The Government needs smart thinking too

Rob Gibbs of Accenture's UK health and public service practice explains how Accenture can help UK public service clients achieve and sustain high performance as effectively as the private sector.

by Rob Gibbs
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013
MT: It's a popular conception, maybe a misconception, that government and the public services require more help from outside agencies such as consultants than maybe Tesco or Goldman Sachs do. That the private sector is filled with smart people, the public sector less so. Is that justified, in your experience?

RG: I think it is a misconception. Government doesn't need or use any more or less help than the private sector. But there are three unique factors about government: its scale, its complexity and the uniqueness of each government organisation. The business of the Ministry of Defence is so completely different from the business of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Consequently, it's rare for an individual department to have the depth and breadth of experience to execute the complex change programmes that they need to implement to achieve greater efficiencies, lower costs and deliver better services. That is why they bring in an organisation like Accenture with the specific skills, deep experience and knowledge needed to make change happen.

Defining the strategy (and, in government, the policy) is something that clearly needs to be retained within any organisation, public or private - and I have no doubt the Civil Service is easily capable of doing that. The challenge and the question for the 21st century is this, what kind of capability does the Civil Service need to retain in-house, to maintain control of the strategy and ensure that it delivers the outcomes in partnership with the private sector as cost effectively as possible?

What direction are things moving in at the moment, with so much focus on public spending?

I think there's been a noticeable shift. Perhaps 10 years ago consultants and advisers were more frequently engaged to deliver advice. Then, the focus was, how much am I paying for this person for this day? Perhaps five to 10 years ago we shifted to being asked to deliver the means to the end - the projects: perhaps delivering an IT system or even a business service. At that point, the focus became, what am I paying to deliver a specific output? I believe the future will see a shift again. Government will retain ownership of the outcome that it wants to deliver and will allow organisations like Accenture to take responsibility not only for delivering a service, but for delivering that outcome. For example, just look at the way that DWP is reconfiguring Welfare to Work. It is encouraging much more private sector involvement in retraining, reskilling and getting unemployed people back to work. Payment for that effort is based on results achieved. In other words, by getting people into work and helping them to find lasting employment: true outsourcing, rather than just out-tasking. DWP is actually saying, we are not in the business of training and placing people, we are in the business of making policy; you do the work. I have heard the same in the Home Office. Civil servants are clear about the outcomes they want to deliver. They want to make sure, for instance, that illegal immigrants are handled correctly and in line with policy - if they don't belong here they should be removed. They understand that actually there is no monopoly on who has the best way of doing that. If the private sector can do it more effectively, and can save the government money, for example, by emptying expensive detention cells, that is a good thing. So, within the bounds of law, there should be more creativity in how the private sector is involved. The ideas are all quite mature. And this Coalition Government is showing that it will engage with companies like Accenture because of how we can help them achieve the efficiencies that will be needed after the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR).

That makes sense. But why hasn't it happened yet?

I think in the past there have been some historical and cultural barriers. But we now have a new government which is intent on tackling those issues head-on as it works towards managing the deficit. The new government understands that it will require quite a different philosophy in the way it engages support from organisations such as Accenture.

Why is it so difficult to communicate examples of success?

It's the old cliche of no news is good news. Having said that we have to do a better job of communicating success and educating people - especially the general public - about how successful IT programmes are having a positive effect on their lives. Whether it is the system that delivers their pension to their bank account or helps them through automated immigration gates quickly and reliably. Or the digital imaging systems that support radiography in NHS hospitals - literally saving lives by putting high quality information in the right hands at the right time. Actually Government has a better track record of successful IT programmes than the private sector, but success is never as newsworthy or sensational as a perceived disaster, especially in government where it is taxpayers' money at stake. So the bar is rightly set very high.

OK, tell me a success story in which you were proud to be a part.

Let me tell you about our work with the DWP in pensions processing. More than four months before retirement, each citizen used to receive a piece of paper, saying: 'You are approaching retirement and we would now like to calculate your pension.' The reason it was sent four months beforehand was because it took that long to do the paperwork. That was inefficient, ungreen and added stress for our customer's customers at a point in their lives when they need certainty about what they would get when they retire.

Accenture worked with DWP to implement a new approach: to deal with claims over the telephone and to try to resolve the issues first time on each case. It was no different from implementing what many banks and insurance companies have already done - by shifting claims processing or accounts processing away from post and towards call centres. That enabled DWP to shift the processing time from over four months to under an hour in very many cases. So, again, it clearly makes it much more financially efficient, much greener and importantly less stressful for the customer. I was proud of that - Accenture helped UK government achieve high performance by working better.

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