assumptions. Many of our services are complex, duplicatory, confusing for users. We have over-specialised and under-listened. User and carer led services can be transformative, and teach us that they can be far cheaper than our professionally driven services – for example recovery colleges where mental health users teach each other the techniques for managing long-term illness. But Professor Dunleavy’s research suggests we could start by:

  • Digitalising everything that we can
  • Re-imagining services
  • Integrating systems based around user experience and the way they want to live their lives
  • Treating commissioning, assessment, regulation and compliance as measurable ‘overheads’ on the real provision of care and services – so that as citizens we can see whether the costs are proportionate.

We unthinkingly carry a default metaphor for public organisations as machines – treating staff as components in a vast computer generating data and metrics. What we are learning from system leadership is that more effective systems are organic, capable of swift adaptation in the moment.

Human beings are far cleverer than machines. The important parts of public services are human – are about building relationships and supporting those who need the help of fellow citizens.

Churchill memorably said that a civilisation is judged by the way it treats its prisoners. Our society is defined by the way public services treat the old, the frail, children, youngsters, down-and-outs, the disabled, those with mental and physical illness, the jobless, the homeless.

The choice now is about whether the state simply retreats behind a high wall of ‘assessment’ to keep people out, or whether it nurtures and supports social networks and communities that can ‘hold people in’. To do that, we need to draw on the full humanity of our staff.

In my recent book Open Tribe (yes it’s shameless publicising but how else to do it?) I try to explore the public service behaviours that would be more ‘human’:

“We would expect staff to show respect to everyone, however frail, however newly arrived. We would want them to be curious, taking an interest in the unique experience of everyone they encounter, willing to take the time to hear their story and to understand their circumstances. We would look for empathy, an ability to put themselves in the shoes of every patient or asylum seeker or student. We would want imagination and creativity, a willingness to explore situations fully in order to discover new solutions. We would want them to show care and kindness, so that even when administering highly rule-governed procedures, they would never be cruel or offensive.

We would want to see courage in the face of bureaucratic obstacles, and in the pursuance of duty – courage to whistle-vblow or to challenge organisational heartlessness, but also the courage of a social worker to knock on the door of a house where abuse is suspected, or where trafficked girls might be trapped; the courage of a teacher to discuss female genital mutilation; or the courate of a psychiatric nurse to pursue an intuition about potential suicide. We would not want our public servants to hide behind procedural rules or to cover up laziness. We would want them to be explorers, seeing for public good and for the well-being of people they serve.

Finally, and most important, we would want wisdom, the ability to make careful, balancing judgements, because the things we want and need are often contradictory and it takes a lively human intelligence to make sense of this and make sensible decisions about competing needs. We want public servants to bring their whole human intelligence and sensitivity to work.” [1]

If we ask these things of our public sector managers and staff, they would help us find the way to manage through austerity. We might find that they challenge us to reframe the question.

Sue Goss is principal in local services at OPM. 

[1] Open Tribe Sue Goss Lawrence and Wishart London 2014

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