To save public services we must think in Russian

SPOILER ALERT: This post gives away all the exciting bits from the film ‘Firefox’.


I like the film ‘Firefox’. I recognise that it is not a great film but it has Clint Eastwood and I like that kind of watchable, post-cold war thriller.

The basic plot is that Mr Eastwood plays Mitchell Gant, an elite ex-fighter pilot who is brought out of retirement because his mother was a native Russian speaker. His mission is to go deep into Soviet territory to steal the latest high-tech Russian MiG fighter – code named Firefox – which has a thought-controlled weapons system.

After many adventures Gant is hidden by the very scientist, played by Nigel Hawthorne, who designed the thought-controlled weapons system that the Americans want to get their hands on. Hawthorne tells Gant that in order to operate the weapons system that he, “must think in Russian”.

Cut to Gant flying over the Ural mountains in the stolen Firefox with another MiG fighter on his tail thinking, in English, “Fire the rearward missiles. Fire the rearward missiles.” Obviously nothing happens until Nigel Hawthorne’s floaty, accented voice is heard saying (of course) “You must think in Russian.” Quick as a flash, Gant repeats his thought but in Russian and the rearward missiles fire, destroying the dastardly Soviet foe who is on this tail. America wins again!

(Nearly there with the relevant bit…)

When I was taking my final exams at university I knew that not only did I need to answer the questions correctly but I also needed to think like the examiner in order to get maximum marks. Given that these were mathematics exams that meant showing lots of clear working and getting the maths jargon in that they liked. So just before the invigilator would say, “You may now start,” I would repeat, under my breath, “You must think in Russian,” to remind myself think about what the examiner wanted.

What has this to do with public services? Well if we are to save services from the cuts, we must think in the right way. That right way is to think like our customer thinks. Thinking like ministers, accountants or even public sector staff won’t do it. In fact that could very well make things worse. We must understand what our customer thinks of when using our service and design the service to maximise that. Forget internal customers, forget auditors, forget management whims, focus on the customer to deliver fast, error free services which in turn will remove waste and cut costs.

Anytime we are thinking of making a change, pause (but not long enough to let the following MiG shoot you down) and listen for Nigel telling you that, “You must think like your customer.”

“You must think in Russian.”



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