How to save money in the public sector the right way

We were running a series of workshops recently and have been really struck by a few emerging themes about making savings well, and how this impacts on those who are required to manage through the turmoil.

At one session, we were discussing some of the amazing things that they are doing in Manchester and the work we’re supporting on domestic violence. Assistant Chief Consultable Rebekah Sutcliffe has been leading this along with Chief Superindent Neil Evans (two of my absolute public sector heroes, seriously these people are inspirational and the work is among the highlights of my career!) with fantastic support from the PCC, Jamie Hopwood and funding from the Home Office.

We were talking about how the new model that is being driven is a once in a career opportunity to build a brand new service from the ground up based on evidence and data that fundamentally changes the system and tackles genuine need, probably for the first time ever. Oh and it also happens to be substantially cheaper.

Those at the workshop were truly inspired by this and quite right too (“Now I remember – THIS is why we came into the public sector – to make a difference to citizens, residents and communities”).

But… in their context this wasn’t how it was. One comment was “great stuff, but for us we’re down to banning post-it notes and cancelling training courses”. Now this can work, after all British Cycling has transformed the sport by focussing on all the minor details (the 1% ‘marginal gains’ that add up to a big impact). We’re great fans of this model, but only works if you’ve got all the basics right. If you’re on a bike with square wheels, then fine tuning the aerodynamics of your racing suit isn’t really going to help much.

And this was the thing. Those at the event felt strongly that they weren’t doing the once a career stuff like Manchester are doing – “All these cuts were an emergency act to scrape through this year’s budget”, said one. It certainly didn’t inspire, excite and re-enthuse those that were involved like some of the people we’ve spoken with in Manchester. Fundamentally they were still on bikes with square wheels. One comment was “if you had shares in a company and the only thing they could think of to get through was to ban post-its, how long would you stay an investor?”

This is something we couldn’t help but agree with.

At a second workshop, we heard that to save costs, they’d done the whole self-serve HR system thing. All very well to save headcount in HR but the consequence was that well paid managers were being taken off their core function and being distracted by basic admin that they weren’t very good at.  It was suggested that this didn’t really feel very much like a long term survival strategy.

We couldn’t help but agree with that as well.

It seems to us that these are clear examples of sweating the small stuff but missing the big picture. What’s going to work better, major system level change to impact on the real issues (which happens to be cheaper) or banning coffee at two day workshops? And which is going to give the greatest inspiration, sense of achievement and motivation on a Monday morning to those involved? Be honest, did you really come into the public sector for this? If not, is it really the case that there’s nothing for it but deleting the post-it note budget?