Tag Archives: public service reform

Guest Blog: User Charges and Marketization in Higher Education

By Oladipo Osuntubo, Doctoral Researcher at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh

Higher Education in most countries has experienced remarkably consistent reforms in management and finance in the past few decades. These reforms are remarkable because they follow consistent patterns in countries with very different socio-political, welfare and economic systems and university traditions. Furthermore, they can be seen in countries at very different stages of technological and industrial development. This is a relatively global phenomenon with countries such as Nigeria, Chile and the UK (particularly England) adopting practices which include:

  • reduction of, or total elimination of, subsidies by the state;
  • introduction or increase in tuition fees paid by students;
  • encouragement of competition between universities as a way of improvement;
  • deregulation of university sectors to allow private-for-profit providers.

My research involves a comparative examination of contemporary reforms in Higher Education as described above in the context of new public management (NPM) reforms and human capital theory. A cross-national study between Nigeria and Scotland is being conducted because in the context of tuition policies for undergraduate study, these two countries appear to operate policies at two ends of the continuum: with tuition charged for most Nigerian students and none charged for home /EU students in Scotland.

A key focus is the implications of user charges for access by considering the tuition element of undergraduate study as well as the theoretical and practical justifications for reforms. Other themes to be explored include drivers of reforms in Higher Education funding including potential influences of international bodies like international financial institutions and a critique of some of the rationales for market type reforms.

A qualitative approach is being adopted within this study. Currently I am conducting interviews with academics, university finance officers and government policy-makers from both Scotland and Nigeria. Interviews typically take no longer than 40 minutes.
It is hoped that the findings will inform ongoing debates in the reform of Higher Education in Nigeria and Scotland including:

  • the implications of user charges or reduction of subsidies for access;
  • challenges of policy transfer;
  • rationales for state investment in Higher Education; and
  • a critique of theoretical and ideological justifications for reforms.

If you would be available and willing to take part in this research study please contact me directly at OOsuntubo @ qmu.ac.uk

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Innovation

Recently I met someone with the word innovation in their job title. This struck me as quite interesting. I wondered, how innovative do they need to be in their job? Do they do all the innovation in their workplace or are others explicitly involved? Now I don’t want to question the work of this particular individual – which I actually know to be really important and valuable work. But rather I think there is a broader issue about the current fascination with all things ‘innovation’ within public service organisations.

Innovation as a contemporary issue

Current examples of how innovation is being promoted in the planning and delivery of public services include,

Innovation vs invention

The first thing to note about innovation is that it is not about experiments and people in white coats. The easiest way to think about innovation is about applying existing ideas or products in a new setting. That is what makes innovation different to invention-which is the creation of new ideas or products.

In this sense there is a long history of innovation in public services (although it may not always have been labelled as such). For example, where one local authority uses an example of good practice from another local authority that would be an example of innovation.

Innovation as a ‘good thing’

But is innovation a good thing in public services? Well yes, sometimes it can be. When people refer to innovation there is an implicit assumption that it is linked to some improvement – and so it should be. What it is not is doing everything you did before but with fewer staff and resources. There are many other words for that sort of thing.

In this regard it is unfortunate that the word innovation is becoming ambushed within some circles, along with other approaches such as lean public services, by those with alternative motives. Therefore it is important to understand exactly what innovation is and how it may help deliver better public services.

At the same time innovation may not be a ‘good thing’ and does not necessarily deliver better public services. Taking into account that innovation can be easiest understood as the implementation of an existing idea or product in a new setting we must ask, is it always appropriate for a public service to experiment with a new approach? Inevitably this will often involve some investment and success cannot be guaranteed. Do we (the public) want more risk-taking in the planning and delivery of public services? And are we willing to accept failure as a ‘learning experience’ when things go wrong?

Implementation of innovation

Ultimately, as with all change activity an innovation must be implemented properly and sensitively. Those who are charged with implementing the innovation (public service workers) must be engaged and should feel a degree of ownership of the change. The public must be willing to support more risk-taking and scope for mistakes in the delivery of public services. Finally it is important that the public recognise and support the improvement that will come from the innovation. Otherwise what’s the point!

The final point to note about innovation is that those companies who are particularly well known for it, say Dyson, Google, WL Gore, all invest heavily in it, are committed to innovation in the long-run and give their employees the autonomy to make changes where they see fit. For example, at W.L. Gore employees are given 30 minutes per week for ‘dabble time’ – time to do their own projects outwith their day to day duties. In other words innovation may lead to cost savings, or it may generate new revenue streams, but it is certainly not something that can happen on the cheap or during an away day. Nor is it something that can ever be the responsibility of a single person or “innovation centre”. Where it works well it is a common thread through everything the organisation does – from recruitment of staff to delivery of the business. It must be an integral part of the organisational culture.

Conclusion

There are lots of examples from across the private, public and Third sectors where innovation has delivered real improvement in the delivery of services. This does not need to be a particularly large project to count as innovation and nor does innovation necessarily require huge investment. However, those organisations that are known for innovation tend to invest in innovation, encourage their staff to experiment (and learn from mistakes) and they all take long-term view of innovation. One of the complexities of public service organisations is the nature of being accountable to the public. Unless your ‘public’ are bought into the idea of innovation there are always going to be huge risks involved. What’s more, if you have an organisational culture where “computer says no” is the automatic default or where budget cuts are the primary agenda item then you will need to change your culture or your financial situation first before thinking about whether innovation is for you.

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Lean Public Services

I was recently asked by a student on our PgCert Public Services Governance course to provide a brief account of the advantages and disadvantages of applying lean management systems in the delivery of public services. This is my quick attempt at a brief answer!

First of all, what is Lean Management? This is actually a rather difficult question as terms such as continuous flow manufacture; stockless production; lean manufacturing; Lean thinking; Toyota production system and systems thinking have all become associated to a greater or lesser extent with ‘Lean Management’. However, for me, this short advert for Honda (a key proponent of lean management) encapsulates the essence of lean management:

Key points from this clip:
  • there is no waste;
  • every part of the process has a purpose;
  • everything happens in a fluid sequence;
  • everything happens ‘just-in-time’;
  • everything ‘adds value’ to the process.

First of all I think there is a lot to be said for a Lean Management way of thinking. Within public services perhaps the key text in this area is John Seddon’s Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. Now, there are probably some who would automatically switch off at the very mention of Lean Management. It could be dismissed as ‘just another management fad’. But actually there is something to it and it is worth considering the positive aspects of Lean.

In my view, Lean is predominately about creating a learning organisation with empowered and autonomous workers. This is encapsulated in Mr Ohno, the Toyota executive who has been credited with the development of lean management, refused to have any of the lean management approach written down as then it would become crystallised and difficult to change – and would then stifle innovation. For Mr Ohno it was important that lean management continuously change and development. Consequently one should always be wary of any text or consultant who claims to be prescribing a lean approach (NB: that’s not to say that some books or consultants may have interesting things to say on the subject).

Nonetheless, there are some basic principles which can help with understanding a lean management way of thinking. The main focus of lean is on finding efficiencies in production through the elimination of all waste. Importantly the definition of waste is very broad in this area and has nothing to do with bins or recycling. Waste, in a lean management perspective, is any activity that does not directly contribute to satisfying customer needs. That is a quite radical way of thinking. Take a moment to consider the tasks you perform in an average week and ask yourself how many directly contribute to the satisfaction of your ‘customers’?

This is a useful way of thinking. So, for example, how is attendance at any one particular meeting going to directly enhance your customer’s satisfaction? Also, how does your organisation reward attendance at meetings vs delivery at the front line? However, this line of thinking when applied indiscriminately can be completely inappropriate; for example, empty hospital beds could be viewed as waste under this approach. Overall though there are undoubtedly many things that all businesses and organisations do that do not directly serve the needs of customers. As such this is a valuable mind-set to have.

It is workers at the front line of operations who are best placed to identify areas of waste and so the Toyota approach to lean management was to empower workers to identify areas of waste and to take responsibility for the inspection and quality control of their own work. A key argument being that failure, in the form of defective goods, represents a form of waste. Therefore a lean approach requires a commitment to ‘zero defects’.

In the public services John Seddon argues for the abolition of the Audit Commission, stating,

People’s work should not be inspected; people should be their own inspector.

Seddon (2008: 63-64).

However, this seems like a rather unrealistic goal within public services, even where the current UK Government may be working towards abolishing the Audit Commission there will always be a need for auditing and scrutiny of public services – hence the development of a new auditing regime. This is due to the demand (what John Seddon would describe as ‘failure demand’ for accountability in public services when things go wrong). This is heightened by the extent to which public services are often dealing with life-or-death situations with highly vulnerable groups. As the case of Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust shows, where failure does occur in public services it is important that lessons are learned and there is some accountability for the mistakes that have happened.

At this point it would be wrong to conclude that Lean is something that can only work within a manufacturing setting. As this article from the Harvard Business Review illustrates there is some relevance to the service sector. However, public services, which have their own distinct challenges, have particular characteristics that make a lean approach more difficult to achieve.

To some extent a lean management way of thinking is important in public services today. Public services are increasingly expected to be responsive to ‘customer’ needs and continuous improvement (and efficiency savings) have become an accepted part of how we plan and deliver our public services. However,  we are still accountable to the public and therefore good governance mechanisms are key. To an extent, when things go wrong in public services, we (the public) tend to fall back on bureaucracy – what policies and procedures were in place?; how was the service audited and inspected?; where does accountability lie?

There are in fact some positive aspects of bureaucracy which are important not to forget. As the former Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, has put it,

In this country you can renew your car tax if you can prove you own the vehicle, it is roadworthy and it is insured. In other parts of the world all it takes is knowing which palms to grease. Bureaucratic systems are colour-blind, gender-neutral and they don’t care what you sound like. That brings fairness in a way more discretionary systems can never match.

Sir Gus O’Donnell, ‘There is no shame in being a bureaucrat’, Financial Times, 2013.

Finally, what I have found in speaking to those who have experienced the ‘implementation’ of lean management in public services is that there is a fairly piecemeal approach. Those aspects that are seen to deliver cost savings are pushed through with some gusto whilst aspects of empowering and developing staff (where investment may be required) are quietly forgotten. Yet the successful delivery of a lean management approach is totally dependent on a committed and empowered workforce. It is, in many respects (as highlighted by John Seddon) the very opposite of a traditional command and control form of management. So as soon as someone tells you to implement lean management – and dictates how it is to be done – you should consider what they are actually meaning.

There is lots more I could say on this topic but I was trying to keep this short so I’ll leave it for now. If you have any further questions please use the comments box below.

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What are Public ‘Services’

In a previous post I highlighted some of the challenges that are inherent in managing public services due to the nature of being ‘public’. However, there are also challenges that come with managing a ‘service’. These challenges apply across private and public services, and whether delivered by public, private or Third sectors.

These issues are quite important to recognise for all managers given the continuing rise of the service sector across the world. In fact services account for 62.9% of global GDP

The key characteristics of services are intangible, heterogeneous, inseparable, and perishable as defined by Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry 1990 (although some, notably Lovelock and Gummesson, 2004, have questioned this classification).

Intangibility

Services are largely intangible. They are about having an experience. Of course there are some physical characteristics associated with most services, such as the quality of chairs in a fine dining restaurant, but what makes services unique from goods is the extent to which perceptions of service quality are impacted by environmental factors and customer-provider interactions. These intangible factors are very difficult to control or manage.

Take, for example, a business offering guided bus tours of the Scottish highlands. There are a number of physical features of this service such as the comfort of the seats on the bus. But ultimately much of the service experience will be influenced by factors entirely outside of the control of the business – weather, the interaction with staff, the behaviour of other customers on the bus (to name but a few). These intangible factors make service interactions very unpredictable and difficult to control.

Creative Commons license: by Pedro Szekely

Perishability

The fact that services are intangible also means that they are not easily stored for future use. So if there is excess capacity this cannot be stored to be sold at another time. In other words, services are perishable.

Take, for example, a street performer. If they do not attract a significant audience for their performance that equates to lost income. They cannot get that time back. Hence the pressure within many services to get ‘bums on seats’. Consequently, pricing is key – particularly with services that have high fixed costs and a fixed capacity such as with cinemas, restaurants and bus tour companies.

Creative Commons license: by Trey Ratcliff

Inseparability of production and consumption

Most services are produced at the same time as they are consumed. So the street performance will be consumed at the same time as it is ‘produced’. This means that quality control is much more difficult than with goods. It also places significant pressure of service staff to always ‘perform’ at a consistent level. This requirement of service workers to perform is best described by the Hochschild (1983) concept of emotional labour. Numerous studies have shown that the strain of constantly having to perform can lead to stress-related illnesses. This blogpost by Flip Chart Fairy Tales highlights a number of other reasons why people in service occupations tend to have more sickness absence that in other occupations.

As an example of the inseparability of production and consumption take transplant surgery. The medical staff must perform consistently under the most extreme pressure with every single patient. Mistakes can cost lives and, unlike with manufacturing, are often not easily rectified. Yet quality inspection and control can only happen at the same time that the ‘customer’ is receiving the service. Furthermore the speed of service delivery is critical. Under these circumstances it is truly impressive what our health workers do on a daily basis. Hence those who use a service, such as the NHS are likely to be more satisfied with the service than those who do not as outlined in this Ipsos Mori report.

Creative Commons license: by Army Medicine

Heterogeneity

The intangibility and the fact that production and consumption take place at the same time means that the service provided may be slightly different every time. This has significant advantages in terms of customisation and innovation. But it is also costly and can lead to dissatisfaction if a minimum service level is not met.

So a service experience, like a rock concert, may be different every time. Take for example Bruce Springstein’s recent Hyde Park gig where he sung the song, Take Em As They Come, especially for one of his fans in the crowd. The flexibility of many services allows for this sort of innovation and customisation. However, this may be experienced by different people in different ways – even at the same time. The need for some control is also highlighted by the fact that the same Hyde Park gig ran over time to such an extent the organisers were forced to turn off the speakers in order to comply with the terms of their licence.

Nonetheless, the more a service is standardised (which improves efficiency) the less personalisation can be achieved (potentially affecting effectiveness). Imagine if a barber gave every customer the same hair cut. It might be very cheap and efficient but would almost certainly affect customer satisfaction. Given the increasing focus on efficiency over effectiveness it is perhaps not surprising that public attitudes towards the NHS are falling.

Creative Commons license: by Christian Holmér

Conclusion

These factors, when taken together, mean that services are very difficult to manage. When you include the publicness of public services, as well as the complex problems many such services have to deal with, it is perhaps not surprising that they are not always perfectly efficient. Indeed it has been pointed out on this excellent set of posts by Flip Chart Fairy Tales (Part 1; Part 2) just how difficult efficiency gains are in service industries. 

This is not to say that we shouldn’t even try to create efficiencies – but it might help to start with realistic expectations.

References:

Hochschild, A. (1983) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. California: University of California Press.

Lovelock, C. and Gummesson, E. (2004) “Whither services marketing?”, Journal of Services Research, Vol. 7 No.1, pp.20-41.

Zeithaml, V.A., Parasuraman, A. and  Berry, L.L. (1990) Delivering Quality Service. New York: Free Press.

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What are ‘Public’ Services

Public service organisations are highly complex for many reasons. As such it is important that any education or training for public service workers is tailored to the public service context. One particular aspect of this complexity is the nature of the ‘public’ who they serve.

I was (along with others) really sorry when the excellent We Love Local Government blog was brought to a close. This blog was I think exemplary in its content and analysis of all things public service. It will remain a valuable resource to my students on the MPA programme and indeed also my PhD students.

One of my particular favourite posts on the blog was about the three publics. This highlights just one aspect of what it is that makes public services so complex and difficult to manage. What this blog post highlights is that private sector organisations deal with two publics – those who use their product / service and those who don’t but might in the future. However, public sector organisations have to serve the needs of three publics – users, potential future users, and non-users.

‘Private’ services

Take for example a builders. They will be responsible for ensuring that any building work is compliant with building regulations and as a business they must meet other statutory requirements. However, ultimately they are accountable to one public – their customers.

The builders might also offer free estimates for those who might use their service in the future. They might do some other targeted marketing such as putting flyers through doors. So they may engage with another public – those who may use their products / services in the future. But ultimately the builders only have to deal with one public – their customers.

‘Public’ services

In contrast, the public sector have to serve, and are accountable to, three publics. There are those who use the services, those who may use the service in the future, and those who will never use the service. Hence, the three publics. All three publics are important stakeholders and are not limited by voting patterns or payment of taxes. The public sector is there to serve everyone.

What does this mean for managers?

Well, one distinct feature of the public sector is that they cannot choose their customer in the same way that the private sector can.

For example, in the case of the builder, they have autonomy to choose their customer. They may, for example, provide an overly-inflated quote if they do not want or need the business. They may choose to work within a particular geographical area or indeed may choose not to do certain types of work or choose not to work for certain types of people.

This choice has significant benefits. It enables the private sector organisation to specialise in offering a particular type of good or service to a particular type of person. So, M&S will design their stores and select their products based on a very different rationale to say, Lidl. Both are very successful businesses but both are significantly enabled by this ability to discriminate. In particular the ability to discriminate helps to reduce costs by enabling the development of standardised systems which can help reduce errors and system failures.

On the other hand public services are there to serve the entire public. No matter who ‘walks through the door’ they must be served and their needs addressed as best as is possible. This means public service providers need to be highly flexible and adaptable to different user needs. Any attempt to develop standardised systems in public service environments restricts street-level innovation, often does not work and leads to failure demand. See this excellent blog post by Flip Chart Fairy Tales.

Implications for training and development

The need to be flexible and inclusive is difficult and expensive. Imagine, for example, a restaurant that tried to offer both fine dining and budget fast food at the same time – chances are that it wouldn’t work and all three publics would be left unsatisfied. Attempting to meet the needs of all of the people all of the time demands a particular skill set from public service workers. And with increasing change in society comes increasing change in public expectations and so public service requirements. This is why I believe the recent Christie Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services was right to point to the need for better and more training and development. What is perhaps more questionable is the desire for a “single cross public service development programme” (Christie, 2011: 39) when there is so much variance in development needs.

On a traditional MBA course you would undoubtedly learn about the efficiency savings that can be gained from standardisation and removing variation from your business systems. This mantra fails to take account of the three publics and the complexity of public services. Hence training and development for public service professionals must be context-driven in order to be relevant to their needs. Public service professionals should be involved in the design of such training and development. Most of all, public service providers should not shy away from investment in training and development at a time when service improvements are so sought after.

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