Public Sector Performance: Catch 22 type Dilemmas



Image by antaldaniel via Flickr

Last week’s blog entitled “Local Authorities & Shared Services: Cost-Cutting, Myth or Reality?” generated some lively debate. Reflecting on recent political and media attention the UK Public sector, it occurred to me that perhaps there has been just a bit too much simplification, glossing over complexity and context,  just to score political points.

With over twenty years experience in major multi-nationals, and over five years in the Public Sector, including Central and Local Government, plus International Agencies, I thought that it would be helpful to dispel a few myths. This week, I am going to embellish the content with my own experience. As I introduce new terminology, I try to provide the interested reader with further reading by hyperlink.

Because of the vastness and complexity of the subject, I propose to compare the Public & Private Sector organization under five core viewpoints or dimensions. It is hoped that by aggregating the perspectives some greater clarity or understanding might be offered. 

  1. Bureaucracy & Innovation
  2. Administrators & Politicians
  3. Generalists & Specialists
  4. Decision-Making & Empowerment
  5. Strategy, Organization & Boundaries

The views are largely subjective, based upon my own experience in both Public and Private Sector organisations, plus personal insights gleaned from my own research interests.


I remember when I was in Paris, working as a Special Advisor with UNESCO, discussing organization transition challenges with a senior Russian executive. She responded that bureaucracies were the same the World over “and inherently inefficient” – from that moments on, I have broadly categorized all non-profit organizations as bureaucratic. Since UNESCO, I have been with three Central Government departments, ONS, HMRC and DEFRA – all roles were heavily involved with transition and transformation management. Let me start this analysis, by making the assumption that all public sector organizations are bureaucracies. Taking both the Oxford and Webster dictionary definitions of “Bureaucracy”, we have the following attributes:

  • Government by many bureaus, administrators, and petty officials.
  • The system of official rules and ways of doing things that a government or an organization has, especially when these seem to be too complicated.
  • The body of officials and administrators, especially of a government or government department.
  • A system of government in which there are a large number of officials who are not elected, and a country with such a system.
  • Excessive multiplication of, and concentration of power in, administrative bureaus or administrators.Administration characterized by excessive red tape and routine.

Before continuing, it important to stress that the above attributes are for a “bureaucracy archetype” and do not necessarily correspond to any particular organizations.

By comparison, in the Private Sector, many of the best performing organisations are strongly Market Oriented and Market-Driven, with deeply integrated processes of product, service and process innovation. Not every successful organisation is market-oriented, there are some examples of highly focused organizations with mature products, like Citizen Watch that are more driven by Continuous Improvement, rather than Innovation.

In my book on Strategic Cost Reduction, based on detailed case studies of five leading exemplars of Best Practice, I identified two core axises, Innovation (horizontal axis)  and Continuous Improvement (vertical axis), which provided a four-state model with four Cost Reduction archetypes:

1. Cost Pruning
2. Continuous Improvement
3. Radical Innovation
4. Continuous Innovation.

Hyperlink to see the Four-state model

Most Public Sector organizations are stuck in the “Dog” state of “Cost Pruning” and are unable to serious progress with either “Continuous Improvement” or “Innovation”. I shall explore “Cost Pruning” in more detail in a future blog. For now, “Cost Pruning” is the bottom, left-hand, segment of the four-state-matrix, low on both innovation and continuous improvement.


In order to keep matters simple, let us differentiate between political and non-political appointments. Political appointees, either at the National or Local Level are generally affiliated with a recognized political party. The politician is accountable for the performance of the local authority at local level, and politicians with ministerial status are responsible for performance of Central Government departments.

Non-political leaders are responsible for delivery of services and programmes, including all the day-to-day governance. The most senior non-political appointment is generally the Chief Executive at local level and a Permanent Secretary at national level. For simplicity, we shall call all non-political appointees “Administrators”.

The relationship between Administrators and Politicians is clearly complex, influenced by personalities and the strength of the political mandate. Administrators are supposedly apolitical and need to change seamlessly from one political regime to the next.

By Private Sector standards, the Politicians are constantly meddling in the day-to-day activities of the organization. At national level there are Questions in the Houses of Parliament and requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

For sure, Chief Executives of Local Authorities and Permanent Secretaries have far less delegated authority and less power than their colleagues in similar sized organizations in the private sector. John Redwood MP recently commented on the power of Ministers.

For a recent discussion of the role of Local Authority Chief Executives and his political leader, see the article by John Tizard.


The UK Public Sector has traditionally been strong on promoting generalists. Until recently, specialists were discouraged and blocked from career development.  Career advancement and fast-track opportunities went to policy specialists, with good drafting skills – delivery expertise was often subordinated.

A number of independent enquiries recognised the need for stronger professional streams. Most notably is the case of Finance, where the Treasury has been trying hard to promote higher standards, professional accreditation and the increased status of Finance in the organisation. Despite Treasury guidelines, the Finance Director in many Public Sector organisations still does not report to the Chief Executive – this reduces the power of Finance in the organization.

Although CIPFA is an excellent professional body, sadly many of its younger members are becoming disillusioned with current Public Sector leadership and will likely look to diversify their careers into the Private Sector. Most importantly, for years the Public Sector has been short of specialised professional expertise and has relied heavily on consultants and interims – some of this was to do with bureaucratic recruitment processes. Now with a Government imposed freeze on consultants and interims, Public Sector organisations are desperately trying to recycle internal people. Unfortunately, “square pegs in round holes” is dysfunctional and increases risk of failure.


If we simplistically imagine a decision-making continuum, with autocratic at one extreme and democratic at the other, most Public Sector organizations tend towards the democratic. Unfortunately, democratic and collaborative decision-making brings out the worst in a bureaucratic organization. Individual decision-makers and boards are well-practiced in minimizing personal risk-taking. As stated previously, absence of top-quality professional expertise is a barrier, and frequently decision-makers and boards look for comfort to independent views of experts and consultants. With consultants frozen out by Government decree, individual decision-makers and boards will be in highly unfamiliar and  risky territory. It is expected that political leaders will quickly look to strengthen boards and chose more decisive leaders. For example, it will soon become apparent that 2011/12 budgets, prepared top-down, without proper consultation and risk assessment, will soon need revision. Political leaders will look for “heads-to-roll”.

Empowerment and related improvement programmes have become fashionable in large organisations both in the Private and Public Sectors. Whilst the literature on Empowerment, Continuous Improvement, Total Quality, Lean/Six Sigma etc. is full of success stories, these have been less prevalent in the Public Sector and Regulated Industries. Without a clear strategy, investment in improvement methodologies is not necessarily effective in the current context, with cuts looming over all discretionary spending. It is important to remember Michael Porter’s important caveat that improvement programmes are not strategic (Porter was a Harvard Strategy guru, specializing in Industrial Economics).

By comparison with top performance in the Private Sector, many functions, like Procurement and HR need radical change, probably with top-class professionals drafted in from the Private Sector. In leading Private Sector organizations, apart from very small strategic and specialist teams, these services are typically outsourced and often off-shored.

 Having worked in many Public Sector organizations, I have witnessed hard-working, passionate and customer-focussed people at all levels. I have also noticed the high level of stress-related illness which I have intuitively related to the absence of timely decision-making.

 With Public Sector organizations increasingly focussing on value-for-money and strategic choice, it is expected that a different type of leader will emerge, less risk-averse, more decisive and with some executive success in the Private Sector.


Large Private Sector businesses and multi-nationals invest heavily in strategic planning. Enormous effort is directed to key choices of products (and services), markets and geographies. Leaders will frequently want to be number one or number two in their sector or will close or sell the business. Back-office services in Private Sector organisations are expected increasingly to be Best Practice, with increasing focus on Shared Services, Off-Shoring and Outsourcing. Apart from strategy, well-run Private Sector businesses and multi-nationals are opportunistic, and will buy or sell businesses given sufficiently attractive opportunity and financing.

By comparison, Public Sector organizations whether Central Government Departments or Local Authorities, do not have the same freedom of choice. The political process at both national and local level influences products (and) services, markets and geographies. Local Authority services are generally defined in Act of Parliament and are not easily improved or innovated. Political boundary decisions impact geographical reach, rather than carefully formulated strategy. Compared to leading Private Sector Businesses and Multi-nationals, the Public Sector does not have a cohesive business strategy. Strategy in the Public Sector is more a hotchpotch of political interventions.


The main “Catch 22” dilemma is that the Public Sector performance will never match the Private Sector, until the politicians stop meddling! Outsourcing large elements of the Public Sector needs to be considered objectively. A coordinated approach is required to strategy, including more decisive executive leadership, customer-focused, able to grasp and operationalize concepts of simplification and innovation in organization, processes and services (products) – as well as dealing with their political masters.

7 responses

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  3. Hi Alf,

    Good blog (as usual) but I would like to develop a line on the political aspect and the definition of ‘meddling’. I like your distinction between politicians and administrators, and we have both seen discussions recently about developing business cases and target operating models that the public sector would implement because they are self evident. As you know, I have a lot of experience of working at senior levels of local government, and the ability to operate with politicians (Leader, Cabinet, Opposition, Scrutiny) is vital if you are serious about being an interim at that level. However, in dealing with politicians, you have to accept a couple of things. Number 1 – they are delivering a manifesto. Number 2 – they are always looking to get re-elected. This can and does manifest itself in a decision making process that is non rational. Add in the complexity of the fact that a Labour Council will fight against a Tory Government and vice versa, adn sometimes even the most compelling business cases will not be approved. I have worked with Council Chief Execs who have rightly pointed out that soems services would perform better and cost much less if they were outsourced, only to be over-ruled by political policy. This is not meddling – its policy and manifesto promises. Similarly, I have seen contant centre business cases knocked back because it is policy (at a local level) not to have them, mainly based on a manifesto promise linked to a certain demographic. In these circumstances, it is easy to criticise the adminsitrators – “turkeys not voting for christmas” etc., – when in fact they are crying out for change, but the political envirionment does not allow it.
    But, is this meddling and catch 22? The politicians are doing what they think is right and what the elctorate have voted for. They will be held accountable at the ballot box, not the administrators. It may well be that we have to accept sub optimal processes and delivery as the price of democracy.
    I believe that we need to make a distinction as interims as to how we market our sevices in this environment. If the organisation has made a decision to transform, then we should be in with the rest marketing and selling our services. But, I don’t think as an industry, or collective, we should be lobbying democratic and political organisations to transform when they don’t want to and political heels are dug in. Down that path lies ruin.

    • Barry,

      Many thanks for the feedback.

      With your impressive background in Local Government, you really have a deep understanding for the contextual challenges both within and outside the public sector organisation.

      The strapline for this blog is “Towards greater reflection and insight”. I find that by crafting my argument in this blog that I am clarifying my own views, analysing and pondering. I am more than happy to be challenged and encouraged to refine my views.

      Having read your comments carefully, I find that I broadly agree with your argument but feel that a couple of points of clarification might be helpful.

      Firstly, I am using “Catch 22” in a specific sense not a more generalized one. I am focusing upon Cabinet Office restrictions on deployment of interim and consultants.

      Secondly, I hope that I am using “meddling” carefully. I agree with your point that in a democracy it right and proper for politicians to challenge and question. I believe that the frontier between politician and administrator is often blurred, rendering strategy, leadership and delivery more difficult than in a Private Sector organisation. However, with Public Sector organisations aggressively cutting front-line services to meet financial constraints, it is rightly and timely to draw attention to political interventions, as well.

      Thirdly, I would like to pick up your point on professional interims lobbying democratic and political organisations. I think that the potential offering of the professional interim is frequently misunderstood by politicians and in the media. I would argue that it right and proper to clarify the potential offering of professional interims with politicians and the media. In my mind, this is more marketing than lobbying – I see lobbying more the preserve of special interest groups trying to influence legalisation.

      Thank you again for taking the time to comment.

  4. Adam,

    Many thanks for the challenge. It is welcomed & tests the argument.

    If I understand it correctly, you are most concerned with my point about “stopping politicians from meddling”?

    When I first entered a Central Government Department as Interim Finance Director, I was genuinely shocked my the number of initiatives on the go at any one time. At the time, I remembered Michael Porter, the strategy guru’s advice that to be a broad line supplier one needed to be the lowest cost-producer, otherwise a niche player was recommended (unfortunately the Public Sector has missed out on the benefits of competation). When I discussed the subject with a very Senior Civil Servant, I was enlightened that it was the politicians that caused all the complexity. Perhaps one can argue that it is the role of the politician to intervene and challenge? Unfortunately, many people forget the hidden costs of servicing each politician’s intervention – this might be a Freedom of Information Request, Question in Parliament or a Local Politicician stopping by for a chat.

    I commend the current coalition government for pushing for greater openness and accountability. I also respect the intentations of the last Labour Government in seeking greater performance measurement – unfortunately deployment was ineffective.

    The Treasury recognise that Public Sector Financial Management is very weak compared to benchmarks in comparable Private Sector organisations. Good Practice, for example, would deploy Activity Based Costing (ABC) to highlight the cost of services and compare them against peers. ABC would also highlight Value-Added & Non-Value Added activities. When I wrote case studies on Abbey National and Rank Xerox in the 1990s, these were very much Best Practice exemplars at the time: Abbey National had comprehensively deployed ABC and Rank Xerox routinely compared service performance against internal benchmarks for Continuous Improvement.

    Fundamentally, there is an absence of strategy and leadership to deliver effectively (in the sense of any major Private Sector business). The regular political interventions cause enormous ineffeciency. Much of the cost of ineffeciency arises because of Acts of Parliament mandating service standards across the land without bottom-up costing.

    Some politicians would argue that all non-core activities in the Public Sector should be outsourced to allow concentration on improving core services: reducing cost, improving quality and customer satisfaction.

    There is enormous opportunity to transform the delivery of major services, reducing cost, improving quality and customer satisfaction. Central Government has had some successes, in my view, like renewing Road Fund Tax on-line, with some spin-off value-added services.

    Unfortunately, the absence of a robust strategy means that improvement activity is stop/start. So for me, there a still a case for the “politicians to stop meddling”.



  5. Alf, You finished this blog with: ” The main “Catch 22″ dilemma is that the Public Sector performance will never match the Private Sector, until the politicians stop meddling! ” and I think that this is a big assumption that needs to be challenged.

    In any service delivery or customer support process, pareto’s rule applies. i.e. The first 80% of delivery is 20% of the effort. This is a generalisation but it is in tune with my experience. Problems occur when organisations try to deliver 100% of their customers needs.

    Think of it as a normal bell curve, the bits at either end of it are the difficult parts to deliver. For example, in the temporary accommodation market it explains why we have luxury hotels alongside salvation army hostels in most or our cities.

    The private sector understands this concept and acts on it, either overtly or by omission. They accept that some customers are too difficult to please / need too much support. At some point it become uneconomic to service them, so they don’t.

    The Public sector cannot take this approach. It is there to serve 100% of the people who need services. These customers are disproportionately expensive to service.

    I know from personal experience that the Public Sector can improve in so many ways, but Public Sector performance can never match the Private Sector, even if, as you say, the politicians stop meddling.

    Keep up the good work.


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