Every improvement is a change – but not every change is an improvement

NAO's Alec Steel reflects on learning from working with 120 services across government and offers practical advice on making improvements, rather than just changes
Photo: Matt Wiebe/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

By Alec Steel

07 Mar 2023

It is funny what sticks in your head. One of my first jobs was helping design services for a government organisation. I recall our project team mulling over how we could get more organisations to comply with the regulations. “How about we ask the organisations to design changes to the service with us?” I suggested. The senior manager told me quickly: “If we do that, they will only tell us what helps them evade the rules”.  

This experience has stayed with me, so you can imagine what effect it had then. I kept any thoughts about how we might do things differently close to my chest from then on. 

Reflecting now, it is hard to see how government organisations can afford to ignore their people’s ideas. Imagine the service quality and financial benefits if 480,000 civil servants improve how they work by just a small amount. Even just 1% improvement on the £400bn spent on administering government grants, services and administration is a significant return.

I am privileged. In my work I get to see government organisations, and how they work, up close. From watching how department’s review performance and decide strategy in executive team meetings, to seeing how those decisions and new policies become reality. It has taken me onto the streets of Manchester with immigration enforcement teams, to Brixton to see how work coaches help people looking for work and a 6:00am start at Pirbright barracks to watch how the army recruits. It has given me a huge appreciation for the challenges that government organisations face. But also common problems and opportunities to do the work of government better. 

Some opportunities are longer-term, like fundamental rethinks about why organisations do certain activities and the outcomes they are looking to achieve. These are the types of changes that produce allocative efficiencies – choosing which activities to spend on for maximum results, or ‘doing the right things’.  They are often whole-system challenges, such as Net Zero or health and social care reform, and involve people and organisations inside and outside of government. Our guide for senior leaders covers good practice in taking a whole-system approach and pitfalls to look out for.

But whole-system change takes time. Most people working in government might feel whole-system change is for people in senior roles and there is little they can do themselves. Only around 2% of the civil service are in senior civil service grades. But that does not mean there are no opportunities for 98% of civil servants to improve services now. In fact, it is their knowledge, ideas and creativity that you need to tap into. The current cost pressures will benefit from a twin-track approach that carefully balances work on ‘here and now’ improvement and a longer-term perspective.

I see the daily frustrations for people providing services, such as the repeated problems they spend time fixing. What will it take to improve how they work and provide better, more efficient services for people using them? Since 2010 I have worked with more than 40 organisations and 120 services in government assessing their capability in turning strategic intent into service reality.

There are three basics where government organisations often struggle and ask for help.

Understanding demand, using performance information, and systematic improvement. Get them right and you will provide an effective service and reduce costs. If you do not, you will likely face one service problem, or backlog, after another. It is worrying that improvement is the worst performing area in our assessment of government capability and is one reason we produced our guides on improving services.

That is not to say there is no change happening at all in government. There is. But improving is different. 

So what can you do?

First, make sure you are fixing what matters. That needs clarity about the priority problems to fix – what is most important to improve and why? It is about helping people understand what the organisation’s objectives mean for their role and aligning on purpose. Alignment removes the risk of improving or fixing problems that take you in different directions and create a disjointed experience for the people using the service. Think about how you can involve everyone. The Department for Work and Pensions did this in bringing together its frontline workers and digital team to improve service for its Winter Fuel customers. 

Next, create capability and obligation so people spend time improving. Obligation requires organisations to create the conditions that mean people can and will improve. That matters because people closest to the service understand the problems best. It is particularly true for services that use tacit knowledge from understanding the diverse needs of the people using it and ‘learning by doing’.

Take, for example, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which estimates it improved productivity in one casework team by 33% by trusting the team to decide for themselves how to manage workload and allocate work. People spend time working on the types of cases they prefer and like working on.

Perhaps the biggest untapped potential in government is the opportunity to learn from others – be that from people in different parts of your service, your wider organisation, or different organisations altogether. I am always asked: ‘Who does this well?’ And while I fear a copy and paste approach to learning, which does not consider context, there is much to learn from how people address similar problems and adapting it with pride. Simple opportunities for sharing, such as the workshops we held for our improving services guide, provided hints and tips that people took away and used.

I often hear people say that they are too busy to spend time on improvement. But it is time to reframe the challenge because the bigger risk is government not getting the best from its people. Improvement needs behaviours that support it happening.

It is easy to kill off people’s willingness to try to improve, to close off a diversity of ideas, even with just a single offhand and discouraging comment. My experience working in government is testament to this.

Not every idea you try will work. But what is important is creating a workplace that values and encourages people to try ideas, learn and speak up without fear of the consequences. That will give you the best chance of making improvements that last.

Alec Steel is the head of operational management at the National Audit Office
Read the NAO good practice guide series on improving services: ‘Improving services – systematic improvement’ is available to download along with ‘Improving services – using information’ and ‘Improving services – managing demand

Read the most recent articles written by Alec Steel - Eyes on the prize: How to improve civil service delivery

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