From failure to improvement: how public services can turn themselves around

Abhacken

A new report on the instructive role of failure has been published this summer by the Institute for Government.

Failing Well describes the experiences of four previously failing public services organisations which managed to turn their services around.

Introducing the report, the authors highlight what failure means for public services.

“Failure matters because failure happens. The constellation of organisations that constitute public services in the UK is inherently complex and therefore at permanent risk of failure. This risk, while longstanding, is particularly acute at present. Service providers remain under pressure to cut costs and reconfigure the way services are delivered.”

In addition, structural changes to the ways services are being delivered – a push towards more decentralised and autonomous models of public services – can heighten the risk of failure.

And the authors note that the impacts of failure in the context of public services can be serious:

  • unacceptable standards of service provision
  • harm to service users
  • disruption to service provision
  • discontinuation of the service entirely

Doncaster Council

Four case studies in the report illustrate the different ways in which identified failings in a public sector organisation can lead to changes for the better.

In 2010, a corporate governance inspection by the Audit Commission reported that Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council:

“does not do enough to meet the needs of its most vulnerable people, does not safeguard children, and has not been good at helping vulnerable people find a home.”

In short, the commission described Doncaster Council as “a well-known failure”.

In the light of this damning assessment, the Communities Secretary appointed a new chief executive and a team of commissioners to oversee a turnaround at the council. As Failing Well’s authors note, the move by central government to impose its will on local government in direct opposition to democratically elected councillors was an extraordinary step. One of the lessons from Doncaster’s case is that earlier forms of support may prevent such interventions before a public service reaches the point of serious failure.

The report goes on to describe the improvement plan for Doncaster Council agreed by the new commissioners, covering areas such as corporate issues, health and caring. At the same time, the commissioners sought to repair breakdowns in personal relationships at the council that were partly responsible for the problems in running the organisation. By 2014, confidence in the governance of Doncaster Council was restored, and the commissioners were withdrawn ahead of schedule.

West Sussex Children’s Services

Another case study in Failing Well describes the traumatic impact a poor Ofsted assessment had on West Sussex County Council’s Children’s Services, particularly concerning recruitment and retention. But the labelling of failure also proved to be pivotal in bringing problems into the open and stimulating action.  Children’s Services presented its own improvement plan, with progress measured by the council’s Improvement Board. Subsequent Ofsted assessments demonstrated that the journey from failure to improvement was under way.

Lessons from failure

The case studies from Doncaster and West Sussex, along with those from a school and an NHS foundation trust, highlight the different pressures faced by a range of public service organisations. But the authors found some common lessons emerging from these different stories:

  • Peer-to-peer support provides opportunities for earlier intervention – but it needs a trigger.
  • Interventions may not need to remain in place until the turnaround is complete.
  • Insularity is often a characteristic of failing organisations.
  • Responses to failure can be over-reliant on structural reforms.
  • Creating an open, no-blame culture helps to protect against future risk of failure.
  • There is scope for more sector-wide learning from failure.
  • Failure can appear to get worse before it gets better.
  • Turnarounds should set the foundation for long-term improvement, as well as dealing with immediate problems.

The authors warn against an over-reliance on blame, suggesting that this can forestall attempts to understand why failure arose. And they conclude that cultural reform is key to responding to failure:

“In all of the case studies, turnarounds were to some extent predicated on the adoption of new cultures and ways of working…Open, blame-free cultures, where staff are actively encouraged to flag risks or concerns about standards of provision, allow organisations to prevent further failure and encourage reflection when failure does occur.”


Previous blog posts on the the subject of public sector services include:

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