Duck Islands and Moats – Public Sector Values

I am sure that most readers followed the MP’s expenses coverage with a real sense of outrage, but we were all assured that the introduction of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has resolved the problems. It was disappointing to read the account of a meeting which took place recently between senior representatives of that Authority and current MP’s, at which one MP claimed that IPSAhad ‘destroyed the whole sense of public service’. It is difficult not to assume that this wanton destruction is based on the requirement to actually submit receipts for expenses!

I suppose I had actually assumed that anyone putting themselves forward as an MP, now or in the past, would actually have some form of innate understanding of what public service values mean.

These thoughts evolved into my reflections on a study tour to Canada some years ago. North American hospitals are all proud of their mission statements. Visitors will, almost inevitably, see these fine words engraved on brass plaques at the entrance to the hospital. Out of curiosity, I Googled ‘hospital mission statement’ and got 2 million results! I read enough of them to become rapidly bored and somewhat disillusioned. I will happily buy a glass of wine for any reader who can find one that does not contain the word ‘excellence’ and a second glass for anyone who can find one that actually defines what excellence means.

Returning to my Canadian visit, our study group visited a newly established Canadian hospital, where we were told the tale of how they had developed their own statement. Unsurprisingly, they called the senior management team together for a facilitated ‘time out’. The facilitator asked the team to make a list of the key words that should appear as part of the hospitals mission. Their work produced more than 20 such words, and yes, excellence was one of them. They were persuaded that rather than producing 250 bland and forgettable words of infinite wisdom, they should instead consider a simple statement of values. What they came up with eventually were 3 extremely simple criteria against which they felt that their services could be measured. They were respect, partnership and continuous improvement. They claimed that every single task performed by any employee, in any situation can be assessed against these 3 criteria. They were right, as visitors we tried it and found that anything from cleaning the toilets to performing open heart surgery can indeed be assessed in that way. So their mission turned away from a long winded statement about what they do to a much simpler statement about how it is done.

Perhaps, that is the missing link in defining what public service means. Perhaps, the existence of a simple set of criteria about how public servants should do things would have avoided expenses scandals and avoided what seems to be the ongoing aftermath. Sadly my experience, based on the old adage that a camel is a horse designed by a committee leaves me concerned that such a venture might produce a list of 15 to 20 undefined terms – but hell we could give it a go and perhaps, just perhaps, define what public service will actually mean to both those who use those services and the people who provide them.

The study tour I referred to was part of a management development programme run by the King’s Fund College and the main message I took from this programme was not about the mechanics of management, but instead the importance of managing against a set of values. Value based management is hard work, there were countless occasions where I found myself apologising to people for not always living up to my own values. However, having values and telling people what they are raises standards.

In closing, I will share a story from my days on that King’s Fund programme. I had a friend at the time who was a manager of a store in a major retail chain; we spent many an evening in the local pub whilst I regaled him with my new found enthusiasm for value based management. He became enamoured with the concept (after all becoming enamoured gets a lot easier after a few beers) and decided that he would try and take this into his own organisation. His opportunity came at his bi annual review with the regional manager. This was done to a structured format, part of which was a presentation by my friend on pre prepared flip charts. On revealing the title of his presentation on values he instantly saw the unenthusiastic, if not hostile reaction on his bosses face. Of course he had no real choice but to continue with his pre prepared work, all the while seeing the boredom and irritation being displayed in front of him. His final chart was a brief list of his own personal values. His final words to his by now thunderously annoyed superior were ‘So, these are my values. But if you don’t like these I have others!’

Not many years later, that retail chain went broke and closed. I would so dearly love to believe that their end may have had something to do with a lack of articulated values.

Written by Glyn Griffiths, WIHSC Associate

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One Response to Duck Islands and Moats – Public Sector Values

  1. John Desmond says:

    A fundamental issue has been identified. Accordingly I hope that my response is constructive and that it will be followed by many responses which are definitely constructive. On page 33 of her 1997 book ‘In pursuit of good administration: Ministers, civil servants and judges’ (Oxford: Oxford University Press), Diana Woodhouse proposed that the public service ethos has three sets of characteristics. First it ‘supports the idea of service as a vocation rather than just a job and thus of officials being hard-working, conscientious, disciplined and non-corruptible.’ Second it ‘demands an adherence to the law and due respect for the legally enforceable rights of individuals, and is also concerned with commitment to the public interest, rather than narrower sectional or private interests, and to the collective “public” nature of the administration.’ Third it ‘embodies values and principles arising from the culture of intervention and the Welfare State.’ Conceivably empirical research could ascertain the nature of three related phenomena. The phenomena are the extent to which the Welsh public sector is actively committed to this or a preferred interpretation of the public service ethos, the horizontal distribution of such commitment between its component parts and the vertical distribution of such commitment within them. Naturally speculation about what could appropriately be done upon the conclusion of such research would be premature. But hopefully a debate could follow. For the sake of its well-being, a society should hold sufficiently-frequent debates about the values to which its public sector is committed.

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