Why playing it safe is the biggest risk

Posted by Ben Lee, NANM Director

John Houghton has blogged here about the tragic loss of services created specifically “because the frontline public services who were paid to help these people in the first place were repeatedly failing.” The gist is that if as much passion had gone into tackling failures in local public services over the past twelve years as has been seen in fighting the cuts then the public might not be so sceptical about the value and efficiency of public services.

Similar arguments have been made by us and others - including in our previous blog. But let’s be more specific - the prime suspect is attitude to risk and the bogus distinction between ‘risky’ change, and the ‘safe’ status quo. So while there is a growing subculture of innovation in public services this is stifled by those who see change as more risky than standing still - and now this flawed risk aversion is getting ludicrous as John illustrates and that’s the real tragedy.

First there’s the basic inertia caused by flawed risk aversion. Here’s how it works in local libraries… The past decade has seen a relatively small number of libraries modernise by buying new technology, reducing staff posts in order to spend more on books, changing layouts and opening hours, and adopted new working practices. Almost all who have taken these steps have seen usage rise, and social benefit increase. But this involves significant risks - around procurement, public and political reaction, backlash from staff, and the reputation of the managers in charge. So a great many more have avoided proposing changes to working practices, see the internet as a hornets’ nest of risks to be managed, and raided the book-fund to patch and mend budget problems (because books don’t tend to put up a fuss). And the result of playing it safe? Most are are now fighting for survival…

Then add to this the sheer speed of cuts which makes carving out the time to innovate also feel ‘risky’ (where councils have refused to buy time by dipping into reserves it’s even worse). But the result of failing to find time to plan properly is going to be bigger cuts next time.

And finally there are the group decision-making layers of local public services - a group provides safer decisions than letting one person decide. And often something bad happened in the past - so another layer got added to make sure the ‘bad thing’ cannot happen again. The result of course is nothing happens…

So what can be done…? Well we should start by embracing the language of risk not fearing it. How often do you see campaign groups describing their preferred option as a gamble or a risk worth taking? So what will you say the next time someone says there’s no space or time for risky innovations - answers on a postcard.

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