What makes a vibrant successful public sector organisation? - a roundtable discussion

Written by Jenni Davidson on 27 June 2016 in Inside Politics

Nine leaders of public sector organisations discuss the challenges and successes for the sector

“I worry about the label of public sector that we place on ourselves, because actually we’re good businesses and we do good things and I think we get pigeonholed by an immediate stereotype that you’re public sector. And I think that’s probably one of the challenges,” said Martin Dorchester, chief executive of the David MacBrayne Group, which runs the Caledonian MacBrayne and Argyll ferries, as a group of leaders of public sector organisations got together round a table to discuss some of the challenges and achievements within the public sector in Scotland.

The roundtable discussion, organised by Holyrood in partnership with Grant Thornton and chaired by David Wilson, executive director of the International Public Policy Institute at the University of Strathclyde, brought together the chief executives of four local authorities as well as Registers of Scotland, SEPA, Scottish Water and Glasgow Life to exchange ideas and talk about what makes a vibrant, successful public sector organisation.

Topics ranged from collaboration to storytelling, technology to mission statements, and the varied interests of those around the table demonstrated the differences and similarities in organisations within the sector.

Steve Grimmond of Fife Council said was particularly interested in moving the focus from incremental change to transformational change, while Scottish Water had already gone through transformational change that included a 40 per cent cost reduction – taking it from a position where its charges were the highest in the UK and its service the lowest to having some of the highest service in the UK and the second lowest charges – and Scottish Water COO Peter Farrer was keen to discuss how best to tackle the incremental change the organisation now needs.

“We’re finding that the incremental change is the thin end of the wedge. We’ve had all the low-hanging fruit; we’re going for the really hard stuff now,” he said.

Like Grimmond, Sandra Black was looking for an exchange of ideas about transformation in the face of financial challenges, and in particular access to better and better research to make the right decisions.

For Susan Deighan of Glasgow Life collaboration and innovation were key questions. “We like to think that we are innovative, but actually staying ahead of that curve is increasingly hard,” she said. “There are more and more pressures, we have to be more and more efficient, so how do we continue to be innovative, how do we continue to challenge?”

Innovation was also a key area of interest for Sheenagh Adams, chief executive of Registers of Scotland, and in particular the exchange of skills and ideas between central and local government.

Lorraine McMillan of East Renfrewshire Council was also interested in  innovation, particularly how to keep up with the rapid rate of change in the sector. As chair of the Local Government Transformation Board digital was a big part of that for her, she said.

“That’s quite interesting because we’ve got a public sector who hasn’t been particularly technical in the past and some of the digital coming, so it is quite a change for all aspects of the public sector,” she said.

For Stewart Carruth of Stirling Council the burning issue was relevance. “I think the biggest challenge facing our council is how do we continue to make it relevant to the people we provide our services to,” he explained.

“That’s really the thing that drives me, day in day out, to make sure that we continue to do that, and I think in posing that question for myself and my senior management team we actually turn over a stone in many different places, because I think that is the biggest challenge, not just facing Stirling Council, but actually the public sector at the moment.”

David MacBrayne’s Martin Dorchester advocated more bravery and confidence in sector. “I think there’s an awful lot of good things going on in Scotland and we need to talk more about them in the round,” he said. “There’s very few businesses like David MacBrayne – one of them’s Scottish Water – where we go out and we compete in an open market.

“We compete against the best in an open market and sometimes we win and sometimes we lose, and what tends to happen is we focus on when we lose rather than on when we win, and I think that’s an important thing for us to go out and start being a bit more prouder of, because we go out and we win some big contracts as well as lose some big contracts, but in the main we’re still here, so we win more than we lose.”


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Two key issues for SEPA’s Terry A’Hearn are transformation and collaboration. Having been set up mainly to tackle mainly to control factory and land pollution, SEPA’s challenge is to update to stay relevant for the future.

“Generally we’re a pretty good, effective organisation, but we’re effective at yesterday’s business,” he said. “I don’t know who dominates the typewriter market in 2016, it will have been someone in 1975, and I don’t want to be leading the typewriter of environment protection.”

A’Hearn pointed out that collaboration was a little odd for a regulator. “I think I’m naturally a collaborator and that’s an interesting position to be in as a regulator. You have a tremendous in because people have to have a relationship with you – Scottish Water has to have a relationship with us – and it could either be an adversarial one and a lower return one, high cost one or it can be very different, so I’m interested in people’s experiences about how to generate that culture of collaboration, which is very high value return generating,” he explained.

All those present agreed that a clear vision and mission statement was vital, and for most what drove them their staff to work in the public sector was about making people’s lives better, although for Registers of Scotland creating public value is the key driver. However, the challenge was put that the real issue is not the vision, which all organisations, public and private, have, but how well it was implemented.

“One [challenge] is to make that real, because although often our vision’s clear that we’re keen to improve people’s lives, local people would not necessarily see their local authority delivering that,” said Sandra Black

Redefining the relationship is one part of that. “I think the challenges we’re probably all facing to a greater or lesser extent is reframing that relationship between the organisation and the people we serve, whoever they are, whether they’re direct customers or service users,” said Stewart Carruth.

“I think particularly for local government, it’s trying to move away from a relationship where the local authority is seen as either matriarchal or patriarchal unit in terms of that relationship and actually understanding better what local communities are looking for and shifting the services in a way which meets different needs across different communities.”

Scottish Water was highlighted as a public sector organisation that is very successful. “There’s a wonderful irony that one of the most effective organisations implementing the delivery in what could be seen a private sector is service is owned by the public sector and the Scottish Water story is of international importance. It’s a great story and it deserves to be wider known,” said David Wilson.

“I think it’s their responsiveness and their customer focus that for me is extremely impressive. And I suppose their ability to commercialise the organisation. They still have that strong public service ethos, which I think is a model that we could all learn from,” said Black.

However, it was agree that while there are many examples of successful public sector organisations and of good services within public sector organisations, this isn’t celebrated enough.

“You hear a noise about a public service if it’s not delivered rather than if it is. We don’t celebrate,” said Dorchester. “Google will bin a thousand ideas and only one will fly, but you don’t hear about the thousand that they’ve binned you only hear about the one that flies.

“The public sector does some fantastic things yet we talk about a burst pipe that flooded a road or we talk about the fact the bins didn’t get picked up, so I think there’s an element of we’re not good at celebrating some of the fantastic things that are going on, or when we do we do them internally – the public sector awards that only public sector people go to.”

Farrer mentioned a dilemma within the Scottish Water about how much to broadcast their own success stories. “We have an issue when you’ve got a huge asset business like we have, thousands of kilometres of pipes that are going to burst.

“If you build up the bank of goodwill then customers can accept the odd thing that goes wrong, but [a former colleague] was firmly of the view if you put your head above the parapet you’re just going to get shot down.

“And we have that internal dimension that we’re still struggling with how far do you promote the good stuff to try and balance off some of the bad stuff,” he said.

“I think that scale of change and the success of that change is up there with the private sector,” said McMillan. “Now at times we may have had further to come, so if you look at technology, and not just that but digital, there’s many private sector companies ahead of us, but the scale of change that we’re trying to do is up there.

“But I think sometimes the public don’t see that, they don’t perceive what’s actually going on in public sector organisations and don’t see that real change in processes. I guess what we’ve all done in absorbing the funding cuts and demand pressures without a particular cut in services has been really tough in a way that many private companies wouldn’t have coped with, and the public haven’t seen a similar impact on services, so it’s quite difficult to work out how you publicise that. What you’re trying to say is the money went down, but your services haven’t been cut. That’s not a story.”

Susan Deighan questioned the extent to which a public organisation could say it was successfully delivering a service if the public don’t value it.

“I think they do value public service and if you ask them about the teachers and the social workers and the bin men, they do value that,” said Black. “It’s the organisations that they like to criticise, the councils, the health boards. It’s the corporate body if you like that oversees that I think is seen as the bad end of the public sector and I don’t think in the public mind they’re making the link with the public service that any of them experience every day with the council or with the health board. I think it’s that link.”

“There’s something about getting beyond a story that we’re telling, which is really just about broadcast, to a story that is jointly owned by the communities that we’re serving, that they actually believe and have a shared stake in what is being done for or to them," said Grimmond.

"And that to me is a fairly critical issue for us going forward, particularly at a time when you’ve got the turbulent waters of reducing resource, the need to fundamentally change the relationship between the state and the individual and redefine that, spending more time and more effort in how we engage with and involve the communities and the individuals we service seem to me to need a great degree more effort that we’re able to deploy at the moment.”

In terms of collaboration, many of those present already work together and there is great deal of collaboration in the Scottish public sector from community planning partnership and city deals to the relationship between Scottish Water and SEPA and the local government digital transformation partnership, a level of inter-organisational contact that Sheenagh Adams had found was envied by some colleagues in central government in England, but there was discussion around whether compulsory or voluntary collaboration was the most effective and when not to collaborate.

“I still think obviously collaboration’s enormously important and it is all going in the right direction. By the same token, I think it’s also important for us to take a view on whether that is the right collaboration at the right time for that organisation, and that in many ways is just as difficult to extract yourself from a collaboration that actually is not going as well as one might have expected,” said Carruth.

Just to back that up, because I think at the moment there can be some pressure to collaborate and share just for the sake of it from all sorts of aspects, and actually a lot of what we’ve got to do and in a lot of the example you gave the transformation’s actually got to be within our own organisations, and you actually might achieve that quickest by learning from others and doing it, you might share little bits, but actually it’s your own organisation that’s got to change. So collaboration is one of the tools in our box, but it’s not the only tool to be dynamic and successful,” added McMillan.

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