How can the 21st century public servant survive an era of perma-austerity?

Catherine Mangan

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’.

Portrait of OPM staff member

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.

Could a lack of trust between professionals undermine health and social care integration?

Catherine Mangan

The latest guidance on the health and social care integration transformation fund emphasises the need for ‘genuine commitment to partnership and recognition of the challenges’ to ensure success. We all know that successful integration will rely on genuine, positive relationships between health and social care professionals in the system. But are we taking these positive relationships for granted?

The early findings from iMPOWER’s Home Truths programme suggests that we are, and that we face some fundamental challenges around levels of understanding, and, ultimately, levels of trust between professionals in the health and social care sectors.

The original Home Truths report was published in September 2012 and suggested that GPs were inflating demand for residential care because they didn’t understand the alternatives and that by failing to address this issue, local authorities were failing to manage demand for residential care. Since then, six geographical areas have been working with iMPOWER to explore these issues further, with the University of Birmingham acting as a critical friend.  The sites have conducted surveys of GPs and older people, interviews and data analysis; culminating in an action plan. This week sees the launch of the interim evaluation report on the work of the six sites. The initial findings make for interesting, albeit uncomfortable reading:

  • Over half of GPs rated their relationship with adult social care as poor or unsatisfactory. 41% of GPs felt they could make a better assessment than social workers about a patient’s need for residential care.
  • On a more positive note, 92% of GPs wanted closer links with Adult Social Care staff to better understand local service offers and 76% of GPs said they could be helped to do more to intervene earlier to delay or avoid the need for residential care admissions.  A third of GPs felt that at least some of their patients who had gone into residential care had been admitted before they needed to be.
  • GPs lack knowledge and understanding about social care and prevention type services. Half of GPs who took part in the surveys knew nothing about telecare services (even though they were available in their area), whilst a third knew nothing about the available exercise classes or social support networks. Even where GPs do know about social care services there is a strong perception that these services are not good quality.

Sites also discovered that GPs have a significant influence on older people’s decision-making about care options, with the survey of older people showing that after family, most older people would turn to their GP for advice.  This is perhaps made even more significant by the finding that older people don’t pre- plan their entry into residential care, so may be turning to GPs in a moment of crisis.

For the sites these findings made difficult reading, but most of those involved admitted they had a ‘gut feeling’ about the problems. They have started to address the issues by developing a variety of approaches which aim to:

  • Improve communication about social care referrals
  • Improve access to information about social care services
  • Train GPs and consultants about social care services and processes
  • Embed joint working between social workers and GPs
  • Influence the influencers of older people’s decisions about care

For the sites involved, the Home Truths programme has acted a useful catalyst and provided a focus around which health and social care professionals can begin to converge. The work has acted as a first step in understanding and addressing the relational challenges of integration that lie ahead.

We suggest that all Health and Well Being Boards would benefit from thinking about how these issues might apply within their health and social care systems and ensure that alongside structural plans for integration, fundamental issues around trust and understanding are recognised and addressed.

The Home Truths evaluation report will be launched today at the NCAS conference #ncas and will be available at www.impower.co.uk.

Portrait of OPM staff member

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.

If I asked you to describe a 21st century public servant, what would you say?

Catherine Mangan

I read with interest the recent announcement from Birmingham City Council that they did not intend to recruit a replacement chief executive, but would instead create a ‘lead officer’ role. A few years ago it would have been unthinkable not to have a chief executive at the head of a council.  Now, with councils debating what their role is, and the need to seize an opportunity to make savings, more and more councils are making the decision to remove the chief executive post entirely.

Arguments about whether this is a good idea or not have been much debated in the local government world, but I’m interested in what this says to those seeking a career in local government, and the wider public service.   If the very pinnacle of public service, a council chief executive, is no longer a relevant role, what does this mean for the wider workforce?  As the ‘how and what’ of local government changes, so too must the workforce.  How can public servants ensure they remain relevant, and ready for the future challenges?   What does a public servant in the 21st century look like?  How do those of us who provide development support to the workforce best work with them to give them the skills to achieve?

These are questions we will be exploring through a new knowledge exchange project in partnership with Birmingham City Council, funded through the ESRC.  Over the next year we will examine the recent literature, carry out interviews with key stakeholders and create an on line resource to support public servants seeking support and development.   We aim to address key questions such as:

What is the range of different roles of the twenty first century public servant?  As people’s roles expand to encompass the whole person in a system, they can no longer dispense professional judgement in isolation. They need to be negotiators, brokers, story-tellers and resource weavers. Perhaps no longer a social worker but a care navigator.

What are the competencies and skills that public servants require to achieve these roles?  What do you need to be good at to be an effective family support worker?  Probably an ability to empathise, engage, motivate and inspire.  Along with the skills to get things done.   What might that look like in a professional development plan? How do we best support people to develop those roles and skills?  Skills for the 21st century public servant may not be those that can be developed through traditional training; we need to think imaginatively about supporting peer learning, sharing knowledge about what works; facilitating networks of learning.

And as the career path becomes more complex and less certain; with roles spanning organisations and sectors, how can central and local government better support and promote public service as a career?

We are looking forward to exploring the ideas and issues raised by these questions, and want to hear what those of you working in or supporting the public sector have to say.   If you’d like to know more about the project, or contribute in any way, contact us.  We’d love to hear your views.

Portrait of OPM staff member

Catherine Mangan is a Senior Fellow at INLOGOV.  Her interests include public sector re-design, outcomes based commissioning and behaviour change.  She is currently leading the 21st century public servant project, in partnership with Catherine Durose and Catherine Needham. She can be contacted about the project via email, or on Twitter – and you can join the conversation: #21CPS.

Councillors: Engage more and engage differently, but not at the expense of the basics

Karin Bottom, Catherine Mangan and Thom Oliver

This month saw the ‘Communities and Local Government Committee’ release its report on the role of the modern councillor. Focusing on  the impact of the Localism Act (and associated  developments in recent years),  Clive Betts MP,  Chair of the Committee,  suggested that local representatives are now spending less time in council and more in the community. As a result, they now shoulder the majority of responsibility for ensuring that  that their local communities have the tools to make the most of the localities in which they live. While the Report’s findings held few surprises, it did suggest that those we elect to be the local democratic voice of our communities must embrace this challenge and meet it head on. This position resonates with early findings from an INLOGOV project concerned with local engagement and the role of the local representative.

Firmly grounded in the belief that councillors’ responsibilities and remits vary, the current climate suggests they require a more nuanced and responsive skill set than ever.  In this sense, elected representatives must be outward looking, open to new ideas and welcoming of new approaches, but they must take care not to throw out the baby with the bath water.  Instead, our research suggests that what councillors need to do is integrate new learning into their existing repertoire of behaviours, while at the same time being more dynamic and responsive in their increasingly frontline role.[i]

For respondents, one of the main challenges they felt they faced was engagement. Whereas it is natural for all councillors to ‘do engagement’, a variety of approaches were evident in our research and for those who had moved into executive positions, the role shift was accompanied by community activities having to be curtailed. Respondents were very clear that the Localism Act was beginning to have an impact, for example in the mediating role that  has now been allocated to councillors: this meant developing skills as a community organiser and ultimately being on top of a great volume of information while managing a number of resources and contacts. This form of community engagement, though hard, was thought to have clear  rewards: a number saw the benefits of having shared aims and  a deeper understanding of the people they represented,  which in turn provided greater insight into the experience of being on the receiving end of council services; in contrast others thought wider community engagement created opportunities to lead opinion and ultimately change behaviour, for example one councillor worked with environmental groups to shape the ward’s attitude towards refuse collections and recycling.

Our interviews also surfaced information suggesting that that the majority of traditional communication methods continue alongside a slow evolution to greater online engagement and use of social media. While one councillor referred to sending regular email shots and creating a web page to articulate local information, activities and updates,  another described  how Facebook had enabled him to engage with people – often young people – who  generally chose not to participate in politics and local policy conversations. Finally, a number of councillors explained that twitter enabled them to aggregate opinions en mass, engage in debates and learn information they would otherwise be unaware of,  while some with cabinet responsibilities stated that this particular medium was unique in that it enabled them to keep on top of their portfolio while also providing opportunities to build and consolidate relationships they would otherwise not have had time to address..

One factor that was evident in almost every interview was that councillors always needed to be aware of the bigger picture: different methods worked in different situations and knowing a ward’s story or the history behind a particular community group could make the difference between successful and unsuccessful engagement. Just because a particular approach might work in one instance, there is no assurance it will work in another, despite apparent similarities. So, while councillors may see their responsibilities increasing and their community role broadening, it is vital that they maintain depth in their representative activities: if they don’t, potentially successful initiatives run the risk of failing.  

The authors are grateful to the School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, for providing funds to assist in this research. With thanks also to NLGN for their contribution to this work.  For further information about the research project, contact Karin A. Bottom: k.a.bottom@bham.ac.uk

bottom-karin

Karin Bottom is Lecturer in British Politics and Research Methods at INLOGOV, University of Birmingham.  Her core research areas comprise parties (particularly small and the BNP), party systems and party theory.  She is particularly interested in concepts of relevance and how national level theories can be utilised at the sub-national level.

Portrait of OPM staff member

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.

thom

Thom Oliver is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Oxford Brookes Business School.  He completed his PhD, exploring the representative role of councillors on appointed bodies, at INLOGOV in 2011. He currently lives in Bristol and has recently rejoined INLOGOV as an Associate.  Follow his Twitter account here, and read his own blog here.


[i] Research to date provides initial findings from interviews in three councils (one London Borough and two Metropolitan).  Interviews comprised a broad mix of age, seniority, roles and experience. Approximately equivalent numbers of men and women were interviewed.