People and processesChange ManagementThink strategically despite the pressures

Think strategically despite the pressures

How can public sector leaders think strategically against a backdrop of uncertainty, rapidly evolving external influences and extreme pressures? GovTech Leaders finds out.

The public sector is having to deal with a large number of external influences and extreme pressures, many of which are constantly shifting. Against this backdrop, it’s understandably difficult for people to have the motivation to think strategically and long-term – and to make tough decisions about service provision.

At the recent Civica Exchange Conference, a panel of experts were asked how this problem can be overcome and how public sector leaders can manage expectations and make the right strategic decisions for their organisations. Here’s what the panellists had to say in response:

Tracey Blackwell, Strategic Director at South Kesteven Council: “We’ve seen time and time again some particularly hard decisions being made, especially by county councils and unitary authorities about prioritising adult social care and children’s care over other services that the public really value. The reality is that certain areas have to be cut.

“The positive from this is that there’s a reasonable level of acceptance amongst citizens. A simple service like grass cutting is a good example. Verges used to be trimmed eight or nine times a year and everything was neat and tidy. Now we have shaggy roadsides, but people accept the necessity of cutbacks so that we can reinvest the savings elsewhere.

“We’re continuing our transformation journey, which we started a number of years ago, which is a combination of service reviews, looking at exactly what our customers value, how productive we are, our costs, whether we could or should deliver at a lower level and what our political backers want. We’re looking at digitisation, predictive analytics and performance data to understand what adds value and where we can move our time. But the fact is, if we can get on with transformation quickly, it makes dealing with the financial pressure easier. By making these changes and being more productive we can release resources. In some cases that will be to simply reduce the budget – that’s the harsh reality. But on other occasions will be about reinvesting elsewhere, such as economic growth initiatives that bring in extra business rates and create more housing that leads to more revenue.

“It’s difficult, but we will get through it. There are lots of examples of local authorities up and down the country who are following commercial agendas and creating their own companies to do something way outside the traditional scope of what a council does.”

Caron Alexander, Director of Digital Shared Services for Northern Ireland Government: “I really believe that we need to stop working in our silos and start working together more. Too much time and money is being spent doing the same thing over and over again in a slightly different way, when it shouldn’t be. We need to embrace shared services more. What can be reused across the public sector? And how can we design services that are more easily shared? If we do that, we can start to reduce the financial overheads in a meaningful way.

Tony Hughes, Chief Product Officer, Civica: “The reality is that not doing everything you do today, tomorrow, is part of that answer. It’s not necessarily stopping the service completely, but it’s understanding how you can simplify some services or flip the model so that you can start charging for services. That eye towards income generation and being a provider to the public as well as a caretaker to citizens is an important part of the process.

“I believe digital technology can help simplify and automate processes. I believe business intelligence and AI are the gateway technologies to making the above happen, but many of the tough decisions are down to the service providers themselves. What is a relevant level of service?

“When you’re asking citizens about services, which is absolutely the right thing to do, you have to go about it the right way. Unless you find ways to engage every part of society, you risk introducing a bias because only those with time and/or digital skills will be heard. You need to think hard about engagement.”

Girish Solanki, Head of Digital Change, Leeds City Council: “I think there’s a cultural issue to address. The demand on IT is growing at a rate that’s difficult to manage. We’re looking to technical solutions to solve budget problems and while it undoubtedly helps, it’s not the solution if we don’t take the people with us, or we don’t look at how we deliver our services.

“I found out last week that we receive PDF invoices and paper invoices. We employ someone in a mail room to print off the PDFs and then scanning it in with a barcode on so it can be posted to our finance system. Nobody has any idea why we’re doing that! We just do it because it was done way back when. We have to uncover and understand processes like this that we can streamline without buying new technology, that will save us a resource. We, as leaders, need to challenge what we do in organisations. Asking why is a powerful question.”

Rob Whiteman, CEO, Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA): “One of the great happiness’s of my career is that I’ve seen some incredible innovation and examples of people working together across silos to pull together new services on multi-organisational basis. One of the great sadness’s is that when I go back five years later it’s not there anymore because people have changed.

“What I’ve realised over the years is that leaders in our field need to create partnering organisations where the whole organisation acts and thinks in a collaborative way, rather than just from project to project. I think it’s harder to work in collaboration than ever before because budget cuts lend to us feeling a little bit hurt and a little bit mistrustful. It also leads to us dealing with internal pressures more, rather than looking outward.

“As leaders, we have to speak well of other organisations. Otherwise, if all we do is criticise, we’re leading our people down a path of mistrust. We have to be the advocate for health, housing and police within our organisations, otherwise leaders become the biggest impediment to collaboration.”

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