the future shape(s) of the public sector?

The Institute for Government produced a report in 2014, the shape of the Civil Service: remaking the grade.  It looked at the breakdown of the civil service by salary grade and included this interesting visualisation:


It illustrates a wide range of organisational shapes in terms of the relative distribution of staff across the grade scales.

What interested me more however, and which was not addressed by the report, was to understand the balance between those directly delivering public services (generally referred to as “the frontline” in journalistic shorthand), and those focused on feeding and watering the organisations’ own internal processes and overheads (“the bureaucrats”, in the same crude shorthand).

We would all like our taxes to go directly into frontline services – to the doctors, nurses, teachers, firemen, etc. After all, hardly anyone I imagine falls asleep at night thinking “Thank goodness my taxes paid today for a bunch of well-paid middle managers to sit in a room all day drinking coffee, tweeting and talking about slide 91 on their PowerPoint deck.” 

Yet most of us recognise that there’s a valid need for a supportive, enabling organisation around frontline staff – one that can ensure those on the frontline have everything they need to focus on their job. It would be nice to think that these supporting organisational structures are as efficient and well-organised and as resource light as they can be. After all, every pound that goes into them is a pound denied the frontline.

But how do we know which leaders in the public sector are doing a great job, getting the majority of resources to the frontline, slimming down and purging unnecessary overheads and office staff and broken processes, and which are less efficient, absorbing far too many resources into their own internal roles, processes and overheads at a direct cost to frontline services? How many public sector organisations have taken advantage of the digital revolution – by which I mean not just the technology but the culture, processes and practices of genuinely digital organisations? How many have redesigned the way they work and operate, rather than mistaking digital as a sideshow focused on updating their website in new fonts and colours while they carry on business as usual?

Mark Thompson, a senior lecturer in information systems at the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, has suggested that UK voters are being sold a lie: that there is no need to cut public services if they were to become truly efficient and to move precious resources away from their own internal overheads and into the frontline. And to prove that this criticism is grounded in the real world, he quotes an interesting example:

The other day I read a case study from Holland in Reinventing Organizations that made me fall off my seat. The Buurtzorg community nursing organisation has a back office of 30 people to support 7,000 frontline nurses. It has almost no middle management – no HR, legal, estates, comms, finance, IT, procurement and so on. An audit firm reported that 40% fewer hours of care are required by the organisation’s patients, and its nurses have 60% less absenteeism and a 33% lower turnover than other nursing organisations.

This organisation has been able to provide a radical increase in frontline services, of much better quality, with greater satisfaction for both patients and carers – and for much less money. No one in the UK has been able to do this.

[source: The Guardian, Thursday 12th February 2015. UK voters are being sold a lie. There is no need to cut public services]


So how far has such organisational re-thinking impacted the UK public sector? According to Mark, very little. The new ways of designing and running organisations in the digital age have been little adopted on any scale in the public sector, despite the huge potential upside of digitising government. Mark suggests that “middle managers in both the public and private sector are skimming funds from public services – and nobody is talking about it.”

To help tackle this problem, we need an objective way of measuring how well resources are being applied within our public sector organisations, how much goes to the frontline and how much is lost feeding and watering out-dated organisational roles, processes and structures. And some means of comparing how similar organisations across the public sector stack up against each other.

After all, if one local council can run its services in an efficient way with minimal overheads and middle managers, and the maximum number of frontline services – from social care to libraries to refuse collection – we might question the priorities, competence and motivation of other councils that repeatedly cut the frontline and yet maintain a top-heavy organisational shape that compares poorly against their more efficient peers.

One way of enabling such comparisons might be courtesy of the W3C, which has produced a useful organisation ontology. That might sound a bit dry, but it’s a way of consistently describing organisational structures in computer-readable form. The taxonomy can be used as the basis for classifying organisations and their roles, including organisational activities, and it’s extensible to model specific needs.

In other words, it has the potential to provide what I’m suggesting – a standard way of using open, consistent data to describe public sector organisations and of showing who is in what type of role, at what cost and to what value, from frontline to administration. Of distinguishing between what Mark terms ‘administration’ and ‘service’: modern digital organisations have eradicated the need for many traditional roles, processes and activities, yet perversely, many such roles are mushrooming in the public sector even as their contribution to the public good decreases.

If every public body were required to openly publish their organisation’s data in an agreed, consistent, W3C-based form, that data could be automatically accessed, read and compared (unlike much of the organisational and financial data currently put out, which is buried in obscure PDFs and uses inconsistent descriptions between different organisations). We need transparency not obscurity, and we need accurate, consistent data, not mere opinion and assumption, if we are to help encourage the right type of reforms in our public sector.

Such data would enable the type of graphic at the top of this blog to be automatically generated for all local councils, for example. It would enable us to map roles and costs to frontline services rather than internal grade structures (which tell us nothing about public service value): we would all be able to see the variations across the sector and to ask why they exist. Perhaps we would see something like this:

W3C Org Analysis.png
W3C organisation ontology used as the basis for comparative analysis

Bodies such as the National Audit Office could investigate such data more closely – at times local circumstances might well lead to justifiable variations. There’s unlikely to be any mythical “one size fits all” model for public sector organisations. But automating the generation and collection of organisational data would at least provide a starting basis on which to assess how many public sector organisations are taking advantage of the ability to modernise public services, and hence taking the opportunity to move resources into frontline services, and those zealously protecting their own administrative roles and interests to the direct detriment of the frontline.

Making such a transition won’t be easy. The obvious approach is to start small, with a pioneer group who can help define, extend and iterate the W3C organisation taxonomy, and a group of initial public sector bodies keen to become more efficient and transfer value to the frontline. We can see what works, what value it brings, whether it helps: the transition to modern organisational structures needs to be grown, tested, iterated and improved – not imposed from on high. And it needs to be owned and led by those in the public sector who best understand the very real and essential opportunities now possible to deliver radical service improvements.

I’ll leave Mark with the last word, also from his Guardian piece:

Doctors, nurses, teachers, home visitors, librarians will be [the] winners. We’re told we must learn to live with fewer of these people, but we could actually have more if we sorted out our organisational model. The other big winners are, of course, the customers: everybody who consumes public services.

Long term, the losers will be the legions of workers in hierarchical organisational structures – private or public sector – who [now] play a less important part in post-bureaucratic organising.

[Transparency declaration: Mark Thompson is a co-author of my book “Digitizing Government” and we’ve also written some academic papers together including “Digital government, open architecture and innovation: why public sector IT will never be the same again“]


  1. This is a fantastic idea.

    But’s worth considering that the visualisations at the beginning use grade as a proxy.

    In a digital world, devs and technical architects are part of your front line force. You won’t hire them at EA pay grades.

    Adopting the ontology needs to address the madness of a system that conflated pay, skills, reporting line and to some sense time served. It’s ironic that the review in the sixties that led to the current grading scheme was trying to tackle the “cult of the generalist” by putting specialists key to delivery on the same footing as policy generalists. It seems to have exacerbated the problem.

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