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It’s what you know that counts in the information age

Public sector organisations have to make the most of the vastly reduced resources at their disposal. Andrew Mowlah explains how utilising information can maximise your impact

As public sector reform and efficiency agendas begin to tighten their grip, more and more public sector organisations are finding it difficult to uphold robust evidence based strategies, policies and programmes.

The days of appointing specialist consultants to undertake in-depth stakeholder consultations – the findings of which were peer reviewed by expert practitioners and professional staff – are a long and distant memory.

Suddenly, following ten years of buoyant growth and tax receipts to match, public sector organisations find themselves struggling to meet annual efficiency savings. Extremely tough decisions have been taken by executive management boards up and down the country, leading to a significant loss of people with a wealth of knowledge and experience, as well as the closure of public sector organisations. Against this background is the loss of proper evidenced-based research, information and intelligence services.

The economy is stalling, more people continue to lose their jobs, businesses are failing and young people are unable to secure their first position. Yet despite the lack of money there has never been a more important time for strategies, policies and programmes to be focused on fulfilling their objectives.

Put simply, public sector organisations need to do more with less, ensure better value for money for the taxpayers and deliver immediate results in a way never seen before. Innovation and creativity are the key to maintaining the performance of frontline services during these difficult times.

How to do this? Ensuring you have made the best case possible using the information you have available to maximise your impact. There are five key questions you should answer prior to implementing any policy, programme or project:

1. What is your reason for intervention?
Before you contemplate any kind of intervention it is crucial you identify a clear need – a rationale. Usually from a government perspective the underlying rationale is founded either in market failure or where there are clear government distributional objectives that need to be met. Market failure is ‘where the market has not and cannot of itself be expected to deliver an efficient outcome’, according to the Treasury’s Green Book.

The first step in identifying this is usually done through research to identify the scope of the issues involved. This could either be through primary research, e.g. surveys, or through literature reviews. Once the research has been undertaken be sure you can answer whether the rationale for intervention is clear and that it is reasonable to assume intervention will be cost effective, i.e. the benefits will exceed the costs.

2. What are your objectives?
Once you are clear the intervention seems worthwhile, the objectives of the proposed new policy, programme or project need to be clearly stated. Objectives should be stated so that it is clear what the intervention is intended to achieve. There is usually a hierarchy of outcomes, outputs and targets that should be clearly set out.

Outcomes are the eventual benefits to society that proposals are intended to achieve. Often, objectives will be expressed in terms of the outcomes that are desired. But outcomes sometimes cannot be directly measured, in which case it will often be appropriate to specify outputs, as intermediate steps along the way.

Outputs are the results of activities that can be clearly stated or measured and which relate in some way to the outcomes desired. Targets can be used to help progress in terms of producing outputs, delivering outcomes and meeting objectives and should always be ‘smart’ (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).

3. Which is your best option for intervention?
This step involves you preparing a list of the range of actions you could undertake to achieve the identified objectives. Creating and reviewing options, as a decision maker, will help you understand the range of options you could take. Your list of options should always include a ‘do nothing’ option so the reasons for your intervention can be judged. Once a full cost benefit analysis has been undertaken, the best option for you to undertake will be apparent, i.e. the one that returns the best value for money in achieving your objectives.

4. How will you monitor whether your intervention is on track?
The performance management of your intervention concerns tracking the success of your policy, programme or project in achieving its objectives and securing the expected benefits. This will consist of systematically collecting data relating to the financial management and outcomes of the policy, programme or project during implementation.

This will provide you with an essential source of information, indicating the extent to which your objectives are being met, providing an early warning of potential problems, and the possible need to adapt as necessary to ensure success.

5. What did you learn?
When any policy, programme or project is completed you should always undergo a comprehensive evaluation. The evaluation will examine the outturn of your policy, programme or project against what was expected and is designed to ensure the lessons learned are fed back into the decision-making process. This will ensure any similar future intervention will continually be refined to reflect what best achieves objectives and best promotes the public interest.

Decision makers working in the public sector are in constant need of current, relevant information to ensure the important questions set out above are answered. In a world characterised by information overload, influential people need expertise in finding, sifting and teasing out the information needed to inform research, strategy development and assessment, policy creation and evaluation, target setting, bids for funding, project setup and implementation, report writing, investment decisions, and much more.

Up to now this expertise has been provided by dedicated teams of researchers, policy officers, analysts who are purchasing, storing and maintaining libraries of information material of sufficient scope and scale to cover all the topics of relevance.

In today’s climate where it is imperative to protect frontline services, this becomes an expensive luxury rather than the core commodity it should be. This service can be extremely expensive to run internally, requiring budgets to purchase, store and maintain data, journals and books, as well as the capacity for searching through the volumes of information generated nowadays to establish what exactly might be useful!

Efficiency drives innovative thinking – fact! And what was once considered a bold step to completely outsource a service, is increasingly becoming an attractive proposition. A high quality outsourced information service offers a vital alternative opportunity to ensure an organisation stays abreast of policy, is able to make decisions based on evidence and delivers programmes and projects on the back of past experience, concentrating specifically on answering the key five questions above.

This concept has already been adopted by the Greater London Authority (GLA) which has recently outsourced its entire information and library service to Idox Information Solutions, saving them in the region of half a million pounds over the next five years. Outsourcing the service also provided them with the opportunity to share the service with functional bodies including the police and fire and rescue authorities as well as all 33 London boroughs.

Public sector organisations have been forced to think outside of the box. Collaboration and integration of services are key elements of public sector reform and efficiency agendas. It allows organisations to make substantial savings by outsourcing or sharing frontline information services with other key stakeholders and partners.

Whether you’re part of a group of local authorities working in collaboration to economically develop a particular area, or a collection of universities working together on a particular area of research or you’re part of a GP consortium trying to better understand the demographics of your area, this new model of information service can help free up resources to protect other important frontline services.

Times are hard, the cost of delivering services is increasing and the future outlook for the economy is still unstable. Combining the five-step approach to implementing any policy, programme or project as outlined above along with access to a sound information and intelligence service not only provides a blueprint in the delivery of better services but also allows valuable resources to be freed up and re-directed to essential frontline services.

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