This is not a political blog. As I’ve said in previous posts, I work hard to ensure that this commentary is a-political. I know a lot of other public sector bloggers, particularly those still in direct local government or central government employment, also steer clear of the “P” word.
Maybe that’s why, despite columnists, broadcasters and union leaders ranting on about it, the cut word hasn’t really crept into the public sector and voluntary sector blogospheres as much as I thought it might. Nobody wants to talk about it. Partly because they don’t want to enter into political territory. Partly because they are worried that, if they stick their head above the parapet, their neck is vulnerable to the public sector guillotine heading towards us in October.
Over the last few weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a lot of events where some or most of the delegates were from the private sectors. I’ve found a lot of people completely unaware of October’s comprehensive spending review and the unimaginably massive impact this could have on the public and voluntary sector if the worse of the rumours are true. More to the point, a lot of people are staggered to find that public sector morale is at rock bottom. We always say that though don’t we, us whining, unionised, cushy-jobbed public servants? The fact is, this time it is true. I’ve not met anyone in the public or voluntary sector in the past two months who isn’t in in fear of their job, their service area and, frequently, the difficulties their service users might experience if it all comes crashing down. However, despite this morale crash, people aren’t aware. They are not aware because no one will talk about it.
Then, yesterday, I saw a post from Katie Brown, a friend and co-innovation enthusiast at Leeds MIND, the mental health charity. Katie’s blog is the first I’ve seen that really spells out how low morale is – but it also makes another point, one that is actually very important. These points together persuaded me that I really do need to write this post.
Her second point was about the vision she had presented for taking forward MIND’s Information for Mental Health. It involved savings. It involved rationalising. It involved, in part, the use of technology and social media to achieve this. But it didn’t involve cuts. No jobs were going to go.
There are very few people reading this who will be under the illusion that the public sector doesn’t need to save. We’re in tough times and, while some may have it considerably tougher than others, the sound bite that we are all in this together is true insomuch as we are all part of the same economy. It’s also true that, in some areas of the public sector there are more ways to save than others. One way of saving money is to rationalise, making use of free, or open source, technology, using social media as a form of communication and embracing mobile working not only as a environmental and productivity raising tool, but also as one that can save organisations huge amounts of money.
So, in a time of cuts, is the public sector embracing this? Well, let’s narrow this down. Is local government embracing this? No, in a word. Recently, I helped organise an event around public sector innovation. Every local authority Chief Executive was aware of this event. Yet, Chief Execs, Directors or even Heads of Service were only really notable by the absence. The promising things that are produced from time to time from organisations representing ICT in the public sector appear to come to nothing. Councils, as a generalisation, still require employees to come to the office every day, still block useful professional networking tools like Twitter, and still see social networking as a novelty that someone in the comms team does. That person in the comms team isn’t usually even a comms officer.
At a time when the private sector are talking about crowd sourcing, social marketing, corporate blogging and putting live chat rooms in their websites to allow people to get on-the-spot customer service, councils are creating a Facebook page but barring discussions in case anyone says something they don’t like. They are implementing text message systems to keep customers informed, but not allowing them to text back. It’s not that they don’t see the use in technology. It’s that they don’t see the vision.
Social media is all about communication and the transmission and organisation of information. It’s no coincidence that this is what much of life as a whole is about and, while it could be argued that money is at the root of all evil, I think it’s fairer to say that communication is often a factor in the issues of a community. People who are unable to communicate effectively, people who struggle to receive and process communications are often the people who councils are supporting. But, it’s not the comms department doing the supporting. Communication is at the heart of almost every council frontline service and essential internally to keep the organisation working. But social media is seen as a way of marketing, and limited to a cupboard in the comms team office. Bosses see it as something to replace news releases, a way of people interacting without the need for people. This, in turn, sparks a technophobic, and often union backed, backlash of people worried that the computer will replace them. Community development workers have been using the telephone for years, saving a lot of time and money, but people don’t want to press 1 to receive support. They want to speak to someone, the support coming along the way. Social media doesn’t need to cost jobs…and can still save money.
I’ll take you back now, to Katie’s post, her vision that didn’t include job cuts. There’s a bigger picture here, a future that’s much brighter than the confusion we have tonight. But that bright future depends on people listening, people responding and people changing. Right now, we’ve got some room to breathe in the eye of the storm. We’re spending the time battering down the hatches and clinging on to the safest tree. Not only that, but we’re so busy clambering for higher ground that we’re not looking at new ways to stay afloat. Let’s look beyond that and start that innovation right this instant.
I suggest a simple action plan. Let’s think about how we communicate. Internally. Externally. With people. Not just in term of formal, public relations. How do we support colleagues, how do we support customers, how do we support each other? There are new, easier, more effective, cheaper ways of doing this. Let’s change. Let’s move forward.
This blog is a-political. But that’s not important because, let’s be honest, if the public sector can’t respond and change now, it will destroy itself. It won’t be a case of blaming the Government.