Interesting Questions

This blog is an attempt to articulate the wider questions within which the elements of my portfolio of activities sit, and for which I am (very slowly!) trying to explore relevant academic literature.

The one sentence which tries to encapsulate things is:

Public service governance in the era of digital approaches, sophisticated analytics and variegated localism

“Public service” picks up all of the considerations of Moore’s Public Value and other literature which contrasts public service with market based competitive service-for-profit.  (Whilst also acknowledging that some of the private sector literature and methods are relevant).

“Governance” picks up a number of strands including dealing with complexity and uncertainty, strategy setting, performance management, scrutiny/checks and balances, and explores the role of the leader, especially board leadership in the context of the rest of the sentence.  There is a wealth of private sector-based literature here and I am aware of some public service literature (not least the 21st Century Public Servant work), but there seems a paucity of consideration of non-executive leadership as practised by boards, and by elected members (though I know this is an area that Colin Copus has published in).

“Digital approaches” goes well beyond technologies through there are undoubtedly technology changes which will have profound implications for public services; by this I include things like “agile” approaches to system development in contrast to conventional so called “waterfall” methods of heroic large-scale specification and programme management; I also include the application of design principles within public service change – user-centred design.  There is a profound clash between some of the basic assumptions underlying these approaches and some of the basic assumptions underlying conventional public sector governance – for example in terms of whether it is possible to specific a solution to a problem in advance of exploring it with the individuals affected.

“Sophisticated analytics” attempts to differentiate the kinds of analytics approaches that are available today from the ones I learned about at University 30 years ago.  I have hunch that a huge lump of what is talked about today is simply a repackaging of that good old stuff, but I also think that the many-orders-of-magnitude improvements in processing power, the data sharing potential of the internet, open datasets and new tools for machine learning and other analyses now do put is in a  different place.  However, the culture of management, in particular with regard to public policy and public sector organisational decisions doesn’t seem to be sufficiently ready for it.  The interesting questions for me around this are therefore more about establishing a culture of evidence-informed practice than the tools and techniques themselves.

“Variegated localism” reflects the fact that we are seeing (for a mixture of reasons) a move towards localist approaches.  Simon Parker has written about “Taking Power Back”, Jane Wills has written on “Locating Localism” and I think there are interesting parallels to explore in this with Lipsky’s concept of “street level bureaucrats”.  But one of the particularly interesting features of the localism we are experiencing is the variegated nature of it – rather than one standard localised model, ie where all small communities make identically-scoped decisions that in the UK we reserve to Whitehall ministers, we are developing quite different solutions between (say) Manchester and Somerset, and even within Somerset differential decisions made by Districts and especially Town and Parish Councils mean that in any given locality the level and source of service provision, and the role of the community may be fundamentally different.  We will need new tools to cope with this variety, and I am curious to see whether some of the tools of complexity theory may have something to offer here.  (Though an initial look through the work of Stacey’s Complexity team in Hertfordshire University suggests that the most it may have to offer is an appealing analogy).

Some specific areas that I would like to explore in practice, in the literature and advance through some sort of investigation or research might be (say):

  • The process of formal Scrutiny for innovation processes which do not have pre-set deliverables but which proceed through a process of investigation and co-creation (eg agile user-centred design): how can value for money be assured?
  • Community engagement practice in town councils compared with local voluntary organisations : to understand the specific role and contribution of the democratic mandate
  • What makes for effective hyperlocal public management
  • Collaboration best practice in places where there is multiple non-coterminosity of public service boundaries – and for example is there anything in the private sector literature about complex conglomerates that has anything to offer.
  • How can results achieved by unfamiliar means (whether that’s data analytics or agile user-centred design, or anything else) be interfaced with classic local public sector decision making structures
  • The implications of all of these changes for the structures of public sector boards and more parochially for my personal contribution to them.
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