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How the public sector can deliver impact with limited resources

November 08, 2021

How the public sector can deliver impact with limited resources

Synopsis
6 Minute Read

Public sector organizations today often face the twin challenges of fiscal restraint and shifting policy goals. An outside perspective can be key to navigating these challenges to help deliver on public commitments.

Consulting Services

By Melanie Fix and Kathryn Graham

The challenge

It’s a familiar scenario: a public sector organization is directed by policymakers to advance platform commitments, with the parallel expectation to achieve this mandate along with existing services within existing resources. In the end, results fall short of expectations, and the promises envisioned are never fully realized.

That scenario highlights one of the reasons why the general public – which looks from the outside in, and only at results – often misunderstands and underestimates the commitment and diligence of public sector organizations. In reality, the public service must overcome challenges not experienced in the private sector.

With critics in every corner, the public sector also tends to be risk averse, leading to multiple layers of approval and delays in decision-making. As policy implementation deadlines loom, that can eat up valuable time and stifle momentum. New ideas tend to become specific programs that develop independently in operational silos focused on program specific activity instead of overall population outcomes.

The need for a fresh perspective

It may seem counterintuitive to suggest that the expertise offered by an outside consultant can improve public sector delivery without introducing an extra layer of complexity. Yet in our experience, the opposite is often the case. The right external expertise can look at a task or challenge, the associated organizational context and pressures, and complement of available resources with a fresh eye. That perspective can accelerate public sector thinking and actions to deliver on their mandates more effectively, while helping to build their own internal capability to drive progress in more agile and incremental ways. 

Here are five challenging situations public sector organizations often face — and how a third party can help.

1. The leadership structure inhibits internally generated innovation.

While internal team members may be eager to collaborate with one another broadly in achieving goals, that collaboration often fails to result in a mandate for action or attract the sponsorship and leadership structure needed to implement meaningful change. An independent consultant can help foster leadership engagement and influence, and overcome barriers to achieve top-level endorsement and approval. A consultant can enable efficient, effective collaboration without the trap of an endless cycle of meetings help break through inertia to act, and provide structure to make informed decisions, get projects started and drive them forward in a timely fashion.

2. The organization is segregated into silos that limit the desired result.

Many public sector organizations are able to provide services within their silos, but what looks like success may be far from optimal from the client’s perspective. Or from a resource efficiency perspective. By examining processes objectively, a consultant can help departments integrate and co-ordinate their efforts, delivering services more quickly and efficiently. There can be many challenges in re-design, but they can be overcome with a clear path, understanding of the change management implications, and facilitated leadership interactions to open channels and address barriers.

3. Mounting priorities without additional resources strain efforts to maintain progress and demonstrate success.

Public sector organizations are often constrained with finite resources to achieve public policy goals while still being mandated to deliver on existing programs and services. Under those circumstances, a third party can help organizations balance political and organizational priorities, explore acceptable trade-offs, find new ways to more efficiently deliver value and give those priorities lift and acceleration. With assistance in setting priorities, public sector staff can be freed to “keep the lights on” elsewhere and maintain overall performance indicators.

4. Change is needed, but transformational change is only a distant goal.

Transformational change in any organization is never easy, but it can be even more challenging in a public sector organization because it often involves many functions and requires multi-layered approvals. Achieving the full benefits of transformational change requires buy-in and implementation across managerial levels and, often, departments. Many transformational changes in public sector face resistance from recall of historical failures to achieve the ’big bang’, or perceptions that the level of change is too lofty to achieve.

A third party can help gauge the appetite for change, understand sources of resistance, and objectively assess opportunities to achieve realizable change. Transformational change can be broken down into agile cycles of incremental changes that are easier to envision and more bite-sized to carry out. A third party can help organizations focus on an internally initiated desire for change by identifying incremental improvements that can make a substantial cumulative difference in the way tasks are accomplished. By adopting an agile and incremental approach, the organization can achieve and celebrate its own tangible success in making change.

One recent example from our own experience illustrates the point. In this case, a public sector organization was struggling with an outdated and siloed information system that relied on legacy software, preventing effective sharing of data and reports across the organization. While staff could prepare spreadsheets when needed, they were shareable only in printed, hard-copy format. Transformational change – replacing the legacy systems and migrating all data to a common platform – would have involved a multilayered approval process, significant capital investment and several years to implement. In this case, however, a third-party consultant identified a much more achievable incremental option: providing an add-on tool to the existing IT infrastructure that allowed all stakeholders to access the same information pool as needed, while the question of how and when to replace the legacy system continued.

5The organization is ready for change, but not the implications of that change.

Any change will have an impact not only on the organization, but also on other stakeholders within the public sector ecosystem. Along with assessing the appetite and opportunities for change, a third party can help assess the potential effects on interdependent stakeholders, provide different options with different predicted outcomes — and develop strategies to mitigate the impact as necessary.

In short, when applied to public sector organizations, the benefits of a third-party consultant can prove invaluable in breaking through inertia and gaining a new perspective. By building relationships based on trust, a consultant can help clients make more effective and timely decisions, assess risk, cut through rigid frameworks and adopt practicable strategies for addressing the challenges of legacy managerial, operational and technological systems. That can allow public sector organizations to realize their potential in delivering better results and, ultimately, better policy.

To learn more about how MNP can help your organization, visit https://www.mnp.ca/en/clients/public-sector.

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