Five steps to unleashing the public sector’s greatest asset

Make sure your staff are engaged and the whole machine will work better, argues Emmet Regan of Mutual Ventures. And nowhere more so than in public services like the NHS. Here are five ways to do it.

In order for public services to thrive and not just survive, they simply must find a way of making better use of their greatest resource – the staff who deliver the service. After all, it’s the nurses in the NHS, the social workers in a local authority and the teachers in schools who know the service best.

In January, my colleague Andrew Laird wrote about how the NHS would continue to be plagued with low morale and "iron cage" bureaucracy unless frontline staff were better engaged in the management and governance of services. Six months on, the disillusionment of frontline staff remains a serious issue. 

There is mounting evidence that organisations in which staff report that they are engaged and valued deliver better quality care. See the graphs below from Chris Ham’s report, Improving NHS Care by Engaging Staff and Devolving Decision-Making, which show a clear correlation between staff engagement and both patient experience and the dignity and respect with which patients are treated.

NHS Graph

It is not just the NHS that has seen the importance of staff engagement. Organisations across public services are looking at how they can harness the energy of the staff in decision making. There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to staff engagement and involvement – but we have found that the following top five tips will assist any public service organisation. 

  1.     The right organisational structure: Public service organisations are moving beyond paying lip service to staff engagement and are looking at ways to structurally 'lock in' staff engagement. This can involve anything from the establishment of elected staff councils to staff having formal organisational ownership (and the associated governance responsibilities). Whatever the structure, the important point is that staff are consulted closely and that their views and opinions are considered and acted upon. This follows the John Lewis model closely, where their staff council play an integral role in the running of that organisation. 
  2.     The right leadership: Organisational behaviours are hugely influenced by the behaviour of those at the top. If the Board, Chief Executive and Directors are prepared to trust and empower those that report to them, empowering and trusting behaviours have a good chance of trickling down through the organisation. If frontline staff are to be truly engaged, middle managers especially must trust the professional judgement of staff and genuinely devolve decision making – they should take their lead from those at the top.
  3.     Open and honest communication with staff: Leaders and managers should be open and honest with staff regarding how exactly they are being empowered and also the responsibility and accountability that comes with it. It is important that all staff get the same message and understand what their boundaries are. If the communication is not clear and consistent it won’t be taken seriously and nothing will happen.
  4.    Creating a failure tolerance: As well as managers being willing to devolve decision making, there must be a new attitude towards well intentioned failures. Of course these are to be avoided if possible but so much can be learned from trying well thought through new approaches that may not work and managers must be tolerant of this. It is usually the fear of any sort of failure that prevents managers devolving power but the truth is bigger mistakes come from decision making that does not involve front line staff.
  5.    Regular health checks: So often a good start is lost as people slip back into their comfort zones. Particularly over the first year, it is essential to regularly check that leaders and managers are holding their nerve and are not allowing things to regress. This information can be gathered through staff surveys or more focused testing with individual teams. 

Over the coming weeks and months, pressure will continue to mount on public services. Empowering and engaging staff is easier said than done and requires courage from leaders at all levels. However, the potential rewards are great and how powerful it would be to see the very staff who are delivering public services also having a loud voice at the top table. 

Emmet Regan is a senior consultant at Mutual Ventures, a consultancy dedicated to efficiency, innovation and sustainability in public services and social enterprise.

Photo credit: William Murphy