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Is the illusion of control in public services crumbling?

Jeremy Cooper

We spent some time this week using EDGEWORK to analyse some of the day-to-day challenges being faced by colleagues in the sector. What struck me harder than ever is the extent to which public sector leaders and managers still feel pressured to maintain an illusion of control.

My sense is this illusion is cracking. In fact, the crack is almost right across the windscreen and the whole system is in danger of shattering.

The majority of public service systems that IMPOWER has experience of are driven by an illusion of control. This comes from the dominant managerial approach that frames problems as ‘complicated’. The response to this involves breaking these problems down into manageable chunks and then taking direct control of each component part. Any failure or overspend is then essentially deemed to be a failure of someone to take enough control.

We disagree. Our diagnosis is that public service systems are complex rather than complicated. They are non-linear, distributed, and the root issues of problems are chronic rather than acute. They are more akin to bringing up a child than building a space rocket.

The existing paradigm of public services means we are spending more money and getting poorer outcomes than we need to. However, as the American physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn pointed out, even when there are many acknowledged imperfections with a world view, until there is a new paradigm to move to, we will make do. Hence we have come across many public service leaders who recognise the issues, but don’t see an alternative way to deal with them – so stick with the traditional top down tools of control. Is the illusion of control a necessary evil?

We are working hard at finding pioneers in public services with whom we can reframe the challenge. This involves a new approach and new management systems, together with new skills. If this can be cracked it can deliver the optimal result – better outcomes at a reduced cost. In this way leaders can replace the illusion of control with genuine confidence in their approach to dealing with problems.

Our Valuing Care programme provides a good example of this. Valuing Care is currently being deployed by 5 councils to reframe part of the £4 billion we spend annually on children in care. By linking together needs, outcomes and cost, those councils now have much greater confidence in the value delivered by the children’s services budget.

Implementing Target Demand Systems in adult social care produces the same result. They increase management grip over spend, replacing savings spreadsheets with a trajectory management approach that gives a line of sight down to actual behaviours at the front line – which is where change really happens.

Of course, both of these examples require bold leadership – because they require a significant reframing of what the services are all about.

There are multiple indicators that can show whether you are being pressured into maintaining an illusion of control. Here are three things to ask:

  1. Is your budget characterised by spurious accuracy – does it recognise the uncontrollable nature of factors you can only influence, not control?
  2. Is Director accountability for a savings programme misrepresented – does it imply that a Director is able to deliver it in isolation and without involvement of their fellow Directors?
  3. Do you have saving numbers that have increasing levels of detail, but don’t believe the rationale for proving whether they have actually been delivered?

Do you feel trapped by an illusion of control? I’d love to hear from you.

Written by

Jeremy Cooper

Director, IMPOWER



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