How to tackle unconscious bias: Step 1 – read this!

What is unconscious bias?

Although levels of explicit prejudice are falling, discrimination continues to be a problem for many sections of society.  One reason for this may be ‘unconscious bias’.

Unconscious bias is “a bias that we are unaware of, and which happens outside of our control. It is a bias that happens automatically and is triggered by our brain making quick judgments and assessments of people and situations, influenced by our background, cultural environment and personal experiences.”

Everyone has some degree of unconscious bias.  Unconscious thoughts are often based on stereotypes and prejudices that we do not realise that we have.

From a survival point of view, these brain ‘shortcuts’ are a positive and necessary function – they help us to make snap decisions in dangerous situations, for example.  However, in everyday life, they can negatively effect rational decision-making.

Types of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias has different forms.  One common form is Affinity bias – the subconscious preference for people with similar characteristics to ourselves (sex, age, ethnicity, socioeconomic class, educational background etc.).  In 2015, the CIPD reported that recruiters were often affected by affinity bias, resulting in the tendency to hire ‘mini-mes’.

The Halo effect involves the tendency for an impression created in one area to influence opinion in another area.  For example, a disproportionate number of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall, suggesting that there is a perception that taller people make better leaders, or are more successful. Similar patterns have been observed in the military and even for Presidents of the United States.

The Horns effect is the opposite of the ‘Halo effect’ – where one characteristic clouds our opinions of other attributes.  For example, the perception that women are ‘less capable’ in certain occupations.  A review found that female psychologists and women in STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) departments were just as likely to discriminate against female candidates as their male counterparts.

The same qualities can also be perceived very differently in different people – for example, assertiveness in a man may be perceived more positively (‘strong leader’) than in a woman (‘bossy’).

Impact of unconscious bias

Unconscious bias not only influences our body language and the way we interact with people, it can also negatively influence a number of important decisions in the workplace, including:

  • Recruitment
  • Promotion
  • Staff appraisals
  • Workload allocations

As well as being unfair, decisions based on unconscious biases are unlikely to be optimal and can result in missed opportunities.  Where unconscious bias also effects a protected characteristic, it can also be discriminatory.

How to mitigate unconscious bias

So, now you know what unconscious bias is, what can you do about it?

The good news is that it is possible to mitigate the effects of unconscious bias. The first step is to become more aware of the potential of unconscious bias to influence your own decision-making. Large organisations such as Google and the NHS are already providing unconscious bias training to their staff.

You can take this awareness further by taking an Implicit Association Test, such as that provided by Harvard University.  This will help to identify and understand your own personal biases.

Other ways to help reduce the influence of unconscious bias include:

  • Taking time to make decisions
  • Ensuring decisions are justified by evidence and the reasons for decisions are recorded
  • Working with a wider range of people and get to know them as individuals, such as different teams or colleagues based in a different location
  • Focusing on positive behaviours and not negative stereotypes

At the corporate level, ways that organisations can help to tackle unconscious bias include:

  • Implement policies and procedures which limit the influence of individual characteristics and preferences, including objective indicators, assessment and evaluation criteria and the use of structured interviews
  • Ensure that selection panels are diverse, containing both male and female selectors and a range other characteristics where possible (ethnicity, age, background etc.)
  • Promote counter-stereotypical images of underrepresented groups
  • Provide unconscious bias training workshops

Tackling unconscious bias is not just a moral obligation; it is essential if organisations are to be truly inclusive.  By making best use of the available talent, it can also help to make organisations be more efficient and competitive.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested in our other articles on management and organisational development.

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More, better, faster: the potential of service design to transform public services

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For government at all levels – national, regional and local – the year ahead promises even greater challenges.  The need to provide more, better and faster services, using fewer resources, while responding to unprecedented levels of technological, demographic, and social change is greater than ever.

Increasingly, public sector organisations are taking an interest in the concept of service design as a means of responding to these challenges and developing better public services.

In this blog post, we provide an overview of service design and consider how it can contribute to public service innovation.

What is ‘service design’? 

Initially a private sector concept, ‘service design’ is an innovative approach that has successfully been applied to the public sector in order to ‘do more with less’.

The Service Design Network defines it as:

“the activity of planning and organising people, infrastructure, communication and material components of a service in order to improve its quality and the interaction between service provider and customers”

Some of service design’s key principles include:

  • the creation of services that are useful, useable, desirable, efficient, and effective;
  • the use of a human-centred approach that focuses on customer experience and the quality of the service encounter;
  •  the use of a holistic approach that considers in an integrated way strategic, system, process, and ‘touch-point’ (customer interaction) design decisions;
  • an implicit assumption of co-crafting services with users (e.g. co-production).

Approaching service design in this manner has a number of advantages, including improved knowledge of user requirements, lower development costs, improved service experience, and improved user satisfaction.

Indeed, in 2012, the UK Design Council has estimated that for every £1 invested in the design of innovative services, their public sector clients have achieved more than £26 of social return.

Service design in the public sector

How should service design be applied within the public sector?

A report by the Service Design Network, drawing on research by public service designers around the world, identified five areas of the public sector that are particularly relevant for service design:

  • policy making
  • cultural and organisational change
  • training and capacity building
  • citizen engagement
  • digitisation

The report presents a number of examples of the successful application of service design in the public sector.  Two such examples are highlighted below.

Case study: Transforming mental health services in Lambeth

The London borough of Lambeth was under pressure to cut mental health budgets by more than 20%, at the same time as experiencing double the average rate of prevalence of mental health issues in England. In response, it employed a service design approach to transform its model of care for people suffering mental health problems.

The transformation was achieved over several years. Lambeth incorporated the use of service design by introducing a social networking site called Connect&Do, employing in-house service designers and prototyping new services through a multi-agency hub for community-based wellbeing.

These have all contributed to making Lambeth an award-winning pioneer in participation and innovative, collaborative commissioning.

Case study: Transforming services for vulnerable people in Brent

Brent Council worked with a design partner to support the review of three areas: employment support and welfare reform; housing for vulnerable people; and regeneration.

The council also wanted to strengthen its internal capacity by developing an innovation hub and training a cohort of managers and officers in service design methods.

Three reviews were conducted in parallel by a multidisciplinary team of designers, researchers and managers. They conducted extensive research, including ethnographic interviews, observations, focus groups, pop-up community events, expert interviews, data analysis and visualisation. At key points, the teams came together to share insights and critique each other’s work as they progressed from research into idea-generation and prototyping.

The new innovation hub aimed to build staff capability, hold idea-generation events and provide an accepting environment for rule-breaking experimentation. It also included leadership development for innovation through specialist guidance of the senior management team.

Thinking outside the box

Service design encourages people to get alternative perspectives and develop creative solutions that go beyond their usual comfort zones. By doing so, it has the potential to positively transform public sector service delivery and improve efficiency. In effect, service design is all about viewing things from a different angle, which – as Albert Einstein observed – can often open up new possibilities:

“The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them”


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our previous blog on service design.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Innovation – just another meaningless buzzword?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Heather Cameron

As one of the trendiest terms of recent times, innovation has become familiar across the business world. But has its excessive use to refer to anything new effectively made the term a meaningless buzzword?

Lack of meaning

Certainly, critics argue that innovation is overvalued by its promoters and that it is what follows innovation that is really important.

An article published in Aeon magazine last year discusses this view. It highlights that over the last decade questions have been raised over the intrinsic value of innovation, citing a number of statements, including:

‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword’

‘Innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

Even a professional innovation consultant interviewed for the Wall Street Journal said he had advised his clients to ban the word at their companies, describing it as just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.

The article suggests that maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the labour that sustains functioning and efficient infrastructures, has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Indeed, an idea can be argued to be of little value on its own.

Meaningless or misinterpreted?

An array of definitions can be found for innovation, perhaps the most widely referred to being that of the OECD:

‘the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations’

The important term here is implementation. Other definitions similarly refer to innovation as the implementation of such things that add value. Therefore innovation isn’t just about the new idea/technology/process, it is about the application of it and the outcomes it achieves.

As a recent blog in the Huffington Post noted, while being ‘new’ matters to the definition of innovation, ‘it is far less important than the description of what’s achieved through innovation’.

With so many definitions, it is hardly surprising that innovation has not only been overused but has often been misused. In particular, it has often been used instead of invention. The difference between these two terms is that an invention is the creation of an idea whereas innovation is an activity or process that adds value.

As the Aeon article suggests, innovation isn’t technology and that highlighting maintenance ‘involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends‘.

Final thoughts

Perhaps the Aeon article’s conclusion sums things up pretty well:

Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

Rather than labelling innovation as meaningless, perhaps it is more accurate to say that innovation means little on its own.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Focusing on the end result: outcomes based commissioning in health and social care

In March 2016, the government announced that it was pairing up with the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford to create the Government Outcomes Lab (GOL). The aim of this partnership was to create a centre for excellence in commissioning research and practice – to find new and innovative ways for the public sector to commission projects, provide on the ground support to local commissioning teams and become a world class research centre on effective models of commissioning.

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Payment by service vs payment by results

Traditionally, governments contract third-party service providers on a ‘fee for service’ basis – so commissioners prescribe and pay for a particular service that they believe will lead to a desired outcome. More recently however, commissioning teams have started to introduce elements of ‘payment by results’ or ‘pay for success’ when commissioning services – so providers only get paid in full if they deliver the desired outcomes.

Social impact bonds

Social impact bonds (SIBs) are a tool to help outcomes-driven providers deliver on their projects, by giving them access to financing and management support from “socially-minded investors”. The idea being that this will broaden the pool of skilled providers, encourage smaller more locally based providers to tender for projects (who may have been reluctant to previously because of cost and lack of support) and, potentially, increase the chances of the service being successful.

One of the primary aims of the Government Outcomes Lab is to consolidate and promote as far as possible the use of social impact bonds to align social value based commissioning with commissioning for measurable outcomes – to promote a social value as well as an economic value in the way providers deliver on contracts. There are now 32 Social Impact Bonds across the UK, supporting beneficiaries in areas like youth unemployment, mental health and homelessness.

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Benefits and challenges to outcome based commissioning

While to many people it may seem almost impossible to question the principle of outcomes based commissioning (to move from a system focused on process measures and targets to a system that is focused on improving the outcomes that matters to citizens and patients) the reality for commissioning teams, providers and service users is, in some cases, very far removed from this ideal.

In April 2012, the Audit Commission published its guidance on Payment by Results (PbR). This generated fairly positive messages around PbR but also advised commissioners to be aware of the risks:

“At its best, PbR can deliver savings and bring in new resources at a time when budgets are under great pressure. It also defers costs to commissioners to allow time to realise the benefits of change and preventative work….. However, PbR carries extra risks to securing value for money and requires higher level commissioning skills than more traditional approaches”- Audit Commission (2012)

Much of the literature on outcomes based commissioning models emphasises the importance of:

  • transparency;
  • agreed objectives;
  • agreed measurable outcomes;
  • communication and clear definitions of accountability between commissioners;
  • any social investors or third sector bodies with input;
  • providers;
  • and any secondary providers who may be awarded subsequent sub contracts

A more comprehensive list of pros and cons to outcomes based commissioning can be found here.

One high-profile intitiative which has faced more challenges than it has produced benefits is the “troubled families” programme. which aimed to support families with long-standing problems. The programme was heavily criticised for its payment by number (number of clients processed) rather than payment by specific outcome. The issue here appeared to be the lack of definition of outcomes and what was going to be expected of the provider in terms of service before they could be paid.

In this instance the organisations delivering the “troubled families” programme in some areas were being paid for the number of people who went through the service, rather than the number of people who completed the programme successfully, or saw notable improvement as a direct result of the input of the programme, and without taking note of the professional view of the quality of the service being provided (which was considered in some areas to be poor). This resulted in providers being paid for a service which, while many people used, did not actually achieve the expected outcomes. This is something which future commissioning bodies must take note of and act upon to ensure that any future agreements do not contain such massive loopholes with regards to payment.

Outcome Flow Chart

Outcome Flow Chart via Roma Learning Leaders

Outcomes based commissioning in health and social care

A number of different policy areas have begun to use outcomes based commissioning models with varied success (although as we have seen this can be as much to do with the quality of the provider and the transparency of the contract as it is about the implementation of an outcomes based model). Rather than focusing on inputs (e.g. number of doctors) or outputs (e.g. number of operations conducted, or amount of drugs administered), these commissioning models are based on achieving specific, predefined and measurable ‘outcomes’ (e.g. improved health).

In a specific health and social care context, outcomes based commissioning can, if done well, form a key part of a wider prevention agenda, as well as helping to improve personalisation of services. In Wiltshire for example, the council has employed outcomes based commissioning techniques in relation to its domiciliary social care teams. This example shows that when the right providers are selected and clear outcome measures are defined, the impact for service users can be significant, in a positive way: there is a strong focus on getting the best possible result for the customer in the way that suits them; with every visit having a clear purpose and a focus on achieving greater independence for the older person wherever that is possible (which is the overall wider outcome the commissioning teams were hoping to achieve – greater independence of service users and less reliance on the social care teams in the long term).

Some specific challenges in a health and social care context include coordinating payment for outcomes with direct (or personal) payment schemes and agreeing on realistic and well defined outcomes and time frames with service users (which if done well can have a very positive impact on the personalisation agenda of services) Attributing outcomes specifically to one set of interventions in health and social care can also be difficult, particularly if a service user is in receipt of a number of different strands of care, for example, primary care and domiciliary social care as well as having access to some remote telehealth facilities.

Commissioning for long term outcomes

If the issue of defining or attributing outcomes is a challenge for outcomes based commissioners, then the issue of planning for long term outcomes is even more difficult. This approach requires commissioners to have a long term view of the strategic aims of a programme, as well as requiring them to consider any factors which may influence or change these aims, and additionally to consider the scope of need in the future if other preventative measures are successful.

Advice for councils

The LGiU and academics at Oxford Brookes University, as well as many others, have published guidance for local authority commissioning teams, giving them some direction in relation to best practice in outcomes based commissioning. Some of the key “pointers” for councillors include:

  • Take time to get the right set of providers in place to deliver the new model and collaborate with them to get the best possible system in place – be thorough in research and consideration of tenders.
  • Be very clear what the likely outcomes are that any specific service is being asked to deliver.
  • Make the payment mechanism as simple as possible. Consider whether any rewards will be paid for good performance in delivering outcomes. Consider if payments should be made on each individual outcome achieved or for outcomes for sub-sets of the population e.g. hospital discharges.
  • Make use of the public, their opinions and data collected about them to assess the needs of the population and reflect this in the agreed outcomes.
  • Try to implement outcomes based commissioning as part of wider transformation within the organisation – in order to improve quality, reduce costs and improve efficiency (particularly in health and social care) other infrastructure and practices (such as IT systems and skills development in staff) need to be addressed in addition to commissioning models in order to bring about change.

Further reading about health and social care on our blog

Co-production in social care … a need for systems change

Why a holistic approach to public health and social care needs a wider evidence base … and how Social Policy and Practice can help

What’s happening to make big data use a reality in health and social care?

How to become a more effective coach

Teacher talking with student

Coaching can be described as the use of positive support, feedback and advice to help improve personal effectiveness.

Its use within the work environment is not a new concept.  Indeed, according to the CIPD, 9 out of 10 organisations already use coaching by line managers, and 2 out of 3 use external coaches.

However, despite its prevalence, there is very little research evidence about what makes a ‘good’ coach and whether coaching actually works.

The Institute for Employment Studies (IES) are among those working to address this.  In August, they published a report which explored the factors leading to coaching success, from both the coach and the coachee perspective.  They also examined the nature of an effective coaching relationship and set out practical advice for organisations on how to improve coaching elements of everyday work.

The key to success

They found that, according to coachees, the most important characteristics of a coach were:

  1. Communicates clearly (including the ‘ability to listen’, ‘ask good questions’ and being ‘non-directive’)
  2. Displays emotional intelligence (e.g. ‘presence’, ‘emotionally involved’, ‘awareness’, ‘connection’, ‘sensitive’, ‘empowering’, and ‘authentic’)
  3. Has experience within the coachee’s industry
  4. Is challenging but supportive
  5. Displays acceptance of the coachee

In the context of achieving successful outcomes from coaching specifically, coachees felt that successful coaches:

  1. Displayed acceptance of the coachee
  2. Were calm
  3. Displayed self-confidence
  4. Were organised
  5. Had experience within their industry

The characteristic ‘has experience within my industry’ was of particular interest.  Whether or not coaches need experience of the industry in which their coachee works is a point of contention between different coaching researchers and practitioners.  Based on this research, the IES suggest that industry experience may help to improve coach credibility, but also note that who coaches are has importance to coachees, not just what they do”.

They conclude that “the key to effective coaching lies within the coachee having respect for the coach’s ability. A coachee can also derive comfort from the coach’s experience in dealing with situations, and in the coach’s confidence and manner”.

While the characteristics perceived as important by coach and coachee were broadly similar, it was noted that coaches being organised, calm and self-confident was considered very important to coachees – much more so than to the coaches themselves.

In terms of the coaching relationship, the coach having ‘similar values’ was considered the key to success.   It is thought that such shared values may promote the sense of connection between the coach and coachee.  The coach being the same gender, age or having a similar personality was less important to the development of a successful coaching relationship.

Addressing the barriers

The majority of coachees felt that their coaching was effective.  However, there is clearly room for improvement – around 1 in 10 people felt that their coaching was of limited or no effect at allPrevious research by the IES has also shown that as many as 84% of coachees have faced barriers to their coaching experience.  These include:

  1. Unclear goals
  2. Emotions getting in the way
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Unsupportive boss
  5. Defensiveness

Coachees also faced difficulties with:

  • Their own readiness and engagement
  • The coaching model used
  • Organisational culture/boss
  • Coaches skills or manner
  • External events
  • The coaching relationship

Awareness of the barriers commonly experienced by coachees and the factors coachees perceive as contributing towards their success is a useful first step towards developing and adopting effective coaching practices.

Improving coaching practice

According to the IES, their research on coaching is a conscious attempt to “shift away from ‘guru’- led coaching practices to research-informed and evidence-based practices”.  Based on their research to date, they offer the following advice for coaches and line managers:

  • Not to worry about having less experience than coachees – that the coachee having respect for your ability is more important
  • Weave reflection into everyday coaching practice after each session/encounter – consider how to best help your coachee, how your coaching made a difference, and how your coaching compares to that of others
  • Obtain feedback from your coachee about what you did that made the coaching successful (or unsuccessful) for them, and ask them to contribute to collective feedback mechanisms such as evaluation surveys

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our briefing on coaching and mentoring.

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

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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:

Implementation science: why using evidence doesn’t guarantee success

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Using evidence in policy making is not a new concept. In recent years it has become commonplace across all areas of policy in the UK, with the introduction of the What Works centres being just one example of this. Policy makers also use evidence to defend the rationale of their initiatives and programmes. But a large evidence base does not necessarily guarantee a successful outcome for a programme or initiative. Without an effective implementation strategy, evidence might as well not exist.

Linking evidence use to implementation within policy is one of the key challenges for policy-makers and those on the frontline of service delivery. Implementation science is an emerging discipline which looks at the nature of implementation, and how it can affect the success of a programme or policy.

Introducing the Hexagon Tool

This tool was developed by the National Implementation Research Network. It outlines six broad factors that should be considered to promote effective implementation of programmes. Designed in a US context for application at state and district levels, many of the ideas about what makes for good implementation are relevant more broadly.

  1. Needs (of service user) – consider how well the programme or practice being implemented might meet identified needs.
  2. Fit – with current and pre-existing initiatives, priorities, structures, support, and local community values and context.
  3. Resource availability – for training, staffing, technology supports, data systems, and administration
  4. Evidence – indicating the outcomes that might be expected if the programme practices are implemented well (assessment criteria)
  5. Readiness for replication – including any expert assistance available, the number of existing replications, examples of best practice for observation, and how well the programme is operationalised.
  6. Capacity to implement – as intended, and to sustain and improve implementation over time
The Hexagon Tool How to cite: Blase, K., Kiser, L. and Van Dyke, M (2013) The Hexagon Tool: Exploring context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina.

The Hexagon Tool
Blase, K., Kiser, L. and Van Dyke, M (2013) The Hexagon Tool: Exploring context. Chapel Hill, NC: National Implementation Research Network, FPG Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina.

In addition to the hexagon, other useful frameworks for implementation exist. Some are more practical and others are more conceptual. These may link to theories underpinning the practice of implementation of programme strategies, or discuss the idea of values within systems.

However, frameworks only provide some of the knowledge and infrastructure for implementation. They do not take account of the skills, abilities, values and existing experience of “implementers”. All of these can have a significant impact on how a programme or strategy is implemented.Solution and business words jigsaw

Systems change and innovation

Implementation science has previously focused on changing the behaviour of individual practitioners. However, unless you change the understanding of the wider structures and systems, and implement whole system change, you won’t achieve practitioner change.

Alignment within systems, both within organisations in a hierarchical sense, but also across systems in order to create coherence across services, is important. Many service users have experience of receiving support simultaneously from a number of different organisations. Implementation scientists stress that it is important to align funding, outcomes, compliance and overall goals of parallel organisations in order to effectively implement programmes. This can be a major challenge.

One reason why this can be so challenging is the difference in values and experiences of the individual front line workers implementing a new programme on the ground. Teachers have a very different understanding, training and set of experiences relating to children than those of social workers, or those who work in youth criminal justice. The inherent and fundamental philosophical beliefs which drive the practice of different professionals will have an impact on how they implement a programme, regardless of how thorough guidelines are.

This, implementation scientists suggest, needs to be taken account of, and steps taken to try and more closely align the thinking of different professionals and agencies (interagency working) in order to effectively, and coherently implement new programmes.

Evidence is contextual

Implementation science raises some interesting points about how to facilitate change and implement new initiatives. It reminds us that no intervention – no matter how much evidence is produced in support of its effectiveness elsewhere – is guaranteed to be a success. It highlights the often overlooked elements to intervention strategies, such as the need to be context aware, and aware of the values of the people who are implementing the changes, and those affected by the changes.

Finally, it highlights the need to encourage wider structural and systems change, rather than just changing the behaviour of individual practitioners. This is the way to ensure lasting, sustainable and successful implementation of evidence-informed policy interventions and programmes.


Read some of our other blogs on evidence use in policy:

Performance appraisals – does the public sector need to be more innovative?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.By Heather Cameron

In a time of austerity, there is increasing pressure to get the best out of staff in order to improve organisational performance, particularly in the public sector.

Staff performance appraisals are a well-established practice in most organisations but there has been much debate over their effectiveness. Many say they are time-consuming and involve too much paperwork. Others say they are a key part of an organisation’s human resources strategy and align the strategy and objectives of an organisation with those of individuals, which is necessary for effective service delivery.

Why performance management?

A number of reasons have been highlighted for implementing performance management in any organisation, including:

  • to provide information on organisational and/or employee effectiveness and efficiency
  • to improve organisational and/or employee effectiveness and efficiency
  • to improve employees’ levels of motivation
  • to link employees’ pay with perceptions of their performance
  • to raise levels of employee accountability
  • to align employees’ objectives with those of the organisation

In the public sector, the aim of performance management is to motivate staff and managers to improve organisational performance and therefore effectively deliver services.

But while this may seem simple enough, is this what is happening in practice? Some would argue that performance appraisals have the opposite effect of motivating staff and lead to increased pressure and stress, resulting in poorer performance.

Concerns

A recent survey of over 25,000 civil servants highlighted widespread concern over how performance management is working in practice.  A huge majority (94%) said it was unfair that 10% of staff should be ranked as ‘must improve’, a recommendation that has been suggested to lead to discrimination against black and minority ethnic (BAME) staff, those who are disabled and part-time workers.

Performance appraisals have also been described as a “waste of time” or “tick-box exercise”.

Abhacken

The CIPD Employee outlook surveys have consistently revealed a general dissatisfaction with performance management practices among employees, with the most concern shown in the public sector. The most recent survey highlights a slump in job satisfaction and a lack of motivation among employees, and an increase in the number believing their performance management processes are unfair.

And this is not new. There have been concerns over the effectiveness of such systems in the public sector for some time. Research by the World Bank in 2003, which considered factors influencing better performance in public administration, concluded that performance management systems demonstrated remarkably little influence on anything and in some cases produced negative effects.

Lack of understanding

The literature suggests that the reasons for such criticism of performance appraisals more recently include: people generally don’t like to evaluate or be evaluated; the nature of public affairs being hard to quantify makes it difficult to develop performance objectives and measureable performance indicators; these systems tend to create more paperwork and increase both performance pressure and stress; and a lack of understanding of such systems among managers.

As a former chief executive of the Institute for Leadership and Management (ILM) emphasised:

“One of the skills that is often not developed is understanding what an appraisal is and why it is relevant to the whole organisation’s success… Being able to appraise is a fundamental management skill.”

So rather than scrapping them all together, perhaps a culture change within organisations is what is needed.

Good practice

Indeed, there have been signs of innovation within the public sector when it comes to performance appraisals.

An innovative approach to the employee appraisal form was taken by South Lakeland district council which has shown promising results. A personal qualities framework was created which was used to redesign the appraisal form. It was tested, staff were informed about it and line managers received training in how to use it.

After two years of the framework being introduced, peer reviews were good, their Investors in People award was the best yet, the staff survey highlighted many positive messages, and customer and member satisfaction had improved significantly.

Similarly, Wiltshire Council developed a successful transformation and ongoing culture change programme which resulted in significant efficiencies being delivered.

The council’s behaviours framework was developed to clarify social expectations of staff by defining ‘how’ staff are expected to approach work alongside ‘what’ they deliver. The behaviours have since been embedded into: a new on-line appraisals solution, job description templates, recruitment procedures, human resource policies and employee well-being initiatives, and corporate awards categories and selection criteria.

A training programme for all people managers also inspired new thinking and provided approaches and skills for performance managing for the behaviours, skills and objective setting.

Research by Nesta suggests that performance appraisal can also help to harness motivation to innovate in the public sector by valuing appropriate behaviours.

So perhaps staff appraisals have a future after all.


Read our previous blog post on performance-related pay in the public sector.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Are you a managerial fox or a smart citizen? The books creating a buzz amongst our members

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Entrance to our Glasgow office – 95 Bothwell Street

One of the things that many people are surprised to find out is that we have a real library here in our Glasgow office. Created over forty years, there are more than 60,000 books and reports in the library collection, as well as a wide range of journals.

Our members can borrow any book from our collection via a postal loan service – offered free as part of the membership subscription to our Idox Information Service.

While the quick read – such as the briefings written by our own team – will always be popular given the pressures on people’s time, there’s still a place for real books. Many organisations use membership of our service as a way to support their staff’s CPD – whether that’s informal personal development or supplementary support for staff doing formal courses or degrees.

What’s hot at the moment

Some of our most popular books recently have been these ones:

  • Inside the Nudge Unit: how small changes can make a big difference

Behavioural insights, and how these can be used within policymaking in order to shape and improve outcomes, has always been popular as a search topic on our database. Now this book, written by David Halpern, who headed up Number 10’s ‘Nudge Unit’ or Behavioural Insights Team (now spun out as an independent company jointly owned by the UK Government; Nesta and it’s employees) sheds light on how it works. The book explores how simple changes to language and communications have been shown to promote ‘desired behaviours’ – examples include reducing missed NHS appointments, increasing charitable giving or encouraging job seekers into work.

  • Smart citizens, smarter state: the technologies of expertise and the future of governing

We wrote on our blog about this book, by Beth Simone Noveck, which argues that government (at all scales) makes too little use of the skills and practical expertise of its employees and citizens. It sets out a vision for a new form of participatory democracy, which isn’t based on consultation exercises or occasional voting, but in harnessing the power of people’s knowledge and ‘know-how’.

  • The public sector fox

What are the twelve skills that managers need to thrive in the public sector? This book reveals all! From strategy, planning, finance, communication and people management to the skills of resilience, perspective and commitment – working (and succeeding) in the public sector requires an acceptance of the constraints and an understanding of the opportunities. This book offers something for managers at every level, which probably explains why it has been so popular with our members.

  • The urban section: an analytical tool for cities and streets

Our collection has a strong focus on the built environment and this book, aimed at architects and planners, looks at how well-designed streets are crucial for successful places. Although it was published in 2014, it continues to appeal to our users thanks to its mix of practical case studies and thought-provoking discussion. You can hear the author Robert Mantho, who teaches at Glasgow’s Mackintosh School of Architecture, discuss his ideas in this video.

  • The new rules of marketing and PR / Marketing for dummies

Finally, it’s clear that many of our users are having to get to grips with social media as part of their jobs, if the popularity of these two books from our library is anything to go by. Whether it’s marketing yourself via personal networks, or promoting the work of your organisation to a wider audience, many marketing approaches are becoming embedded into our daily working lives.

These two introductory texts give a good overview as well as practical advice for those who want to learn more about how things like blogs, online video, and good content can help you target your communications and understand your customers (or service users) – something that’s relevant for the public sector as well as for voluntary organisations and businesses.


Our members include policy makers and practitioners from organisations including local authorities, central government, universities, think tanks, consultancies and charities. They work in challenging environments and often need evidence to inform service delivery or decision-making.

Get more information on membership here or contact us to arrange a free trial of our service for your organisation.

Celebrating 1,000 issues of the Idox Information Service Weekly Bulletin

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by Stacey Dingwall

After turning 40 last year, the Idox Information Service today reaches another milestone: the 1,000th edition of our Weekly Bulletin.

The Bulletin is circulated to our members every week, as part of their subscription to our service. It contains a selection of abstracts of some of the 100+ articles and documents added to our database each week. The Bulletin highlights the publications that our team of Research Officers think will be of the most interest or importance to our members, across our core subject areas:

  • Government, politics and public administration.
  • Business and economy.
  • Management and organisational development.
  • Equalities and diversity.
  • Employment, jobs and careers.
  • Education and skills.
  • Planning and development.
  • Transport, infrastructure and communications.
  • Regeneration and community development.
  • Arts, culture and leisure.
  • Health and social care
  • Crime, justice and rights.

Also included is a section of new government publications, which features any consultations, guidance and announcements the UK government and the devolved administrations have published that week.

The Bulletin was first published in 1975, back when the Information Service was known as the Planning Exchange. In his book on the early days of the Planning Exchange, Barry Cullingworth notes that at the time, “neither central nor local government [was] adequately organised to provide information”. According to founder Tony Burton, the Planning Exchange had therefore found itself dealing with an unexpected volume of requests for information, “not only from the general public, voluntary organisations and elected members, but also from academics, professionals and officers of local and central government”.

This resulted in the Planning Exchange gaining funding from the Leverhulme Trust to provide a weekly roundup of abstracts of articles and research on planning and housing-related matters to elected members in a couple of local authorities in Scotland. While this was intended to be a limited service, at the end of its trial period several local planning officers asked the Planning Exchange to continue sending the Bulletin, as they found it so useful.

Today, the Bulletin is sent to our members in local authorities across the country, central government, planning consultancies, universities and commercial organisations, among others. It forms part of the key current awareness service provided by the Idox Information Service for our members, alongside separate subject specific updates, personalised alerts and our recently launched election updates.

You can read more about the many benefits our customers enjoy from their membership of the Idox Information Service in our previous blog post here. We have also been recognised by the Alliance for Useful Evidence for our work in making research relevant and accessible to practitioners – not just researchers.


Organisations that join the Idox Information Service are committed to using a sound evidence base for decision-making and policy formulation. They also support the professional development of their staff. Being part of our community gives them the knowledge and tools to improve both frontline services and forward planning and strategy.

Membership packages can cover an entire organisation or a specific department or team. We also offer subscriptions to our current awareness services to individuals who are not affiliated with a suitable organisation.

To find out more please contact our team on 0870 333 7101 or contact us online.