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As George Osborne announces the new government’s plan for its first £6billion tranche of public sector spending cuts, I am getting a distinctly uneasy feeling that there’s a spectre looming large in the shape of public sector employees, who could bring the county to its knees in an orgy of self-interest.

As one commentator put it this morning on the BBC, this isn’t just a plan to save £6billion+ is a plan to change the expectations we all have of government, in other words a re-branding and as with any other re-branding strategy, it has to start with the people delivering the promise.

I’ve worked with public sector organisations in the UK and elsewhere and I have to say that, certainly in the UK, despite their claims of having upped their game in recent years – and, to be honest, there’s a degree of truth to this – the sad fact is that the claim reveals the naiveté that is at the heart of the sector’s dire performance.  Frankly, most public sector employees, just don’t understand how out of kilter they are with their private sector counterparts.

I have sat at post-mortems for failed initiatives where the inadequacies of the people charged with the task at every level have been obvious.  I’ve heard people shrug-off any responsibility for watching colleagues fail or fall into pits that were perfectly obvious to all, but the person doing the falling, with comments like “that wasn’t my job”. I’ve witnessed total absence of any shared responsibility or common agenda, even seen people scramble over each other to assign blame to anyone who could be made to represent a target.  Worst of all, I have noted time and again the credence that managers give to this behaviour.  I’m not saying that stuff like this doesn’t happen in the private sector, but in the public sector its the prevailing culture.

I’m thinking of one regional public sector organisation in particular that is failing by a measure of two-thirds to meet its targets consistently, month after month.  It has employees at every level who may arguably have the ability to do their job, but simply don’t.  People who fill their day with an hour’s-worth of work and feel hard done by if they are ever questioned about their lack of progress.  Not only is the manager not managing the situation, there’s absolutely no consequences attached to the failure to deliver.  Each month he just turns up at a meeting and tells his bosses how much he’s missed his target by and they just nod and thank him.  I have first hand knowledge of a group of high-profile public sector organisations whose purpose is to provide specialist advice to the business sector whose “advisors” rarely have more than a grasp of the basics of their subject and certainly usually know far less than the people they are advising.  In the absence of expertise this organisation has fallen back on prescribed programmes, processes and practices executed by process-followers who force their “clients” into ill-fitting solutions, waste their time with totally unnecessary bureaucratic hoop-jumping and consider it a job well done.  The only real effort demonstrated by these and other public sector organisations I have encountered is in gathering tenuous data to support their continued existence.  This is what waste really looks like.

Apart from the blatant and intentional waste of time that goes on in these places there is inevitable consequential waste represented in the endless arse-scratching done by people who frequently just don’t have a clue what to do next.  But its the intentional waste, driven by the kind of self-interest we have seen demonstrated by Royal Mail, British Gas and now British Airways employees that will be the nail in Britain’s coffin.

I’m concerned that the public sector, being what it is, will put the usual knee-jerk interpretation on the message from Whitehall – reduced funds = reduced services – but that’s not necessarily the case.  Cut out the waste, the processes that waste time for all of us and do nothing, but keep people on the government payroll and, in percentage terms, the reduction in services will be nothing like the reduction in investment.  The public sector just has to stop putting itself first and start doing what’s sensible and right.

If the British people are to be persuaded to consider “government” in a new light, the Government must firstly define what their promise is and then undertake the massive task of getting the people responsible for delivering it committed to the task.  Only once they are confident that every employee is determined to play their part in delivering that promise to the full, can the promise be made with any credibility or any chance of success.  It’s a big ask, a massive challenge, its internal marketing on a scale that has probably never before been tackled.

Pitfalls lie on every side.  When the Labour party finally manage to get their act into any kind of togetherness their traditional support of trades unions like Unite might mean that they contribute to the obstacles facing any re-branding strategy.  Unions themselves are going to have to be realistic in their demands and employees at every level will need to be put straight on the need to contribute to a shared objective rather than perpetuate the self-interest that has been largely responsible for bringing us to this mess.  This requires transparency by the government regarding their agenda, sharing the brand vision and mission and the provision of the information that people need to understand for themselves why the strategy has been chosen and more importantly, what they must do to play their part in its delivery.

It’s about communication on every level embracing every media route – press relations, the internet and electronic media, direct marketing, corporate videos … you name it.  A fully integrated campaign the like of which we haven’t seen before, certainly in this country.  Maybe it’s an opportunity for the COI to really show us what they can do in terms of strategy and efficient project management, but more than that, its an opportunity for the best in every area of marketing and communications to contribute to a project that is really worthwhile.

Michael Weaver
May 24, 2010

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