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Is Innovation in Service Delivery a Blind Spot in Canada?

Friday, April 11, 2014
by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharneygovloop / nickcharneyGoogle+ / nickcharney

I strongly recommend you read the transcript of Francis Maude's* Oakeshott Memorial Lecture on employee ownership and the future of public services. It was about as balanced a view one could take on civil service reform that I've come across in a long time and puts the public sector reform and innovation rhetoric here in Canada into perspective. Here are a few of my key takeaways:

It may be easy to look across the pond with envy but whenever I read anything out of the UK I am reminded of how everyone here in Canada is so deeply entrenched and wedded to rhetoric that principled discussions seem anathema (See: When did the Public Service Become an Ignoble Profession). If you would permit me my rose coloured glasses for another moment I'd like to take the opportunity to reiterate the 5 principles of UK public service reform (from Maude's speech):
  1. openness; 
  2. digital by default;
  3. a permissive public service culture;
  4. tight control from the centre over common activities; and
  5. loose control over operations at the periphery
Contrast those with the realities on the ground in this country and you'd likely only find one point where they intersect; I guess I misplaced my glasses.

More importantly, I am astonished that there has been a movement afoot in the UK that has steadily built momentum and has gone otherwise unnoticed in Canada: Public Sector Mutuals. I'll be honest in that Maude's speech is the first I've heard of them. I even asked around and have yet to find someone who is familiar with the model enough to speak to it.

At first brush the very notion of Public Sector Mutuals is fascinating. In essence mutuals seem to grant license to entrepreneurial civil servants to spin out of their current organizations if they think (and can demonstrate) that they can deliver a public service more effectively from outside the civil service than from within it. Mutuals can take a number of forms ranging from social enterprises to for-profit organizations. There is dedicated Mutuals Information Service in the Cabinet Office that provides tailored information suited to the needs of staff (who would want to spin out), commissioners (senior officers who would need to lead the spin out) and suppliers (who could support the spin out). There is also a myriad of decision trees, toolkits, and other supports (including a dedicated £10M development fund). In short not only are they providing the opportunity to spin out, they are providing all the requisite support to do so. It should be a surprise that the UK has seen the number of mutuals increase tenfold in the last 4 years. There are nearly 100 mutuals in the UK that employ over 35,000 people and deliver £1.5 billion in services all across Britain.

Not to mention, according to Maude, the results are spectacular:
Waste and costs down. Staff satisfaction up. Absenteeism - a key test or morale and productivity – is falling and falling sharply. Business growing.
Staff engagement surveys bear out the simple truth that service improves and productivity rises when the staff have a stake; when they feel they belong; and that their individual voice and actions count.
Our latest data shows that after an organisation spins out as a mutual absenteeism falls by 20%; staff turnover falls by 16%. Take City Healthcare Partnership based in Hull as an example. 91% of staff said they now feel trusted to do their jobs – and this level of empowerment has had a knock-on effect in the quality of care they give. Since they left the NHS in 2010, there has been a 14% increase in patients who’ve rated their care and support as excellent, and 92% say they would recommend the service to family and friends.
Maude goes on to hammer home the connection between autonomy, employee satisfaction and innovation:
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with better financial reward for public servants. But it’s not the biggest driver of better productivity. It’s the satisfaction people get from putting their ideas into action, and seeing swift results. It’s the sense of pride that it’s their organisation that is delivering the service. That they can make improvements quickly, taking responsibility for making things happen, without new ideas getting bogged down in bureaucratic treacle. Just looking at the Baxendale Awards for Employee Owned Businesses this year, you can see the spinouts dominating the innovation category. So in a mutual, public servants can give effect to their public service ethos with immediate and gratifying speed.
Whenever I visit a mutual – which I do a lot, it’s a drug, it’s addictive - I always ask the same question of staff: “Would you go back to work for the council/health authority/ministry?”
The answer is always “No”. “Why not?” “Because in a mutual we can do things”.
That’s the essence of it. People can see how things can be done better and do it. They can give effect and take responsibility and pride for making things happen. People typically say they are working harder than they were but they are enjoying it more, it’s more rewarding, more fulfilling. That’s why I think the public service mutual is the way of the future.
All of which raises the inevitable question: is innovation in service delivery a blind spot in Canada?

Other related thoughts

While the statement above is my formal conclusion, I have a number of unfinished thoughts on this that merit inclusion:

  • Sure, we've turned our attention to policy innovation but if you think about it critically you realize that we've done so to the back drop of losing the monopoly on providing that advice. That makes me skeptical of both our motivation and resolve. Are we interested in innovation or self-preservation? Have we adopted the behaviours or just the nomenclature?
  • What do we mean by policy? Do we mean big 'P' Policy in the nation-building and/or public governance sense? Do we mean little 'p' policy in the tweaking the status quo sense? Or do we take policy to simply be a proxy for influence?
  • It is commonly known that policy positions in government are regarded as the natural feeder groups for the executive ranks. What effect is this having on everything I've outlined above? Is it a contributing factor? If so, how can it be mitigated?
  • I'm sure there are examples of innovation in service delivery in Canada  I recall reading numerous case studies about how Service Canada was well ahead of the curve when it was created, and it has been widely replicated since. I am sure there are others.
  • Mutuals jive really well with the ideas of autonomy, mastery and purpose put forward by Dan Pink and also likely relate to the series of posts on faceless bureaucrats.



*If you aren't familiar with Maude, he is the UK Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and is generally the Minister in charge of all things civil service for the UK government. We don't have a strict equivalent in Canada choosing instead to divide up similar responsibilities (e.g. public sector reform, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil service issues, etc) between the the Clerk of the Privy Council (unelected) and the President of the Treasury Board (elected).