The Spending Challenge – or the Engagement Puzzle?

Despite the evidence from our tape-measures, we are entering an era of belt-tightening. It’s not so much ‘staying in’ that’s going to be the new ‘going out’, as going without. The recession is rumoured to be over, but the recovery is a matter of doing more with less. And – less widely spoken but just as importantly – for less. Even Waitrose – a winner during the last two years, much to some people’s surprise – now has an Essentials range. As they say in supermarket circles, every little helps (customer service and commitment to quality probably being among those helpful little things.) How different organisations and sectors have responded shows interesting differences, however, as evidenced by CIPD’s Employee Outlook Quarterly Survey Report Spring 2010 (download as PDF here). Decisions taken will, of course, be influenced by big differences in flexibility within national or local arrangements, but the figures for the latest report show a marked polarisation in a number of factors closely related to talent retention and development between the public and private sectors. 

 

Public Sector
Spring 2010 (2009) %

Private Sector
Spring 2010 (2009) %

Planning to make redundancies

39 (14)

9 (17)

Has cut back on training

39 (17)

21 (18)

Has cut back on hours worked

17  (8)

24 (20)

Has frozen pay

30  (7)

39 (22)

Has cut pay

5   (*)

10    (*)

Has frozen recruitment

44 (20)

27 (28)

The bigger picture with the private sector is, of course, tackling the deficit. If you were listening to The Today Programme on Radio 4 this morning, you may have caught an item about the government’s Spending Challenge website, which has been inviting suggestions from the public on ways of reducing public spending. There has fairly widespread comment about this initiative as an example of – or as an attempt to apply to the public sector the principles of – crowdsourcing.

Not quite this week’s big thing – the recent splurge of books on the topic seems to be waning – crowdsourcing is nonetheless fashionable. One well-known example of it – Wikipedia – helpfully provides two slightly definitions: the main ‘encyclopedia’ offers:

the act of taking tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing them to a group of people or community, through an “open call” to a large group of people (a crowd) asking for contributions”

while Wiktionary (Wikipedia’s crowdsourced dictionary) gives us a slightly blunter view:

delegating a task to a large diffuse group, usually without substantial monetary compensation”

The latter positions the idea – almost as a Spending Challenge contribution might – as something that could be more prosaically described as ‘focus groups without the cup of tea and the biscuit’. As with any government initiative, regardless of political stripe, it has come in for a degree of flack on several fronts – three examples that caught my eye were by Laurie Penny, Zoe Williams and Chris Dillow, all writing (separately) for The Guardian.

Whether we applaud the initiative or not – and I’m minded to argue that a relatively low-cost application of technology that enables the public to at least exercise their opinions is a good idea (some people’s ideas could lose a few pounds, to be candid) – it strikes me that there is an opportunity for those running the site to provide a powerful example in the art of leading, and to test a few preliminary ground rules in using online media to promote engagement.

Drawing a direct analogy would be a little daft – not only is government an enormous, multi-headed apparatus, but it is running a country, its economy, key aspects of the future of its social culture, and its international relations – but this is still an exercise in providing those being led with an opportunity to speak out, and those doing the leading to listen in. I’m not going to attempt a strained metaphor about push and pull factors and talent retention no matter what scope recent debate about immigration caps might provide, but any government – especially one calling for greater ‘civilian participation’ – will benefit from an engaged public. And, of course, any political party in office needs to be re-elected.

Listening matters. The CIPD Report seems to bear this out very strongly: regardless of sector, when it comes to perceptions of directors/senior managers, the item with by far the most positive score is “They have a clear vision of where the organisation is going” (averaging +15). Comparing this with “I trust them” (-5), “I have confidence in them” (+1) and “They consult employees about important decisions” (a shocking -27), and one lesson is hard to avoid. ‘Strong’ leadership alone is not the answer: even if we do tend to think of strong leadership positively – and that’s not actually the question CIPD was asking – we certainly don’t like leadership that appears to be deaf.

(A side question. What’s worse? Leadership that doesn’t bother asking, or leadership that asks, makes a big fuss about asking, and then ignores what it hears. I’d hazard a guess the latter is rather more annoying …)

The exercise is, of course, about the public sector – where the Government is (directly or otherwise) effectively the employer, while the public are (indirectly) providing the payroll. A fair percentage of them are also the employees: as stake-holding goes, this is potentially powerful stuff. We recently wrote about ambient awareness – a rather different aspect of social media, but one we hope the Treasury is alert to. The following snippets from that CIPD report provide important background evidential data, and any effective survey of ‘the lie of the land’ should bear them in mind:

Job Satisfaction: “Private sector employees (+36) are for the first time more satisfied than employees in the public sector (+34)”

Employee perceptions of senior managers: “perceptions of leadership are much worse in the public sector – in fact every item has a negative net satisfaction score and these scores have worsened since last quarter”

Job-seeking: “While public sector employees are least likely to be looking for a new job currently, they are the group that would ideally most like to change jobs within the next year (46%)” (the Report separately notes that “39% of public sector employees report their organisation is planning to make redundancies, compared with just 9% of those working in the private sector.”

What will be interesting to see in the long-run is how the exercise is used and how its impact is both perceived (‘did all of us typing in our entries do any good’) and received (‘oh, so that was the sum of our opinion’). Listening isn’t always the comfortable option – it depends very much on what you hear – and even democratic outcomes will be unpopular with the minority. (I remember a joke that went around the morning after the election: “I bet the Queen wishes she’d asked for 50/50 or phoned a friend, because asking the audience has been a bloody disaster”.)

Demonstrating an open ear as well as an open door matters: CIPD found that public sector employees are far less satisfied (27%) with “opportunities within their organisation to feed their views upwards” compared to the private sector (38%) and voluntary/charity sectors(41%). Although the Spending Challenge exercise has not been primarily about engagement, it is an exercise in it – and one that uses the language of engagement to encourage participation. (It also uses rather emotive language too. I’m not sure what a professional engagement surveying practitioner would make of a prominent pull quote that starts with ‘The Chancellor says; “Tell us – where’s the waste …’)

The coming years will be ones in which public sector organisations will need to work hard to identify ways to maintain front-line services with substantially reduced budgets. These will be years when ‘doing more with less’ will be a stark reality, not a rhetorical flourish. They will also be years in which maintaining the satisfaction of their client base and the morale of their staff will be of paramount importance. A bin man is a bin man, but a proud, satisfied one who feels valued (by managers as well as householders) is a big improvement on a disaffected one.

Despite CIPD’s findings, which may be causes for gloom, the Spending Challenge has already delivered one positive message. Public sector workers appear to relish opportunities to make constructive suggestions: apparently, two-thirds of suggestions made to date have come from them. They are, as CIPD’s figures suggest, ready and willing to speak out – but they do need to be given opportunities to be heard. I couldn’t help but think of two publications we’ve received in recent months. The first was Dave and Wendy Ulrich’s “The Why of Work”, where the first question on their agenda for leaders was:

What are the insights we need to succeed as an organisation? Who spends time thinking and reflecting on these insights? Who has responsibility for new ideas, learning from the past, and reflecting on our current situation? How do we make room for pondering, reflection, learning and creativity?”

The second was the Work Foundation’s Exceeding Expectations report, about which we noted:

The report also shows engagement in a new light: although the report uses the phrase ‘Putting “we” before “me”‘, this could be rephrased as showing that engagement happens with people, not at them. The best leadership is about “us”, not about “here’s my way of doing things and my vision; you engage with it”.

I have no way – beyond reading 10,000 suggestions – of knowing if these points (and those made by many others, such as the McLeod report on employee engagement) are among those that we have collectively made (although I might, as good citizen, offer them myself). But I can confidently assume that the website – and the time of those not just moderating but reviewing our input – has come at a cost. Whatever our individual political persuasions, the initiative does provide a great opportunity to provide a model – however flawed a first attempt may provide – to stimulate real engagement and involvement. Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia’s founder, is source of an interesting quote that we need to hope the Spending Challenge website’s managers will bear in mind:

“I find the term ‘crowdsourcing’ incredibly irritating. Any company that thinks it’s going to build a site by outsourcing all the work to its users not only disrespects the users but completely misunderstands what it should be doing. Your job is to provide a structure for your users to collaborate, and that takes a lot of work.”

As an individual and a citizen, I have many hopes for the outcome. But not least among them is that the government maximises the value of that spending to demonstrate how engagement can be stimulated, how leaders can listen and how listening pays dividends not just in understanding but in end results. That really would be ‘doing more for less’.

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