Joining the Dots: Relationship-Centred Public Services

In this piece for Joining the Dots Ray Shostak considers the “enabling conditions” for developing relational practice and suggests a framework for supporting them.

Ray Shostak has been a teacher, a local authority worker, a civil servant and eventually Head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit. He now works with governments internationally. Ray is a founding member of the Early Intervention Foundation, on the Board of the National Audit Office and Chairs the Consortium of Voluntary Adoption Agencies.

by Ray Shostak

In this short piece I want to focus our debate on three questions: What matters most in the provision of public services? Are the enabling conditions in place for those who deliver public services to citizens to be relationship centred? And do we have the right framework for thinking about supporting improvement from where we are?

What Matters?

It is a truism that it is frontline staff that make public services work – not government legislation. Over my career I have been privileged to work with thousands of talented professionals on the frontline of providing services – teachers, social workers, community workers, doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers and many more. I have always found that they are both able to, and do, care deeply about getting it right (including relationships) for the people they work for and with – although you wouldn’t believe it from the narrative of government reform and the press coverage they get. They go into these professions as passionate, committed, caring folk who understand the importance of relationships and a desire to make the communities (and the world) a better place. Too often that passion doesn’t survive efforts to improve/reform.

Indeed, too often a focus on their skills and competencies become the platform for reform. This narrative, and assumption, in my view is both wrong and a mistake. Wrong because although there will always be ways to improve practice the public sector is good at responding to change. And a mistake because building a reform programme by alienating those that are providing the services just makes the task of improvement more difficult. What is often forgotten is that it is their interaction with citizens that matters– or put another way ‘frontline services are delivered at the frontline’. I argue that it is them, and their behaviour, that matters. And that the government and the multiple management layers between them and the frontline need to focus on what they do to support the frontline to behave in the way that they wanted to when they started.

[Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash]

Enabling Conditions

I think about enabling conditions as the context in which our public services are provided. They provide the platform for success and drive the behaviours of staff. They include the management approaches, the operational processes, the further training and support, the legislative environment, the culture and the climate of work. For sure there have been many positive changes over the years. But for many the current conditions make relationship centred services difficult. Many of the excellent pieces in this series outline some of those current challenges: demand rising, quality expectations getting higher, staff shortages, the impact of austerity continuing to bite, the lack of attention being paid to the public service agenda due to other competing national priorities (I refuse to name it!!!)…. I could go on.

The traditional default to these challenges is either to blame (usually the frontline) or to regard it as a matter of money. Blame never works and for sure the financial impact of the last decade clearly is taking its toll. But talking to frontline folk they tell me the most important aspects of the enabling conditions are not about money – but about the way we run our services and prioritise. They say relationship centred services don’t necessarily need to cost more and our focus needs to be more on the enabling conditions.

A Framework

One key challenge is to shape the way we think about the core issues above. Finding a way to bring the passion that brought us all into public services, the enabling conditions of the institutions in which we work and the support for improvement for those that deliver into a framework that helps us to find ways to support continuous improvement. And it is worth remembering that all improvement is change – and that change requires someone to modify their behaviour. If we want more and better relationship centred public services then we need to take a system perspective – but through a prism that what matters is what the frontline do. If you do what you have always done, you get what you have always got. Which means we need to understand how to help folk to change. I’ve recently been exploring the work of Susan Michie et al¹. She has looked at multiple frameworks for behaviour change and come up with a new way to think about a way to understand behaviour called COM-B (see model below).

Her work is particularly rooted in health interventions but I find her model helpful in thinking about all public services. Adapting her framework gives me a way to consider the way the issues of me, my organisation and the culture I work in have impacted in the past on my performance. Working on the model with service groups has provided a way of thinking about where they are as a basis for improvement.

In my adaptation of her work I think about ‘capability’ as the current competencies, qualities and skills of those that actually provide services; ‘opportunity’ as the impact of the institution (and the enabling conditions including the impact of government regulation etc) that either supports improvement or not; and ‘motivation’ as what activates or inhibits folk to focus on ‘relationships’. And the interface of those three as the basis for thinking about both ‘where we are’ and how we might improve.

The reason I like this is that it stops us from either just defaulting to the problem being the behaviour of the individual (ie. Capability) and keeps in play the impact of the institution/government on behaviour (opportunity). It also recognises that if we manage the passion out of the frontline then it will impact on their motivation and their work.

My final challenge is whether COM-B (or its adaptation) provides us with a more appropriate way of thinking about how the various eco-systems of education, health, justice – and if it can help us to take the next step in building relationship centred public services.  

So… think about you and your work. Given that you are probably motivated to focus on relationships (or you wouldn’t be reading this!!!) – what supports or hinders your focus on putting relationships on the agenda of your work? Is it what you know, your ability, your skills….or is it the context in which you are work. Or is it both?

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