What is different about Public Sector Systems?

Much rubbish is said about the differences between public and private sector – often to justify centralised empire-building or reluctance to clarify objectives and set priorities. But there are some genuine fundamental differences. Failure to recognise them has doomed several well-intentioned systems to help those in most need.  

The first is that public sector cannot choose its customers.

The second is that around 20% of its “customers”, including those in most need or most likely to attend MPs surgeries, live lives of unpredictable chaos, with multiple inter-linked problems, lurching from crisis to crisis.

Systems based on comprehensive rule-books, however complex, are doomed to “fail”.   

Perceived “success” depends on designing simple systems for the 80% whose needs are straightforward or predictable, with authority devolved to human beings to handle the rest.

This approach raises all the issues of accountability for public money that the current centralised silos were designed to handle. But the world has moved on since 1917, when Loyd George’s war time government decided that the land fit for heroes would be built on nationally standardised schemes rather than local choice.

The time has come to adopt approaches that are fit for the 21st Century.

Perhaps a wholesale change of MPs, bringing in recent experience from business and from local government, will help those within the Civil Service who have long been only too well aware of the need for change.   

I should perhaps add that the insights on which this entry is based were recenlty expressed forcefully and eloquently by a retired senior civil servant who was almost in despair (or should I have said incandescent with rage) at the mess made by those who succeeded him as they tried to implement the over-ambitious wet dreams of well-intentioned ministers and policy advisors, aided and abetted by less well-intentioned consultants and technology salesmen.

I very much hope that the way forward will include rebuilding the skills and professionalism of the Civil Service as well as devolving authority and accountability to those in the front line of service delivery who are best positioned to understand the needs of those with whom they dealing. The latter will indeed need much better information systems, but designed for decision support, not automaton control. 





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I certainly buy into the argument that IT's greatest value is in automating the trivial.

With this in mind, why we cannot have a system which uses IT for the majority of simple cases but retains human-based administration for complex cases, I do not know.

Indeed, it is in the complex cases where developing an IT system becomes hardest, most expensive and more likely to fail.

While in the long-term I think it is crucial to rebuild the skills of the civil service, I think one point you could expand on is how in the short term we can ask the right questions of incumbent suppliers and "experts" to deliver better value and take action to address current weaknesses in Government's approach to IT.