The Public Sector Reform Recipe for Success

November 13, 2017   By Donna Hall

In 2012, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that Wigan Council was the third worst affected council by austerity in the UK. We realised that we couldn’t continue to operate as we were. We also knew that by simply closing a few libraries, changing bin collections and reducing school crossing patrols we weren’t going to close a £160m budget gap. We needed to do something radical. We needed to fundamentally change the relationship between citizen and state and create a dynamic, two-way psychological contract with all of our 323,000 residents if we were going to weather the storm together. That’s where The Deal came from.

We created The Deal five years ago, initially in adult social care, but quickly realised the benefits of the approach and its application to all areas of public service. The principles behind our approach are simple but profound. They have fundamentally transformed our relationships with residents.

Previously we were a big, well-run but paternalistic organisation with quite staid, traditional relationships with our residents. Our resident satisfaction with the council was low. People didn’t think we provided value for money and they didn’t trust us. That has all changed for the better through The Deal.

In a nutshell The Deal is a strengths-based model of service co-design with residents and community groups. We explain simple, clearly and repeatedly that we have £160 million less and we need to work differently with them to drive out increasing demand for public services.

This is how we have made it work:

Stop doing things to people. It doesn’t work and costs a fortune. Start doings with people.

Strip out and shut down the assessment and referral structures that cultivate dependency on the state in both the council and the NHS and invest in grassroots community organisations, who can usually do this stuff much better than us.

Train front-line staff to be ethnographic anthropologists. Enable them to have different conversations with residents that focus on what matters to them rather than what is the matter with them.

Give staff the permission to work differently to connect residents to their local communities. You will find it’s usually why they became public servants in the first place; they want to help people rather than turn people away because they are not quite bad enough to meet thresholds of dependency.

Remember loneliness and social isolation is the biggest killer; connecting lonely people into social networks on their doorstep that are usually free or very cheap is better for them and better for our budgets. We have seen packages of social care reduce from over £1,000 per week to £17 per week with a happier, more connected service users.

Know and invest in your communities to build a strong trusted infrastructure that is there 24/7 when we have all gone home. Use neighbourhoods as the essential building blocks of public services. GP surgeries and schools are where real transformation takes place. Keep the things that connect people and makes communities stronger, for example libraries open.

Be bold enough to close the things that don’t work as well as a supportive family or a connected community.
Listen to your staff and residents.

Admit when you get it wrong internally and externally and put it right quickly.

Invest in all things digital to connect staff and residents with the future as well as saving loads of money.
Engage your partners, community, public and private sector in this new approach. It simply won’t work if it’s just the council and not the NHS etc.

Build a leadership team of officers and members with bags of energy and enthusiasm that are public service reformers and really believe in this different way of working.

Reform is a scary word, after all it’s associated with ‘reorganisation’ and ‘restructure,’ which is enough to make anyone nervous, but it doesn’t have to be. Reform should be seen as an opportunity to continually review what you’re doing and to improve and innovate existing processes and practices. As public servants we should always be reflecting and improving, we owe it to our residents. And quite frankly if it still scares you then you shouldn’t be in the job.

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