"Public Service Ethos." Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? But what does it mean? As a Founder Member of the LATCo network and MD of Oxford Direct Services I think in this sector we're all about two things:
· Delivering high quality, value for money public services, to drive external revenue.
· Money, (Ok, I'll say it, Profit) … which we can use to support the provision of new and improved public services.
It’s hard not to like those when considering the failings of other sectors.
I've been in the Public Sector for most of my life. The concept of Profit, Loss, Margin, Balance Sheets, Turnover - they were for someone else. But in this new world there's a great opportunity to bring the best of commercial practice to help support a greater cause - not for personal gain but to do something good for everyone.
The true Public Service ethos. Not the stereotyped view of public service by many outside the sector - of 3 people leaning on their shovels watching a 4th person (probably the apprentice) dig the hole. When was the last time you could sit back with nothing to do?
Like myself, many in the public sector got involved to satisfy that sense of public service ethos. Because of this, commercial practices aren't necessarily in your immediate thoughts, so where do you start with a workforce not necessarily tuned in to profitability?
At ODS we gathered a bunch of people who could deliver commercial results. A dedicated in-house workforce (remember those?) that could do these things well. We knew as an organisation we weren't about to go bust. We wouldn't disappear,
with the gates locked, no one home. Other organisations didn't have this workforce but they very much needed one, so we slowly began to sell services to them. We never sought to compete on price. We were never the cheapest - but always high quality and reliable. If you do a job well the customers will come back for more. And they still do.
So how did we achieve this?
We started by having a rough plan. What can we sell and to whom? Then - How will they buy it? Next, we had some conversations with like-minded organisations. Developing our business, building relationships, and most importantly building trust. In return we were given work to do. Paid work. But you can't have a conversation about doing work if you don’t understand how much to charge.
Without a precise understanding of the entire cost base and what the market will pay, you are always going to be in for a rough time. So we got people in who could help us with that. As our business grew, from picking off the low hanging fruit from our owner's requirements (they were outsourcing things we could offer them) we then entered the alien territory of “selling". We hired a “salesperson” and paid them “commission”. Hardly revolutionary, you might say, but it felt that way for us at first.
People often ask about the huge culture change required to turn a local authority base and all of its dimensions into a commercial service provider without selling one’s soul. As I see it, commercial practices are intrinsically within most of us aligned with the public service ethos. It’s the desire to do a good job. The drive to deliver something tangible. The interaction with other human beings and the building of harmonious relationships. A sense of value and cost. Throw in some understanding of numbers and before you know it you are making money!
It may not be a quick buck, but it will be a fair return for doing something good. Engage with your people and sell to them the concept of selling - of course it’s not more important than providing great public services - but it’s a means to that end, and then before you know it you have a workforce of like-minded salespeople. Easy!
Except, it’s not all perfectly plain sailing - you will be navigating uncharted waters and it will take time. You will probably need to take on some new people with entirely different skills to your own.
It can be hard, but it will be worth it.
Whenever business practices feel complicated, I think about what a good friend and colleague of mine says; ‘Business is simple - It's just three processes. Win the work, do the work, get paid for the work.’
Just like I said. Easy!