In search of evidence

It’s very easy to get excited about new ideas. And when it comes to managing public sector organisations, there are plenty of new ideas about. Whether it’s new public management, performance targets or the marketisation of services, innovative theories of how we can do things better, faster or more cheaply abound. But in the race to leap on the latest bandwagon, we sometimes forget to ask the critical question. Do these shiny new ideas actually work?

I was reminded of this the other day, when I was reading an academic review of the literature about shared services. While there is much written about the benefits of sharing back office services, the author concluded, the overwhelming majority of it is based on the theoretical benefits that such arrangements could offer. There is little in the way of empirical evidence, however, to support the claims made. In short, the idea works in theory, but we haven’t got a clue whether it actually works in practice.

Now, as it happens, I’m currently working on a project with one of my clients to provide exactly this sort of evidence in respect of shared services. But this is only one of the many areas where governments, service providers and – ahem – consultants are touting new ways of doing things without any tangible evidence that they will do what it says on the tin. There’s a lot of hype, sure. But that’s no substitute for hard data.

So here’s a thought. Before we spend time, energy, cash and goodwill on implementing a new approach, system or structure, perhaps we should also take a little time to think about whether it is actually likely to achieve the benefits that its proponents claim. Find somewhere else that has done the same thing, perhaps, and look at what is has achieved there. Or try a small pilot study within your own organisation and then analyse the results.

Either way, new ideas for organisational change cannot be simply an article of faith. Just because everyone is talking about how great something is, doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do. And just because something sounds great in theory, doesn’t mean that it will work in practice. It might, of course, but we need a little more than hyperbole before we leap in head first. We need hard facts. We need data. We need evidence.

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