We are launching the first theme from our 21st Century Public Servant project – the need to survive a seemingly unending period of austerity – to coincide with the Local Government Association conference, where austerity is a central theme.
Our research with local government and other public service delivery organisations found that ‘perma-austerity’ is both inhibiting and catalysing change, as organisations struggle to balance short-term cost-cutting and redundancies with a strategic vision for change.
In our interviews with people working in public service delivery and in national stakeholder organisations (more details on research design are here) some talked about the current ‘narrative of doom’ is preventing progress – some talked about a sense of loss and grief for the past; with organisations paralysed by the impact of the cuts, and unable to provide a new vision to work towards. As one put it, ‘No message of hope – leadership is putting council into survival mode by the language they’re using. Nobody is planning for post austerity.’ One interviewee spoke about the effect of losing large numbers of staff: ‘You hear the language of loss everywhere. I get affected by it.’
Although interviewees accepted that the financial context offered opportunities for doing things differently, some commented on the challenge of moving forward whilst dealing with the reality of the impact of large scale redundancies: ‘The cuts are forcing us to confront change. In public service, change doesn’t necessarily happen unless there is a crisis or a disaster, or it happens very slowly. But think tanks and consultancies can find it exciting, for them it’s a massive playground. We have to remind them that people are losing their jobs, services are being cut. There has to be a balance.’ Others commented that the enormity of the challenge needs to be recognized and responded to: ‘It’s not salami slicing because you wouldn’t have salami that big, it’s hacking things off. It’s about rethinking the role of the state in light of the changing economy, technology, the changing ways that people live their lives. The cuts are so big that we have to confront the questions we have been putting off: what is a library service, what is a leisure service?’
The biggest shift being driven by austerity is developing a different relationship with citizens: ‘We won’t have the money so we will have to focus on the enabling and facilitating, enabling the rest of community to do it.’ As one interviewee put it: ‘You can only get so far by being a supply side mechanic, cutting and slicing. You need a better sense of what your people are like, who they are, what their networks are, how they can do more not for themselves but how they can be more a part of the value that you create about what you do as a council.’
However another interviewee described the difficulties she encountered in reconciling the austerity agenda with more relational ways of working: ‘There is a complicated tension between the desire on the one hand for efficiency and rational processes versus the expectations and needs of customers which is more relational and focused on the personal and local. We are expected to do both, to move to the more relational in the government’s commitment to localisation and neighbourhoods. But elsewhere we are moving to customer relationship management and call centres. You phone or visit a call centre, pick up a ticket, it’s not a holistic relationship with the person on the other end of the phone.’
The 21st century public servant will have to ‘find a way through that knot’.
Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV. Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change. Prior to joining INLOGOV she managed the organisational development and change work for a not-for-profit consultancy, specialising in supporting local government; and has also worked for the Local Government Association, and as Deputy Director of the County Councils Network. She specialises in adult social care, children’s services and partnerships.