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11 August 2021

Efficiency, sufficiency and traps in public service delivery

Michael Sanders

It's right that some push for more resources, while others focus on ensuring existing resources are used as well as possible


Last week, the ever-interesting Calum Webb, a research associate at Sheffield University’s Department of Sociological Studies, wrote about the differences between sufficiencies and efficiencies in public service delivery.


At the core of his blog is a powerful metaphor of public servants – be they social workers, charity workers, or civil servants – trying to climb over a wall or achieve some policy end, like keeping children safe. The resources they have to do this (money, time, human beings) can be thought of as ladders, which can be deployed in different ways to achieve the goal.


As Calum argues, if we have enough ladders, but deploy them poorly (stacking them horizontally, for example, rather than vertically), we might fail to achieve our goals through inefficiency. However, if we don’t have enough ladders, it doesn’t matter how well we deploy them, we’ll never be able to get over the wall – this is insufficiency.


At core, I am on board with this argument. The gains that can be achieved by ever more efficient deployment of meagre resources are, of course, limited. When a service is clearly overwhelmed by the needs they’re trying to meet, it is probably not the right time to be talking about tweaking this or that aspect of their practice to try and steady the ship. Similarly, if a family is struggling to effectively parent, while beset by substance abuse problems, mental health challenges, and poverty, talking about creating a budgeting spreadsheet is unlikely to fix all of their ills.


As such, I take no real issue with the argument that Calum’s making, but I’d like to add to it with my own perspective.


First, while I find the metaphor powerful, and I agree with its core, I disagree with the binary nature of the outcome – seeing over the wall. It is said that economics (my home discipline, from which I live in exile) is the study of how people try to sate infinite wants with finite resources. This definition rings true with me, and I think can be meaningful even while we accept that some people are merely trying to survive, and that there is vast inequality of resources.


This means both that the wall is infinitely high – we can never reach over the top – and that the reward is not for climbing over it, but instead for getting as far up it as we can. I think this rings true in practice as well as in metaphor. No child is ever completely safe – our job is instead to make children safer.


Second – and this is where I have more sympathy for people working at the coalface of policy development – there are a lot of walls, and finite ladders. Government can produce more ladders through taxation or through borrowing, but only up to a limit (you might believe that we have not reached that limit in our current policy settings, but I am not expert enough to know). Faced with this limit, different priorities need to be traded off.


Third, it’s worth reinforcing a point Calum makes. As well as ladders being deployed efficiently or inefficiently, it’s also very possible to deploy resources in a way that is actively harmful – that we can, to torture a neat metaphor, use our ladders as a spade to move us further from our goals.


Taken together, these two disagreements, I think, offer two differences between my interpretation and Calum’s.


If our outcomes aren’t binary, efficiency is a valid goal

If the goal is to get as far up the wall as possible, then getting further up the wall can be achieved through one or two means. Either more resources (reaching sufficiency), or better deployment of the resources we have (increasing efficiency).


Whether you prioritise one or the other is probably a matter of preference. My work, which consists of seeking to find out the causal impacts of various interventions on outcomes for young people and their families, is focused on the efficiency end of the spectrum. People are free to ascribe motives to this work.


From my perspective I have little choice but to take the world as I find it. I am not the Chancellor, or a senior Treasury official tasked with allocation of pots of money to different policy areas. Given this, I think it’s necessary to try and help practitioners and managers, who also have to take those resources as a given, to find the best way to deploy them. Critics of my work might argue that interventions sending thank you letters to social workers to help them feel valued and supported at work are small fry, and that a 10% pay rise would be a more effective intervention. I agree – but one thing is in my power, and the other is not.


I also do not see that this is an adversarial position. I think it’s right that some people argue and work towards more resources to be made available, while others focus on ensuring that whatever resources exist are used as well as possible. We all have the same goals in mind.


Poverty traps and virtuous circles

My second interpretation difference is more an addition than a difference. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how efficiently deployed resources are if they are being deployed on quicksand. When practitioners or policymakers have so few resources that any attempt to erect a ladder, either well or badly, will end in failure, then we are trapped in a negative cycle.


Most of us are familiar with the idea, at a national and an individual level, of a poverty trap – a level of poverty that is so bad that adding marginal additional resources, or making small changes to efficiency does not allow those people, or that country, to escape from poverty. Between these levels, I’d argue, it’s possible for there to be a policy poverty trap, where a policy area is mired in such a lack of resources or infrastructure that any attempt to improve it will be at best unbelievably slow.


We can think of a policy poverty trap around the use of electric cars. Small incentives to buy an electric car, like subsidies or the use of green license plates to give people something to show off, can only be of incredibly incremental value while electric cars remain pricier than normal cars and charging facilities dwindle whenever you either venture into the countryside, or into urban areas where people don’t have off-street parking.


On the flip side, it is possible to achieve virtuous circles in policy terms by thinking about investments across the many different walls that government needs to consider. I don’t know how to square this with the metaphor, but making progress up the poverty alleviation wall will probably help us with our education wall, our health wall, and so on. Good access to both adult and child mental health services is likely to reduce the burdens on other services as well – making more progress up multiple walls at the same time. Shifting from poverty traps to virtuous circles, both through the deployment of more ladders, and deploying them in the right places, lets us achieve sufficiency and efficiency at the same time.

Michael Sanders is a Reader in Public Policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, and Chief Executive of What Works for Children’s Social Care. For more posts from Michael, visit The Evidence Quarter website.

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