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Those of you in the UK will probably have seen or read about David Cameron‘s ‘big society’ speech over the last 24 hours. For those that haven’t his central message is that here in the UK we need to change the way we think about government and society from a centrally controlled model to one where responsibility and power are more devolved. I have to say that at the time of the general election back in May I thought that the British public faced a choice between two or three bad options, but since then I have been pretty impressed by Cameron, and that feeling was strengthened by this speech. His plan to reform society is big and ambitious, and will be difficult to execute – but I think it is what we need. It is clear to me that our bureaucracy has grown bloated over the last fifteen years without delivering much improvement. I hope that pushing power and control out of Westminster will both improve services and the motivation of those that deliver them.
The public sector in the UK came into its current form after the Second World War and enjoyed its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s before hitting something of a crisis in the 1970s. Since then successive governments have pushed it in different directions but have not really got the results that they wanted.
It is not uncommon to see a similar pattern in startups which get off to a great start, go sideways for a bit, and then lose their way despite repeated failed initiatives from management to turn things around. When this happens there is often a lot of change at the executive level and rank and file employees often lose faith in the company and its leaders, which in turn causes them to think more about their own interests than what the business needs. The situation I’m describing here is often referred to as one of ‘low morale’ or ‘poor company culture’ – terms you might have heard used to describe the public sector in the UK.
It is hard for a CEO (or Prime Minister) to turn these situations around and in my experience nothing happens quickly – but it can be done. Very often part of the recipe for success is a bold vision and the confidence to give up control and push decision making out to the edge of the organisation (or into the community) – and that is what we saw from Cameron yesterday. Bold vision alone is not enough though, it needs to be coupled with charisma and determination to win over the inevitable doubters and then consistent high quality decision making and leadership going forward. I hope we get all of these in the UK.