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Martin Cresswell

Local Government and the Rugby World Cup

Those of you who know me well will remember that I was a pretty good footballer in my youth. These days I mainly watch sport on TV – and my current viewing addiction is the Rugby World Cup being held in Japan.

While watching the titanic struggle between Scotland and Japan this weekend, I listened very carefully to the commentary from former rugby players explaining how the professionals on the field, particularly the Japanese, achieve such high levels of performance. Three words were repeated over again: discipline, accuracy and intensity. I started to think about what these words really mean, and how they are analogous with the challenges we and our clients face in improving public services.

Discipline on the field meant everyone understanding their individual role in the team and a commitment to fulfilling that role consistently, regardless of the circumstances at any given moment in the match. Unfortunately, this is not always the case in public services. Outside the boundaries of a leader’s team, we often find very little understanding of the influence that other individuals, teams and organisations exert over each other’s performance. For example, the operational relationship between a council’s housing service and its adult social care systems is often blurred at best, with no common view of what could be achieved together in order to deliver better outcomes for vulnerable older adults.  No ‘Shared Ambition’ is either articulated or understood.

Accuracy is easy to record on the rugby field – for example via the number of penalties given away or the number of dropped catches or passes. Public services might claim to measure accuracy through national KPIs, local performance measurement and so on. But in my view the performance management of public services often leaves a lot to be desired. There is an overload of data rather than objective performance management information; difficult management issues go unaddressed; and people aren’t held accountable if they fail to meet their commitments. Sustainable change requires acknowledging and addressing the management challenges that exist in complex systems. For example, the restructuring of children’s services into Trusts is clearly not addressing the management challenge that exists, evidenced by the fact that nearly all trusts are overspending significantly despite the transformation investment. Clear and consistent performance trajectories that tie operational activity and financial outcomes together are not established – instead there is usually a single operational target and an annual budget.

Intensity was readily apparent in the commitment of the Japanese players. My experience of councils delivering major change programmes is that there can be a lack of intensity or commitment to seeing things through. The goal or objective gets lost in all the activity, and processes become more important than outcomes – with the result that energy drops and initiatives stall. Projects also tend to ‘game’ the system, reporting the completion of tasks as success rather than delivering the required outcomes.  The challenge of delivery is hard for organisations to acknowledge, but by holding up the mirror constructively we can create a more focussed environment in which to make change happen.

At the Solace Summit this week we are launching The EDGEWORK Manifesto, our new book which makes the case for a new approach to public sector leadership and consultancy. We explore the difference between ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ systems, an understanding of which has enabled IMPOWER’s clients achieves better outcomes that cost less. Like a game of rugby, a public services system is complex. No single person can ever take full control and applying a standard blueprint will not produce the same result every time. Many of the EDGEWORK approaches and Inventive Methods that the Manifesto describes are characterised by discipline, accuracy and intensity. These attributes must all be applied in pursuit of sustainable improvements to public services.

I am excited that we are launching the book and look forward to hearing your feedback. If you’re at #SolaceSummit2019, come along to the Surrey Room at the Hilton Birmingham Metropole at 18.15 for a glass of wine and a free copy of the book. I promise no rucks or tackles!

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