Will John Lewis-style partnerships work in the public sector?

Andrew McMillan is the best placed person I know to comment on the John Lewis ethic from the inside because until recently as he mentions in his piece, he worked for them and has seen the reality from the inside. The question we asked him was ‘can this approach really be transferred to the public sector?’ Read on for his answer

The Government’s plans to consider transforming public sector bodies into John Lewis-style partnerships if it wins the next election could bring public sector employees the benefits John Lewis’s staff enjoy, including a powerful collaborative spirit among staff; staff having much more control over their own direction and purpose; and a serious and significant commitment to customer service.

I worked for John Lewis for 28 years in a variety of managerial roles, and can testify that the partnership spirit at John Lewis is infectious and energising. There is a strong sense of community there and of belonging, a powerful sense of ownership, and a feeling that everyone is pulling together. People who meet while working at John Lewis often become friends for life and this brings with it feelings of self-esteem and of self-worth, as well as an eagerness to apply oneself to meeting and – ideally, of course, exceeding – commercial imperatives, as their market-leading trading results last Christmas demonstrated.

Who, ultimately, are the prime beneficiaries of this spirit of partnership and collaborative work? Certainly the staff of John Lewis benefit from it, and not only in the annual distribution of the shared bonus in March, which usually equates to about six to eight weeks’ salary.

But the biggest beneficiaries of all are the customers, who benefit from a long-term approach to business and customer service, where thinking isn’t confined to what can be sold to customers today. Instead, there is a genuine sense of caring for customers, who are treated as individuals, not merely viewed en masse as a source of revenue. There is a feeling of wanting to do the right thing for the customer, even – on occasion – if this is not in John Lewis’s immediate commercial interests.

The potential benefits to customers of public sector organisations being run according to the John Lewis model are very tangible, and harmonise with Government aims to make customers absolutely central to the running of these organisations. Unfortunately, despite what the Government says it would like, many public sector bodies can be dominated by their internal metrics and administration rather than doing what is best for the customer.

Yet many of the key attributes to deliver a John Lewis culture in the public sector are already in place. Many of the individuals I have worked with in Local Government and Health quite rightly regard themselves as having a vocation. The truth is that the public sector has far more dedicated and devoted people working within it than the media seems to realise, or is willing to accept. It could be argued that the adoption of the John Lewis approach would actually make it easier for the Government to tap into employees’ vocational spirit.

So what needs to change? John Lewis has a great focus on simplicity – making it as easy as possible for front line employees to concentrate on looking after their customers – whereas the public sector often has complex and time consuming administration procedures that take people away from the very thing they joined to do – serving the public. Of course there are many statutory requirements in the public sector that are in place for a good reason and have to be met. But equally many of the processes and procedures in the public sector are there to serve internal systems and can be simplified or eliminated all together. Taking this approach can also save huge amounts of revenue, so creating a win-win situation – the customers benefit from better service while the organisation can save a substantial amount of budget which, of course, is another key imperative in the current climate.

The other major difference I have observed is the opportunity for managers in the public sector to really lead their teams rather than manage their activity. It sounds obvious, but one of the key focuses at John Lewis is to encourage inspirational leadership and this means creating the opportunity for managers to spend time amongst their teams supporting and coaching them to deliver defined goals. Again, I have met many public sector managers who wholly embrace this concept, but find themselves locked in their offices managing the vast amount of administration their teams are encouraged to create. This makes sustained change almost impossible and, if not resolved, will make any significant transformation of the public sector impossible. Of course, there are some employees in the public sector who would not be able to rise to this opportunity if it was available, but in my experience that is a fairly small minority. I have witnessed some remarkable change within the public sector clients I have worked with when the managers and employees are allowed to return to the principles that attracted them to work in the sector in the first place.

If the initiative to give public sector bodies a partnership structure is to succeed, the Government will have to overcome some significant challenges, such as creating even more of a focus around delivering results and positive change through embracing the concepts of simplification and leadership as opposed to management. I have seen this achieved with some outstanding results at a local level, but it would be so much more powerful if it were to become part of the central Government agenda. The effort and energy required by such a transformation would be worth it, and – make no mistake – customers will benefit significantly.

Andrew McMillan is a principal consultant with business and information technology consultancy Charteris plc, with much of his recent work being in Local Regional Government and the National Health Service. Previously to this he worked for the John Lewis Partnership for 28 years. During his final eight years there he was responsible for customer service across all John Lewis UK department stores.

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