In this podcast, John Seddon talks about the sad business of deliverology.

Read Chapter 8 of Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, ‘Deliverology: the science of delivery, or dogmatic delusion?’

This animation describes the method behind Deliverology

Podcast: Boris targets the cops


In case you don’t know, BOHICA is an acronym: Bend Over, Here It Comes Again… We’ll get to the sad business of deliverology coming back to put the boot in shortly…

The story starts here. Simon Case, cabinet secretary, so a top civil servant right at the heart of government, went to Newcastle to give a lecture on the conduct of central government. His opening words were as follows:

“You might be wondering why I’ve come to Newcastle to give a lecture about the effectiveness of central government! I’m here because the conduct of central government shouldn’t be a rarefied matter for those of us that spend too much time in the SW1 postcode – it is a matter that affects everyone, everywhere. In my view, the debate is only enhanced with the injection of views from beyond the hallowed halls of Westminster.”

Leaving aside whether this evening in Newcastle was an opportunity for debate, I can attest that the hallowed halls of Westminster are resistant to views that are contrary to the political narrative. In the late 90s and for the first 13 years of this century I shared platforms of various kinds with Westminster people. They don’t want to be told that what they’re doing in the name of public-sector reform is wrong and pay no attention to the evidence I present; evidence that ought to alert them to the need to change course. They also show no curiosity whatever to learn of a profoundly better way to improve public services. Again, abundant evidence doesn’t cut it.

So, despite Mr Case’s claim, the conduct of central government is indeed rarefied. Worse, it is misguided, often plain wrong. Being wrong attracts no sanction because what’s regarded as ‘right’ has been formed by political consensus. Political leaders of all stripes since Thatcher have done the same wrong-headed things to public services.

Mr Case, however, claimed central government was alert to the need to learn from mistakes. He put it this way:

“How are we going to avoid the ‘Curse of the Missed Opportunity’?”

“‘The Missed Opportunity’”, he said “is the quintessential government mistake – the mistake we make when we fail to hold on to the lessons we learn as we go along.”

Really? Well let me move to the section of his speech on the priority to ‘deliver’.

“As you will have heard”, he said “the Prime Minister has made clear to us all that delivering on its promises is now the government’s Number One priority. Here, too, we have taken direct inspiration from the past – albeit, the more recent past. Michael Barber, the creator of Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit, advised us on the creation of a similar set-up for this government.”

And my jaw drops. This ‘Deliverology’, claimed by Mr Barber to be the ‘science of delivery’, failed. It has failed around the world – I’ve had lots of correspondents telling me so – the latest of which tells me of the debacle in Canada. In 2008 I devoted a whole chapter of a book to explain why it didn’t work in the UK. I described it as Mickey Mouse command and control. I’ll give you a link to that book. But my most important point is that it took three years, yes three years, before results started to show. And I say this because I know public services can be radically transformed in weeks and months, not years.  They are service organisations, you can turn them around on a sixpence.

The so-called results, which deliverologists claim as success, three-years in, were adherence to centrally-imposed targets. The more parsimonious explanation is this was the time it took for people to use their ingenuity to be seen to comply. Is that what we want from our public servants, using ingenuity to achieve compliance?

But the fundamental problem with Deliverology is that it is change by plan. Another link I’ll give you is to an animation that describes how it works. But in short, top leadership (that is to say Westminster) decides on the outcomes sought, whether targets or ways of working. Then a ‘delivery chain’ is identified, all the people going down the hierarchy, who are made responsible for creating actions, milestones and timetables. And so on, you can watch the animation for more of the detail. But, as I said in the animation, who’d have thought management was that easy? It isn’t.

But it was clear to see; Mr Case had drunk the Deliverology Kool Aid.

He said: “The new Unit is now working closely with ministers and their departments,  defining the missions; working out the goals and metrics; identifying the players involved in making things happen; and, busting through barriers to progress. The Prime Minister holds regular stock-takes to review all of the above, with Secretaries of State and key officials. These tried and tested approaches directly connect the Prime Minister and his ministers to the realities experienced by the people who use public services every day.”

Utter rubbish. Deliverology may be tried but it hasn’t passed any test of efficacy in improving public services. Westminster has no idea of the realities experienced by people who use public services. Deliverologists assume compliance with their intent is ‘success’. But, as is easy to see if you know how to look, the intent translates into dysfunction.

Take, for example, policing. Prime Minister Boris has announced that he wants victims of crime to have access to a cop on the phone. In a previous podcast I described how that is impossible with the current system of policing – a design, we should note, driven by architects in Westminster. Without knowledge of how phone-a-cop cannot work in the current fragmented task-and-report system, my bet is it will be delivered by creating a phone-a-cop call centre, adding unnecessary complication to an already unnecessarily complicated system. The result is intent delivered – trebles all round – but costs up, service not improved, and the real opportunity to design effective policing is missed.

And another that’s top of the agenda; social care. If Mr Case and his deliverology gang knew how to study care systems they would learn, as many have before them, that the current regime, again promulgated by Westminster, creates high volumes of failure demand, delivers services that don’t match needs, wastes public money, yet is compliant.

The advice I had been giving – and I say had because I gave up going to Westminster – is that effective change, profound change, engaging and relevant change, starts with getting knowledge. Having a true understanding of the what and why of performance as a system. That’s what turns people’s heads, that’s what inspires action, that’s what has already delivered profound results on the ground.

Leaders of public services who have crossed this Rubicon keep going, despite edicts from Westminster. They are intrinsically motivated. By contrast, Mr Case makes it clear that when deliverology hits, accountabilities will be laid bare. Yes, a climate of fear.

But, being a seasoned orator, Mr Case goes on to say: “at the same time, the collective spirit and desire to overcome obstacles is fostered.”

Dream on. The culture will be driven by fear, criticism and doubt will be silenced, people will learn to talk the talk. A rotten culture.

Talking of dreaming, Mr Case shares another Westminster dream: Big data.

He started out by declaring:

“We won’t improve decision-making if we don’t improve our data collection and analysis.” An obvious truth. But it depends on getting the right data. In my world measures have to pass two tests: they help us both understand and improve performance. Targets – in fact all arbitrary measures – can’t do either.

And Mr Chase was honest when he said “The problem is that all too often we don’t have the data we need at all. Or we don’t have the data where we need it, when we need it. Or we don’t know how to interpret and display the data we have. We need to put rocket-boosters under our plans to equip our own people with these skills, or plug the gap by bringing them in from outside.”

Well here I am. No one could be more outside than me!

The greatest rocket-boosting data are data about citizen demand. When you understand demand in citizen terms you have the greatest lever for profound change, as has been shown time and again. And you can’t use technology to gather the data. Only people have the capability to understand demand in citizen terms.

I’ve seen technologists try. In social care, for example, the Big Data protagonists persuaded public-service leaders that demographic data would inform future care needs. Millions were spent crunching data and it went nowhere. By contrast, care services that have studied demand are using that knowledge to serve more people, more effectively and at lower costs. Delivered, if you like; no ology required.

You can understand why big data would appeal to Mr Case and his colleagues, it is the stuff of life at the top of the management factory. And that’s the problem with deliverology; it focuses the system in the wrong way. It is Mickey Mouse command and control.

How is it that we should believe that people at the top – in this case Westminster – know what’s best? And don’t assume I think we should believe that people who actually deliver services know better… I learned from Deming not to think that experience is the same as knowledge. And, to be blunt, I’ve met leaders of public services who have a lot to learn about running effective services. My point is this top-down system prevents innovation, leaders are discouraged from doing other than complying with deliverology’s requirements. This system also enables the dullards to hide, all you have to do is be seen to comply. And it is a system that damages morale; good people will leave. The system’s locus of control is in the wrong place.

Well, all I can say is… I’ll be watching…