Shared Services Special
May 29, 2012

A more elegant public service

Which quote inspires you more?

“The real job that we have to accomplish is change the culture in official Ottawa from one of being spending enablers to one of being cost containers.”

Or,

“You don’t need to decrease performance to decrease cost. You simply become better at what you are doing.”

Or,

“Our approach is not so much saving dollars as looking at how we do things, which will lead to a better product/service. It’s easy to call for a ten percent across-the-board cut. But that won’t get you service improvements. We are in a process of renewal, of getting better at what we do, at less cost.”

The first is what federal Treasury Board President Tony Clement declared at the March 10 Manning Conference. The second is from Lois Bain, ADM at Ontario Shared Services. The third is from Byron James, New Brunswick’s Secretary to Cabinet.

Some public servants are tired of being told to do more with less while waiting to see whose job is eliminated. Others are inspired to provide better service while cutting costs – as noted by Deloitte in a 2008 report describing Alberta’s shared services: “The opportunity to improve service delivery and client satisfaction across government has been incredibly satisfying for employees and leaders.”

In this special section, we look at four examples where shared services are being used to improve service while reducing costs – Ontario, New Brunswick, the federal government and IBM.

Public sector change is challenging. “Layoffs have been more difficult to push through, outsourcing is tougher, offshoring pretty much unheard of, performance management can be a real challenge and
changes to the terms and conditions of employment are strongly resisted,” advises Phil Searle of Chazey Partners. “Governments to this point have been less inclined or able to move as fast or as comprehensively as needed.”

Key to success seems to be: an attitude of improving service while reducing costs; intensive customer relation management; meaningful measurement of agreed upon targets; new tools including project management, Six Sigma and scorecards; and client participation in governance.

This is not about centralizing, but about service improvement. “You must follow a truly ‘internal’ customer focus, listen to and address concerns,” Searle has found in advising on shared services. Success does
not seem to come easily or quickly, it requires adaptation, persistence and learning – and development of a new toolkit.

Researchers at Harvard agreed. “As public service leaders look for methods to increase their capacity to deliver, they find that traditional answers are not feasible – cutting programs, raising taxes, borrowing … the fixes of the past decade, have reached their limits. (Shared services) requires a new mindset, not just a retread of traditional responses.”

They studied multiple shared service initiatives, and determined they follow a life cycle – visioning, launching, growing and transforming (see Shared Services: Horizons of Value, Leadership Lessons on Accelerating Transformation to High Performance, JFK School, Harvard University, 2010, available at www.lnwprogram.org).

In this section, we look at organizations at different stages of that lifecycle. Liseanne Forand describes what they are up to at Shared Services Canada, which is just moving from visioning to launching. We look at New Brunswick, which is just moving from launching to growing, and at Ontario, which is in the transforming stage. For a private sector comparison, we hear from Jeannette Horan, the CIO at IBM. Alison Brooks of IDC rounds out the coverage with advice on implementation.

Cutting isn’t the answer. Getting better while reducing costs, becoming more productive, restoring respect for and pride in public service is needed. Innovation and inspiration. And while these articles talk about lessons learned in shared services, they can be applied anywhere.

Let’s use them to build a more elegant public service.

Paul Crookall is editor emeritus of Canadian Government Executive.

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