Earned Autonomy – The Future Of Public Services?

This process of decentralisation has been seen by some as potentially divisive; creating a two-tier system where the top level providers have more buying power for additional facilities  and those lower down in the rankings continue to toil under micro-management from official inspectors and accountants.   This point brings us to the other main concern; that of accountability. If local service providers are given more freedoms and flexibility – what accountability mechanisms can be attached to local providers released from the shackles of central control?


In the recent drive to decentralise certain aspects of Government control, greater authority is being granted to local public-service providers who have ‘earned’ the privilege of greater autonomy. Where public sector organisations, be they schools or hospitals, have demonstrated consistently high standards of quality provision – they can ‘earn’ the right to manage their own budgets as they think best for their service users, without the sometimes stifling constraints of centrally controlled audits and inspections.

So, if Earned Autonomy (EA) is going to be successful; what sort of public sector organisations are best suited and what do they look like?

Orientation: they are more likely to be focused around clearly articulated core beliefs; vision, values and goals that employees actually buy into and that provide meaningful purpose rather than simply comprising jingoistic rhetoric

Power & Status: centrally controlled organisations tend to focus more on position, rank and job title rather than real contribution-based leadership which makes the next point something of a challenge for them…

Structure: EA organisations have flatter more flexible ‘networks’ as their pre-dominant working culture. The access / ability for the right people to communicate across ‘divisions’ to make decisions at a local level and retain ownership and accountability.

Formalisation: EA organisations obsess over formalising how they work. This is built around rigorous adherence to  (high) standards,  compliance, awareness and transparency. They prevent becoming bureaucratic and rules driven by the other criteria in this article, with best practice and peer group pressure binding people and processes  together.

Management Style: more obsessed about ‘inputs’ than ‘outputs’ – they will be passionate about the Critical Success Factors that deliver high quality service and will ultimately deliver the required KPIs. This requires a particular type of leadership style that looks to invest in ‘inputs’ as their number one priority.

Planning Time-Frame: organisations that get caught up in ‘tactical’ concerns about next period’s figures will struggle here. They need to keep their focus on the long-term strategic objectives and ensure that those objectives inform every action along the way

Learning Style: here is one of the real opportunities to change complete organisations – through the whole learning and development agenda. By aligning learning styles with the strategic focus and encouraging a ‘Socratic’ culture of inquiry and debate, rather than ‘sheep-dipping’ individuals through the corporate process, it is possible to encourage real meaningful engagement in a positive and constructive manner – but it takes the right kind of organisational mind-set to really deliver on this one.


It will be interesting to see which organisations become the early standard bearers of EA,. Some of our public sector clients are already asking themselves searching EA questions