Bespoke by design — an ideal aspiration for public services?
January 11, 2018
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In a recent talk at Newcastle University, Mark Smith, the new Service Innovation Lead at Gateshead Council (link here) gave a refreshing perspective on service redesign in local authorities. The talk called for sensitive and nuanced use of service levels standards. 

Standards do not equate to quality

First of all, Mark Smith provided helpful context on the origin of ‘standards’. The concept of Standard Operating Procedures arose in the professional service industry in the 1950s derived from manufacturing. Targets for the moving assembly lines were geared at producing large quantities of products to consistent quality targets. Often, however, that approach is unsuitable for services that deliver intangible experiences. That is why we need a different language and approach for service redesign.

Service Level Standards can fail especially those users who have nuanced or special needs. Therefore, public sector reform should not overemphasise cost-saving targets or abstract statistics of public services utilisation. Service redesign should be based on the needs and requirements of individual users who use local authority service.

Simply setting desired standards often does little to deliver changes to public service delivery that improve service quality.  ‘Standards’ do not equal to quality, although that might be what they suggest. Instead, Mark Smith challenged local government organisations to choose to go ‘bespoke’ by becoming responsive to user needs.

A fresh approach for service redesign

Service priorties in local authorities can change rapidly due to local elections and changing priorities for a local authority. Standards, however, have a short shelf life and do not do well with deviations from regular expectation.

Instead of blind faith in “service level standards”, council leaders should consider to “evidence” from the operation of services first and foremost. Local authorities could consider regular appraisal of service lines in respect to end user needs. It may also mean to be ready to change existing practice, and run temporary experiments to try what which practices achieve desired service level changes.

On collaborations

Mark Smith thought local government administrations should consider pathways for innovative and small companies in their regions to help deliver the necessary cultural shift. For example, local governments often require assistance to adopt agile ways of working, popular in creative industries. The lack of outcomes-based purchasing, as opposed to requirements-based purchasing, leaves little room experimental pilot projects. This presents an obstacle to smaller and innovative organisations.

We are advised to adjusting our expectations: Standards do not equate to ‘best practice’. The principle of ‘bespoke’ by design could be followed and translated into cultural values and practices, including agile ways of working. Similarly, digital technology is a mere means to support public services responsiveness. Delivering the necessary cultural shift towards support of pilots and experiments in local authority requires that necessary cultural change.

In conclusion, we need to be smart about where standards might work in a service context and where not. Standards may be better fore transactional things (see my recent post on the (The need for) civic data standards in the planning system) and to reference things across organisational boundaries (such as a unit of a house) but perhaps less ideal when responding to civic concerns, views, opinions, service needs.