I have long been an admirer of Gillian Tett, the FT’s US Managing Editor. She is a feisty anthropologist with a Cambridge degree, whose insights into financial conundrums enliven any broadcast. Importantly, she can distill the most complicated issues concisely and with great clarity, whether verbally or in editorials, so that even those of us with a somewhat modest grasp of global economics can understand the problems and how they should be addressed.
Her latest book, The Silo Effect, should be essential reading for anyone in business – and especially the public sector. Her analysis of the tunnel vision and blind spots, with the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, which paralyses big organisations, is witty and constructive, employing examples from major corporations, as well as the state. Her solutions are unorthodox, but practical, and supported by strong evidence.
During my first foray into the business world several decades ago, the first thing I learnt was that short lines of communication are most effective, allowing rapid decision-making and implementation. This doesn’t mean working from scribbled notes on the back of a fag packet. It means bringing small teams of key people together to research and evaluate opportunities, agreeing a strategy, and taking action whilst ensuring that those in charge will be held accountable.
Communication is key. And the rest is common sense – not something widely employed these days.
Everyone needs to understand the programme timetable, who is the project manager (with a comprehensive checklist) and who has ultimate responsibility; regular review meetings are essential. The delivery team must not only understand that there is no ‘magic money tree’ – a costed plan is essential – but have clearly defined roles with the discipline to identify and the confidence to immediately notify the project manager in the event of something going wrong or over budget. The sooner such things are addressed, the easier to resolve, otherwise problems escalate.
Surprisingly, this system works, creating a sense of collective responsibility and pride.
But we live in an era of overblown bureaucracy and duplication, where emails are substituted for conversations and the silo culture continues to block policy implementation, whether deliberately or not. I was recently told that such blockages are usually because those in charge don’t know how to deliver, so they employ delaying tactics. If true, this is the strongest case for external recruitment, instead of recycling existing favoured employees to new roles well beyond their capabilities as tends to happen during ‘restructures’.
Whereas private companies would send one or two people to a meeting, depending on the complexity of an issue and the level of expertise required, I have rarely been to a public sector meeting where fewer than five attend, although usually only one person ever says anything or (if you’re lucky) takes notes. Follow-up is also generally tardy, and one tires of having to keep chasing for information, which is why some people just give up.
In local government it takes a brave councillor to keep asking why something which was agreed is not happening, or why there are significant cost over-runs. Scrutiny committees rarely get results because reports are sufficiently bland not to provide answers, and the ‘responsible’ officer is too busy to attend for questioning. Cabinet members have policy and oversight functions allowing officers to resist the warranted detailed interrogation which should actually be regularly undertaken by the top management, with answers fed back to the political leadership.
The most efficient councils understand and implement this strategy, with successful outcomes, but others flounder, at the expense of the council taxpayer, who suffers annual tax increases as a result, but with little or nothing to show for it.
So isn’t it time to accept that silos have had their day?
They are expensive and wasteful, stifle creative thinking and demotivate people who have little or no control over the end-product. Contractors having to work within the system build in contingencies to their tenders in the knowledge that straight answers to a straight question will be at a premium, often leading to unnecessary complications and costly delays, because it will always be someone else’s responsibility! If you question the validity of my argument, I can provide the evidence – as can virtually any councillor, MP or member of the public anywhere in the country.
Tett has a great deal to say about this lack of joined up thinking. Something easily resolved through careful planning and communication. It’s called project management.