How Natural England conducted a root and branch review of its operation

Want to know how well or badly your organisation is performing? Ask the stakeholders. This unusual form of scrutiny is how Natural England, the government's advisor on the natural environment, conducted a warts and all evaluation
Natural England
No stone unturned: Natural England reviewed its operation by inviting input from external stakeholders. Photograph: Nigel Mansell

Awkward and potentially embarrassing though it may be, washing one's dirty linen in public does have one saving grace – once the scrubbing is over everything's clean, and everyone knows it.

One organisation that has been up to its elbows in soap suds recently is Natural England (NE). In a bid to improve its service, the government's advisor on the natural environment asked its external stakeholders to help it undertake a "warts and all" evaluation – exposing its inner workings and inviting comments about strengths and weaknesses.

Given the swingeing cuts unveiled this week by chancellor George Osborne, such unorthodox measures may yet gain traction within a public sector eager to be seen improving efficiency. It remains to be seen whether it will be enough to stave off reorganisation or even the axe, however – last year the Tories promised a review not only of NE, but also the rest of Britain's 789 quangos.

Helen Phillips Helen Phillips

Chief executive Helen Phillips came up with the idea of opening NE's books to the scrutiny of the public bodies with which it deals on a daily basis, and asking for their suggestions on how it might do things better. The goal: to make the organisation more efficient, robust and outward-facing.

"I was anxious not to have our senior leaders discussing what they thought our customers and stakeholders thought of us, putting words in their mouths," says Phillips. "I'm a great believer in creating upward pressure in organisations, and wanted to hear authentic comments in people's own voices."

Beginning in November last year, stakeholders including the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and National Parks authorities attended four monthly meetings convened by Laurence Udell of strategy and alignment consultancy the Udell Group, with whom NE has been working since 2008.

Jim Dixon, chief executive of the Peak District National Park Authority, another of NE's stakeholders, describes a "structured" but "fairly brutal" process. Under discussion were issues such as why certain stakeholders didn't get on, why some key NE projects hadn't succeeded and why there was no buy-in to others.

"I felt we were being invited in to be candid, and some stakeholders were pretty direct in their criticism. There was no sense that we shouldn't say something for fear of the consequences, however – quite the reverse." Dixon adds that he took away from the evaluations a need to be bolder within his own organisation, and has already invited external partners to comment on its development work.

Joint initiatives

A recurring theme raised during the meetings was NE's failure to engage with its stakeholders on problem-solving issues at an early enough stage, consulting only when it felt secure in its decisions. Another was a preference towards ownership of certain projects, rather than co-created or truly joint initiatives.

"We now have a real sense of the extent to which that would be welcomed by our stakeholders, and as our partners recognise we're trying to do more, they also feel freer and easier about saying how it could work better for all of us," says Phillips. She points out that opening up an organisation to this process of scrutiny and review should be seen as a sign of strength, and that the sooner this happens, the better and faster the results.

Constructive disclosure is an unusual tactic among agencies, executive and non-departmental bodies, says Martin Laffin, professor of public policy and management at Durham Business School.

"My impression is that these organisations tend to be wary of opening themselves up too much to 'unnecessary' outside scrutiny – both through an awareness of how their accountability is necessarily focused upwards towards the department and minister, and through institutional caution."

He adds that although government departments have long had consultative processes, those processes tend to be focused on new policy proposals rather than performance overviews of the whole or even part of departments. While it would be very useful for capacity reviews to take stakeholders' views into account, he says such an exercise could be cumbersome given the size and scope of major departments.

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