Change that leads to better lives

The Importance of Redundancy (a.k.a. Time to Think)

Avid readers of this blog (and I know you’re out there) will have noticed a recent irregularity in its appearance. The reason is that I’ve been suffering from a lack of redundancy.

No, not the ‘not having a job’ type – but redundant time in my working life. Let me explain ...

It would be irresponsible to deny the need for the efficient use of public resources. We continually need to explore ways of increasing productivity and cutting out waste. Reflecting on my early years in both the NHS and local government, I can recall blatant examples of how a combination of bureaucratic process and poor (or even absent) staff management meant that the quantity and quality of services delivered for the money spent was well below what could be achieved.

The mantra of more for less, achieving increased output for the same or fewer resources, has been central to government rhetoric since the late 1980s. Euphemistic ‘cost improvements’ continue to be expected from all corners of public service without much apparent analysis of when striving for them is detrimental to outcomes (as opposed to outputs).

I am not a proponent of time and motion studies, but at least those things had a methodology about them. Largely (and rightly) discredited nowadays, properly done time and motion did at least involve asking what could and should be expected from a member of staff in the time available. Consequently there was discussion about what people should be doing, how much time should be spend on each element of the job and an analysis of whether time was used well. Achieving increased productivity from staff and managers nowadays appears to be based largely on just reducing resources whilst telling people to achieve more. As a result, people tend to focus on responding to the immediate demands – and immediate demands are not necessarily the most important things (as anyone who has ever done an interview in-tray exercise will know).

The simple fact is that the expectations nowadays on most people in the health, social care and school education system of the quantity (as opposed to quality) of work they do are unreasonable. As a result, one or more of three things are happening. Important things are not being done, or are being done badly, or people are working unreasonable hours.

All the evidence I can see from across the country is that one really important thing to have gone is thinking time. Thinking in terms of reflecting on whether the organisation is heading in the right direction. Thinking in terms of looking around to learn from what others are doing. Thinking in terms of hard self-criticism to ask if the quality of work and outcomes are all that they could be. In organisational theory, this is called ‘redundancy’ – redundant time from the day-to-day expectations of immediate delivery in order to be creative, reflect, learn, plan and instigate change so that personal and organisational performance can improve.

To give three examples from recent NDTi experience:

  • A participant in one of our leadership programmes was unable to attend the last two of a seven-module programme. Although the registration fee had been paid, her authority wanted to save £250 travel expenses. The fact that, in the preceeding months, she had taken several pieces of learning back to her organisation from which they had started new ways of working that were improving productivity and quality appeared irrelevant.
  • NDTi is this week publishing the interim findings of research into the cost effectiveness of employment support for people with disabilities (1). One finding is that many authorities do not have the data they need to make value for money judgements. Some authorities have never bothered to collect this data. Others used to collect it, but recent cutbacks mean the data can no longer be accessed. So, for a small cost and time saving, they have lost the capacity to judge whether the whole budget is being used to good effect.
  • A provider we are working with was discussing the implications of budget reductions with their commissioner. The commissioner advised scrapping the ‘luxury’ of monthly team leader meetings, where first-line managers came together to share what was working in service delivery, learn from each other and plan service improvements.

Finally, I’m pretty sure we don’t always get this balance right in NDTi. Like all organisations, the continual need to ensure financial stability means that we sometimes have to overly focus on the bottom line. Hence my lack of redundant time in recent weeks has led to reduced capacity to think in depth about the issues we are working with across the country – and one side effect has been thoughts not turning into blogs at the desired rate.

Unless all organisations consciously and explicitly state that people need time and space allocations in their job where evidencing delivery of the immediate short-term expectation are put to one side, those organisations will not grow and develop. Efficiency has to have more than a short-term dimension. Loss of redundant time might temporarily increase the superficial appearance of delivering the desired outputs – but the capacity to achieve medium to long-term positive change will be dramatically reduced. We all need a bit of redundancy in our jobs.

p.s. as of March 2013, the website for this Blog has added the capacity for people to respond and comment on what I have written. Please do this – I’d love the blog to be a dialogue rather than just me spouting forth.

(1) www.ndti.org.uk/major-projects/employment-support-for-disabled-people

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