Which City?

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Public Service Entrepreneurs - what's stopping them?

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship and the public sector, prompted by a resurgence of a rhetoric of  'private sector good'/'public service bad'  and the assumption that a social enterprise can deliver public service but is out of the public sector, by virtue of its being enterprising. 

As somebody who worked for 26 years in local government, has subsequently founded a successful business and  recently launched a new venture, I think I must have been entrepreneurial all along, even in the midst of my public service career. I certainly don't feel that the skills and characteristics I deploy now have changed that much. The critical attributes for success in any kind of business it seems to me, are:
  • The ability to see the bigger picture and the fine detail - understanding the impact of strategy on the customer. Whether the strategy is personlisation of social care or big supermarkets going local, the important issues are will service users/customers like it and will it improve the service/profit margin?
  • The ability to think long term and to take action now - having a long term vision and plan is critical for sustained success, but tackling the immediate issues is what matters to people (staff and customers)now, and they won't thank you for having to wait.
  • A willingness to take responsiblity for the supply chain, make it work for the customer. Few businesses or public service departments work well in isolation, valuing the supply chain and understanding the role of support services rather than blaming weak links will please customers rather than irritate them.
  • Recognising that people make success - whether its a product,  a service or an idea you can't make things happen without people, so valuing them is common sense. People who are valued work more productivley.
So why  is there so much emphasis on the differences between the public and private sector, and scepticism about whether skills transfer? I do get frustrated by this debate - wishing we could spend more time and energy on what unites us rather than divides us - but I do understand it. Tom Riordan posed an interesting question on Twitter yesterday - should local government be more enterprising and should business be more civic? Well of course, but why don't they?

Firstly, of course, public services are constrained by the democratic process and by our tolerance (or lack of it)  for taxes. This creates both a tendency for risk aversion (since politicians might ultimately pay the price at the ballot box) and for levels of investment which relate to the balance of payments rather than the need for investment. Encouraging investment in housing, jobs, green technology through development might sometimes be constrained policitically even where there is a good business case and entrpreneurs are keen, if the public are against it. And spending enough on critical services like social care might be a civic challenge to avoid the burden falling more heavily on the council tax payer, but the risk for the entreprenuerial care home owner is high.

Finding the points of common interest has to be the way forward, and we can only do this if everybody is prepared to take a wider, longer term and less individualistic view. Spending on public services is not just a cost, it is an investment in the health and well being of our communities. Thriving people are more likely to be employed, to spend more, to live better longer, thereby contributing to the economy. And public services create business opportunities and sustainable profits for the entrepreneur on the basis of known markets. 

Involving the public, and the politicians who represent them locally, in understanding more closely the symbiotic relationship between public and private sectors, is the key to robust decision making and management of risk. Councils cannot just be concerned with what they do, they must understand what business does, and business has to understand that investment in public services generates business not burdens.

What this closer understanding also depends on is a shared skill set - entrepreneurial and civic, fleet of foot and consultative, productivity and outcome driven.

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