HOW ARE public services to achieve the colossal shift of resources to the front line demanded by the government? Although last year's efficiency review was as short on examples as it was long on numbers, the assumption seems to be that 'big' and 'remote' are somewhere in the answer: outsource, share services, combine procurement into mega-agencies and persuade groups of councils to do things jointly.
But here's a different approach:
* Understand what customers want and only do work that improves their experience of the service
* Ensure work goes out 100 per cent perfect, taking whatever time is needed and drawing on all necessary resources
* Manage the customer through to the end of the process, keeping them informed of progress and the service levels they can expect
* Organise work so that it is as error-proof as possible
* In meeting demand, work on the principle of 'first in, first out' seek to improve the end-to-end flow of work through the system every day
* Use measures that tell staff how well they are achieving things that matter to customers, not official specifications.
To top civil servants fretting about high-level targets, such a recipe will seem trivial - what on earth does all this have to do with finding pounds 21 billion? For the answer they should visit Swale Borough Council in Kent to see how using these down-to-earth principles helped transform a typical council service, assessing and paying housing benefit, from the worst in the country to one of the best in the space of a few months, with no extra resources and never a CRM system, shared service or call centre in sight.
Rewind to May 2004, when Swale's housing benefit backlog was so bad that the press and local MP were baying for blood. The department was taking more than six months to pay a claim, and at the nadir nearly 8,000 people had cases outstanding, 20 times the norm. The benefit fraud inspectors were due to visit for a near-unprecedented third time, and the council's reputation was in tatters. It's fair to say that in any popularity con test in Sittingbourne, Mark Radford, Swale's director of corporate services, would not have come top.
Despite temporary improvements from hit squads and improvement teams, Radford became increasingly convinced that these weren't the answer. The problem couldn't be solved using existing methods, he reasoned, because they were causing the difficulties in the first place. Even on the rare occasions when there wasn't a backlog, one was waiting to happen, and duly did for the slightest cause.
A quick assessment by consultants confirmed that every aspect of performance - service, efficiency, staff empowerment, performance management - was as bad as anticipated, if not worse. The only way of bringing the backlog down was to use unfeasible numbers of assessors. 'We couldn't see the wood for the trees,' Radford admits. 'We weren't looking at the process from the claimant's point of view. There were two separate parts, inquiry and assessment, and no one was looking at it end to end, the way the customer experiences it. People were doing what the system told them to do, not the customers.'
So far, so normal. As in a great many public and private service organisations, Swale's system indeed required 'reform'. But the next step was crucial.
An astonishing number of organisations, says John Seddon of consultants Vanguard, rush into reorganisation, often buying off-the-peg IT 'solutions', without basic knowledge of what the system is trying to achieve and its real capacity for doing it. For instance, just because a department gets a certain number of calls and contacts doesn't mean they all qualify as 'demand': some calls will be repeat calls from claimants chasing up progress or trying to find out about something that should have happened already. Such calls are effectively waste: and switching off this 'failure demand', says Seddon, is one of the of most powerful ways of both increasing capacity and bringing down service costs.
In most organisations, and not just in the public sector, such fundamental information is lacking. The only way to get it is to set a team of frontline workers (because they are the ones who deal with customers) to study actual contacts and analyse what they mean.
The results were a shock. In Swale's case (not unusual, according to Vanguard), only around one-third of letters, phone calls and visits were new claims. All the rest were 'waste': demand resulting from a previous failure. Only 3 per cent of claimants had their claim settled in one visit to the office most came in at least three times some up to 10. No wonder the council couldn't conquer the backlog. It was drowning in its own waste, made worse by self-created duplication, rework, and endless hunts for lost information. When scanning documents into the system it sorted them three times and checked them eight times. As realisation dawned, there was a turning point when one staff member confided to Radford: 'We've forgotten our purpose. We're pushing paper to satisfy official specifications, not the claimants.'
Once purpose had been re-established by the whole representative team - get clean information, assess it, pay as quickly as possible to those entitled - redesigning the system, again using the frontline teams, was easy. As the call analysis had established, the real bottleneck was not assessing claims, the presumed culprit, but getting clean information in the first place. So the council formulated a bargain: if claimants provided all the right documents it promised to deal with the claim immediately, or within days if it had to be referred elsewhere.
The results, says Radford, were 'instant and transformational'. After a three-week pilot it was clear that redesigning the system into a single flow allowed staff to cope with claims in days if not hours. Rolled out without ado to cover all 60 benefits staff, it quickly began to reel in the backlog. Live claims have come down to 300, and staff are coming to terms with unaccustomed gifts of flowers and cake instead of brickbats. Morale and quality are up extra capacity has been delivered to the front line at no extra cost.
Radford, meanwhile, is not only intent on maintaining and improving this level of performance in benefits, but is also looking, with colleagues, at extending the same principles to other council services.
As he notes, 'There is always another way of doing things to provide resources to the front line.' Gordon Brown should be pleased.
The Observer, 23 January 2005