From the archive: Public services depend on staff and public engagement – the same goes for policy

Michael Harris /   April 25, 2012 at 8:31 PM 2,203 views

John Seddon published his latest book yesterday on ‘delivering public services that work’. When all of the other fashionable ideas and theories have come and gone, hopefully we’ll recognise that John’s approach (described below) is one of the few practical and proven ways to produce more effective, and so more cost-effective, public services. But his approach also suggests something crucial about how we can reduce more practical and effective public policy as well.

John is, to put it mildly, no fan of performance targets and the ‘performance improvement’ agenda. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see better public services of course, rather that he thinks that setting targets from on high is completely the wrong way to go about it. Being critical of targets is not unusual. What’s important is that John demonstrates why targets (and all of the other apparatus that has dominated public service reform for years, such as ‘choice’, inspection, incentives and back-office ‘economies of scale’) actually lead to poorer performance, and how an entirely different approach can produce much better results.

The answer, according to John, lies in systems thinking – ditching the ‘command-and-control’ mentality that seeks to impose the same (usually largely unproven) ‘solution’ anywhere and everywhere, and replacing it with a method that analyses where waste and inefficiency come from in any system and so how services can be both improved and costs reduced at the same time. The answer is ‘design against demand’ – essentially, to meet the actual rather than the imagined demands that service users have, that is, to focus on doing better the things that add real value to people’s lives.

There are two points from this, in one sense a simple but also incredibly subtle approach, that I want to pull out here. The first is that this relies on putting to one side whatever the ‘latest thinking’ is in public service reform and focussing instead on the practical matter of what is actually going on in any particular service and how it could be improved – in a non-partisan and evidence-based way.

The second is that the process of doing this requires that public and voluntary sector service managers have to engage frontline staff and service users, because these are the people who know most of all where things are going wrong – they see it directly everyday. This helps to explain why targets are counter-productive. Imposing targets inadvertently creates a purpose for a service (to achieve the targets) and constrains the methods (the way the service is designed). In contrast, deriving any targets (or preferably just performance measures) based on the purpose of the service as seen from the customer’s point of view helps to ‘liberate’ the method, and from this improvement and innovation can flow in better designing the service.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know where I’m going. We make policy in much the same way – and indeed the ‘accepted wisdom’ about what needs to be done to save money and improve outcomes (shared services, social impact bonds etc) and the policy frameworks (funding, regulation, targets etc) established by central government are often related. Further, whether they want to or not, think tanks often reflect and reinforce this command-and-control approach. A relatively small group of people develop an idea that they (genuinely) believe – often on the basis of little evidence but with a seemingly compelling logic – will finally solve the problem that we’ve been grappling with for years. All we need to do is x, because the single underlying problem all along has been y. And off we go again.

In this way, think tanks too often inadvertently act as the intellectual equivalent of what John calls the ‘inspection industry’, with their lack of practical intelligence about what is actually happening on the ground and their lack of engagement with the people who deliver services and those who use them. In a Systems Thinking approach, individuals come first, waste is reduced and responsibility replaces blame. We need the same approach to delivering better policy as we do to delivering better public services.

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