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Beware banana skins

03 Dec 2010

Why is it so hard to deliver public sector outcomes?

Beware banana skins! Firstly, the nature of public sector outcomes are often intrinsically difficult. Many concern so called ‘wicked problems’ (I’ll return to this theme in another post – looking at what I mean by a wicked problem and why even the terminology can become a barrier). Examples include: eradication of child poverty in a generation; tackling childhood obesity; creating the so-called ‘big society’; and a recent addition – improving the well-being of the nation. These are big issues with multiple causes that interact with each other in complex ways.

Secondly, many of the outcomes demand patience; they are long-term conditions that take time to change. And patience is in short supply. In both the public and private sectors, short-termism is king. Whether it is results for the public before the next election or fast returns on shareholders investments, most managers and leaders are encouraged to think in months or quarters rather than years or decades. Yet, for example, tackling childhood obesity is likely to demand changes in behaviour both amongst consumers and producers that will take longer than the term of one Parliament to yield results. And it may well be that we are genetically programmed to like precisely those foods that are most harmful – because in times of hardship, access to high calorie, high fat foods was a rarity. It is only now that such foods are available in such large quantities that our genetic predisposition has become a problem.

Thirdly, even when longer-term approaches are instigated, the reality of day-to-day politics – and the media frenzy that accompanies it – means that fire-fighting can become the predominant modus operandi for any administration, regardless of political persuasion.

Fourthly – and more worryingly – even when all the above factors are tacitly acknowledged, the public sector (both politicians and officials) tends to value problem-solving techniques. That is, an issue is seen as a ‘problem’ to which a single ‘solution’ can be found rather than a set of conditions that are likely to require multiple approaches, working together and being adjusted over time to reflect changes in those conditions and the environment. My personal experience in the civil service is that problem-solving is deeply ingrained into the culture; it is a key factor for recruitment and is the main source of reward in terms of performance management and promotion. Whilst capabilities such as ‘strategic thinking’ that might offer alternative, more nuanced approaches to outcome delivery, are a part of the published senior civil service skill set (see Professional Skills for Government on the Cabinet Office website), it is rare (though not impossible) to find these recognised and rewarded. Meanwhile, Whitehall’s mandarins continue to develop leaders in their own (problem-orientated) image.

So, many public sector outcomes are undoubtedly hard to achieve. Perhaps they should be by definition – otherwise we could address them ourselves. They demand sophisticated approaches that are more about creating the conditions for success than simplistic quick-fix ‘solutions’. The failure at the heart of government is one of imagination and creativity – thinking through the conditions that will successfully deliver outcomes, the indicators that be used to monitor success and the feedback mechanisms (and adjustments to conditions) that will keep delivery on track. To find out more about our approach to unlocking the creative potential latent within your organisation, contact us at

(In later posts I shall return to the theme of Wicked Problems and whether public sector outcomes matter).

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