Giant Steps in Public Management?

Henry Kippin from Collaborate writes about the ‘improvising organisation’.

I am clearly not pulling up any trees by stating that New Public Management as a framework for policy and practice in public services has probably had its day. Academics like Patrick Dunleavy and Christopher Hood have already written the obituaries, and a cursory glance at any one of several articles from the likes of David Brooks, Matthew Taylor, Janan Ganesh or Jenni Russell show that creative thinkers from across the political spectrum are regularly exploring what comes next underneath the politics.

We are seeing existential new efforts to define what a ‘future public servant’ should be and do – from contributors as diverse as universities, management consulting firms and the public sector itself. For Francis Maude et al, civil service reform lies squarely in this territory; though the pace of change has frustrated his government. For opposition thinkers like Jon Cruddas, the unresolved question of implementation looms large over an imaginative set of policies and ideas.

New public management techniques partly rely on certainty (or the illusion of it), and it is the lack of this – in the face of increasingly complex supply and demand challenges – that make the design of new approaches so hard. If the market and the metrics don’t work, then what should exist in their place? Different contexts and places will need different things. If performance management and compartmentalisation create perverse incentives, then how else can increasingly fragmented delivery chains be held to account? Increasingly localist rhetoric will need to be matched by a degree of letting go – and that means tearing up the rule book (green book?) in both central and local government.

I have become mildly obsessed with what the ‘new new’ public management could look like, and have been re-reading the literature on clumsy, adaptive, whole-systems and tri-sector leadership. All great and part of the mix of approaches, and all sympathetic to the notion that complex problems require a non-linear and nuanced form of solution. But as a governing philosophy, it turns out that jazz is hard to beat.

Was Sonny Rollins talking about commissioning when he said that “the most important thing is to get away from fixed functions”? When Miles Davis said that “if you are not making a mistake, its a mistake”, was he talking about user-led public service design? Err, no. But the ethos that provokes jazz musicians to struggle against structure and to improvise in truly collaborative ways can in some ways be translated into management thinking.

These quotes come from Frank Barrett’s book ‘Yes to the Mess’ which is a good read and a treat for anyone who likes a bit of Night In Tunisia with their Street-Level Bureaucracy. His prescription ? The ‘improvising organisation’, which may be impossible in (statutory) practice but aspirational and very current in tone and feel. Try this:

“The improvising organisation would create fluid structures that form, dissolve, and reform as new situations and challenges arise… People from different functionalities would talk to one another regularly, sharing insights and expertise as the situation demands. Wide-eyed expressions would be commonplace as insights popped up from unlikely places at unpredictable times and as workers arrived at new understanding through collaborative processes”.

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