Free up staff to make ‘heart decisions’

Emma Browes

Emma Browes

The other day I woke up in a good mood. Eating my breakfast, my main concern was to try not to get jam on my ipad. Then the radio reported that Sir Bob Kerslake had given a speech and in this speech he said “Suffice it to say that under any Government, we face up to a further five years of austerity in public sector spending. The first five years have been challenging but the second five years are likely to prove even harder.” Not a surprise, but it took some of the sparkle out of the morning.

It is in this context that the 21st century public servant is being asked for more and more. We are asked not only to develop new skills, but also new mindsets and behaviours so that we can navigate new ways of working, increasingly reducing resources, changing consumer expectations and the implications and opportunities provided by social technology. All in the context of less and, often, with the burden that comes with the mechanics of a huge and bureaucratic organisation.   All the while headlines about redundancies and services closures are flying around.

So then, how do we help people to develop the skills and mindsets required of the 21st Century public servant in this context, foster innovation and challenge the prevailing culture?

The challenge is, I think, to reflect honestly on the trust within organisations.   One on one there will be thousands of examples of trusting relationships within organisations (ok and some not so much).

The key questions are – are these because of or in spite of the structures and processes that govern your world? Are they because of or in spite of the management culture that is prevalent in your organisation?

We have bureaucracy for a reason. If we takes risks and something goes wrong there are consequences – and there should be. We are public servants, we are spending the public’s money. People depend on our services for their care and wellbeing. However, we can no longer afford unnecessary bureaucracy – not just financially, but also in terms of providing easily accessible, transparent services that people are increasingly expecting and enabling staff to deliver these.

I heard an interesting story recently. A senior manager of a very large organisation was talking about how he had given permission for his team to make ‘heart decisions’. Processes were stripped right back and the only justification staff have to give for the decisions they make is that they think it is the right thing to do. These decisions were about money.

What happened? The money got to the people who needed it most at the right time. Why? Because the system assumed that staff would make the right decisions because they were in the best place to do so and understood clearly the values and behaviours that they are expected to work by.  In this case the risk of not spending the money outweighed the risk of unnecessary bureaucracy preventing help getting to people who really, really, need it.

The 21st century public servant needs to have the skills, capability and confidence to take risks to innovate and be creative so that they can deliver the best possible services.

To enable people to do this organisations need to be clear on the values and behaviours expected. This needs to run through all our management and communications processes – we value not just what you do, but how you do it.   Equally importantly, we need to hold people to account should they behave recklessly or not in line with our values and behaviors. But, we do increasingly need to take the plunge – let go and trust.

Emma Browes blogs as HR Em, writing about Social Media and HR.  She has over 15 years experience of working in large public sector organisations and writes about all of those too!  She currently works for Leeds City Council and will be forever grateful that she is not only permitted, but encouraged, to explore all things social to develop more collaborative ways of working –   discouraging email, encouraging use of the word awesome., @emmabrowes   


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