Why don't we do what works?


 In her new book “Delivering public services that work” Charlotte Dell gives case example after case example of public sector organisations that have found a better way of doing something only to find that instead of being more widely adopted they are ignored in favour of more politically fashionable but unproven solutions. In a recent article in the professional press (Public Servant Magazine May 2012) professor Seddon vents his frustration at the lack of evidence based policy. He characterises government minister’s approach when shown evidence of what works as “that’s very interesting but I have an unproven idea that I believe will be better”

Whitehall he complains only accepts evidence that fits with the story already being told. Fiona Millar in the Guardian (8 May 2012) makes the same point in an analysis of a string of government education policy initiatives which ignore inconvenient research evidence.

It isn’t just Whitehall where policy is driven by party political ideology it is also a feature of local government.

Whether it is a government minister or the leader of the local council, whether the message is spoken out loud or simply understood the effect is the same. Currently this message from the Tory faithful is, “find ways to use choice and competition to make public services better”. This is very different to saying ” I understand tenants want repairs don more quickly or claimants want welfare benefits process more promptly what do we know will do this?”

It has always been like this and always will be when you work in a political environment. The task facing every local government senior manager is how to negotiate a way through. 

 I worked in a traditional Labour authority where mangers were tasked to come up with a strategy for the future of in-house residential care which would address the fact the authority did not have the capital to bring it’s buildings up to standard and a bed in the private sector could be purchased for two thirds of the cost of one in-house. The evidence was clear an increased investment in domicile services would both reduce the demand for beds and provide service users with help in the way they wanted it. The business case for closing all of the authority’s homes and reinvesting the money in domicile care was undeniable but politically unacceptable. The unspoken message was we want to carry on being a direct provider of residential care because we don’t believe that good care is compatible with the profit motive. We want to continue to be a large employer because we believe that is the best way to encourage others to be good employers.  

In these situations the officers have to find a solution. In the case of residential homes it came down to how many should close and where were they located. The remaining homes would offer specialist services justifying their higher costs.

Sometimes it is just about knowing which ideological buttons to press. A colleague in HR moved from a labour authority with a high ethnic minority population and a strong political commitment to equal opportunities to a conservative authority with a very small ethnic minority where” human rights” were considered an example of daft political correctness. I asked how they could do their job in such an environment the response was well I do exactly the same as I did at the last place only I never refer to equal opportunities I always phrase it in terms of good customer care because that’s what they are into.

It is true politicians of all parties are selective when it comes to the evidence so what should officers do beat them over the head with it or do what they have always don find a way forward.

Blair McPherson author of Unlearning management and Equipping managers for an uncertain future both published by Russell House. Follow Blair on Twitter @blairmcpherson1


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