A previous blog posting looked at evidence of how change programmes designed to save money and streamline shared services in UK Central Government appear to have come off the rails during delivery.  Obviously, none of these programmes set out with the intention of failing and, presumably, they had business cases considered “robust” by those who approved them. Most involved private sector consultancies and IT companies with contractual delivery targets, undoubtedly intended to reduce the risks of failure to the public purse based on their expertise.

Yet half a billion pounds of overspend and several invalidated business cases later, another round of “lessons learnt” are being collated with some common themes emerging from the inquiry reports.

Shared Services have a history in the back office, but also remain a major focus of front office changes to save efficiency and improve the customer facing experience of public services.

In this article, we go back to basics on “business transformation” and look at the fundamental essentials that must be in place – and continually monitored – throughout a programme to change service delivery.  Getting the essentials right can’t be overlooked when your shared services programmes have a direct impact on the taxpaying customer.

Let’s examine this issue from three perspectives:

First, let us consider the main causes of failure identified by the UK National Audit Office’s investigation into shared services.  These can be summarised in three short phrases:

  1. Insufficient focus on, and tracking of, programme benefits
  2. Overly complex solutions and ERP technology, insisted upon as the focus of benefits with a loss of effective supplier management
  3. Voluntary participation reducing expected demand and negating the benefits of scale.

Despite (and in some cases because of) the involvement of 3rd party suppliers, “transformation” failed because the benefits were not measured, not followed, unrealistic or changed beyond recognition during the programme. In essence, shared services were neither shared, nor simple enough to work for multiple departments.

Second, let’s take a step back from management buzzwords and consider what change programmes really mean to people delivering public service every day. In human terms, the reality of “business transformation” to the public service employee means:

  • The way that I work tomorrow is going to be different from how things are today. Doing things differently means it’ll be easier for me to give my customers the service they need.
  • The difficulties that stop me being as productive as I can [i.e. doing as much work as I possibly can in the hours I’m paid for] are reduced, or ideally removed altogether.  I can do more in the same time, without reducing the quality of the work I do.
  • I’m going to have to make a personal effort to behave and work differently in the future, if these changes are really going to make a difference in practice.

Individuals can understand this in the context of their own job, their own performance and their own service contribution to customers. The language of business buzzwords often removes this simple clarity, diverting attention away from the individual responsibility to take personal action and work in a different way.

There is a basic truth here – that business performance only changes when individuals take personal actions to do things differently AND when the tasks they carry out make life simpler, easier, cheaper or faster than before.

Third, we need to think about the steps that a change programme must include, if the ideas for improvement are to become a reality in service improvement and budget savings. The following diagram highlights ten essential steps for any programme intending to transform public service:

This checklist is not yet another management methodology, as the existing good practice approaches like Managing Successful Programmes (MSP) should cover these steps.  However, as we see from the evidence of programmes going off track, having a good methodology is evidently not enough.

Successful change programmes require an appropriate methodology to be properly, rigorously and fully applied. Organisation leaders and Senior Responsible Owners must ensure their programmes adequately cover each of these ten steps.

If your programme doesn’t have a handle on each step, how can you be sure the benefits you’ve assumed at the start will materialise when the programme is completed?  It’s possible they may, but you should know precisely why the steps you’re missing aren’t important in your own case and how you’re mitigating the associated risk of failure instead.

Remembering that business change is only achieved through individuals changing their behaviour and taking action to do things differently is a major factor in preventing your programme becoming one of the failed business cases of future inquiry reports.