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No one knows who first said ‘the definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result’ – it was originally attributed to Einstein – but they may well have been referring to public sector.

Faced with yet more budget shrinkage, the government might appear to be undergoing huge change but in reality it is repeating familiar behaviour, while expecting new outcomes.

The Local Government Association has previously said the amount of money available to deliver some of the most popular local services will shrink by 66 per cent by the end of the decade. Over the last five years both local and central government have scrutinised their balance sheets to identify fat. Meeting more cuts with further salami slicing is generally accepted as unlikely to make public services better, cheaper and faster. But that approach is still underpinning strategy in many cases.

Further cuts mean local government now faces a stark choice of either radically re-designing services or cutting them altogether.

While slashing headcount or outsourcing may have temporarily reduced overheads, this hasn’t in itself led to transformed public services. And it may also fail to yield the promised savings – as documented in countless examples. Now more than ever the public sector needs vision.

Obviously technological change means it can feel hard to anticipate what might happen next. Ten years ago few people expected mobile working to fundamentally change the way we access services and information – a change that most organisations are still yet to adjust to. So it’s little wonder many folk seem to experience a sense of paralysis at the prospect of planning for the future.

However, public sector leaders need to be bold and ask themselves what kind of organisation they want to run in the next five years and how can digital can enable that change. Chances are, for many, their front and back end processes have failed to keep pace with the kinds of services people now expect. It’s fair to say the old ways aren’t working. Councils in particular now have the tools to make services better at low cost, through procurement vehicles such as regional hubs or G-Cloud.

The best way to create self-service and channel shift is by making services better and anticipating new ways citizens will want to interact with the government. If we get that right the knock on effect may result in not only cost savings but cost generation. Which fits with the transformation and commercialisation agenda, which is so key right now.

A short-sighted reactive approach to change by firefighting and temporarily squeezing margins is not visionary. It’s time to start with the question “What are we here to do and what tools are available to enable us to deliver?” and to be prepared to acknowledge that to be truly innovative one has to be prepared to start again.

Bridgette Cameron is the CEO of Alpine. Contact bcameron@alpine.eu.com


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