Friday, 16 April 2010

Tackling the financial crisis: What is your ‘legs eleven’?

The challenge is on to find ways to reduce costs, maintain essential frontline services and do what can be done to protect jobs. However as the general election campaign continues to unfold, the true scale of the reductions in public funding are becoming ever clearer. Soon we are probably going to be in ‘another country’ where the usual efficiency measures simply won’t be enough.

To quote a politician from the last few days (and I forget who!) “it can’t just about reducing the paper clip budget, wishing for an end to bureaucracy and freezing a few empty posts”. New and starkly different ways thinking & acting are going to be required.

And so I came to wondering how the beliefs about how to do ‘more with less’ might need to change. I came up with 11 ideas – 3 beliefs to stop, 3 beliefs to start & 3 beliefs with which to carry on. The 10th idea is about stepping back and the 11th poses a radical ‘why not...?’. 

In my view, we need to:
  1. Stop believing that inefficient embedded cultures & engrained practices are impossible to change (Yes, it won’t be easy. But now is not the time for pusillanimity: the public services who will thrive through this turbulent times will be the ones who grasp nettles and robustly put delivering sustainable value to citizens / customers / clients / taxpayers very centre stage)
  2. Stop believing that there is heaven in the closely & rationally argued detail (The age of 356 page strategic plans is surely over! The endless iterations of turgid guidance should now also be history. This may not [yet?]be the time to throw caution to the wind, but it surely is the time to let it float on a breeze while people are encouraged and allowed to make bold decisions based on shrewd intuition and just a little less than endless ‘due diligence’)
  3. Stop believing that yet more ICT is what is required (Without doubt ICT has enabled and streamlined much of what we do. But I also remember a time when word processing was meant to do away with lots of tiresome clerical tasks. The documents are prettier, cutting & pasting has become a fine art for people who have never done it with real glue but we still have yet to reach that mythical kingdom where people don’t have to key in an address several times over. Perhaps it is time to call a halt, or at least a moratorium, on purchasing that next ICT fix)
  4. Start believing that citizen engagement can deliver efficiency, effectiveness, economy and empowerment (Cuts or no, we still need public services to educate our young people, to care for older people, to tackle crime, to maintain our roads. But how many of these services that are done for, or even to, citizens would be better off being done with the public? Once upon a time a forecourt attendant filled up our petrol tank: now we do it ourselves. Is that so bad? What public services must go a similar way?)
  5. Start believing that there is real and immediate value to had from collaboration and mergers (I have sometimes seen obvious collaborations staring people in the face but then well argued reasons are found to prevaricate or even block such changes. On the other hand, I have seen organisations take the view that “where there’s a will, there’s a way” and drive through a successful collaborative structure. This is a time for such bold action. It is not the time for pickiness, preciousness and posturing to stop progress)
  6. Start believing that radical reforming, reframing, redesigning & rethinking services can happen without a legion of expensive consultants (It is my belief and experience that within every organisation there is a huge reservoir of small, and sometimes large, creative ideas for improvement. Often these reservoirs are left untapped whilst the same organisations pay buckets of money to large consultancies who then either plunder the ideas or impose inappropriate models of change on the client or both. I would argue that far more needs to be done to create the leadership and organisational cultural environments whereby these ideas are allowed to flourish like poppies in a field of corn. (Please see my blog: for hundreds of examples of such ideas)
  7. Carry on believing that the employees are the best asset any organisation has (Sadly it is inevitable that there will be redundancies from these cutbacks. I would argue that the way that this is done is critical to the ongoing health of the organisations left behind. There will be much to do to plan wisely and humanely about how this should be done with the staff who will be directly affected. This will also wash over the staff who are left behind. In my view, everything that can be done to make the process as respectful and supportive as possible for all involved is both ethically and financially imperative)
  8. Carry on believing in the vital importance of leadership through all of this (These turbulent times will demand superlative leadership that will ensure that strategic, rather than knee jerk, actions are taken. Good leadership will also ensure that cuts are taken intelligently tackling the areas of ‘quick fix’ waste rather than imposing, say, a 15% cut across all budgets, even the ones that are of most value and efficiency. Excellent leadership will mean that the organisations come out the other side of this process even stronger, more flexible, and ever more tuned to citizen demands & aspirations.)
  9. Carry on believing in the worth of evaluation to evidence what works, what is most efficient and why (There is no point ‘throwing good money after bad’. There never has been. And now we certainly cannot afford to do so. Whilst it will be easy to cut budgets for evaluation, I would argue it is now even more critical to understand what is working and why, as well as understanding what is not. Evaluation is an investment in efficiency, economy and effectiveness)
  10. Step back, explore and challenge all our other beliefs & assumptions that may be costing us dearly (One story I am reminded of is from a council in Yorkshire that investigated its processes for fixing street lights. They found that when a member of the public phoned in to report a defective street light they sent an engineer to verify the report was correct. Usually it was and then they sent another engineer to fix it. They made a remarkable discovery. If they changed their assumption from not believing the members of the public to believing them – they saved themselves a whole lump of resources. How many assumptions do we make that cost us huge amounts of money?)
  11. And why not, stop cumbersome procurement and start smart negotiating instead (Have you tested the value of procurement as against old fashioned negotiation? It strikes me that vast amounts of time go into ‘feeding the procurement beast’ that are simply not accounted for when it comes to evaluating the worth of the process. The people who iterate endless specifications, produce impenetrable invitations to tender and then allocate many person days to the process of scoring the bids might be far better off if they simply sat the existing suppliers down in a room and just haggled a bit. There is more I could say on this subject as regular readers will know: But why not?)

What ‘legs eleven’ ideas would you put forward? What ideas / beliefs / activities / services / processes / politicians (!) / etc. would you stop, start, carry on, step back from and challenge with a ‘why not’ ?


  1. Anonymous27/4/10 16:09

    I think ICT is much more than just word processing and powerpoint... especially since you go on to talk about citizen engagement: surely ICT has a role here?

  2. Of course it can and should be - indeed I say that "without doubt ICT has enabled and streamlined much of what we do" - but I think now is the time to take stock. From where I sit, way too many ICT projects go well over budget, fail to truly engage the end users / citizens and provide yet another legacy system that binds the hands of many public services long into the future. In my experience, ICT often gets in the way of collaboration rather than facilitating it.

  3. John Diffenthal26/5/10 11:35

    I concur with the ICT point. I have just seen a working paper for a new IT investment by a large consultancy which barely mentions the business case at all. We must challenge anything similar. If it doesn't deliver a significant business benefit then we shouldn't consider investing in it.