Creativity in the public sector

Our politicians keep introducing reforms, claiming that this will make public sector organisations as efficient and innovative as the private sector, but each time it just seems to make things worse.

Having spent virtually my entire career with innovative companies in the private sector, over the last few years I’ve done an increasing amount of work with the public sector. The subtle contrast between the public and private sectors has been fascinating.

The first thing I noticed was that at “ground level” there was very little difference between the creativity and energy of the junior staff in say the NHS or in a big pharmaceutical company, or between teachers in the public or private sector. All are equally likely to be motivated, creative and to care deeply about doing their job well…… and equally likely to feel that their managers are stifling their creativity.

The difference starts to become more apparent at middle manager level. Although they’re often derided and blamed for all the ills of an organisation, I have a lot of sympathy for middle managers.

At best, the organisation is set up so that the middle managers are seen as the bridge between the staff working at ground level, who are in touch with the day to day realities of the job, and the organisation’s overriding sense of purpose and strategy. Nonaka, an eminent Japanese professor of management, refers to this group as the “middle-up-down managers”, considering them the most important source of innovation in an organisation. Not all middle managers manage to live up to this ideal, but it’s also awfully easy for inadequate senior managers to scapegoat middle managers. I was once struck speechless (those who know me know that this takes some doing) by a rather introverted CEO who claimed to me that it was the fault of his middle managers that his vision for the organisation wasn’t well communicated, when in my opinion he just needed to get out of his office more.

It’s at senior levels that the differences between the public and private sectors become more noticeable. And no, I’m not knocking the calibre of the managers here, I think the fundamental problem is that senior managers in the public sector have to work in a breathtakingly awful environment, and one that’s not of their making.

Part of the problem seems to be what I can only describe as bullying from politicians, whether local councillors or government ministers, or anything in between. A few years ago, the Chief Executive of a local NHS Trust told me that the job was like being the “jam in the sandwich”, squeezed between the (often legitimate) demands of the medics and intense top down pressure from politicians to “meet this target or else”. Unsurprisingly, few NHS Chief Execs last long.

Before coming into office David Cameron made impassioned speeches about the importance of moving from a top-down to a bottom-up society, and waxed lyrical about how good this would be for innovation. He was right. It would have been a good idea, but unfortunately its not what’s happening. Once in government, it seems that the seductive lure of power and control exerts its grip…..

For example, Academy status schools are promoted as being freer, but it turns out that the reality is about exchanging local government control for central government control. A local teacher told me the other day that her Village College had very reluctantly decided that they had no choice but to make the switch, even though they would have preferred to stay with their local authority.

I have been amazed at the increasingly bizarre levels micromanagement imposed on the public sector.   For example, for organisations controlled by BIS (Business, Innovation and Skills), last year’s finalised annual accounts had to be available within one month of the year end. What private sector company could do that? Capital budgets are suddenly extended, on condition that millions of pounds are spent within a month. There’s great difficulty in discussing what the organisation might be doing after the end of the current spending round, ie 2015. For organisations managing £M of public assets and with commitments lasting decades, this is a real challenge for strategic planning. I’m amazed they manage to cope.

I find it bizarre that at the same time as imposing these completely non-private-sector-like requirements, our politicians are busy imposing other reforms, nominally to make the public sector more like a private sector market place. These changes create huge turmoil, but as a report by the Think Tank Civitas pointed out a few years ago “The introduction of competition to the NHS cannot be shown to have improved the health service, and may have produced extra costs”

The unwelcome truth for politicians is that the best way to stimulate innovation would be for them to focus on long term policy goals and develop a stable framework to achieve these, then to step back from meddling. Give those that have the expertise, passion and creativity to do the job the long term security, confidence and freedom to get on with it. That really would put the public sector on a par with the most innovative and entrepreneurial of private companies.

Unfortunately of course, as a media dominated democracy, if any politician had the courage to do this, we’d probably decide they weren’t doing anything and would vote them out at the next election.

So that makes it our fault.