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Adam Lent: Javid should beware of catching the reorganisation bug

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Just in case he was thinking of launching a new wave of council reorganisation, it might be a good idea for Sajid Javid to examine the Finnish education system.

Regularly at or near the top of the OECD’s annual ranking of education performance, the country has become a mecca for those seeking pedagogic wisdom. But what makes Finland’s schools so good is still something of a puzzle to policymakers.

It has not done the radical things tried elsewhere over the past 50 years: no marketisation, no parental choice, no system restructuring, no tough inspection regimes, no stretching national targets, no constantly reformulated curricula and exams. The frustratingly intangible truth is that Finnish teachers just do things better. Put another way, Finland’s schools are good because norms of respect, excellence and a ceaseless quest for impact infuse everything educational professionals do.

There is a very important lesson here for anyone getting excited about the prospect of council reorganisation following Sajid Javid’s decision to endorse the Future Dorset plan. What ultimately drives impact for any organisation is its culture rather than its structure. It is the people who work for a body and the way they behave that will ultimately decide whether it succeeds or fails.

The evidence for this goes well beyond the bounds of Finnish schools. A study by the great theorist of organisational success, Kim Cameron, discovered that no less than 75% of private sector restructurings fail to secure their goals.

In fact, many go on to imperil organisations’ very existence. The reason for this woeful strike rate is the fact companies rarely consider the deeper shifts in employee mind-sets and behaviour required to secure success. Those companies that do succeed do so because of values, beliefs and vision.

It is a lesson gradually being learned in local government. Councils such as Wigan and Stockport MBCs, South Hams DC and West Devon BC (together) and Rutland CC are showing what can be achieved both in terms of higher performance and saved money by focusing on transforming culture and behaviours. It would be ironic if reorganisation mania gripped us just as culture change is showing what it can do.

This is not to say that there are not sometimes good arguments for restructuring. When done well it can improve accountability, productivity and impact. But the reorganisations that achieve this usually arise out of a clear-sighted vision for the different behaviours and values the change will bring about within the workforce. To look to reorganisation as a panacea to financial pressures or rising demand and then either ignore culture change – or merely tack it on as an appendix in the strategy document – means going the same way as Professor Cameron’s sad 75%.

So, before he starts dreaming of a legacy as the great reorganiser of local government, the housing and communities secretary might consider a visit to downtown Helsinki. He’d see for himself that culture, more than structure, is the key to meaningful change.

Adam Lent, director, New Local Government Network

Culture Shock: Creating a Changemaking Culture in Local Government by Adam Lent and Jessica Studdert can be downloaded from the NLGN website here.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Sometimes the culture shock and the development of the changemaking culture needs to come from reorganisation as much as being the spur for reorganisation.

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  • In this article, Adam Lent confuses the challenges of changing structure within an organisation, which of course can never of itself be enough to improve outcomes, with the changing structure of a sector or a market. Private sector markets and institutions are continuously changing their structure to respond to changes in their external environment, customer demands, and new technologies and approaches - through mergers and acquisitions, spin-offs, and indeed insolvency and bankruptcy; public sector administrative boundaries are prevented from doing so. As a result the need to change and adapt institutional footprints and boundaries to meet the challenges of the day has no way of being given effect, other than through occasional and infrequent ministerial approval. It is high time this was the case for local government, with no wholescale reform since 1974, notwithstanding the unitary creations of mid 90s and noughties.

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  • http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/insights/finish-fairy-stories-tim-oates/

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