UK: Public Sector Productivity: Four Ways To Adapt To A New Reality

Last Updated: 1 February 2016
Article by Angela Mitchell

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

Scotland's public sector is adjusting to new ways of working. Increasingly, that means doing more with less as budgets are put under significant pressure. There appears to be little future respite, with further savings needed in the years ahead.

Yet changing the way people and services work inevitably requires investment: both in time and capital.

Neither of these are in plentiful supply. During the Scottish Government's Spending Review for 2016/2017, finance secretary John Swinney emphasised that the Scottish budget has reduced in real terms since 2010; a trend that is set to continue. Public sector staff numbers have also decreased by 7% since the turn of the decade.

These dual forces present a serious challenge if public services are to transform; but it's one that could be overcome through improved productivity.

Our fourth annual State of the State report calculated that freeing up just one hour of Scottish public sector workers' time each year can deliver savings of £7.2 million.

Extrapolated, saving 10% of Scotland's public sector staff time could mean £1.5 billion in efficiencies per year: more than Scotland's annual police budget or the amount spent on personal social care for the elderly.

There are a number of steps that can be taken to help public sector workers be more productive and focus hard-pressed resources more effectively. Here are just four of them:

Embracing digital – At the turn of the century, there was a proclivity to provide online services that were merely an electronic façade replicating analogue processes. Now organisations are moving on from that model towards considering how digital changes their relationship with citizens, the services they consume and how these services are delivered. That's a big change, which can be difficult to implement over the long term when a multitude of other competing priorities surface on a day-to-day basis. But involving citizens in service design, instigating cultural change and attracting and developing the right skills are some of the ways this can be achieved.

Culture – Getting the right culture in place is crucial if public services are to embrace digital. Public sector workers need to be equipped with the right mindset and leaders must have a solid grasp of the possibilities enabled by digital. Many of the public sector leaders we spoke to as part of our State of the State research said that culture was a significant barrier to making the most of technology. Several steps can be taken to help organisations achieve the transition, such as radically changing the work environment and appointing agitators, like Chief Digital Officers or other disruptors, to key posts.

Focussing on outputs – Productivity could also be improved by focussing on the right measurements: often that means looking at outputs rather than inputs. In some cases, that may precipitate reforms that seem counter-intuitive and challenge widely-held beliefs. For example, research has shown that more bobbies on the beat doesn't necessarily translate into lower crime; but higher officer numbers can sound impressive and allay people's fears about lawbreaking in their areas. Instead, money would be better spent on using new technologies to help the police detect and combat crime.

Investment – Of course, all of this needs to be supported by investment; not easy to come by in the current environment. A lot of the public sector leaders we spoke to said, along with culture, it was the top barrier to organisational change. Yet it will be crucial to realising their future ambitions. Looking at 'invest to save' funding is one way executives could circumvent the barriers created by restricted access to finance. There are other avenues to explore; but it's important that while cuts are being made, funds are still found to help public sector leaders move their organisations forward.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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