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“We no longer have to park our brains at the door.”

Brendan Martin

I have met hundreds, probably thousands, of committed, hard-working public servants in the course of my work over half a century, and I’ve heard plenty of wise words from many of them.

But none have stayed with me more than those of the Indianapolis road repair worker who, when I asked him what he liked best about the changes happening in his workplace, replied: “We’re no longer expected to park our brains at the door.”

He and his colleagues had been challenged by the city’s mayor to improve the quality and speed of road repairs in the city, while reducing their cost. The alternative, the mayor said, was to outsource their work to private contractors.

Following a little training in activity-based costing, but drawing mainly on what they already knew from doing their jobs, the crews rose to the challenge so well that it became an Innovations in American Government case study at Harvard University.

They knew which equipment and materials lasted best and which were false economies. They knew their city and how to plan schedules so that more got done. But, until then, no-one had asked them.

That was back in the 1990s, and I could cite many more examples since then of great improvements arising from enabling and supporting ‘frontline’ public servants to mobilise their intrinsic motivation and knowledge more effectively.

The results are so clear that by now I’m bound to ask: why aren’t all public service improvement efforts based on an approach proven to yield better results, lower costs and greater job satisfaction?

At one time I thought the answer to that question was that institutional and organisational leaders truly believed they had risen to the top because they knew best, and now their job was to tell their people how to do theirs.

Having worked with many health and care leaders over the last decade, however, and experienced how strongly most are committed to improving employee engagement, I now see that explanation as simplistic.

Most understand that stronger employee involvement in decision making is not only important for job satisfaction but can also be the route to successful and sustainable improvement.

What holds many back (apart from the sheer relentless everyday pressure of keeping the show on the road at all these days) are the challenges of combining more frontline freedom and responsibility with institutional accountability and risk management.

Those challenges are, above all, practical. Yes, there are other reasons for the survival of unnecessarily bureaucratic and hierarchical systems – cultural, ideological, political, structural – but they derive much of their resilience from lack of confidence in the sustainable practicality of other ways.

For many years since meeting those Indianapolis road repair workers, my work enabled me to learn a lot about how that deficit can be overcome, drawing on experience in many sectors in many countries and creating the social enterprise Public World.

About 10 years ago we decided to apply our international experience to organisational change in British and Irish public services, which led to a period of partnership with Buurtzorg Nederland to support health and care providers inspired by its success with self-organised neighbourhood teams.

Now we have begun to capture all we have learnt into an expanding body of online learning materials we believe can make a major contribution to closing the gap between inspiration and implementation in new ways of working.

Paradoxically, the most fundamental point is that, while much can be learnt from what has worked for others, there is no blueprint or model that can substitute for your own process of learning-by-doing.

But that doesn’t mean you have to invent all your own tools, and experience also shows that a successful strategy for sustainable change needs a coherent and consistently logical alignment of purpose, principle and practice.

Our Humanity at the Heart offer provides a roadmap to help you navigate your own route, the support of experienced guides and a network of fellow travellers for peer-to-peer learning through our community of practice.

Please take a look, and if you think it looks useful, and you’d like to explore how we could take the road towards more relational public services alongside each other, let’s have a chat.