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Creating societal added value: the dilemmas, pressures and challenges

How can public organisations create societal added value? This theme was in the spotlight at the second Leiden Leadership Lunch, which was held on Friday 28 September. Students, academics and government professionals joined in the discussion.

Societal added value is a familiar topic for public organisations. Concepts such as 'public value', 'working according to the spirit of the issue’  and 'task-oriented working' are often used to demonstrate that the purpose for which the organisation was originally established must be central to its work. In his presentation, Eduard Schmidt, head of the LLC research project, outlined the dilemmas, issues and challenges that  this approach entails and that warrant greater attention.

Driven by production

One of the most problematic issues when working according to the spirit of the issue is that organisations are driven by production. Bas van Delden (director of Social Insurance Services at Sociale Verzekeringsbank) explained in his reflection that, for example, the client (the Ministry) and the SVB's own management have for a long time primarily focused on tangible figures and a very limited number of quantitative results. One example here is the speed at which decisions are made regarding benefit applications; processes are designed so that targets can be met, and employees are trained to make decisions promptly. The ‘working according to the spirit of the rule’ approach gives employees an element of freedom to deviate from the rules, provided they justify this properly, which means that they sometimes spend more time on one file. Van Delden explained that it is the leadership’s responsibility to support both employees and the organisation in order to develop this new approach and to make it part of 'the new normal'. Working according to the purpose for which the organisation was established does not mean, however, that employees have free rein. Certainly, there is the flexibility to tailor services to suit the individual, but always on the basis of agreed standards. Leadership has to strike a constant balance between giving employees space and providing guidance.

Offering tailored solutions

One of the most problematic issues when working according to the spirit of the issue is that organisations are driven by production. Bas van Delden (director of Social Insurance Services at Sociale Verzekeringsbank) explained in his reflection that, for example, the client (the Ministry) and the SVB's own management have for a long time primarily focused on tangible figures and a very limited number of quantitative results. One example here is the speed at which decisions are made regarding benefit applications; processes are designed so that targets can be met, and employees are trained to make decisions promptly. The ‘working according to the spirit of the rule’ approach gives employees an element of freedom to deviate from the rules, provided they justify this properly, which means that they sometimes spend more time on one file. Van Delden explained that it is the leadership’s responsibility to support both employees and the organisation in order to develop this new approach and to make it part of 'the new normal'. Working according to the purpose for which the organisation was established does not mean, however, that employees have free rein. Certainly, there is the flexibility to tailor services to suit the individual, but always on the basis of agreed standards. Leadership has to strike a constant balance between giving employees space and providing guidance.

Observations

Professor Sandra Groeneveld brought the lunch and discussion to a close by sharing a number of observations and questions that will be taken into account as the research moves forward. She spoke of how traditional bureaucratic values such as consistency in daily work activities can go hand in hand with customised services, but also how public organisations operating in a network can define and create added value together. The afternoon's interaction between academia and practice raised new and relevant research questions and generated practical insights about working according to the purpose of an organisation.

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