The changing role of government: transformation
Public service reform is a constant theme of governments, but we are now entering a time of turbulent change. Efficiency is a necessary but insufficient response to radical budget reductions. To address the central policy problems requires engagement with the private sector, civic society and the citizen directly. The role of government is to stimulate and coordinate delivery through other multiple channels. Transformation means rethinking how government works in this new context. Knowledge and accountability are central issues.
Modernisation and reform is a constant theme of government. Newly elected governments produce zealous civil service reform programmes as a matter of course, the staple ingredients including a reduction in staff numbers, abolition of specialised agencies and non-governmental bodies, and an attack on waste and inefficiency; such programmes are popular with everyone except those they abolish. As their term progresses, and as the complexities and contradictions of political life pile up and entropy sets in, civil servant numbers start to rise, new bodies are created to satisfy various interest groups and the fragmenting tendencies of public administration re-assert themselves. Public officials, who have seen many such initiatives pass through, well know that with patience one day the storm will pass and ‘normality’ will return.
With this in mind, it may seem foolish to argue that, in the coming decade, things will be a bit different – why should it change now? For one thing, we can see that the pace of reform has quickened since the 1980s, as succeeding changes in government have made various attempts to tackle the same underlying issues. Although the response has usually focused on managerialism as a strategy – aiming to strengthen the management abilities of public administrators whilst reducing their policy advisory role – these issues arise from long-term trends in the economy and society which are much more structural in nature. These trends are:
intractable policy problems – such as child poverty or climate change – with complex and interwoven roots to which the best policy response is unclear or contentious, but which require changes in values, attitudes and behaviour to have an effect;
a ‘hollowing out’ of the state, at least in Europe, with some functions and spending ceded to the trans-national level above, some devolved to the regional level below, and others replaced by the market.
In short, a set of wicked problems1: demand is up, but budgets are down, so services cannot just keep growing; a set of problems that government cannot solve itself, but a citizenry that refuses to be engaged with them because it doesn’t trust politicians; and politicians seeking lifetime careers as corporate managers, but with less access to the levers of power.
Mere efficiencies, however rigorous, will not address these problems alone. They require a different way of thinking about what government should try to do, how it should go about doing it, whom it should work with in doing so, in which kind of relationships, and so on. It is not about doing the same things but for less money, or even doing them in a better way; it is about doing different things altogether – rethinking, not reworking. Transformative modernisation and reform add up to a new mindset, and the signs are that we are moving towards a tipping point.
The role of government is changing at national, regional and local levels: it is becoming more about shaping the environment in which others operate, in order to influence their actions and direction, nudging them towards taking responsibility for perceived issues and delivering solutions themselves. This change in role will have an impact on records management too: records, information and knowledge can all play an important role in the new challenges of transformation, but all the old certainties can no longer be relied upon. The conventions that matched the model of highly bureaucratic, top-down government will have to adapt to the more fluid approaches of a networked world. The purpose of this chapter is to set out some of the most relevant issues, to help think about the challenges that the transformation process will make to the field of knowledge, records and information governance, and how it can transform itself.
Of course, all countries are not the same, and the balance of issues varies from state to state. The analysis in this chapter is based on UK experience; however, there should be enough commonality that others will recognise some or most of these features. It is also important to note that these trends and responses are observed across the political spectrum; although there are differences about the specifics and issues such as where the precise boundaries of the state lie, there is in fact more agreement about the broad sweep of change than is often acknowledged.
The most evident theme in 2011 is the retrenchment in public spending in most Western countries. The recent wave of EDRM initiatives which brought records management to the fore took place in a period of expanding budgets, when resources for extensive internal-facing administrative programmes were relatively easy to acquire. At the same time, government strategy emphasised stronger central management and planning, accompanied by a strong faith in the effectual powers of information systems and structured databases. Records management took advantage of this favourable climate to experiment with EDRM systems and build stronger information governance regimes, promoting a philosophy of corporate control over all organisational information. Those years of plenty have now passed, and in the lean years of austerity such government-wide investment programmes will be quite unlikely: budgets are tight and big systems development is out of fashion.
The financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent economic recession leave most agreed on a reduction in public spending (although disagreeing about the rate and extent). It is clear that administrative – sometimes called ‘back-office’ – functions face the greatest pressure, with reductions in operational size and scope, mergers of authorities, and a severe contraction in the capital, especially IT, spending. This is a very poor climate in which to argue for records management investment programmes for the sake of compliance – better to be slightly embarrassed than bankrupt – and a tough one in which to justify rather intangible and unquantified broader operational benefits.
As suggested already, there are also longer-term dynamics at work in public finances; it should not be assumed that after a few years of retrenchment, the situation will return to a pre-crisis ‘normality’. Public spending has been rising steadily for some years and many believe that it is now near the limit – as a proportion of national income – that is sustainable. At the same time, demand is increasing at a faster rate than the capacity of resources to meet it, in ways that are very difficult to influence: healthcare, for example, experiences an ever-increasing demand as people live longer and expect more conditions to be treated, an increasing supply in medical capability as new treatments become available and yet, even in times of prosperity, limited resources to meet these needs. These are big, structural problems that demand new, creative thinking and radical and complex solutions. We can therefore expect a continued pressure on public finances, beyond the immediate deficit crisis.
The initial pressure is to improve efficiency at the organisational level. This goes beyond simply improving the cost or quality of outputs at the unit level: it involves questioning the extent to which existing processes contribute to the overall goals of the organisation as a whole – stopping some activities now past their time and perhaps starting others that are more innovative. It urges a systemic view: tackling the problem process by discrete process may improve each separately, but end in reducing overall efficiency for the system as a whole: it is how the parts work together that counts.
For records management, it is insufficient to look only at improving the throughput of processes such as document capture and indexing, search response times, storage and retention, if we are unclear about precisely how these processes, in themselves, contribute to improving efficiency in the organisation as a whole. If they are seen as generic service processes, such as accounting and payroll, then one response is to establish shared corporate services with other organisations of a similar type to gain economies of scale; or to consider outsourcing to a professional services company. If they are seen as integral to the delivery of aims and objectives, then another (not necessarily exclusive) response would be to strengthen the bond with key strategic and front-line activities.
A second perspective focuses on efficiency between different organisations that are working on the same, or related, issues from different directions. Despite repeated e-government initiatives, much of the public sector continues to operate from within quasi-independent, poorly connected ‘silos’ containing duplication of effort and resources, with different professionals tackling the same issues from their own, sometimes conflicting, perspectives, overall presenting a fragmented and confusing face to the public. Successive administrations have attempted to deal with this situation in two ways: by reducing duplication through greater co-ordination and shared budgeting; or by introducing competition between service providers in the belief that improvements in efficiency and quality will result.
There are two distinct issues here for records management and information governance: firstly, contributing to economies of scope by improving the coordination of formal records and the flow of working knowledge between the different user communities, supporting collaboration and harmonisation; and secondly, regulating the formal records practices of competing organisations to ensure proper accountability and transparency.
A focus on outcomes is essential for the success of both the intra- and inter-organisational perspectives. Speaking of ‘outcomes’ focuses attention on the desired change in the world which policy action is trying to achieve, rather than the processes or products which might help to achieve it: for example, the goal of the commercial regeneration of an area is the criterion for judging intermediate steps such as road- building, business park development, or the financial grants and incentives that help to achieve it. Outcomes are more ambiguous and harder to define than the specific outputs which contribute to them; it is frequently difficult to predict exactly which combination of actions will deliver the final result, and continuous evaluation may call for a change in strategy as circumstances develop. In principle, programmes focus on outcomes, coordinating a suite of projects which each produce the intermediate outputs, that together act on the problem in order to achieve the desired change.
What does a focus on outcomes mean for records management and information governance? The operational side tends to deal with the outputs of processes: customer centres in local government; case management of service users; planning registers; corporate services; project documentation; management meetings; freedom of information requests; and so on. The argument is not to change or abandon this strength, but to build on it. The analytical side of records management maps out the functions and business processes of the organisation, producing fileplans, categorisation schemes, assessments of useful retention, or workflows; and this is a platform to extend from. A focus on outcomes shifts the interest from recording what happened in a programme, project or service, towards using existing knowledge about the activity to assess whether it is having the desired impact, drawing on other sources of knowledge to complement what is known, and understanding where gaps in existing knowledge need to be filled. It means balancing regulation and control with innovation and change – from past events to future possibilities.
The policy environment is where issues are recognised as salient and placed on the agenda; where desirable outcomes – the goals of public policy – are debated, shaped and defined; and where programmes of action are sanctioned and initiated. The combination of diminishing resources and wicked policy problems pushes policy-making towards more innovative and creative thinking about effective courses of action. In the healthcare problem, for example, a set of complex and interconnected issues concerns much more than the timely application of medical treatments to illness. They include planning and management problems within a complex web of related organisations and occupational groups, value judgements on the use of evidence and cost-benefit decisions in assessing appropriate medical interventions, issues of promoting behaviour change as preventative healthcare, decisions on the relative roles of profit-making and public service incentives, amongst others. These issues involve different stakeholders, different interests and different kinds of knowledge.
The most salient policy problems – and the most intractable – are related to long-term structural changes in society and economy, with trade-offs in which actions to alleviate one may exacerbate the incidence of another. Well-known examples include: an ageing population making greater demands on pensions and adult social care accompanied by a fall in the proportion of economically active workers; greater flexibility in employment markets in response to globalisation contributing to a falling regard for community solidarity; perceptions of crime and the stubborn persistence of antisocial behaviour; balancing energy production, recycling and waste reduction; the conflict between consumerism and citizenship; reconciling action to mitigate climate change with the promotion of growth in a market economy.
The most effective policies addressing these types of problem are preventive interventions which tackle the causes of the problem (if we know what they are) rather than alleviating its symptoms. The main focus of innovation in public policy lies in the shaping of preventive rather than curative policies: promoting self-management of individual healthcare rather than later medical intervention; favouring active ageing in the transition to pensions provision; developing early years interventions as a primary means of reducing poverty and inequality. The main locus of action is shifting away from a centralised ‘command and control’ which sets out a universal top-down policy assessed by standard targets towards localised responsibility and experimentation which draws on the knowledge and abilities of a range of partners and perspectives.
This shift does not mean that government is giving away control of policy and delivery issues. Policy has always been shaped by a range of interests, interacting together in networks of influence – including such actors as academic experts, industry lobbies, professional associations, social entrepreneurs or public participants, as well as professional politicians. The shape and scope of those networks may be changing and the means of engagement now draws on new developments in collaborative technology. The search for new sources of funding to replace government spending programmes (such as Social Impact Bonds, which draw on private investment to fund social programmes that will return a future dividend to the investor when successful), draw in new players to the mix. Government, however, retains control by detailing the framework in which things can happen, sanctioning allowable and non-allowed actions, regulating the operation of that framework and setting expectations across society through the political process. Government controls the environment in which delivery happens, but steps back from the responsibility (and if possible, for politicians, the blame) for actual delivery.
This all seems a long way from records management as we know it – but these are the challenges of the future. If the business of records management is to support the business of government, rather than simply to record it for posterity, then it must be able to demonstrate a contribution. The connection to knowledge is surely the key here: it is not only the collecting of information about a problem which is important, but also possessing the knowledge to resolve it – how to turn it into action. There is more to this than just analysing the options and selecting an optimum solution; these are collective problems, involving many different actors and interests, and their alleviation or resolution has to be a collaborative one. Policy-shaping, in this environment, is less about determining what is best from a distance, as working through what is feasible in conjunction with all the various stakeholders, engaging with them at all levels and judging where the best achievable value for the public sphere lies – it is less about hierarchies and more about networks. Perhaps we need, then, a records management that is fluent in enthusiastic collaboration across the spectrum of organisations, institutions and interest groups, able to work with and complement other sources of knowledge, making the systemic whole greater than the sum of its separate elements.
In this emerging transformed public sphere, who is in the full delivery chain and what are their roles? Public policy can be delivered by a mix of elements: the state and its bureaucracy, in the shape of central, regional and local government, and its agencies; companies operating in the market, in which private enterprise and investment is harnessed to deliver public goods; and the community, in the shape of participating citizens and civil society organisations. The relative proportions of the mix, and the relationship between the elements, depend upon the prevailing values and philosophy of the time; from the post-war development of the state-backed welfare state to a renewed role for the market from the 1980s onwards. Many commentators believe we are now in the midst of another sea change in the balance of relationships (e.g. Kaletsky, 2010; Hutton, 2010; Blond, 2009).
The state has for some time been shifting from direct delivery of public services to the commissioning of delivery by others – ‘steering not rowing’, to use the 1990s phrase. The argument in favour is that central planning and delivery of services, as a monopoly, is inherently wasteful and inefficient, slow and cumbersome in responding to a changing world, and that departmental managers develop ‘empire-building’ instincts that makes them resistant to change. Therefore introducing elements of competition and choice is necessary to drive improvements in performance and operational efficiencies through market-style disciplines. The state may retain a regulatory oversight role, with a lighter or heavier touch, or shape the environment in which competitors operate through instruments such as legislative change, fiscal rules or public opinion.
The move towards the market as the means for innovation has, in many areas, also been accompanied by a devolution of powers away from the centre to the regional and local level. The result is that service delivery has been outsourced, left to competitive markets or devolved to local or regional organisations, and central government departments that previously managed volume processes focus instead on regulating those markets, setting the conditions in which they operate or managing them through financial controls. Records management has, similarly, been devolved to those organisations and coordination lost.
From the 1980s onwards the idea of the market as a driving force in change has steadily grown in influence, affecting either the way that services are structured or the manner in which they are managed. Some examples are:
introducing elements of internal markets into universal state services: such as patient ability to choose between competing healthcare providers, retaining a central state funding that ‘follows the patient’;
Most recently, though, the 2008 crises have led to a re-examination of the relative roles of state and market, and the way in which both relate to the individual as both citizen and consumer. On the one hand, this leads some towards renewed calls for regulation in areas where the impact of failure in one market has exponential implications for others (as in the banking industry, for example). This strand recognises that government differs from the market in some fundamental ways, for example:
The Gov 2.0 example illustrates this debate: should government develop and supply information services directly? Or should it make the data which it collects (and only government is capable of collecting much national scale data effectively) freely available to all comers, whether private sector companies building chargeable services, social enterprises working on a non-profit basis or enthusiastic individuals distributing free applications? Should government work out for itself what is needed, attempt to specify and commission detailed information- based services, building them itself or directing what is produced competitively, or simply provide a platform of data, without attempting to guide the shape of services that emerge, relying on the inventiveness of others to fill the need with various offerings and consumer choice to determine which will thrive?
This example illustrates the underlying structural tension between innovation and regulation: innovation is vital, especially in a time of austerity, in order to modernise and transform existing institutions, whose size and complexity makes change difficult, but the responsibilities of government also require a concentration on stability and cohesion, keeping transformation within bounds which do not disrupt the goals of public policy or weaken trust and confidence in the state itself. Regulation must promote innovation, but the purpose of innovation is not for its own sake, rather to achieve social outcomes more effectively.
The search for an appropriate balance in the instruments of public policy brings the community to the fore. The term community is used here in a general sense, to include civil society organisations – charities and voluntary organisations – as well as those structured as mutuals or cooperatives, professional associations, local geographical communities, social networks centred on a particular interest or issue, and so on. Community is the space in which individuals and groups can cooperate together for mutual benefit, for themselves or on behalf of others, that lies between the hierarchy of state bureaucracies and the competitive terrain of the market. These kinds of groups interact with the delivery of services and social outcomes in various ways:
At one level, promotion of community engagement can be seen as an opportunity for the state to retreat from some areas of public service in the face of financial constraints; but it has deeper implications as well. The current interest in localism is a way of delegating responsibility, as well as decision-making powers, whilst still retaining a guiding control – keeping control of the size of the purse, but allowing others to distribute whatever is available. This strategy follows modern management practice in locating decision- making on an issue with those who have best local knowledge of it, since they are closest to the problem, at the same time as constraining the boundaries of action. This is attractive to central government, often overwhelmed by the huge amount of local detail which must otherwise be processed in a central planning strategy, and to politicians and elected officials, who are then well-placed to take credit for enabling achievements but also to shrug off failure as the fault of others.
A higher profile for community as a locus of policy action is also attractive as a means of addressing those complex policy issues which represent the greatest challenge. Broadly, at the core of their resolution lie two kinds of change, which are linked:
changes in perception of problems: for example, measures which reduce the actual incidence of crime do not seem to change perceptions at the same time – against the evidence, a majority believe that crime in general is actually increasing in the UK overall, except in their own area.
The localism agenda – aiming to empower communities to have a greater say on local issues – is complemented by an emphasis on personal rights and responsibilities, which requires the individual to take more responsibility for doing things for themselves. In part, this is increasing choice by providing alternatives to state monopolies, where the market does not wish to step in; and in part, it is both requiring and empowering (which takes precedence depending on your point of view) to make either/or choices for themselves and their area: a healthier lifestyle versus (possible) co-payment for treatment of avoidable illness; better community facilities versus lower local taxes, or a contribution of personal time and effort to run alternatives.
Marketised services encourage a consumerist attitude: for continually improving quality and access at no greater cost; community-based participation calls for co-production of results – clients and practitioners, citizens and service providers, working together to produce value – or co-payment for the increased costs of service improvement. Competition and choice encourage the consumer; but now the money has run out and the big issues do not respond well to that approach – and so the citizen must be engaged as well.
The effect of these trends is to increase the number and range of different actors involved in the delivery chain – public and private sector, charities and community groups, clients and professionals – and to decrease the amount of direct control which public administrators can exercise. What is the role of the public manager in this emerging landscape?
The traditional role for the administrative decision-maker in bureaucracies was to ensure that the public interest predominated, by advising on the making of policy choices from a position of expertise and reason, and to implement policy by devising and operationalising a set of standardised rules under which all cases received the same treatment; to separate politics from administration. This is the tradition in which the disciplines of records management evolved and which is reflected in the kind of system requirements for EDRM, which the European Union MoReq2 project typifies.
The new public management (NPM) movement reoriented this role by the introduction of a customer services model. The role of the public manager is to convert policy choices into market (whether internal or external) choices and to assess relative value on the basis of cost-benefit calculations. This role gave precedence to the professional manager over the practitioner as the principal decision-maker in allocating resources: measuring what could be measured, setting targets, managing programmes and monitoring achievement. The professional manager is an agent of the political will, held to account through performance contracts and ensuring that it is not interpreted through the lens of specialist practitioner interest.
While business efficiency remains central, the emphasis is shifting towards the practitioner as implementer: those – head teachers, medical practitioners, local residents – most engaged with day-to-day delivery on the ground, bringing decision- making, value-creation and accountability closer to the point of production. In this context, a new role is added to public management, as expert facilitator rather than expert policymaker: to work within systems of governance to uncover the range of issues and problems, to seek out common values among all the interests involved, to articulate alternative programmes of action for producing public value and to guide the choice between them. In some ways, this turns things on their head: from overseeing and implementing policy choices from above, to working up from problems on the ground by building consensus on future action. Rather than knowing the right answer, knowing how to work out feasible alternatives and choose between them is the most important skill.
This is the final piece of the jigsaw: one of the most critical problems of the age is the disengagement of the general public from the government arena. Democracies depend on this engagement to give their governments legitimacy and to afford elected members and public managers a platform for making decisions and implementing programmes of action; and a ‘crisis of disengagement’ is commonly acknowledged. The symptoms can be seen in a general disappointment with politics, lower voter turnout, a decline in trust and credibility of politicians, and a growing belief that government action is ineffective. This is a difficult issue for government, because it is less a problem about performance of individuals, parties or institutions that could be reformed, than one linked to broader social trends: a decline in deference coupled with a desire to make more personal choices on lifestyle; multiple individual identities, with more varied and sophisticated demands, which involve the state in many more aspects of personal life; and the decline of social institutions, such as religion, trade union, or neighbourhood, which previously shaped collective life.
The turn towards community and individual responsibility is one response to this crisis: putting into place the scaffolding which nudges people into greater engagement with the choices available for resolving their daily problems; attention to accountability is another. Accountability operates at different levels:
Accountability, coupled with transparency, informs knowledge of the public sphere and helps to deliver trust and confidence, which in turn engenders engagement; and the kind of public manager role outlined above is intimately bound up with both. The complementary strategy to that of co-production through personal responsibility and community engagement, is one to encourage direct oversight by the citizen of the performance of government agencies, through access to performance data. In the traditional public manager role, the line of accountability is through the department to the Minister; for the new public manager, it is by performance contract to the appointing authority as principal; in a decentralised strategy it is rather more to the citizen, those who are consulted on, and give departmental legitimacy to, the setting of priorities. This is a very practical strategy through which the professional politician is able to set a corporate direction whilst also diluting the lines of direct accountability.
Knowledge is central to the success of this strategy. Transparency is delivered by the publication of the kind of information previously considered to be for internal consumption only: expenditure accounts, performance indicators, detailed information reports on general business plans – in fact, items which are the staple of records management systems. Although the information may not necessarily be in a form which is easily assimilable by the general public, it is the fact of publication which is the essential commitment of engagement on both sides.
Accountability is also, of course, a central principle of records management, focusing on the first and, to some extent, the second types. These strategies rely on the full sweep of accountability: what could have happened and what should have happened, as well as what actually did happen. The challenges of transformatory government for records management are:
1.Ones of extreme difficulty – uncertain, contradictory, fluid, interdependent – in which the solutions are difficult, expensive, unpopular and controversial, and require short-term sacrifices now for the longer-term benefit of others – and which may make another problem worse.