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Public Sector Management: Beyond the Hype - Page 6

PERFORMANCE AND LEARNING

What do we mean by an excellent public sector organisation? A narrow definition is one which focuses upon meeting the legitimate and changing needs of the users of the service at least cost. A wider definition will recognise that there are other stakeholders’ interests that need to be taken into account - not least those of the employees of the organisation.

In much of the discussion of performance the voice of this important group of stakeholders has been lost. Public sector employees have been invariably treated as a resource cost; they have been regarded as parasitical and meddlesome; the powerful professional bases have been challenged. At the same time the demands placed upon services have increased whilst the resource base has not increased at the same rate. Fewer people have been expected to do more with less and at a higher quality. Yet most public service employees have responded positively and met the challenge. Substantial productivity increases have been recorded. Does this mean that the NPSM has been successful? In large measure it has been but it has been purchased at a high price.

Many public sector employees are now disillusioned; morale is low and work related stress levels are high. People are voluntarily leaving public service and taking a significant skill and tacit knowledge base with them. If the momentum of the managerial reforms is to be maintained and if further productivity improvements are to be secured, then more attention has to be given to the morale of employees.

Public service organisations have more than one responsibility and more than one measure of success. Good management has to balance these objectives trading one off against another at appropriate times. The time has now come for reflection on what has been achieved so far. An agenda of where we go to next is required - what have been the successes and what have been the failures. We need to learn. But do we have in place the mechanisms of a learning organisation?

Performance measures and indicators are not the end of the process of management. They are the beginning.

The information provided by performance indicators give essential signals of failures as well as success. How do we use information about failure? If it is used in a command and control framework then individuals are unlikely to offer information about failure and we will not learn. Strategies should not be set in stone. They are modified in the light of what has been achieved and they emerge as we learn about the complexity of the environment within which services are delivered. This lies at the heart of the "emergent" or incremental model of strategy (10).

Learning from the implementation of strategies and policy reviews is, however, only one dimension of any true learning organisation. Simple performance review is normally characterised as single loop learning (11). More effective learning with longer run pay offs for enhanced organisational performance, however, comes from double loop learning.

In this case strategies or policies are thought of as working hypotheses – a set of beliefs about how the internal and external environments of a particular organisation behave and the nature of the relationships that influence organisational performance and excellence. These hypotheses and beliefs originate within the framework of a particular paradigm. Double loop learning requires the managers of an organisation to think outside of the prevailing paradigm; to challenge the paradigm’s values, beliefs and assumptions. This is the basis of the reflective practitioner.

Are public service organisations learning organisations in the sense of single and/or double loop learning? Have mechanisms and structures been established that will encourage learning? Do incentives exist to produce reflective practitioners?

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