Whitehall watch

While we can and should marvel at the new government’s announcements (no more central control) and actions (ASBOs are off, HIPS are off) it is important to be vigilant. A few years ago in Scotland they announced no more micro-management of local authorities but didn’t remove the roles in the centre, so the inevitable happened; continued central control. In England the Audit Commission is arguing for a continued role in ‘advice’ for improvement; aside from the fact that their advice has been shockingly wrong-headed and bad, it is the last organisation you want touting advice for improvement; that’s how we got into the mess we are in.

Readers may be interested to know that the new chief executive of the Audit Commission wants to meet me; you can be confident I shall tell it like it is (has been). And you recall the Comserv/MTS/Portsmouth City Council story (last newsletter) that I regard as an economic benchmark? The Audit Commission inspectors down-graded their rating as they couldn’t tick the boxes. One box they couldn’t tick was ‘benchmarking’. How could they have achieved their massive improvement through benchmarking? You couldn’t make it up.

Benchmarking is the fastest way to mediocrity. And don’t be confused. By ‘economic benchmark’ I am pointing to their achievement (repairs at the time and the day tenants want them with massive reductions in costs); the Audit Commission wants people to do industrial tourism, copying leads to mediocrity.

But we need to be on the watch. And we must take the opportunity provided to express our views.

There are various government initiatives asking for peoples’ views of how to improve public services and remove unhelpful bureaucracy. In case you haven’t got the links here are some:

Email: cutredtape@communities.gsi.gov.uk

And for the voluntary sector you can email thoughts to: sectorchallenge@cabinet-office.x.gsi.gov.uk
For systems thinkers it is a good opportunity to voice what we know.

The regime plays on in Scottish schools

We should take our hats off to a Scottish head teacher who has for some time been campaigning for a change to the specifications and inspection regime that has bedevilled education in Scotland. He wrote to me recently:

‘A (big) step in the right direction. But ‘the regime is over’: not for schools it isn’t, in Scotland or England. But we can keep trying. Here’s my latest: http://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6048653

We’ve got this new curriculum coming in here in Scotland, based on wider pupil capacities and skills, rather than shovel-it-in attainment, but it’s being undone by a silly choice of name, which is handing power back to the micro-specifiers.

The real problem we have now is that inspectors are not just looking for outcomes – happy, engaged, confident, capable kids, but are specfiying how we are to do our jobs from the centre, and worse different inspectors are specifying differently, then making judgements without telling us the basis for them. The drain on our capacity is overwhelming, coupled with the failure demand such reporting generates which creates a double hit. But worse is that our new curriculum board want to join in, and turn sophisticated, experiential principles which we could realise in accordance with our own local circumstances, into a specification system, thereby killing it.’

Will the new OFSTED do the same for England?

They have to have a ‘narrative’

Ministers and their civil servants live in another world, a world where work isn’t done but where policies for doing it abound(ed). In Whitehall they use the word ‘narrative’ a lot. It’s the story they tell when they talk to us, or, more often, the media. While they have removed the most important barrier to improvement in the public sector – the centre raining down targets, specifications, their (wrong) view of ‘best’ etc – they worry about what ‘structures’ and ‘incentives’ they now need to put in place.

This kind of ambiguity causes public-sector managers to doubt that their new freedom is real. Responsibility is the key to innovation. Ministers need to keep true to their policy of responsibility where the work is done. It would help them if they developed a narrative around responsibility as choosing methods and measures. It would broaden the explanation; it would give them things to talk about. Many public-sector managers are, quite naturally after years of compliance, looking to be told what to do; the ministers need to tell them to innovate without telling them how, and making them feel able to get on with it, with no fear that an inspector will call with their view of the world paramount.

Public-sector managers have loads of their own stories about the badness of the old regime, of inspectors coercing wrong-headed ideas, of targets missing the point and so on; they would believe ministers if they heard the same from them. But if ministers start talking about new ‘structures’ that in effect mean guidance they will shoot themselves in the foot. As the Scots did.

There are two things that the centre could do: Identify and promulgate examples of extraordinary performance improvement. I say extraordinary because small gains would otherwise flood the field. The centre could independently verify the improvements. In publishing the examples, the centre should publish only the result and the problem; managers need first to consider if they have the same problem.

The centre could also provide expertise, but it should only be provided on a ‘pull’ basis, keeping the responsibility for choices with local leaders. If this principle is ignored it would change the locus of control back to what it was.

And incentives are not required. The greatest motivation in work is intrinsic. Public-sector people come to work to do good work. The research on incentives shows their use gets you less of what you want. Incentives should be avoided.

The audit commission should be limited to ‘following the money’; we need to remove its power to mandate dumb practice. Any central agency that inspects matters of performance and management should be limited to the one question: what measures are you using to understand and improve performance?

These, in my view, are the things that should inform the ministerial narrative.

Evidence and policy

It was a while ago that journalist John Kay observed that the UK government relied on policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy. A member of what was Tony Blair’s strategy unit was on the radio last month. He told us that the phrase ‘spray-on evidence’ was the way people in the centre talked about finding evidence to justify the ministers’ pronouncements. He also explained that evaluating ideas would take time and ministers didn’t like to have to wait, they have to be seen to do stuff. He also told us how evaluation might put the minister at risk of being seen to have had a bad idea. It might not fit the narrative.

It is no wonder that the last regime became so sick.

Two beliefs that need to be challenged

One of the beliefs still held by the new government is ‘economy of scale’. They believe, for example, sharing services will lead to lower costs. You may recall (May newsletter) I bombed at a meeting of County Council chief executives when they were unable to explain to me why they believed in economy of scale. It inspired me to write an article to explain why we do and why we shouldn’t. You can get it here: https://www.01handshake01.com/media/553

The second is a belief in procurement as a money-saver. As ever, it is plausible: ‘we all buy pencils, IT systems and so on; it will be cheaper if we buy them together’. I mentioned procurement in my last newsletter, with the intention of returning to it in this issue. But thanks to my readers the subject is growing. Lots of examples of ‘professional procurement’ ensuring we don’t get what we want and we have to pay through the nose for the privilege.

I shall be publishing something on the procurement fad exposing its flawed thinking soon. More examples welcome.

Lots of problems out there…

Three examples from readers of the problems out there waiting to be solved:

HMRC problems:

A reader writes: ‘Having decided to grasp the proverbial nettle to overcome my I.T. Phobia and submit my VAT return online all I have done is perpetuated the waste machine that is HM customs. I set up to pay the VAT online and assumed it would all transact without hiccup. Wrong!

Last week I got a phone call along the lines of you have not paid closely followed by the question ‘did you set up a DD online?’. To my affirmative response I got ‘ oh yeah lots of people have had the same problem’. Apparently if you set it up too far in advance of payment date it misses it and your account shows up in debit.

Having paid I thought the matter was resolved; alas no. Two letters arrived sent on the same day one yellow, telling me I still owed what I had just paid, and a red letter giving me official notice of legal action. So there will be further failure demand to Her Majesty servants in revenues. I wonder how much that little lot has cost the public purse!’

Benefits blues:

A reader writes: ‘How does this tickle your fancy? You’re a mum with four children, living in Bridport. Suddenly your benefits are stopped (mistakenly) so the system says you may apply for a crisis loan to bridge the gap, while you sort the benefits office out.

You have to go to the Weymouth office to do this, taking the kids with you, as there is no-one else to look after them. When you get there, there is a mountain of paperwork to complete. Then you have to, quite literally, plead your case. This has to be done by a landline from outside the building – no face-to-face (presumably they’re worried the staff might be swayed by the tears in their waif-like faces) and no mobile phones (I’m frankly surprised they don’t insist you have to do it in a silly accent whilst wearing a purple curly wig) so you and your four small children join the queue of ten other people outside the phone box and wait your turn.

Luckily for this Mum her outreach worker was able to plead her case and she was magnanimously granted the princely sum of £51 (don’t spend it all at once!) By the time she’d paid hers and her children’s bus fares, she had£22 left.

Oh, and don’t forget that when your benefits come through again you have to pay back the crisis loan in full – no you can’t deduct the £29 in travel costs to get it.’

Job Centre blues:

A reader writes: ‘Just thought you’d like my experiences in dealing with the DWP – as I have now signed on.

Goes like this: Fill in online form – takes 20+ minutes. Get phone call 1 from ‘Julie’ who had booked me an appointment at a central Sheffield Jobcentre for 1105 on weds the following week. Get phone call 2 from ‘Mohammed’ saying they are looking at my claim an I will probably get some benefit. Arrive for appointment at Job Centre. There is a queue out into the street. I am told that I have to wait.

Get to see first advisor about 30 minutes after my appointment. This is a ‘financial assessor’ who reviews the online info, gets me to fill in some more forms and sign my name. After another wait I get to see the second advisor, the ‘personal advisor’. I now fill in another form – a ‘Jobseekers agreement’ which involves signing my name FIVE times. I am given more paperwork to take away so I can log my job hunt. The personal advisor then runs my details through the computer and the computer says ‘GREEN’. That means I am apparently very likely to get a job!

We then look at some jobs on the computer. However when I ask if we can scroll down through the details field of one job, I am told we can’t because the system isn’t working properly. The advisor then reveals she and many of her colleagues are on short term contracts not to be renewed!

I leave an hour and a half after my scheduled appointment time. There is still a queue into the street. Two days later I get a 9-page letter telling me why I would be better off in work. Three days later I get a 4-page letter telling me I will get 65 quid a week but, er, not exactly when. Six days later (a Tuesday) I go back to the job centre to ‘sign on’ for the first time at an appointed time.

Again I wait. But nice comfy chairs and some star trek consoles to hunt for jobs on; but the first two of those aren’t working properly. Get to sign. Nice man! Tells me I probably will get some money as it ‘looks live on the system’. He tells me that from signing to any benefit being paid into the bank takes 3 working days and that if I haven’t seen anything by Friday to phone an 0845 number. Friday will be three weeks since I was technically unemployed and filled in the online form.

I say, albeit quietly and politely ‘good job I am not desperate then isn’t it?’

Tools and fools

As the reader who sent the last item noted: the DWP had been ‘leaned’. Readers know of my antipathy to this ‘lean’ rubbish. My latest salvo is an article describing the stupidity of taking the concept of ‘takt time’ into service organisations. I titled the article ‘tools and fools’ but the editors changed the title to ‘Why management tools don’t work’, which is a silly title as all tools do work somewhere at some time. You can read the article at:


The systems approach to IT

I shall be one of four ‘experts’ speaking at an exclusive event for Chief Information Officers (IT bosses to you and me). The event blurb is as follows: ‘The AGILE ENTERPRISE FORUM 2010 will create an environment whereby the delegates can build a detailed judgment on what could work for them. It does so by offering them the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue with Thought Leaders and peers from major European companies, thus allowing a consensus to emerge from their conversations.’

I am one of the ‘thought leaders’. More at: http://www.agileenterpriseforum.com/

The systems thinking quarterly

We have been publishing a quarterly newsletter in the South West for some time – driven by the amount of systems thinking going on down there. It is a newsletter about cases, people and method, discussing systems thinking in practice. Due to popular demand this newsletter is now available to all. If you want to receive it please email info@vanguardconsult.co.uk and ask to be put on the list for the Systems Thinking Quarterly. The next is due out in September.

Introduction to Systems Thinking in North Wales

We are running an introduction to Systems Thinking and the Vanguard Method on Thursday 23rd September at St David’s Park Hotel, Deeside. Cost: only £95 + VAT.

Contact info@vanguardconsult.co.uk

Introduction to Systems Thinking in Sweden

We are running an introduction to Systems Thinking and the Vanguard Method on 23rd September in Göteborg, and 24th September in Stockholm.

To register: http://www.vanguard-consult.se.

Process Mapping and Analysis for Performance Improvement

Vanguard’s most popular event
Thursday 16th September 2010 – Buckingham
Thursday 14th October 2010 – Buckingham
Thursday 11th November 2010 – Buckingham
Thursday 2nd December 2010 – Buckingham
For information and bookings: office@vanguardconsult.co.uk

Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: Profound Results, Profound Challenges

Thursday 16th September – Manchester
For information and bookings: pr@vanguardconsult.co.uk

Systems Thinking: Delivering efficiency beyond imagination in your organisation

A four-day action-learning programme, based in Bridgend, Wales.
Day 1 – 7th October 2010
Day 2 – 14th October 2010
Day 3 – 21st October 2010
Day 4 – 28th October 2010
For information and bookings: info@vanguardconsult.co.uk

The Leaders Summit

Tickets for the Leaders Summit (November 25th), hosted by yours truly, are selling fast. Don’t miss it: amazing line-up of speakers; amazing revelations. It will be the Systems Thinking event of the year.