Back to the 19th Century?





John Deffenbaugh

The role of the 21st Century Public Servant will be significantly different from the role carried out last century. Indeed the role may be more akin to the 19th century counterpart. This is largely because the role of government is changing, and this is driven in turn by a number of factors. Let’s take these in logical sequence.

Investor Warren Buffet, the ‘Sage of Omaha’, observed about the recession: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked”. The tide of public sector resources has gone out. The OBR stated at the time of the Autumn Statement that public spending by 2020 as a % of GDP will fall to its lowest levels since the 1930s. In parallel with fewer resources, demand is increasing. Citizens aged over 75 will grow from 7.9% to 13% of the population by 2037. We are seeing the impact of this today, with the inexorable rise in emergency referrals to the NHS. This is part and parcel of the increased expectations held by citizens: ease of access to high quality services that are joined up and responsive to their needs.

These drivers are changing the role of government. The post-war consensus of the Welfare State began to be eroded under Thatcherism, and this trend has only increased – partly because the benefits of this consensus were not readily apparent, and therefore open to challenge. This challenge has come from both right and left political persuasions, and has also been influenced by developments from across the pond. Four examples stand out. First, David Brooks in Social Animal proffered that:

“Government should not run people’s lives. That only weakens the responsibility and virtue of the citizens. Government could influence the setting in which lives are lived. Government could, to some extent, nurture settings that serve as nurseries for fraternal relationships. It could influence the spirit of the citizenry.”

I arranged for David Brooks to present a Masterclass on Public Policy last year at Kids Company, the London-based charity. His challenge to participants from across the public sector was to explore the legitimacy for the role of government and its Public Servants. Brooks is clear that there is a legitimate role for government, and the setting of the Masterclass in a charity focusing on early years intervention reinforced this message. This also provides legitimacy and a rational for interventions such as the Troubled Families Initiative (TFI).

Secondly, there is the work around adaptive leadership by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. With the tide of public sector resources having gone out, this message of giving back responsibility really hits home. Take the issue of obesity. In the UK, 64% of adults are now classed as being overweight or obese. Some Public Servants suggest tackling this with proactive ‘health coaching’. Others propose fitting gastric bands. This is a philosophical, moral and financial debate, with no easy solution.

Linked to this debate is the third development to highlight, namely the work about ‘choice architecture’ carried out by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein: the approach they call ‘libertarian paternalism’ (or Nudge), designing policies that maintain or increase freedom of choice or, more appropriately, helping people make the right choice. So Public Servant health coaches will nudge people in the right direction of weight loss through both direct and indirect support. Government for its part will contribute by nudging industry and others to take away some of the disincentives.

Finally, there is the ‘cause and effect’ relationship of these interventions that can be demonstrated through the Balanced Scorecard. Robert Kaplan and David Norton developed this performance management tool, which is certainly applicable to the work of health and wellbeing boards. Let’s go back to obesity, which may well be a priority of many boards. The narrative might go as follows:

The board uses its cross-organisation influence to get support from public bodies for investment in health coaches, who work through schools, clubs and other groups, and directly with the most critically obese. They put in place interventions for individuals to change behaviour, addressing both the issues of individual confidence and the factors that feed obesity – local shops and community groups are brought into the obesity initiative, reducing ‘specials’ and nudging in the direction of wholesome food, all behind an initiative of community cohesion.   Individual confidence morphs into community confidence, which becomes mutually self-reinforcing as the scales literally show the benefits.

With limited resources, government will need to use all the levers at its disposal to get these types of results, and to use the public sector pound to leverage contribution from the voluntary and private sectors.

Public Servants are the agents of change in this setting. At heart is clarity about their role, confidence in carrying it out, and humility in serving citizens. Plus a degree of ‘tough love’. Government can no longer be omnipresent, so responsibility must pass to the citizen. Obesity is now at record levels. Is the solution enabling weight loss through health coaching, or fitting a gastric band? The latter uses scarce resources and keeps Public Servants (e.g. surgeons) in business, while the former might well be a means of longer term demand management – both for the individual and their own consumption, and how they use public services.

The 21st Century Public Servant may well therefore have something to learn from their 19th century counterpart – a curtailed, though focused, role, using 21st century technology as a key enabler.

John Deffenbaugh is a Director of the consultancy Frontline.

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