Writing on the future of public services this month, David Boyle, an advisor to the Coalition on public service reform, says:

“But what really interests me is how balancing the budget and reorganising the public sector might fit together – and could still be made to fit together by the coalition.  Because to genuinely reduce the cost of public services, you really need a big idea about how they might work differently – you need a diagnosis and a prescription.

The coalition has a diagnosis – they understood the disastrous effect of targets – but no prescription that really fits it.  New Labour had a prescription but a faulty diagnosis.

Without the diagnosis, public service reform just becomes public service cuts, and they often lock in costs elsewhere in the system.  I have written before about how historians covering these years will regard our main story as the looming crisis in public services, and the race against time by empowered service professionals to come up with the ideas they need to re-configure them.

But it is worse than that.  Without a big idea behind spending cuts, any government gets impaled on the horns of a dilemma described so powerfully by the systems thinker John Seddon:

“The truth is counterintuitive: focusing on costs drives costs up. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that we’d be better off if we could design a service that meets people’s needs, quickly, effectively and once.”

There is the great paradox which has eluded successive governments.  If you focus on cutting costs, the costs will rise.  If you try and provide a more effective service – which might well not be digital by default – then costs will fall.

Seddon is an important figure in all this.  He is the presiding genius over a whole range of related ideas that, taken together, would completely transform the effectiveness of our services.  Before the election, I took him to see Vince Cable, hoping they would hit it off (they didn’t really get the chance).  After the election, I organised a debate at the Royal Society of Arts with him under the title ‘The New Efficiency‘.

He remains a kind of king-over-the-water for the kind of service manager who is most frustrated by the direction of public service reform over the past decade. 

Seddon’s frustration with Whitehall is expressed in a wonderful monthly e-newsletter which has become required reading in local government circles because it is so enjoyably rude.

He isn’t right about absolutely everything – this isn’t a hagiographical blog – but I have come to believe that he represents the wave that is about to break over public services.

Perhaps Labour will run with this approach, and the related approaches I describe.  Perhaps they won’t.  Perhaps the coalition will realise, at this late stage, what needs to happen.  I don’t know.  But the wave will eventually break, sweeping the whole caboodle of lesser ideas – Lean, digital by default, payment-by-results – into history”.