Published on August 23, 2011

Turning around public services: Involving citizens to enable change

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network - a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability.

Image credit: m-c

Turning around public services to focus on citizens – as I have argued must happen in order to tackle complex social problems – requires a significant transformation in the culture and mindset of many public organisations.*  Bringing about such change is not easy in the face of norms, systems, day-to-day pressures and perverse incentives that draw people and organisations back to business as usual and insularity. Could involving citizens in defining the problem help to unlock this culture change?

Last year I did some research into citizen-centred public service reform to contribute towards the NS6: A new synthesis of public administration, an international partnership exploring the changing nature of public administration in the 21st century. Specifically, I looked at the Total Place initiative – the pilots in Croydon and Birmingham in particular – and the Swindon Family LIFE programme (which I wrote about in my last blog). One thing that particularly struck me as I spoke to those involved in these projects were the pockets of culture change that had been achieved through bringing managers and frontline staff face-to-face with citizens and their experiences of public services.

Conversations between public servants – particularly senior managers – can often be weighed down by the baggage of institutional and professional interests. Involving citizens in defining the problem – through listening to their experiences of public services – and putting people from across and throughout organisations in the same room to confront reality together seemed to be a powerful way of unloading this baggage. It helped to ignite passion, foster engagement and generate momentum.

A key element of the approach taken by Croydon as it developed a new vision and model for supporting families and children in the early years was experiential learning. In this approach frontline staff and managers were brought together and exposed to the reality of people’s lives and their experiences of services. Those who took part told of how this helped to develop a shared sense of purpose and energy that was vital to ensuring genuine collaboration:

“Once people had confronted the current reality… you just built a momentum… It just got people thinking.”

Croydon’s approach was designed by Ruth Kennedy, an expert in public service improvement and innovation, who sums up the rationale behind it much better than I can:

“The mandate for change is clearest where public servants from different departments experience together the reality of what it is like to piece together the public service landscape as a citizen. This opens peoples’ eyes to the resources of skill, tenacity, energy and ambition in “ordinary” families; drives systems-thinking and powerful new collaborations; and builds a new and shared sense of what real ‘success’ might look and feel like for public services.”

Involving citizens is of course not the only ingredient needed to bring about change – other factors that appeared to be important included:

  • Enabling leadership and shared ownership. Leadership from senior managers was important for building momentum, accessing resources, sheltering innovators from external pressures and overcoming setbacks, but ownership of the process needed to be felt across and throughout organisations.
  • The alignment of “reality” with “rhetoric”. Leaders needed to implicitly signal the value of new ways of working through their actions, as well as explicitly through what they said.
  • Space and resources. Leaders needed to provide the space and encouragement for their workforce to question the underlying assumptions behind the current model of public services and work together and with citizens to develop new approaches.
  • Constructive challenge and impetus from outside. Outside voices were key to challenging and broadening thinking, identifying and overcoming barriers to change, building new capabilities and expertise and bringing about change within organisations.

Nor does it guarantee sustained culture change – maintaining momentum, commitment and a radical edge is an ongoing challenge in midst of:

  • Funding streams, lines of accountability and performance management systems that reinforce the status quo.
  • Public expenditure cuts, which can cause agencies and managers to retreat back into their silos and focus on the short term, at the expense of the long.
  • Staff turnover, which can disrupt momentum and dissipate energy.
  • System/machinery of government changes, which have the potential to disrupt collaborative working in localities and require the development of new relationships.

But it seems that bringing public servants (from all levels) together with citizens to challenge existing assumptions and define the problem can help to enable the culture change that is needed to develop new models of public services that focus on the citizen.

Image credit: m-c

* For more information on embedding public engagement, see the toolkits Involve produced on embedding engagement in higher education institutions.

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