Jim Mather reviews ‘The Whitehall Effect’

The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon – review by Jim Mather for ‘What Works Scotland’

Jim mather review The Whitehall Effect book cover

Reading this book reminds us that John Seddon is a psychologist. He proves that his great contribution has been to take the Deming emphasis on quality, continuous improvement and the challenging of orthodoxies into the arena of services and meet the unique needs of real people with humanity, kindness and flexibility.

And by “real people”, I mean clients, staff, senior management and policy makers.

John highlights that helping people back to their most sustainable levels of self-reliance and in some cases getting their lives “back on the rails” is the kindest and most cost-effective public services strategy, as well as being the most fulfilling for our public service professionals.

He is also very helpful in establishing that any service or any policy intervention ought to have three components:

  1. The purpose – as defined by the legitimate and reasonable service user(s)
  2. The measure(s) that can convince those users that the “purpose” is being met.
  3. The method(s) that can be developed and used to deliver the measures and meet the purpose.

In stating that, he is adamant, that these three components work best when the policy-maker defines the purpose exclusively in terms that users would support and then stops. Leaving the people-who-do-the-work to decide on the measures and develop the methods that progressively produce better and better results.

He is equally adamant that targets in the context of purpose are toxic. They can become the de facto purpose of any service, encouraging people to game the system and cheat.

That single insight is worth the price of the book for it offers:

  • The politician the chance to genuinely lead and avoid being too prescriptive and wrong
  • The manager the chance to deliver meaningful local leadership, get better results and higher morale
  • Front line staff the chance of better results, more autonomy and more fulfilment
  • The user the chance of better, crisper services, increased self-sufficiency & self-respect

And of course, being a John Seddon book, he does not pull his punches. He exposes the weaknesses and damage caused by the mis-use of: Back offices, Call centres, Commissioning, Information Technology, Lean, Procurement, Policy-Making, Regulation, Risk Management, Shared Services, Specialisation, Standardisation, Targets, etc.

So, if you have any of the above in your environment, and especially if you have been directly involved, then you need to read this book because John offers us all a route to remedying even their worst manifestations.

But the final word on this book should be left to John. I wrote and told him recently about a facilitated reading of his book with a management team.

His advice was typically to the point and it also applies to the book, which is also not an “end in itself”.

He said: “… the most important outcome can only be to agree to go collectively to study a service somewhere. Of course the leaders of that service have to be part of the study team, otherwise a train crash will ensue… Maybe the best way to tackle this hurdle is to make the purpose of the workshop nothing more than a curiosity-builder, inviting the curious to take the next and vital step.”

This book is both a curiosity builder and a map that allows us to avoid pitfalls and plan a better, more collaborative and inclusive way forward – and it gets my enthusiastic endorsement.

Jim MatherJim Mather (pictured left) is a former Scottish Government minister who has maintained a lively interest in public sector reform, especially any move that increases the understanding and deployment of systems thinking and which recognises the criticality of aligning Scottish public services with the reasonable and legitimate interests of the people of Scotland.

What Works Scotland is a new initiative to improve the way local areas in Scotland use evidence to make decisions about public service development and reform. WWS brings together the Universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, other academics across Scotland, with partners from across Scottish public services. www.whatworksscotland.ac.uk

Read the Foreword  of The Whitehall Effect by Lord Victor Adebowale in full.

Read an edited extract from The Whitehall Effect in the Guardian, 5th November 2014.

The hardback is available to order now from Triarchy press at £20.

Click here to see a video of Jim Mather (and other leaders) talking about the Vanguard Method