Leading Outcome Focused Public Service Agreements (PSAs)

A report exploring the challenges faced by Senior Responsible Owners as they implement the Cross Departmental Public Service Agreements and their thoughts on how these challenges can be resolved

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Leading Outcome Focused Public Service Agreements (PSAs) – by Winston Sutherland

Executive Summary

1. This research was undertaken to find out how the Senior Responsible Owner (SRO) of each Public Service Agreement (PSA) is experiencing the challenge of implementing this initiative which in addition to achieving key delivery outcomes is also part of a wider strategy to change the way the public service operates. The research is aimed at influencing National School of Government (NSG) curriculum inputs and identifying future research possibilities.

2. The NSG is in the process of transforming from a training organisation to a leader in developing public sector capability and moving into the role of thought leader. The cross departmental PSAs are also one of the 5 priorities that the NSG has set itself.

3. The research was based around a set of ten themed questions each of which was open to interpretation. The research found that SROs approached the questions based to a large extent on how they categorised their PSA.

5. Prior to commencing the interviews a literature review was conducted into similar approaches in other jurisdictions. This research does not propose to highlight similarities or differences. The main purpose of the review was to gain an understanding of the nature and language of working collaboratively across organisational boundaries and to provide a starting point for the themed questions. Where appropriate an attempt is made to cross reference our findings with the existing literature.

6. The areas of the findings that the School can mine for curriculum inputs and further research are:

  • Collaboration
  • Incentivising behaviour
  • Good practice and knowledgemanagement
  • Roles, responsibilities and accountability
    • Leadership challenges
    • Policy tensions

7. The key findings from each of the themes follow:

Collaboration

This question brought out the need for supporting structures, processes and systems and good resourcing to reinforce the desired behaviours but it was also about shared interests and agendas, people, attitudes and behaviours as well as leadership example; an overall mindset. It also highlighted the need for all to be more conscious of the political nature of the system and the inherent tensions in wanting to work collaboratively but also having the freedom to pursue different agendas with good intentions. The impact of legislation on collaboration is an emerging area of study. Data sharing or the lack thereof is also an issue for many.

Accountability, Roles and Responsibilities

It was clear that delivery of the PSAs was taken very seriously, to the extent that some Permanent Secretaries named themselves as SROs in order to set an example, send out the right messages and ensure that PSAs are a key part of the departments’ business. But even where this responsibility was delegated, Permanent Secretaries kept themselves up to date on a regular basis. SROs all saw this as a high level priority and had developed key roles and responsibilities to ensure delivery of their PSA. The most widely used governance structure is the ‘delivery board’ with in built processes for escalating issues. Many boards have developed the Non Executive Director (NED) role to improve challenge. Programme and project management is a widely used methodology for going down into the delivery chain. There are however issues around responsibility for indicators, as some SROs do not necessarily have control over some factors as well as a lack of historical data against which to benchmark progress.

Incentivising Behaviour

The delivery outcomes for the citizen through cross departmental PSAs are part of a wider strategy to change working practices across the public service. The process itself is seen as the main tool for incentivising collaborative working practices across Government but it is felt that greater ministerial involvement would help especially in ensuring that the priorities remain the same. The risk is that the PSA process could be devalued if the priorities constantly change.

Most SROs were of the opinion that incentives in the form of traditional rewards would not be a motivator as most people are passionate about helping to make a difference. However they felt that the performance and reward system should be sufficiently sophisticated to acknowledge and reward good performance. There was a view that care should be taken not to encourage perverse incentives, however a formal assessment of the SRO role might incentivise.

Support from the Cabinet Secretary, the ‘Top 200’ events, other agencies in the ‘Centre, the formation of cluster groups and sharing of good

  • Some budgetary, resources and spending decisions were out of their control even when earmarked for their PSA
  • Having the right staff with the right skills e.g. analytical and PPM skills were in short supply
  • Mechanisms for sharing resources need to be improved
  • Tracking what is being spent on the PSA is an issue which shows up in trying to demonstrate Value For Money (VFM), one of the areas assessed in the framework
  • Lack of data was making it hard for some SROs to make their arguments for additional funding

Most SROs agreed, however, that creating dedicated PSA budgets might only lead to new silos being created and would also undermine the collaborative cross Government culture being created.

Good Practice and Knowledge Management

Some departments are quite advanced in their approach to sharing good practice and it is recognised and embedded into their PSA process. For others it is a recognised lag area. Some innovations, such as ‘virtual courts,’ which is being piloted by the Office of Criminal Justice Reform, will eventually be mainstreamed as good practice.

Some of the areas of good practice and knowledge share were:

  • Language and culture – ensuring that the appropriate language is being used by civil servants on visits to the front line
  • Capturing, analysing and sharing data
  • Establishment of research and innovationstreams of work
  • Communities of interest
  • Websites and blogs
  • Joint visits to the front line
  • Good practice in the implementation process shared via the PSA cluster groups practice were seen as mechanisms.
  • incentivising

A major challenge for SROs is to find out how far into the system the cross departmental mindset had reached in order to achieve the culture change that is required to embed this as a way of working. There is no clear way to determine this as yet.

Budget and Resources

In some departments we found little or no distinction between the general work of the departments and the PSAs but it some cases we found that resourcing was problematic because:

• SROs had no direct line management responsibility for holders of indicators or the sub SROs were actually the resource of another department

Leadership Challenges

Thirty three leadership challenges, some of which were specific to the SRO role and others to the PSA regime, as well as 20 leadership skills, were enumerated. There is one challenge which surfaces existing tensions in the social make up of the top leadership of the civil service and points to need to accelerate the pace of change. These challenges are shown in Table 1 in the full report. The skill sets being deployed (20) proved equally varied. The leadership challenges were grouped in four categories;

  • Making sense of the task and the environment
  • Making the task happen end to end
  • Collaborating
  • Wider issuesPolicy TensionsFew SROs identified tensions between the PSAs and Departmental Strategic Objectives (DSOs) because in most cases the PSA and DSOs were co-created. However the following tensions surfaced within and between departments:
  • For the most part PSAs are long term objectives but the Assessment Framework is in some cases using a short term methodology to assess success
  • The allocation of resources to the SROs of partner departments
  • Tensions with conflicting goals, e.g. the environmental PSAs vs. the building of new transport systems
  • Ambiguity – lack of overarching objectives for DSOs and PSAs
  • The need for parallel processes, e.g. getting other departments to change conflicting and/or problematic policies such as prisoner release vs. benefit claims, or flood protection vs. bio diversityThe Assessment FrameworkWhile most SROs commented favourably, there was a view that the framework could be more sophisticated by taking into consideration the impact of factors such as the three categories below which do not fit comfortably with the current Assessment Framework:

1. Life span of each PSA
2. Cross cutting nature
3. Social vs. Economic PSAs

It was also felt that the assessment framework posed the danger of progress chasing, focusing on indicators and targets and missing the big picture.

The Centre – i.e. agencies such as #10 Downing Street, PMSU, PMDU, HMT, the NAO and the Cabinet Office
It was generally felt that there were good individual relationships and some good interventions to support the process but many expressed the view that there was too much reliance on referent power rather than a spirit of support, understanding and collaboration.

It was also felt that a performance management regime did not reflect the outcomes of the Departmental Capability Reviews (DCRs) which gave many departments a good delivery rating.

There was also an indication that the mechanistic approach of agencies in the Centre is not appreciated; neither is the perceived obsession with targets and indicators.

Sweep Up Question

This question gave SROs an opportunity to make any comments they had not had a chance to air and uncovered overwhelming support for cross departmental PSAs as the right direction of travel and the way forward which has helped departments to focus on the bigger picture. It also yielded a number of comments and recommendations:

• Spending review – a challenge for HMT spending review teams to develop an understanding of the resourcing issues and to align the PSA regime with the next SR. There is a possible need to align the PSA structure with the spending reviews and allow them to continue because they are long term strategies

  • Assessment Framework – develop a moresophisticated Assessment Framework and different metrics for the three different categories of PSA
  • Political support – there is a need for political support and maintaining these PSAs as the priorities going forward
  • Key messages – the need to send out consistent messages about the importance of PSAs
  • Machinery of Government – new and important issues do not always require the creation of a new department
  • Current accounting practices -current accounting practices are not helpful and encourage the waste of resources
  • Timescales – there is a need to be conscious of timescales, e.g. long term outcomes vs. short term metrics
  • Language – to communicate the issues in the appropriate language. There is a need to translate our language into the language used in the delivery chain. For example, DH and NHS have greater exchange of staff in both directions to reduce the ‘here comes the bureaucrat syndrome’. People who visit the front line need to speak front line language not ‘mandarin’
  • Collaboration with NSG – Several SROs commented on the need for agencies in the Centre, such as the PMDU, to collaborate with the NSG in hosting joint events to support their work. They also expressed their disappointment at the absence of skilled facilitators at the start of the process when some ‘very clunky’ conversations were heldThe full report develops on the findings with suitable examples to demonstrate each finding.

8. Implications for the NSG
The current study has provided some insights into the collaborative nature of the PSAs and further research should expand this knowledge. There is a need for future research to assess the views of all stakeholders and delivery partners. By gaining the perspective of these

individuals and agencies a more comprehensive understanding of collaboration can be gained. Areas that need to be developed and strengthen can be identified and approaches to collaborative working can be aligned. As well as stakeholders and partners within central Government further research should also explore the views and experiences of all those involved in delivering the PSAs along the delivery chain. This approach would show what level of collaboration is required at different parts of the delivery chain, what level of collaboration is being achieved at different part of the delivery chain, and how collaborative working is put into practice from central Government all the way through to the frontline. This would also highlight areas where possible breakdowns in the delivery may occur and why.

Another direction future research could take is to explore the four categories of leadership challenges; (1) making sense of the task and the environment, (2) making the task happen end to end, (3) collaborating, and (4) wider issues. Exploring these categories may ascertain whether or not the challenges of those involved, but not leading on the PSAs fit within these categories. Research here would be able to identify if staff, other than those leading on the PSAs would benefit from developing the skill sets being deployed by SROs.

In addition to these suggestions further research should also build on the current study by looking deeper into the role of the SRO. The skill sets the SROs are deploying should be examined in relation to the other skills those in the SRO role need outside of this role. The skill sets identified in this study may be part of the general competencies these individuals need in order to carry out their general roles or somewhat distinct skills that only need applying when collaborative is required

The NSG can make use of this research to influence curriculum inputs particularly in leadership development but equally in other aspects of organisational development such as team development, programme and project management.

9. Conclusion
This research has found that the revised PSA framework implemented after the 2007 CSR appears to be achieving some of what it was originally intended for. The PSAs appear to be providing a more effective way of steering and synchronising departmental activities towards Government goals, providing a tool for departmental priority setting, both in terms of objectives and expenditure, and in itself a method for incentivising officials’ motives, behaviours and actions. The PSAs focus on collaborative working is addressing the boundaries between Government departments. This is coupled with the strengthening of accountability arrangements and the drive towards reducing bureaucracy and burden on the frontline. The direction the PSA framework is taking has been recognised as the way forward but further support is needed to increase the pace of change and support embedding this as the preferred way of working across Government.

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