Palchinsky and the public sector

Welsh Local Government Minister, Lesley Griffiths, recently commented that ‘local government can’t keep doing the same things, it has to do different things.’

It's not just councils that need to think and act differently, this is true of all public services and it's particularly stark when framed by the fiscal challenges highlighted in reports published by Nesta partner, Wales Public Services 2025

Implementing new thinking in public services is not easy and never has been.  We need to be prepared to think and act in new ways. 

Encouragingly the Minister does not prescribe exactly what needs to be done, a top down directive to do new things need to be accompanied by a tolerance of variation in the system. This reminded me of the experiences of Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky described in Tim Harford's 2011 book Adapt.  

Peter Palchinsky

Peter Palchinsky was a young engineer from a coal mining region of what was to become the Soviet Union. Following a brutally honest study of the conditions in which the workforce of these mines operated he was relocated to Siberia, perhaps displaying a degree of honesty not welcomed by his superiors.  

He managed to escape to the west and busied himself around Europe absorbing the latest thinking in management, science and engineering. Palchinsky later went on to become an advisor to the Soviet regime. However his honest and analytical approach could not be curtailed.  

He was appointed to advise on several of the grand schemes in Lenin's Five Year Plan.  He counselled against the Lenin Dam, which would displace thousands of people and be ineffective in the dry season, advocating the need smaller projects that were tailored to local conditions and geology. 

The take away message for public services is that Palchinsky recognised that a single grand solution was not the way forward.

Problems are complex with a local dimension and we need to make more use of what Grameen Bank founder Muhammad Yunus would later call a worms eye view.

There can be a fear a allowing a post-code lottery in the provision of public services.  Centrally planned economies were notorious for their dislike of variation in the system and almost a century on politicians still like grand schemes and uniform service provision. However trying different things out and taking forward the most suitable option is an essential part of the evolution of public services fit for the 21st century.

Testing new ideas

The key thing is to try out new ideas on a scale where failure will not be catastrophic and lessons can be learnt - this does not mean endless pilots.

Public services can be prototyped quickly in and local feedback sought, without having to jump straight to the end point of a national scheme. 

Google famously employs a Head of Moonshots to work on huge leaps forward on projects that others may regard as absurd - rather than the target driven incremental improvements that pre-occupy the days of many of us working in public services. 

Google recognises that the core part of its business today - the internet search engine, may not be its core business tomorrow. It needs to explore and test out other ideas for meeting the needs of future populations.

Public services cannot operate effectively as part of a centrally planned system of delivery. They could do a lot worse than look towards Tim Harford's neat summation of three Palchinsky Principles:  

  • Seek out new ideas and try new things
  • When trying something new do it on a scale where failure will not be critical
  • Seek out feedback locally and learn from your mistakes as you go along


Matthew Gatehouse

Matthew Gatehouse

Matthew Gatehouse

Programme Manager

Matthew jointly lead on the Public Innovation in Wales project, which is part of the Wales Public Services 2025 programme.

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