Living in a world of the merely improbable

This post is a bit of a wander about a few topics so bear with me – it should all come together. The first thing was a reaction around the spending cuts and Queens speech from this week. It’s clearly the thin end of the wedge and anyone who works with the Public Sector needs to make sure that they are truly adding value to their clients or they have no business being here – it’s tough enough already (and we are all taxpayers – let’s not waste our money here). I’ve spent the week at the LGComms conference (more on that anon) and it was clear from that that we are all expecting serious cost cutting over the next 2 years.

However – there are huge opportunities in a situation like this to truly innovate and to attack some of the barriers to change which are more understandable when you have more choices – fewer choices means you need to confront the sensible but difficult – or even inspired – ideas.  We are now living in the world of the improbable – because not providing public services really is the impossible.

I know that I am an evangelist for online – but on every level I cannot see how the Public Sector can respond to these budget pressures without really embracing digital communications and engagement and changing the mix. This really means starting to use offline as the add on for hard to reach groups rather than the default channel. And this is without having to make the point that social web engagement also brings big democratic renewal opportunities – something that is needed as much as the cost savings if you are going to take the public with you when you have to cut services.

It is obvious that on a transaction by transaction basis that moving interactions online will save resources around the citizen relationship in the same way that it has saved money around the transactional customer relationship (SOCITIM have done the work on this but I need to dig out the specific research). But there is an inherent contradiction with engagement work in that more engagement means more interactions – which is more expensive – ie you can’t afford to be too successful – or risk cancelling out your initial savings. What this does is to rule out the ‘lazy’ business case which says we have spent less for the same effect – We have spent the same amount the money to achieve more transactions – but at this point the rules for engagement are different to those for transactions and we have to show the benefit of this volume increase – and that’s the point at which the standard business case model breaks up and we need to look at something more sophisticated. Anthony from the Democratic Society has done some work with us (Public-i) on this and written a rather excellent white paper that starts to explore the wider cost case for better engagement and I think this needs to be built on.
The economic case for making more and better use of digital channels may not yet be canon but it is there to a great enough extent that we need to look for other reasons as to why people are not making this shift in droves.

Dave Briggs pointed me at this article on these barriers which suggests a number of headings for these barriers:

  • Access
  • Equipment
  • Staff and Skills
  • Structures
  • Policy
  • Strategy
  • Vision, Leadership and Management

These are a useful start but the detail on the original article shows this as really coming at this question from the point of view of individuals trying to lobby their organization – which is important – but I am more interested in thinking about the institutional barriers. So here is my take on this (in brief as each of these points is probably a post in its own right):

Firstly, some of the simple barriers that really fall under the aegis of work as we know it:

  • Ignorance / training / skills: This can be seen either in officers, management or Members – and really needs a programme to start addressing it now as we upskill the sector to deal with digitial.
  • Legal confusion: there are lots of issues around using technology around democracy – as well as various data protection confusions – that can just be ironed out and the knowledge shared with other organizations.

And then some of the more difficult ones – these will need some structural change or some external reference:

  • Lack of a business case: the business case process has been embedded within procurement but in a way that makes it very difficult to innovate – it really relies on you not doing something for the first time. We need a way to support sensible tested innovation outside of this process.
  • Turf war and structures: In the same way as the web site was wrestled from IT teams by Communication folks we just don’t yet know where digital engagement will sit as there is a legitimate case in both communications and in engagement teams – and a sense of our ownership from the policy and democratic services folks as well. I would ask the question “Who owns the relationship with the citizen?” and then try and structure from there.
  • No process for experiential learning: this really links to the first point in this section but if given the fact that this is an emergent area of technology as well as shift in democratic and social exchange we really are all learning on the job and need to come up with some way of doing this sensibly that ensures that we capture and share this learning as we go along.

And then the really difficult things which rely on someone really grasping the nettle

  • Lack of leadership and no ability to see the bigger picture: Even with the huge pressures that are on the budget we need leaders who are actively shaping the future rather than merely cutting back the past – where is the new growth and how do we nurture it. We also need leaders that understand these new technologies – so if you do nothing else make sure your manager is briefed.
  • Culture: embedded fear of failure or even fear of change – a management culture that doesn’t support innovation. This is another huge one and something that NESTA have an interesting programme on for instance. But without finding ways to support innovation we will find all our responses to impending cuts will be very negative – and we will not find the opportunity within these difficult choices
  • Inability to reconcile participative and representative democratic models – and no way to involve members. Once we start talking about the relationship with the citizen then we are talking about democracy – and this means that we need to think about the impacts and benefits for the democratic system. And I do mean we – the democratic half life of politicians makes it very difficult for them to embrace process change which means the Public Sector needs to be the custodian of this.

So what can you do? The first group of issues you can just work your way through – the second you can figure out if enough people want to solve the problem. But this last set is really about leadership and innovation which is far more difficult. Our Public Sector culture is, not surprisingly, very risk averse. But as the economic climate puts more and more pressure on public services I hope that one of the outcomes is a positive one. I hope that leaders, both politicians and officers – find an opportunity to innovate and turn this into an opportunity.

It’s hard – being good at something is difficult enough – and there are plenty of challenges – but if we aren’t helping the public sector to be excellent then we are just not helping at all.

  1. Tim Davies

    May 31, 2010 at 3:48 pm

    Hey Catherine

    Thanks for sharing these. Interestingly I’m talking to Dave Briggs in a couple of weeks to revisit some of the 50 Barriers piece – and your insights here are really useful to see the necessity of looking at the barriers (and hopefully therefore solutions) from both individual and strategic perspectives.

    In a lot of models of organisational change it is exactly that last block, which in many ways can I think be summed up under the ‘culture’ point, which are the trickiest but most important to resolve and change. I’m not aware of many examples we’ve got yet of good culture change for big public sector organisations to become more digital-era ready… and working out how the culture change can be done right is certainly a bit challenge I think yet to be resolved…

    • curiouscatherine

      May 31, 2010 at 9:26 pm

      I agree – which is why I think we need to look at individual as well as startegic barriers – we need a view onthe big changes needed at the same time as we support the individuals who have a chance of inspiring that change. Willbe interested to hear where you and dave take this after speaking – would like to talk more on this.

  2. Dave Briggs

    May 31, 2010 at 3:59 pm

    Great post Catherine (as always I guess). Lots in here but I think you are right about both the need for the business case and also for the strategic vision. I’m not talking about a social media or digital engagement strategy, rather an organisation’s corporate strategy: where do they want to go, and how do they think they will get there? Digital, and the behaviour that comes with it (openness, cooperation, generosity, curiosity) needs to be a part of that vision, written in a big font so nobody can avoid it.

    • curiouscatherine

      May 31, 2010 at 9:23 pm

      Exactly! Social web / open data / digital enshrined the co-production that we need to change these relationships – it should be everywhere!

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  4. Tom Phillips

    June 1, 2010 at 2:04 pm


    Thanks for a post that brings together in one place a lot of the things that needed saying in one overall context. I have found this really helpful in clearing the mental decks, as it were.

    For a while, I’ve been assuming the view that where we are now with social media is where we were, say, ten years ago with the internet in the public sector (or in society in general, come to that), or with e-mail use – that it just takes time, but we’ll get there eventually. I’ve begun to realise the fallacy in this, and it’s useful to be reminded that even with the pace of change ramping up all the time ( a point well made in Anthony Z’s paper) time is now a luxury we’ve not got.

    Parallel to some work that you and I are doing, I’ve been looking at issues around the familiarity and (crucially) the hands on use of social media by some of the sorts of front-line people we’d normally be expecting to champion its growth as an engagement tool etc. First impressions are very interesting (if a bit anecdotal), but point to very different work and non-work behaviours and attitudes. Might be because outside of work = “off the leash”, and because the restrictions are tightly applied in many work contexts, though the apparent effect on attitudes as well as behaviour is interesting. I’ll be the first to acknowledge the small size of the test groups, though.

    Your penultimate paragraph says it all very succinctly, IMO., and points to the need at very least to understand the barriers, if not to break through them. Otherwise we risk our response to the opportunity for better engagement via social media falling beteween a rock and some very hard places.

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