Skip to Content


Home » Past Events » Fixing failure? Understanding what causes poor performance and what leads to improvement in public services

In recent years, it has become commonplace for some schools, hospitals, local authorities, and other public bodies to be labeled “failing”.   League tables, performance ratings, inspection reports – there is no shortage of  data that can be used to identify those who are not doing well.  While some are simply exhorted to do better, others may face intervention, reinspection, the replacement of senior leaders, forced merger with another more successful organization, and even – in a few cases – closure.

But what do we really know about the processes that cause performance to decline in public organizations, and how we can best bring about a real and sustained improvement in performance?

Over the last two years, with support from the ESRC Public Services Programme, researchers from the University of Birmingham and Manchester Business School have been studying the problems of poor performance and how they are dealt with.  We have built on our past research on failure and poor performance in hospitals and local authorities, and undertaken case studies across the public sector.  We think that organisations’ “knowledge processing” capacity – how well an organisation learns from itself and others – is at the heart of performance problems and holds many of the solutions.

This policy seminar was the first opportunity to hear the main research findings and conclusions from this study.  Participants came from a range of backgrounds, including some from inspectorates and government departments and some from the organizations under study.

There will be a further opportunity to hear findings from this study during the ESRC Festival of Social Science in March 2009, please contact Bryony Gill bryony.gill@politics.ox.ac.uk for further details.