bichardIn an excerpt of his article in the September issue of FIRE Magazine, leading public sector reformer Lord Bichard KCB suggests ways in which the Service needs to up its game - click here to subscribe to read this piece in full

UK public services are facing unprecedented challenges with reduced resources and rising expectations from government and citizens − and the Fire and Rescue Service like everyone else has to find new ways of improving service at less cost. That will not be achieved just by trying to squeeze more efficiency from services which continue to be delivered in the same old way. We need to be prepared to confront some of the flaws which have long afflicted the public sector and, at the same time, ensure that we are better at using the information and intelligence at our disposal to assess our capability and make intelligent decisions about priorities and investment. But where do we start? What are the flaws we need to confront?

Crumbling Empires

It does seem to me that our public services have failed in some key respects and although I have huge respect for the Fire and Rescue the Service, it has not been immune from many of these. For example, we have all failed to work effectively across organisational boundaries. 

Government in particular has tended to work in silos but, if we are honest, few of us have worked imaginatively across departments or with other organisations to ensure that citizens receive services which meet their needs and provide good value for money. That is why the new Fire and Rescue National Framework places such an emphasis on working with partners and on intra-operability between fire and rescue authorities. 

The time has gone when we can afford to defend our professional or organisational empires, because the public expect to see all services working together effectively to meet their needs, and in the Fire and Rescue Service we have to be sure that our own house is in order. We all know that within the Service there are at least four distinct groupings: a uniformed service, a corporate service, control and a retained duty community. These four sub organisations have vastly different roles, different terms and conditions and different cultures, and to be truly effective, barriers need to be broken down. 

The role of many in the Service is not just to provide a service, but to ensure it is being used by other parts of the organisation effectively. So, for example, the role of the Head of Fleet is to help uniformed officers make effective use of the appliances, equipment and technology that we have, not just to provide a quality maintenance service. Similarly, the role of the Head of ICT is to ensure every piece of software and hardware is utilised to its fullest extent, and that the potential of what the Service has invested in is maximised. 

Walking the Talk

We have all talked positively about collaboration, cooperation and partnerships, but now is the time to deliver. We have focused much more on designing and, endlessly, redesigning the structure of our organisations than we have on designing and redesigning the services we provide. It is sometimes necessary to change the shape of the organisation, but more often than not it has little real impact on the quality of service or costs − and it is always very disruptive. 

Instead, we need to spend more time thinking about how we can reshape the Service to be more effective and deliver better results, and that means being prepared to ask fundamental questions about what our communities want from us, our priorities and whether the Service in its current form can deliver what the public needs. In other words, we need to spend time not just thinking about doing things better but doing better things.

Thinking more about how services are designed should inevitably cause us to reassess our use of ICT. Traditionally ICT has been about wires, boxes and service desk calls − and the majority still see it in those terms. But technology, not least mobile technology, should be an integral part of the Service, and if it is, it can transform the way we work. How many services still have duplicate forms to record the results of fire safety inspections when simple available technology could do the job quicker and cheaper and allow more inspections to be carried out? The ICT profession has been its own worst enemy by over promising, but the potential of technology to transform the Service is now immense and it is difficult to see how we can provide better service at less cost unless we realise that potential. 

Technology Transformation

Giving a greater priority to service design does not mean we can afford to neglect greater efficiency − and that means being prepared and open to benchmark performance, to seek out best practice elsewhere and to rigorously assess the return on investments made.

Public service organisations − including Fire and Rescue − have spent too much time on what is happening within the Service and not enough finding out what is happening outside. Too many organisations still believe they are unique yet, in my experience, the very best always want to find out what others are doing well and will always be comparing their performance with 'the best in class'. They are − like the best people − always self-critical, always learning, always using the best intelligence available and always ensuring they spend their money well. 

Fire and rescue services spend a significant amount of money, for example, on training (some six per cent of their total budget), but how rigorously is that investment evaluated? How sure are senior officers that as a result of that training their people have the skills and confidence to deal effectively with operational challenges? Is success still measured by days of training input and certification, or does it assess what individuals understand, do not understand and the levels of their confidence in applying their knowledge? Can we be sure that we are not wasting money training people who are competent and confident and do not need training? It is all about using information intelligently to prioritise investment and, in this case, ensure the safety of both staff and public.

Radical Thinking

Public services have tended to be risk averse and therefore quite conservative in their behaviour, and for some services like Fire and Rescue the public do not want to see avoidable risks being taken in an operational setting. The problem is that the conservative approach to operational risk can affect the way change is viewed generally in the organisation. This is a time when we need to think radically and encourage all staff to share their ideas on how things could be done better. So leaders need to create a climate where people feel able to contribute and challenge and where they feel innovation is valued. All of that poses particular problems for command and control type organisations and external partners can sometimes help to ensure that sufficient pace of change is achieved. It is not fashionable at the moment to engage consultants, but they can be invaluable if properly commissioned and effectively managed. One way or another we need people to feel that, in the right settings, innovation is welcomed.

Most public services have become preoccupied with compliance at the expense of value. That is not surprising given the emphasis which successive governments have placed on regulation, inspections, assessments, targets and detailed procedural guidance. Success has been about negotiating the next inspection or meeting the next round of targets often set by civil servants with little experience of the operational realities. But when resources are scarce it is adding value that matters most and we all need to work hard to change this aspect of the prevailing culture by ticking fewer boxes and focusing on doing the right things that add value to the service and the community. That is what staff want to do, but they have sometimes been prevented from doing it because of the need to hit a particular target.

Fire Service Lead

When I talk about the need to reform public services I often refer to examples of Fire and Rescue leading the way. I have long felt, for example, that the public sector has been overly concerned with responding to crises rather than preventing them. But during the past 25 years Fire and Rescue has transformed its focus so that we are now about 'prevent, protect, and respond' in that order.

Equally the Service can teach the sector a thing or two about the importance of outcomes and results, because of course lives depend on it. In my view, not enough people in government pay enough attention to what Fire and Rescue can teach us. But the Service really cannot rest on its laurels. It has to respond to the new challenges by exploring new ways of working. I am sure that the future will need to be about more effective collaboration, and a focus on the design of the Service and not its structure, and willingness to encourage innovation and realise the potential of ICT. Perhaps most of all it is about seeking out and using intelligently the information and support that could turn a well respected Service into an exemplar.