Rationalising government’s failure

Rationalising government’s failure

Last month the great and good in government met to discuss why peoples’ perceptions of public service did not match with the ‘reality’ that things were improving. They shared the following rationalisations:

Poor expectation management: people expect too much. A gap between the personal experience (good) and general view of the organisation (bad). It takes time for people to notice something has improved.

I often find myself saying customer expectations are not rising; it is simply that services are getting worse and customers are, rightly, getting fed up. It is true in both the private and public sectors. In the public sector services are getting worse because organisations are doing as directed by ministers and ‘ticking the box’ on those activities that are the basis for ministerial claims for improvement. In truth as I evidence here (and in past newsletters ad infinitum) these are the very things that make service worse and drive up costs.

The ‘perception gap’ they should worry about is theirs, not the publics’. Someone should tell the ministers.

The evidence is on the table

In every public sector organisation in which we have helped make improvements we have specific examples of government specifications undermining performance; they are unintended consequences. In recent times some public sector clients have been bold enough to share what has been learned with those from the government’s management factory. Our own work funded by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (in housing) is completed and the evaluation panel will soon meet to discuss the results. They will see the same phenomenon. Housing specifications as dictated by the Housing Corporation and Audit Commission are part of the problem. How will the evaluation panel respond?

In the private sector the knowledge gained from taking a systems view leads top management to act through informed choice. They care about making money; they are happy to admit they have been wrong. While they may be wrong they cannot be thought of as ‘guilty’ for they don’t know what they don’t know. It is vital in their gaining acceptance of a systems solution that they spend time in the system seeing these things for themselves.

In the public sector care the ‘top management’ are so far removed from the work that we have to wonder whether they will behave in the same way. We shall see.

Coercion and ignorance are the modus operandi

A reader writes to explain the way it works between government and local authorities in the UK:

“The Treasury have what they call Public Service Agreements with Government Departments. One is a standard for the time local authorities take to decide planning applications – 80% within 8 weeks for the ‘easier’ ones and 60% within 13 weeks for the more complex ones. You know the kind of thing. The councils that don’t make this standard are labelled and are set annual targets. Around 90 councils were in this position last year. From what I gather, the ‘selection’ process is to choose those that end up in the ‘bottom’ 20%.

The ODPM commissioned a planning consultancy to visit about 24 of these authorities and highlight areas for improvement. This was experienced as an inspection even though they were at pains to say it wasn’t. Then came the letter to the Leader of the Council from the Minister which said: ‘I believe your progress is… insufficient…very concerned (you) will not achieve the national targets by 2007’. The basis for this prediction is not made clear, but the letter certainly increased anxiety levels. The letter demanded that an Improvement Plan be produced within 4 months.

To help councils do this, the IDeA organised the event on 13 July, with promise to run more events regionally. Attendance felt like it was obligatory – what would they think if we didn’t go?

On the day…The man from Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit was bullish. These national standards, he said, are non-negotiable – it sounded threatening but the ‘or else’ wasn’t made explicit. He said that Tony couldn’t understand why there should be such a level of variation (in % in 8 weeks) between councils. The Chair asked him what he would say to planners who were putting forth their best efforts already, but his response was unsympathetic. But he did have something he thought would help as it had worked in other areas: trajectory planning. This turned out to be having a series of targets for each year up to 2007. The IDeA had even produced a tool (I guess it’s a spreadsheet) that would produce a straight line trajectory (and a slightly curved one) simply using the current set of % figures. Some people might not be confident joining up the dots with a ruler and pencil, after all. You would have blown your top. The CD-ROM also includes a template for the Improvement Plan.

Next it was the good cop from the ODPM. They’d decide to extend the additional funding (planning delivery grant) for future years. This is a single pot that is divvied up amongst councils: some get hundreds of thousands; others get nothing. The formula for deciding how much is shrouded in mystery. One council said they had budgeted (expected to get) £250k on the basis of what they got last year but ended up with £900k! All seems very arbitrary – like being in an episode of the Prisoner!

Is that enough?”

I should say so. Just reflect on the extent to which these players were doing what they do (specify and fund) on the basis of knowledge. Vanguard clients have cut end-to-end times for planning to a level that would have seemed inconceivable as a target. And it didn’t cost anything. Someone should tell the minister.

Ministers push up costs of NHS

An NHS correspondent writes:

“In a nutshell, government set targets to get 98% of A&E attendees discharged or admitted within 4 hours – what happens – you’ve guessed it – rather than observe certain groups of medical patients for 5-10 hours and then discharge them, they hit the target by admitting the patient to an expensive bed (marginal cost >£200/day before drugs or any other treatment).

Dramatic growth in emergency admissions is being reported around the country, which is widely attributed to the development by Trusts of a variety of forms of “assessment units”, which have increased the number of patients identified as admitted during that period of assessment. This is thought to be compounded by pressure on Trusts to speed up admission/discharge from A&E to within four hours, leading to increases in the number of A&E attendees who are “admitted” to hospital as emergencies for a short period of time.”

Add to this the costs of extra demand created by NHS Direct (see newsletters passim), the estimated £30bn on a computer system that will fail, the costs of working to protocols… I could go on.

Civilian in disguise

A friend of a friend is a SOCO – scene of crime officer. Her police chief has ordered her to wear police clothing in spite of the fact that she is a civilian. Apparently a current priority, dictated by the Home Office is greater visibility of police.

She gets stopped by people who ask for help she cannot provide. Brilliant!

People take their view of the police from the transactions they have with them.

Calling the cops

The Home Secretary has decided local police will give their mobile phone numbers out to their communities in order to improve local policing. We should remember it was the Home Secretary who centralised call handing in police services; and like all public services these call centres have high levels of failure demand caused by centralising the ‘telephone’ part of the work.

Part of the poor design in the central call handling units is the requirement for recording and documentation. It drives dysfunctional behaviour and waste. Did the Home Secretary think about that before he announced his idea? Can we expect some quick thinking on this and policemen being given palm-tops, lap-tops or 3G phones configured for form filling?

Another disaster in the making; another attractive opinion-based specification fatally flawed. Police forces that we help to understand and design against demand come up with completely different and better answers. Their actions are based on knowledge.

Someone should tell the minister.

Making inspectors happy

A reader writes:

“As a registered chemical site we have stringent methods that have been developed over many years. Now due to the new BS EN regulations we have to employ someone else to test our vents and/or change our procedures. The regulatory procedures are designed for companies that run vast incinerator vents constantly yet ours are only inches wide and only used intermittently. We have now contracted out our testing. We do not believe the results are as accurate, as reproducible or as meaningful as our own but the inspector is happier and we get a better result on our audit.”

Well that’s all right then.

Is anybody there?

A reader writes:

“I thought I would tell you of my recent experience with a telephone operator service. I don’t use it very often but have had reason to dial it twice in the last two weeks. Now when I dial to speak to an operator, I think it not unreasonable that I expect to speak to an operator. Instead I get a robot voice and get offered four choices, the last of which (#4) is the one to speak to an operator. On selecting 4, I was told I would be transferred to an operator, but no, what did I get – ‘I am sorry all our operators are busy, please call back later!!! This ‘service’ is no service at all.”

We had the same problem at home with a utility company. Having fouled up our billing they sent a letter saying they’d cut us off if we didn’t pay something we didn’t owe. It took in excess of ten tries and many minutes wading through robots to get to tell them something they should have known.

Managers like these systems because they pass some of the costs of transaction to the customers. They cannot see the real costs.

The Vanguard Academy

We have decided to try a new way of teaching the Vanguard Method (how we help organisations make a change from command and control to systems thinking). One reason is we meet people who are trying to do it and they come across the same issues; problems of method and intervention. We can help them avoid many of the problems we have encountered before (you don’t have to make the mistakes we’ve made but you probably will). Another reason is that our business continues to grow and the constraint for us is the time it takes to get new consultants up the learning curve, so we should find other ways to distribute our expertise to respond to the growing demand.

What the Academy is not is a set of Vanguard ‘tools’. Newsletter readers know my antipathy to change by tools and projects (it doesn’t change the system). We are going to find out how well we can transfer knowledge to people who are working in organisations. We will be teaching a core curriculum (systems thinking and intervention theory) and the teaching will take place in Academy Members’ organisations; in this way we can design learning by doing, the best way to ‘get it’ and help them with tactical issues. We will also expect Members to spend time working with the Vanguard Method in their organisations.