Operations Director, Natalie Abraham, considers the current state of The Public Sector and how the challenge can be met sustainably.
With the worrying news continuing over the past few weeks from Northamptonshire and East Sussex Councils who have suggested that they will be looking to cut services back to the bare legal minimum, plus the real threat of bankruptcy to other authorities such as Somerset and Torbay, I’ve been left feeling slightly at a loss as to how things have got to this point for so many.
In a sector where we are proud to celebrate our many successes, even in the face of austerity, how is it that a good number of authorities have come to find themselves in such a position?
I work with so many forward thinking and optimistic organisations that it concerns me that it’s clearly so easy for issues to snowball to the extent witnessed in recent weeks. Although it’s simple to look back and see how the financial crisis has clearly impacted our local authorities, are we really saying that there is no ability to raise our hands and admit when things are wrong until it’s too late? And for those who have, are we genuinely saying that there are no other options for local authorities than to raise the white flag and hope that the Government meets the cry for more funding? I genuinely don’t believe this is the case. Now is the time to keep on carrying on – it’s time to re-think, re-align, re-invent.
In my mind, what these cases suggest is that when things are left too long, organisations pass the point of no return. Far too often, local authorities who have attempted to meet the short term saving imperatives by cutting services or top-slicing budgets are often left the most vulnerable, instead of becoming the financially secure organisations that they’d hoped to be.
It’s sometimes easy to think about reducing budgets in the most simplistic way – but once the cream has been skimmed from the milk, organisations then find that it’s too late to consider anything further than a downward spiral of more cuts. Instead, the sector’s current position calls for a re-think of the purposes of our organisations in order to understand the possibilities of doing things differently and the opportunities for maximising growth to prevent further financial decline.
Interestingly, the importance of purpose is something that can be easily undervalued. For me, and so many others, there is one key reason why we continue to work within the public sector – and that’s the belief that the sector was created to support and protect our society. And although there is always the need to ensure that Councils are doing the right things for their residents, in line with their own financial envelopes – does the ‘bare minimum’ option really stand by our original aims; and, should we really be asking – the bare minimum for who?
So instead of focussing on this proposed solution, we should be encouraged by the opportunity to think differently about our profession, our services, our organisations – most importantly, we must recognise when the time is right to seek assistance. And this assistance must be creative – it must understand that decreased budgets and ageing populations must be reviewed in contrast with our changing environments, opportunities for new ways of working, understanding yet anticipating demand and the ability to maximise advanced technology and increased automation, whilst at the same time recognising when community interaction is crucial.
Change at this level requires us to become even more innovative, with strong leadership and a robust workforce who understand, are bought in to and are excited by the changes.
At C.Co we’ve worked with many local authorities to do just this – taking a holistic approach to budgetary issues. Working with Senior Leadership Teams to realign the priorities of organisations whilst considering how best to achieve their goals. For us, it’s about doing the right things well in order to maximise opportunities and protect Councils for the future.
A key part of this is to work towards a zero based, outcomes focussed budget solution which looks at balancing ‘true’ statutory requirements with the value-adding activities that each local area individually needs to either gradually reduce the statutory element or protect this provision via development and growth.
This method is key to unlocking ‘new’ organisations centred around achieving priorities that meet the challenges of today with a new approach. Not only this, but such practise naturally develops a narrative which provides a strong foundation for any change journey – we find that this level of clarity is often the catalyst for enthusing staff, as they begin to see the change as different to previous efficiency drives, and in many cases, providing them with the opportunity to contribute to the thought process. This holistic approach begins to shape new organisational cultures even before budgets have been set, enabling a smoother transition to new organisation design and optimised ways of working.
The real issue here however, is knowing when help is needed – knowing when the short-term projection is looking doubtful, knowing that a bold and more radical approach is needed.
But radical doesn’t need to be scary – instead, it can be an exciting opportunity to re-shape the sector for generations to come.
After all, isn’t that why we’re here?