Talking cuts? Don’t. Talk service.

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planning poker warm up by fsse8info via flickrWhat will happen if we cut by 25%

Yesterday on Twitter, there was a lot of chatter about impending cuts. If we cut this, then this bad thing will happen. Today, we heard that if we reduce a budget by 25%, we will get more terrorism. All of this may be true, but it illustrates a fundamental error in managing public services (and public servants).

Lead by substance not by budget

Don’t conflate the service and the budget! Simply don’t allow the conversation.

Ask only this – what do you want to do?

Never allow a public servant to talk about the budget. Their job is to deliver a service.  Talk about the service.  The budget is your responsibility.

Overcoming objections

If you try this, st first you will get a lot of reverting to type. These will be the typical excuses/worries/concerns.

  • It is important to do X, but that person over there won’t do Y, so I can’t do X (and I can throw a wobbly). Persist in keeping the conversation about X.   What do you want to do?  And why?  Understand fully what the person believes is important.  Pay attention and let people see you pay attention.
  • It is important to do X but I cannot do it without an assistant Y.   Keep the conversation about X.  Y is budget.  Understand X fully.  If X is important and well thought out,  you’ll find budget.  But X will fail anyway if it is poorly thought out and more to do with assistants than goals.  Don’t say the last two sentences aloud.   Just keep the conversation about X and about what the person believes to be important.  Pay attention! They know what they are talking about and after all they are going to do the work!
  • I won’t talk about this at all.  Unspoken here are two thoughts.  If I suggest something, you will make me do double work with half the budget.  Or, I might suggest a lesser project than my colleagues and lose out in the status stakes.  Simply state that you want to know what is important to the person and to make sure their projects are on the table because everyone else is making their bids.  Sadly, if you have a reputation for stabbing your staff in the back, you might take some time to develop trust.  Leave you knives at home from now on!  You have to be sure that you will too.  Stab anyone now and no one will trust you ever again.

Being patient

  • This exercise will take time and a lot of one-on-one’s. But if you have the patience, your patience alone will communicate that you are dependable.  You will find out what is important and everyone will understand they are responsible for conceiving a quality service that is needed, doable and credit to the service providers and the organization at a whole.  They have it all in their head.  Everyone does.  We all know what we want to do and we all have our pride.

Being prepared

Now for the hard work.  You must have done your homework.  You must have gathered together and fully analysed three sets of data.

  • The general regulations, law and physical constraints of your work unit.  You need to model the work of your unit on a spreadsheet.  It’s likely that you will have outputs in rows and inputs in columns and have sets of calculations at the top, bottom and side of your table.   You must know what is generally required of your unit and be able to slot in numbers quickly so that you can assess the impact of any one plan on all other plans at the touch of refresh button.  You will be assessing a lot of scenarios before you are done.
  • You must know the past performance of your unit and what is likely to happen if you carried on without changing anything.  Do the analyzes yourself.  The accountants in your organization might have strange ideas about how your unit works.
  • You must know your costs.  Forget managing your budget if you don’t know your costs down to the last penny.

Now to work!

When you have all this information on hand, you can honor your promise.  You tell your staff to work out what should be done and you will look after the budget.

If their ideas are not economically (financially) viable, then you will tell them and they will have to think again.

But they don’t have to worry about money.  That’s your job.

And whatever you do, don’t allow the agenda to be driven by the budget.

First define the service.  Then ask if it is economically possible.

Don’t conflate service and budget.  Don’t allow the conversation.

You will be surprised how much can be done with less money.  And if you have to tell your political masters that less  will be done, at least you will have all the numbers to hand.

But if you can’t deliver a good service on less money in a way that is far more enjoyable for your staff, I will eat my hat.

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