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So what's the big idea?

Sun, 25th Apr 2004

DELIVERY, delivery, delivery - with political parties now competing as much on managerial as on ideological credentials, it's perhaps not surprising that pressure to improve public services has triggered an explosion of demand for consultancy in the public sector. Last year the public sector consumed pounds 1.3 billion of advice, almost double the 2002 figure. Three-quarters of the total derived from central government, making it the UK's largest consultancy market.

Although much of the work was based around giant public-sector IT-based contracts (Inland Revenue, Department of Work and Pensions, Transport for London and the NHS), public-sector appetite for other consultancy lines also increased sharply - strategy and HR but above all operations: programme management, business process reengineering and change management.

Are public-sector clients learning the lesson that the real benefits of investment in IT are only reaped if it is accompanied by joined-up change in other areas - that if you automate an existing inefficient process you just get bad results quicker?

'Public sector managers are conscious that they have a special set of problems and they are doing their best to think them through intelligently,' says the MCA's Fiona Czerniewska. Indeed, an encouraging proportion of winners in the 2004 MCA best management practice awards went to public-sector assignments - including Westminster Council, which carried off the platinum award.

There's a way to go, however, before the results of all change assignments are so successful. This is true of the private sector too - large-scale change initiatives are notoriously prone to failure everywhere - but the constraints that the public sector operates under makes them especially tricky.

This is partly because, in the absence of the hard edge of profitability, measures of success are less obvious but also because the very urgency of the pressures brought to bear from above can fight against change. Fear is the mortal enemy of rational reflection - jumping too energetically into e-government and other initiatives may be storing up trouble for the future.

Thus Anne Bennett, senior consultant at ER Consulting, believes that the huge amounts of money involved don't necessarily mean that the public sector is a mature buyer of consultancy services. In the Whitehall procurement culture, consultancy comes and goes as an acceptable object of spending.

Nor is it good enough, she says, for consultants to pitch up and simply give clients what they think they want. There are a few breakthroughs, but too many 'solutions' fail to challenge traditional thinking and may actually make matters more complicated. For example, public-sector outsourcing sets up new boundaries for people to work across, making joined-up activity and organisational learning that much harder.

'The quality of the debate is not as high as it should be,' says Bennett. The consultancies need to put their house in order, just as clients should beware putting too much faith in bandwagons and received formulae of 'best practice'.

Becoming more self-reliant is clearly wise, although not easy to do. Central pressures are hard to resist, even when they do a powerful job of generating internal resistance to change.

'The starting point for many clients is, "how can we get them to do what I want?",' says John Seddon, head of lean service specialist Vanguard Consulting. Under pressure to meet targets, they assume the starting-point for change is an immediate programme of communications, training and projects. 'Because it doesn't proceed from systematic knowledge and data that just produces arguments which no one can win except by coercion,' says Seddon. The result is compliance at best, disengagement and hostility at worst. Hence the myth of middle management and the frontline workers obdurately hostile to change.

In fact, it is often senior managers who are most uncomfortable with unlearning the current approach. Before altering anything it is essential to go back to first principles - including the purpose of the service and whom the changes are intended to benefit as well as the 'what' and 'why' of the present system, especially accurate measures of real demand and how it is being met.

That may sound obvious, but such basics are often lacking in both public and private sectors - with the added complication in the public sector that managers instinctively face upwards and many change initiatives implicitly assume that the Government is the customer rather than the individual citizen. It is an important reason why frontline workers get so demoralised and frustrated and citizens fail to perceive the desired improvements.

The real object of reform must be to break away from the cycle of wrenching, one-off, target-driven change initiatives and put the improvement methods in the hands of those who carry out the work every day. The benefits of managing change in this way are not just that it generates surprising results - service times and cost slashed at the same time as quality raised. It also makes longer-term savings and productivity gains by ensuring that IT and automation are 'pulled' in where necessary to support core work that is already lean rather than automatically 'pushed' from above.

In some cases, IT turns out to be much less important than the official view assumes. The real issue in service improvement is reconnecting human brains with work as much as artificial ones. It is building competence and knowledge and a system that can self-adapt to changes in demand.

'The important thing about the public sector is that it's vocational,' says Seddon. 'Regimes of targets and central specifications have taken the heart out of it. We need to give people the method to put it back.'

25 Apr 2004: The Observer - Page 4 - (907 words)
Consulting: WORKING WITH MANAGEMENT CONSULTANTS : So what's the big idea?: Joined-up thinking is the way forward, as the public sector is discovering, writes Simon Caulkin
By:
DELIVERY, delivery, delivery - with political parties now competing as much on managerial as on ideological credentials, it's perhaps not surprising that pressure to improve public services has triggered an explosion of demand for consultancy in the public sector. Last year the public sector consumed pounds 1.3 billion of advice, almost double the 2002 figure. Three-quarters of the total derived from central government, making it the UK's largest consultancy market.

Although much of the work was based around giant public-sector IT-based contracts (Inland Revenue, Department of Work and Pensions, Transport for London and the NHS), public-sector appetite for other consultancy lines also increased sharply - strategy and HR but above all operations: programme management, business process reengineering and change management.

Are public-sector clients learning the lesson that the real benefits of investment in IT are only reaped if it is accompanied by joined-up change in other areas - that if you automate an existing inefficient process you just get bad results quicker?

'Public sector managers are conscious that they have a special set of problems and they are doing their best to think them through intelligently,' says the MCA's Fiona Czerniewska. Indeed, an encouraging proportion of winners in the 2004 MCA best management practice awards went to public-sector assignments - including Westminster Council, which carried off the platinum award.

There's a way to go, however, before the results of all change assignments are so successful. This is true of the private sector too - large-scale change initiatives are notoriously prone to failure everywhere - but the constraints that the public sector operates under makes them especially tricky.

This is partly because, in the absence of the hard edge of profitability, measures of success are less obvious but also because the very urgency of the pressures brought to bear from above can fight against change. Fear is the mortal enemy of rational reflection - jumping too energetically into e-government and other initiatives may be storing up trouble for the future.

Thus Anne Bennett, senior consultant at ER Consulting, believes that the huge amounts of money involved don't necessarily mean that the public sector is a mature buyer of consultancy services. In the Whitehall procurement culture, consultancy comes and goes as an acceptable object of spending.

Nor is it good enough, she says, for consultants to pitch up and simply give clients what they think they want. There are a few breakthroughs, but too many 'solutions' fail to challenge traditional thinking and may actually make matters more complicated. For example, public-sector outsourcing sets up new boundaries for people to work across, making joined-up activity and organisational learning that much harder.

'The quality of the debate is not as high as it should be,' says Bennett. The consultancies need to put their house in order, just as clients should beware putting too much faith in bandwagons and received formulae of 'best practice'.

Becoming more self-reliant is clearly wise, although not easy to do. Central pressures are hard to resist, even when they do a powerful job of generating internal resistance to change.

'The starting point for many clients is, "how can we get them to do what I want?",' says John Seddon, head of lean service specialist Vanguard Consulting. Under pressure to meet targets, they assume the starting-point for change is an immediate programme of communications, training and projects. 'Because it doesn't proceed from systematic knowledge and data that just produces arguments which no one can win except by coercion,' says Seddon. The result is compliance at best, disengagement and hostility at worst. Hence the myth of middle management and the frontline workers obdurately hostile to change.

In fact, it is often senior managers who are most uncomfortable with unlearning the current approach. Before altering anything it is essential to go back to first principles - including the purpose of the service and whom the changes are intended to benefit as well as the 'what' and 'why' of the present system, especially accurate measures of real demand and how it is being met.

That may sound obvious, but such basics are often lacking in both public and private sectors - with the added complication in the public sector that managers instinctively face upwards and many change initiatives implicitly assume that the Government is the customer rather than the individual citizen. It is an important reason why frontline workers get so demoralised and frustrated and citizens fail to perceive the desired improvements.

The real object of reform must be to break away from the cycle of wrenching, one-off, target-driven change initiatives and put the improvement methods in the hands of those who carry out the work every day. The benefits of managing change in this way are not just that it generates surprising results - service times and cost slashed at the same time as quality raised. It also makes longer-term savings and productivity gains by ensuring that IT and automation are 'pulled' in where necessary to support core work that is already lean rather than automatically 'pushed' from above.

In some cases, IT turns out to be much less important than the official view assumes. The real issue in service improvement is reconnecting human brains with work as much as artificial ones. It is building competence and knowledge and a system that can self-adapt to changes in demand.

'The important thing about the public sector is that it's vocational,' says Seddon. 'Regimes of targets and central specifications have taken the heart out of it. We need to give people the method to put it back.'

25 Apr 2004: The Observer - Page 4 - (907 words)
Consulting: WORKING WITH MANAGEMENT CONSULTANTS : So what's the big idea?: Joined-up thinking is the way forward, as the public sector is discovering, writes Simon Caulkin
By:
DELIVERY, delivery, delivery - with political parties now competing as much on managerial as on ideological credentials, it's perhaps not surprising that pressure to improve public services has triggered an explosion of demand for consultancy in the public sector. Last year the public sector consumed pounds 1.3 billion of advice, almost double the 2002 figure. Three-quarters of the total derived from central government, making it the UK's largest consultancy market.

Although much of the work was based around giant public-sector IT-based contracts (Inland Revenue, Department of Work and Pensions, Transport for London and the NHS), public-sector appetite for other consultancy lines also increased sharply - strategy and HR but above all operations: programme management, business process reengineering and change management.

Are public-sector clients learning the lesson that the real benefits of investment in IT are only reaped if it is accompanied by joined-up change in other areas - that if you automate an existing inefficient process you just get bad results quicker?

'Public sector managers are conscious that they have a special set of problems and they are doing their best to think them through intelligently,' says the MCA's Fiona Czerniewska. Indeed, an encouraging proportion of winners in the 2004 MCA best management practice awards went to public-sector assignments - including Westminster Council, which carried off the platinum award.

There's a way to go, however, before the results of all change assignments are so successful. This is true of the private sector too - large-scale change initiatives are notoriously prone to failure everywhere - but the constraints that the public sector operates under makes them especially tricky.

This is partly because, in the absence of the hard edge of profitability, measures of success are less obvious but also because the very urgency of the pressures brought to bear from above can fight against change. Fear is the mortal enemy of rational reflection - jumping too energetically into e-government and other initiatives may be storing up trouble for the future.

Thus Anne Bennett, senior consultant at ER Consulting, believes that the huge amounts of money involved don't necessarily mean that the public sector is a mature buyer of consultancy services. In the Whitehall procurement culture, consultancy comes and goes as an acceptable object of spending.

Nor is it good enough, she says, for consultants to pitch up and simply give clients what they think they want. There are a few breakthroughs, but too many 'solutions' fail to challenge traditional thinking and may actually make matters more complicated. For example, public-sector outsourcing sets up new boundaries for people to work across, making joined-up activity and organisational learning that much harder.

'The quality of the debate is not as high as it should be,' says Bennett. The consultancies need to put their house in order, just as clients should beware putting too much faith in bandwagons and received formulae of 'best practice'.

Becoming more self-reliant is clearly wise, although not easy to do. Central pressures are hard to resist, even when they do a powerful job of generating internal resistance to change.

'The starting point for many clients is, "how can we get them to do what I want?",' says John Seddon, head of lean service specialist Vanguard Consulting. Under pressure to meet targets, they assume the starting-point for change is an immediate programme of communications, training and projects. 'Because it doesn't proceed from systematic knowledge and data that just produces arguments which no one can win except by coercion,' says Seddon. The result is compliance at best, disengagement and hostility at worst. Hence the myth of middle management and the frontline workers obdurately hostile to change.

In fact, it is often senior managers who are most uncomfortable with unlearning the current approach. Before altering anything it is essential to go back to first principles - including the purpose of the service and whom the changes are intended to benefit as well as the 'what' and 'why' of the present system, especially accurate measures of real demand and how it is being met.

That may sound obvious, but such basics are often lacking in both public and private sectors - with the added complication in the public sector that managers instinctively face upwards and many change initiatives implicitly assume that the Government is the customer rather than the individual citizen. It is an important reason why frontline workers get so demoralised and frustrated and citizens fail to perceive the desired improvements.

The real object of reform must be to break away from the cycle of wrenching, one-off, target-driven change initiatives and put the improvement methods in the hands of those who carry out the work every day. The benefits of managing change in this way are not just that it generates surprising results - service times and cost slashed at the same time as quality raised. It also makes longer-term savings and productivity gains by ensuring that IT and automation are 'pulled' in where necessary to support core work that is already lean rather than automatically 'pushed' from above.

In some cases, IT turns out to be much less important than the official view assumes. The real issue in service improvement is reconnecting human brains with work as much as artificial ones. It is building competence and knowledge and a system that can self-adapt to changes in demand.

'The important thing about the public sector is that it's vocational,' says Seddon. 'Regimes of targets and central specifications have taken the heart out of it. We need to give people the method to put it back.'

WORKING WITH MANAGEMENT CONSULTANTS, Special Report, The Observer 25 April 2004


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