Continuous Improvement

What Continuous Improvement means for Authorities in the UK

 

Duty to deliver improved public service

 

Government in the United Kingdom has taken leading practice from the private sector on driving change to improve performance. What lessons can we learn from the private sector experience in working towards continuous improvement?

For the private sector, this has meant bringing more balance between the requirements of 'stakeholders' in an organisation - employees, the local community and shareholders and investors.

During the closing decade of the 20th century there was more pressure for change than ever before. There have been some recent spectacular failures on both sides of the Atlantic and across all industry sectors. Those that have survived (and in some cases thrived) have naturally been less newsworthy and kept out of the headlines. Yet it is from these 'quiet' companies that the public sector has most to
learn in terms of making change and transition successfully.

What characteristics can we find within them?

  - Clear vision and goals, articulated and often documented and known to all stakeholders

  - Clear targets agreed with employees at all levels - stretching but attainable over time

  - Working in a process driven way, strong belief in quality methods and its people

  - Action plans deployed by individuals with step changes mapped against the corporate vision

For many organisations, these are coming together in an integrated performance management framework. Leading organisations use a concept of
Balanced Scorecards to measure and monitor delivery and 'manage the exceptions' whenever they become apparent. If you work in public service in the UK the Government has taken the learning and set out through the Best Value approach the vision and goals. Now, whether you are developing corporate policy, carrying out best value reviews, monitoring council performance or managing corporate business processes, you are under
increasing pressure to mobilise the change programme.

Councils have the national agenda – described in a set of BVPIs (Best Value Performance Indicators) and audited by CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessments) undertaken by the Audit Commission. At the same time there needs to be a balanced set of indicators that brings
in and focuses on what matters to local citizens. The combination in a Balanced Scorecard will ultimately be what matters to the community served.

Councils increasingly have to take on a greater responsibility for their own performance.

Corporate working is crucial to the success of the government's plans for improving public services.

  - Action plans will cut across traditional departmental and organisational boundaries to deliver, especially on quality of life objectives.

  - Corporate (self) governance must ensure that the whole organisation is working towards and contributing to common goals.

 

The 'Modernising Government' agenda:

There is now a nationally defined performance measurement (BVPI) framework, built around centrally set standards and external assessment. This is changing what is expected of public authorities. Services will need to define objectives and targets that reflect the national priorities and standards.

Action plans resulting from the Comprehensive Performance Assessment (CPA) will need to be integrated with service and financial planning processes.

It is unlikely that an Audit Commission CPA will award high status without:

  - a fully developed business plan that explicitly interprets what national priorities mean for the area

  - support and facilitation of the process to develop service objectives and targets

  - strategic partners, staff, other departments or services and citizens involved (and seen to be involved) in the development of objectives and targets

The pressure is on corporate staff to meet tight statutory deadlines. New legislation will be coming into effect as the programme evolves. There will be opportunities to comment on central government initiatives - and this is the only way that you can really influence them.

Above all else, know where your assessment programme is up to.

In the beginning there will be a rump of work as council staff balance delivery, old reporting and the new reporting. The good news is that performance measurement and reporting systems (integrating process and IT) are coming through from the private sector, where they have been using this approach for the last decade.

These corporate systems enable departmental staff not only to to provide, but directly input, the information needed for corporate planning and reporting
requirements.

There is help and support from a limited number of organisations which will advise and bring experience with services such as external audit, knowledge on
inspection requirements by maintaining accurate and up to date information performance management best practice.

Know Thyself: the Audit Commission has a self-assessment element within CPA.
How well councils carry out the self-assessment component of the CPA will be a factor in the Audit Commission's final judgement. Councils must provide an up to
date measurement of:

  - What they're trying to do
  - How they're trying to do it
  - How effective they've been
  - How they've used this knowledge to improve

If no measurement is in place the Audit Commission will assume a lack of corporate capacity and / or ability. Worst case is that measurement is taking place - with all the resource implications that it implies - but the effective presentation of the metrics is missing - modern reporting systems will integrate presentation with collation and calculation - with the additional advantage of fulfilling criteria of demonstrable use of 'e-Government'.

CPA is an onerous task - but it has short and long term benefits such as immediate and clear identification of resource and capacity limitations throughout the scorecard.

It will be worth considering use of some external capacity during the set up phases of performance management. The external references and cross cutting
learning will save time and resources. But performance measurement is just the start. In the end it is the ability to home in on poor performance that is the goal. Once identified it will lead naturally into performance management - addressing the underlying factors and issues that will ultimately reflect in the indicators.

Authorities have an opportunity under this approach to adopt a culture of corporate governance. Freedoms for those that know what they are doing and have
the ability to manage the results without external interference.

Governance requires that political and administrative council leaders know that they are being effective. This is in terms of quality of service delivery and that they are constantly improving the lives of the citizens they serve.

Governance has a strong element of autonomy within it. Honest self assessment and strong leadership to address performance issues early and decisively.

The White Paper clearly sets out the opportunity for the high flying authorities to move in this direction.

Best value reviews need to evolve to be more target driven, strategic, and challenging. From Performance Measurement to Performance Management.

The measurement systems themselves should support more open communication with citizens about performance.

Finally, the approach will challenge the very organisation itself - and the compartmentalisation that has typified public service in the UK. Measures need to reflect the cross cutting nature of many services - although this has rarely been done in the past. This may well lead to changes in the way that we think about service provision. The health service, for example, has opened discussions on how to make the miscellany of services focused towards the customer and not force the customer to address the silos of service (dentistry, pharmacy, hospital, G.P) that has been the case for the last half century. These changes will take years to come fully into effect - and comprise many small step changes along the way that ultimately fit into the big vision.

The need for vision, patience and practical change management has never been greater.