In the early noughties the UK government commissioned Professor Sir George Bain to head up an independent review looking at how the Fire and Rescue Services were operated and managed. Three months later the Bain review was published – and it pulled a few punches: “The service needs to be changed from top to bottom to bring it into line with best practice at the start of the 21st century.”
Steve McGuirk became County Fire Officer and Chief Executive at Greater Manchester Fire Service in 2009. He had been with the fire service since 1976. Now he was faced with having to adapt to big reductions in spending as well as new or changing risks such as terrorism. McGuirk’s innovation was to refocus his force away from its traditional firefighting role towards a new emphasis on safety and prevention.
The ensuing job cuts were unpopular but the measure was enormously successful and led to dramatic reductions in the numbers of fires. He delivered £160m of cumulative savings while demand has fallen by 60%.
“We achieved massive change – slashing fire and injuries – and we delivered massive savings, through major deregulation and decentralisation and moving away from inspection and prescription to focusing on outcomes that let local fire services off the leash to innovate,” he said in his blog.
Innovation in the face of resistance
McGuirk continued his education whilst in the Fire Service and now holds a Masters in Management as well a BSc in Fire Safety, Technology and Management. In recent years, he has led changes in the use of technology to make firefighting safer, such as implementing innovative fabrics developed by the British manufacturer Hainsworth.
He has also increased cooperation between the fire and ambulance services to speed up responses to falls, cardiac arrests and other emergencies. All these changes have required effort to overcome resistance, including a national strike, within a traditional public sector operating environment.
McGuirk has moved on from the fire service and is now facing new challenges as Chairman of Warrington and Halton Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. His model for public service reform will go with him. ‘There are going to be unpopular decisions within the NHS as part of its transformation,’ he says. ‘But these are vital. It is simply about there not being enough money to go round.’ He refers to the NHS as “a truly creaking beast”.
“Public sector organisations are notoriously slow-moving,” says Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship at London Business School and Academic Director, Deloitte Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. “Steve McGuirk, as head of the Manchester Fire Service, showed what it is possible to do if you really set your mind to it.
“He managed to reinvent the fire service in Manchester to emphasise safety and prevention, he invested in new technology, and he has found ways of working more closely with the ambulance service in a mutually beneficial way. He took some hits along the way, but he made a real difference.”
Professor Birkinshaw was on the judging panel who were so impressed by McGuirk’s efforts, they gave him the Masters of Reinvention Award in the 2016 Real Innovation Awards.