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No thinking please – we’re civil servants!

19 Nov 2010

The ThinkerI was shocked to hear from a colleague recently that a senior manager in a large central government department in the UK had said to someone whom they manage “we can no longer afford the luxury of thinking – we just have to do!”

It’s difficult to know where to start when exploring the many levels on which that statement is wrong. Leaving aside the de-motivating affect it had on the staff member involved (though that in itself is bad enough), here are just a few reasons why it is very far short of the mark:

  • Firstly, it implies that in times of austerity ‘thinking’ is no longer required. Wrong; as I have said elsewhere – in times of crisis more thought is required to ensure that the desired results or outcomes are crystal clear and prioritised
  • Secondly, it implies that there is no need to question activities that have always been done. Wrong again; scarce resources should be directed towards the achievement of desired results (see first bullet). Some activities may need to stop entirely, others reduced, others increased (yes – increased, even when times are hard)
  • Thirdly, it implies that there is no better way of doing things than what has always been done – that the civil service is a machine honed to perfection. Almost certainly wrong again – though that needs to be tested. That too requires more thought, not less: could we achieve the outcomes more efficiently and effectively in a different way? Are there alternative service delivery models – including collaborating with partners – that could better achieve the outcomes? Are our efforts all prioritised with respect to the desired outcomes?
  • Fourthly, it implies that the coalition government is all-knowing and merely needs automatons to do it’s bidding. Most certainly wrong – the government has explicitly stated it wants to “steer rather than row”. I hope that steering involves thinking, otherwise we will all be in trouble! Joking aside, this government, like any other, recognises that there is a partnership between ministers and officials. That requires thought and challenge from both sides. Ministers may provide the Political vision (which can define and prioritise the desired results), but officials have a huge role in helping them define that through clear thinking and evidence about the operational environment in which services will be delivered. Officials will also help to identify options for delivery – that might even require (dare I say it) creative  thinking
  • Fifthly, it implies that the UK public doesn’t expect the civil service to think. From this taxpayers personal point of view that is most certainly wrong again (see above!)

On reflection, given that I know the senior manager who made the comment, I was less shocked than I should have been. However – and thank goodness – not all public servants are like that member of the senior civil service. If, like me, you believe such a sentiment to be utterly wrong-headed and would like to explore ways to unlock the potential latent within your organisation, perhaps we can help.

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