Be more fox

Our book suggests that foxes should manage the public sector.  Not literally.  That would be absurd and cause palpitations at the British Poultry Council.  No, the foxes in our book are metaphorical and come courtesy of the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.


In his essay ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’, Berlin argued that some people (hedgehogs) viewed the world through the lens of one defining thought, whilst others (foxes) experienced the world through a number of different frameworks*.  This distinction can helpfully be applied to private sector managers and public sector managers.  The hedgehogs of the private sector can assess the value of every action and decision through asking one simple question ‘Will this make us more profitable?’.  No such singular lens exists for public sector foxes.  Does the public sector deliver happiness, safety, value for money, fairness, wealth, accountability?  Arguably all these things and more.  It is no terrain for hedgehogs, no matter how talented they might be.


And the public sector is more vulpine than ever.  In the 1980’s, New Public Management attempted to turn the public sector fox into a hedgehog: by measuring everything, so the theory went, management would become simpler and more efficient.  This has not been the disaster that you would expect from genetic tampering (see my previous blog).  But the intrinsic foxiness of the public sector cannot be suppressed – hard to measure outcomes trump outputs, partnerships and relationships matter more than hierarchies when delivering multi-agency services, and layered over the top (or perhaps supporting it from the bottom depending on your perspective) is a staggering array of new technology. 


To thrive in this environment the public sector fox needs not just one lens but a bagful.  We suggest twelve should be enough and will be running through these twelve in our webinar next week.  Hope to hear from you then.



* Berlin was inspired to write this essay by a teasing fragment from the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: "a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing".  

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This is a nice characterisation of a problem I've come to recognise in the public sector and the view of the ps from outside. It is the pursuit of one god: Efficiency; as if our multi-faceted 'foxiness' can be neatly packaged into small, simple service processes that none of us were previously clever enough to realise. The truth is that value cannot be measured in monetary terms alone, but it seems to be the only terms in which the dialogue is presented. While there is a lot that can be done in modernising (an awful lot), we should be careful not to throw away all the hard-to-measure, added value outcomes we deliver in the pursuit of commercial models that promise savings but don't fit service needs. To stretch a metaphor beyond all utility: don't throw the cub out with the saucer of milk.