Efficiency Gains in the Public Sector – What is behind all this talk anyway?

So your workplace has been asked to identify savings through efficiency gains. I believe that if I were to ask ten different people for their interpretation, I would probably get ten different responses. So let’s start back at the beginning with a general definition.

What is efficiency?: Efficiency describes the extent to which time or effort is well used for the intended task or purpose.  Source: Wikipedia

So if we accept this description, it’s safe to assume that in order to improve efficiency, one must make even better use of their time or effort for the intended task or purpose.

But does the public sector in general terms measure time and effort (i.e. work hours)?  And if they do, do they measure it against intended tasks?  Not that I’ve seen.

So let’s look at a private sector approach.  When faced with improving efficiencies, organizations primarily focus on waste. In order to make better use of time, they eliminate the recurring problems that cause ‘lost’ time. Once removed, more time can be well spent on the intended task or purpose.

Conservatively speaking, it is estimated that approximately 20% of all work time is ‘lost’ for a variety of reasons.  Imagine the amount of time you (and your team) spend waiting for call backs, looking for information, waiting for approvals, seeking clarification, clarifying expectations, and reworking deliverables.  We all know that not every hour is created equal.

But again, does the public sector in general terms measure their time ‘lost’ due to issues or problems?  And if they do, do they measure it against intended tasks?  Again, I think not.

I recognize that these answers may not be very exciting, or sophisticated in their approach. But what is wrong with that? I get the feeling that people are looking for complex solutions to basic challenges.

If the public sector wants to gain efficiencies, here’s what I feel they need to do:

1. Subscribe to the premise that what isn’t measured, isn’t managed

  • Start measuring efficiency – this means integrating ‘time and effort’ (work hours) into their dashboards and reporting systems
  • Start documenting issues/problems – this means integrating problem logs or sheets into their daily work
  • Embrace data and documentation by holding open and transparent discussions about results at all relevant meetings and bilats

2. Leverage the untapped power of setting tangible targets and measureable plans

  • Integrate targets and plans into the daily world of work and have those expectations clearly indicated on dashboards and reporting systems – this means that all departments need to know with absolute uncertainty when a performance falls within expectations, or short of expectations (good day/bad day principle)

3. Put accountability back in the workplace and into the hands of the Manager

  • Did you know that some estimates state that Managers control as much as 90% of an organization’s assets!
  • Redefine the role of the Manager as responsible for their processes and people – this means giving them the authority to make decisions and hold them responsible for results

4. Walk the talk about client service

  • Review the work of the department and reduce the amount of work that is not directly impacting the client – this means reprioritizing work around strategic outcomes instead of administrative tasks

In short, we need to get our hands on better data, set more targets, better engage our Managers, and refocus our efforts on the client.

So in an increasingly complex world, why not remember those lessons from the past. It might do us all well to dust off those basic management principles forged over time yet somehow forgotten in this exciting age of technological advancements.


Kathy Roy has implemented business transformation and change management projects in complex organizations for over two decades. She has worked with major companies, both public and private, and with numerous business sectors in both Canada and the United States. She is part of Systemscope's Strategic Business Consulting practice.


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