Friday, April 02, 2010

Yes There Is Hope - Public Sector Innovation

TV viewers here in Wales, UK may seen a documentary entitled ‘Ban The Boss’. It was made in conjunction with Dr Paul Thomas at the University of Glamorgan. The title was a little sensationalist to say the least, but the programme itself was very interesting. Following my article last month on what is wrong with public sector innovation I thought it right to shine some light on how things could be fixed.

Despite the fears of those involved the idea was not to cause anarchy or make large numbers of people redundant but simply to make the changes necessary to create an organisational form that is relevant for the future. The programme focused on two main areas of Blaenau Gwent Council, Environmental Services (refuse collection) and Transport Services. Those who are involved in change know that there are essentially two options, top down and bottom up. In large inflexible organisations change orchestrated from the top is slow that it is ineffective. In the public sector the changes often take longer than the time for which key people are in post, making the whole effort grind to a halt.

Dr Thomas went into each department and effectively banned all middle and senior management from their posts for a week. The idea was that the front line workers could organise themselves. As you can imagine, there were many different types of reaction. The bosses felt aggrieved, workers were suspicious and in some cases workers were wondering who would make the decisions. After a week workers were asked to vote to find out if they wanted their bosses back. Some were invited back but not in their original capacity but nobody was made redundant although some workers chose to leave of their own accord.

It was clear to see that in the cases where workers had made the leap, their workplaces were happier and more efficient places to work with the flexibility to take on the challenges of the future. Rather like pouring concrete when building or filling a vessel with water, people and organisations find their own ‘levels’ and the previous structures were ineffective but were actually sapping the organisation of energy by just maintaining them.

The benefits were greater efficiency, less red tape and increased motivation and performance to name a few. But what were the main factors that caused this to succeed?
  • Peer pressure and equity theory causing a waterfall effect
  • Simple demonstration that front line workers can organise themselves
  • Rapid introduction to the concept of shared ownership and responsibility
  • Sharing in the gains made
  • Commitment by those at the very top that jobs were safe
  • Transparency at all stages of the process
  • Constant availability of project personnel
Overall it was a tough process but one which appeared to be working and one which is highly recommended to the public sector both in the UK and elsewhere.

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