By Dr Hayley Bennett, University of Edinburgh, and What Works Scotland
The UK has a history of creating public policies that seek to challenge poverty or inequality, through various mechanisms such as welfare state services including early years support, social security and support during old age. Furthermore, a complex mix of public and third sector organisations (including Scottish government and all local governments) develop local strategies or initiatives to address economic disadvantage and reduce inequality. Yet, poverty persists and some programmes and services have had limited effect. Alongside larger ideas about the nature of public policy ideas (see Mike Danson’s blog post, “Aye we can” on this site from earlier today), new policy ideas may still end up facing organisational and institutional barriers during design and implementation, but can we change this? I argue, ‘aye we can’- providing we improve the way we operationalise and understand public service reform.
Over the past 12 years I’ve been researching the design and delivery of employment, poverty, and regeneration programmes in various organisations. It’s clear that there is a noticeable difference between policy aims and the processes and practices involved in implementation. Too often these functions are distant from each other, with little critical thinking about how policies and programmes alter and reform as they make their way through professional and organisational frameworks. Dominant trends in public management (for example contracting out, performance indicators, and annual funding cycles) can reshape or create new boundaries that impact front-line working and subsequently affect overarching policy aims. Different professions draw on their own favoured practices and ways of working, and management ideas shape and reframe the ways that many are able to do their work. In short, organisations are complex beasts with a number of competing logics.
Ideas of joined up working and partnerships are key to public service reform in Scotland (see Christie Commission), with an increasing emphasis on collaboration across organisational boundaries. Yet, different organisations have their own cultures, priorities, and dominant professional principles and you’ll hear workers engaged in reducing poverty talk about how they continue to see the same faces and work with similar people in other organisations. In the same conversations it is evident that there are many influential professions that impact on anti-poverty work. There are ‘support’ professions or organisational roles (such as HR, IT, procurement, accounts etc.) that frame and shape the work of front-line workers and anti-poverty policies. For example:
- Under further inspection, it was apparent that estate management and accountancy workers led the decision-making regarding Jobcentre Plus closures as part of an estates rationalisation and contract management strategy for leased premises. Social security policy makers or experts, did not make these decisions as part of a long term vision to create and shape the future of employment support.
- Project managers and performance colleagues champion key performance indicator models but may benefit from a richer understanding of the complexity of social issues and various types of social research data.
- Accountants who establish short term funding processes can limit preventative interventions or activities that seek to work with harder to reach groups as evaluations may not demonstrate the achievement of key indicators within a short time period.
- Procurement and contract management specialists often design contracted service provision in various policy areas, drawing on favoured professional models despite concerns of the risks involved by social policy specialists (e.g. employment support programmes).
- There is also an increasing emphasis on digital and technological solutions in public service reform, and as such, an increasing number of IT specialists and ‘systems designers’ involved in policy making and implementation. Bad service design can exacerbate the experience of poverty, for example on-going issues with the delivery of universal credit drastically undermines expectations that social security policies can support people on low incomes.
In sum, policy design and delivery matters, but the professions who design and control the dominant thinking on delivery norms are often too distant from poverty or experience experts, research and evidence, front-line workers, or citizens. We need to start to widen the scope of professions and individuals engaged in anti-poverty dialogues, share research and knowledge, and extend conversations into their working spaces. Leaders and managers need to challenge and critically reflect on the impact of organisational tools and dominant ideas from performance management. Can we improve anti-poverty activities with the levers we currently have in Scotland? By improving collaborative working across professions and organisations, I think “aye we can.”