I was in Parliament this morning giving evidence at the Petitions Committee on a petition from Unreasonable Learners, 'Harnessing the undoubted talent of Public Sector Staff'. The Petition:
"Calls on the Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to review the considerable research into the thinking that underpins the approach to managing the contribution from staff that has been undertaken over the past decades and compare this with the assumptions that underpins existing management practice; and subsequently to use the findings to ensure that it harnesses the talent of its staff."
The petitioners believe that there is a inordinate waste in our public sector, caused by the command and control culture, i.e. our society believes we need leaders to provide direction and they should then be supported by scrutiny methods to ensure we comply. However, they state that there has been extensive research over the past decades that is pushing us toward structures that are based on—
- A belief in people;
- The need to understand and re-design the complex systems that characterise our society;
- A recognition that the driving force for progress will not come from central direction but from innovative people at the work face.
This approach very much ties in with UNISON's view that public service reform should be built from the bottom up, rather than by management consultants centralising services with their Blue Peter, "here is one I prepared earlier" method. I illustrated the point with an example of a local authority that had centralised housing benefits. The staff involved in the enquiry point told me that they used to be able to deal with 80% of queries first time. Now they deal with about 20% and the rest are sent to a call centre. The staff in the call centre spend most of their time dealing with what John Seddon (systems thinking) calls, 'failure demand'. Examples like this led to the Christie Commission recommendations.
As most public services are delivered by people there needs to be a much greater recognition of workforce issues in government plans. Most current reforms give the impression that workforce issues are a last minute add on - not central to the reform. Workforce reform appears to be rooted in 'heroic leadership' models that are simply not suited for the enabling approaches needed to break public services out of their different silos. In my experience many public and private sector leaders talk a good game on systems thinking, but don't really get it in practice.
I also argued that we need a workforce framework across our public services that underpins reform. An approach that enables public service staff to design, with service users, innovative new ways of delivering services.
It was agreed that the group brought together by the Petitions Committee this morning would attempt to produce a paper on how this different approach could be promoted. Developing a different management culture in Scottish public services. A big task, but we have to change direction quickly if we are going to deliver meaningful reform.