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When strategy plays second fiddle

Most UK citizens rightly consider the free health service provided by the NHS as the jewel in the crown of their social achievements in the last six decades.

Most UK citizens rightly consider the free health service provided by the NHS as the jewel in the crown of their social achievements in the last six decades.

The management function of defining and executing strategy is arguably the most difficult task for leaders of businesses as well as government. Yet this function is the heart and soul of managing any organisation.

In business, strategy enables management to assert itself in the market it operates in, conducts its operations, attract and please its customers, compete successfully and achieve organisational objectives. In political administration, strategy is about providing citizens with good quality public services through the organisations that are financed by taxpayers’ money.

In business organisations, the CEO is the most visible and important strategy manager. The ultimate responsibility for leading the tasks of forming, implementing and executing a strategic plan for the whole organisation rests with the CEO. But senior executives normally have significant leadership roles in this process. The board of directors of any organisation has the responsibility of scrutinising the strategic objectives proposed by executive management, challenging the assumptions on which these objectives are based, and ultimately approving the strategic plan.

In public administration, the Cabinet takes on the role of the board of directors while the permanent secretaries have the responsibility of implementing the measures that will enable the different ministries to achieve the government’s strategic objectives.

While, in business, execution is often the missing link between strategy aspirations and reality, in public administration strategy often plays second fiddle to political expediency. The political cycle in any democratic country is usually short – not more than five years. This is possibly the main reason why most governments find it difficult to define important strategic objectives that will be painful to implement because of the often unavoidable consequence of upsetting the electorate.

Bipartisan support for reforms in areas of important public services that should never be politicised – if citizens’ interests are really the centre of gravity of all political parties – is rarely achieved because of short-term tactical considerations. Because of this, there is a risk that the definition and execution of strategic objectives in public administration fails to be effective. As a consequence public services continue to deteriorate as political attention is focused on dealing with operational issues.

As in any organisation, when a political administration is under pressure to meet short-term financial targets, operational items start to crowd strategy out of the agenda. Public discussions about bad operations inevitably drive out discussions about good strategy implementation. Often, breakdown in an administration’s management system, not managers’ lack of ability or effort, are what causes a political administration to underperform.

A good illustration of the risks that a political administration takes when strategy plays second fiddle can be found in the way the National Health Service is being undermined in the UK by mediocre strategic management. Most UK citizens rightly consider the free health service provided by the NHS as the jewel in the crown of their social achievements in the last six decades.

In public administration strategy often plays second fiddle to political expediency

Unfortunately, the quality of service provided by the NHS has been deteriorating rapidly as different political administrations in the past three decades shied away from defining a credible strategy for underpinning the NHS with sound financial and operational structures.

The result is increasing disgruntlement by the public who are fed up with politicians from the different parties playing the blame game and hoping to score political points by repeating empty rhetoric. What most people really want is for their politicians to resort to some hard talk on what needs to be done to enable the NHS to regain the trust it once enjoyed amongst the British public.

Many argue that the present coalition government in the UK wants to privatise the NHS through the back door. One of the tactics used is to shift responsibility for the management of hospitals to trusts that are grossly underfunded. When things go wrong, as they inevitably will when financial resources are insufficient to meet increasing demand, the UK government can pin the blame on bad operational management.

In such cases political tactics are camouflaged as good strategy. In my opinion, what is wrong with the way the NHS crisis is being managed in the UK is not the creation of trusts to give hospitals an autonomous system of governance, but the failure to acknowledge the extent of reform that is needed to make the UK free health service financially viable in the long-term.

Good tactics to improve operational efficiency are always important in any organisation, but on their own they will never compensate for good strategic management.

johncassarwhite@yahoo.com

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