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Home » Library » Could do better? Knowledge, learning and performance improvement in public services

This report sets out the findings from our research into the way that public service organisations respond to evidence that they are performing poorly. It is grounded in an ongoing programme of research which we have undertaken on poor performance, failure and turnaround in public services. With the introduction of inspectorates, performance targets, league tables and other forms of scrutiny, the performance of public services is now closely measured and monitored, and problems of poor performance which in the past might have gone unchecked or been resolved behind closed doors are now dealt with in the public domain. Media reports on failing hospitals, schools and local authorities have become commonplace.

One theme runs through the report – the way that organisations manage and use information about performance – because our research shows that the fundamental causes of major performance problems are often connected with how organisations learn – or fail to learn. This research has tried to develop a more detailed and explanatory model of organisational learning, using theories about “absorptive capacity” (the capacity of an organisation to acquire, assimilate
and apply knowledge) which have been developed in research in business and management. Our research has explored absorptive capacity in six health and local authority organisations in England where we had already carried out research; in six further health and local authority organisations in the other countries of the UK; and in five organisations in other parts of the public sector. In this report we use data from the latter five case study organisations – a housing association, a playgroup, a secondary school, a government agency and a police force – to explore how well these ideas work for public service organisations, and to illustrate our analysis.

 Walshe K., Harvey G., Skelcher C. and Jas, P. (2009)  Could do better? Knowledge, learning and performance improvement in public services (pdf).