More on Baby P

I was pleased that the academic research on the Children’s services IT system, and its role in sub-optimising performance (a euphemistic way of saying predictably creating Baby Ps), got in to the media. One of the researchers was quoted as saying: ‘ICS [Integrated (sic) Children’s System] is a crude technological attempt to transform social work into a bureaucratic practice to be governed by formally defined procedures, involving sequences of tasks to be accomplished within strict
deadlines.’ Because of its design ICS prevents the service from absorbing variety, that’s how you get more Baby Ps.

And I am sure I was not the only person shocked to learn from the top inspector that ‘Baby Ps’ are running at about three a week in the UK. But she doesn’t ‘get’ the academic’s observation that the phenomenon illustrates the unintended consequences of audit. The ‘tactical behaviours’ criticised by the inspector (managers making targets) are not aberrations of the audit regime but are systemic adaptations directly produced by it.

We have seen the same in a recent study of adult care. In the period before we were engaged, extra managers had been hired in response to a poor rating of performance by inspectors, the new managers’ jobs were to get targets met. The consequences became apparent when we had them create capability data – the true end-to-end time it took for someone to get help. When you do this you have to look back in time, it would take too long to do it in real time and, in any event, you want historic data to let the system speak. The chart showed clearly when the managers had started – end-to-end time shot up and showed considerably more variation; evidence of managers tampering, as Deming taught. So while ‘improvements’ (on-target performance) got them a better rating from inspectors, the real consequences were worse care and higher costs. It is of no surprise that Haringey was rated ‘good’ at the time of Baby P and at the time of Victoria Climbie. If you’re meeting targets you are more likely to make people suffer.

Simon Caulkin was scathing about the Stalinist reality of social care. Read his article at:

Read more on the academic research at:

And what response do we get from the minister? More inspection and more training. What do you get the more you inspect? More errors. What will going through the motions of ticking the boxes for attending the training do to social workers? Demoralise them.

ICS drives a disintegrated service design, it’s the system, stupid, not the workers. There was more evidence on Newsnight where social workers told the story of how it works. A child is referred, you go to the house, there are other children there and you are obliged to complete a massive standardised survey for every child in the house. The focus of the social worker goes away from understanding the problem and instead is ‘head-down’ in his or her lap-top computer, getting answers to all the questions; that’s the job. What must this look like to the family? What if the social worker is there because the police had been to see you about an offence and decided to refer your case to social workers because there happen to be children living with you? You have not been charged with an offence but you are treated like a criminal. The Stalinists are there to collect data, fill in all the forms for all of your children.

Whatever the situation, social workers have jobs that stop them achieving their purpose and it becomes apparent to everyone.

Except, of course, the minister.

More of the same coming soon

A reader writes:

‘Following the publication of the NHS ‘High Quality Operational Framework’, a new target of 4 months (18 weeks) from referral to treatment is being planned for children and adolescents requiring mental health services. These are not targets we are told but quality standards. On further investigation, services will be ‘performance managed’ against these standards! Not targets then? No one can provide an explanation as to where the 18 week (4 month target) originates from. If it’s a done deal… why not 18 days?’

Indeed, why not any arbitrary number? Surely the right answer is as quickly as is required by the demand?

Isn’t it obvious that some children will need to be helped quickly and others might be better served by building a relationship as a pre-curser to helping the child (or not needing to)? To do the obvious requires that you let the front-line decide both what information should be gathered and what action should be taken. Only people can absorb variety. But that would confront the regime’s ideological belief that these wretched people cannot be trusted. Hence they need to be put in control. And the controls on social worker activity prevent achievement of purpose. How dumb. How de-humanising.

And what chances do the children have?

Cabinet Office bullies local authorities

I have been passed a letter from the Cabinet Office to local authority chief executives. It sets out to ‘encourage’ them to engage with the work on ‘Best Practice’ in contact centres. I wrote about this nonsense in my latest book – the ‘Best Practice’ guidance is anything but, it is full of command-and-control thinking and thus will lead to massive amounts of waste.

The letter says that many government agencies have complied with these ideas – as though that is a good thing. Well of course they have, the agencies are subject to
direct control by the Treasury and their departmental ministers. It is much harder to bully local authorities as they have their own political members. And a good thing too!

One of the ‘Best Practice’ indicators is ‘avoidable contact’ (i.e. failure demand). The fools do not understand that failure demand is a natural consequence of command-and-control designs. This is what public sector ‘reform’ has come to: bright people with no knowledge promulgating their plausible but wrong-headed beliefs.

More evidence of failed ‘reform’

More evidence of the folly in following these wrong-headed beliefs comes from the Department for Transport’s (DfT) shared services debacle. The Committee of Public Accounts described what has occurred as ‘stupendous incompetence’. The plan was to spend £55m on IT-led change, building shared services, which was supposed to create savings of £112m over ten years. But instead it has cost £121m (so far) and is now expected to generate £40m in savings; so a net loss of £81m.

Why did the DfT embark on the programme? Because they were bullied by the Cabinet Office, which has been claiming that central and local government could save about £1.4bn a year through more sharing of corporate services. No-one has been held to account. In the Cabinet Office I am sure they will be thinking ‘it would have been OK if they’d done it right’. Oh really?

Deliverology down-under

I was very disappointed to see that the Australian Prime Minister has hired UK advisers from the ‘deliverology’ cult. It is such plausible nonsense that I gave a whole chapter to explaining why in the public sector book. The consequences of deliverology? Reports on targets driven up the hierarchy as services suffer and citizens get hacked off. It is probably the best way to delude yourself into believing things are getting better, while you are actually making things worse.

Any Australian reader who wants a copy of the deliverology chapter in order to send it on the politicians (either to warn the buyer or provide bullets to the opposition), please ask.

Will they listen now?

A reader writes:

‘To an innocent bystander, this looks much like the NAO discovering what you have been telling HMG all along. I wonder whether they will be keener to listen now?’

He is talking about the National Audit Office study showing how targets on planning services lead to more planning applications being refused. We have reported the same and more: targets also lead to more approvals with conditions, which from the customers’ point of view is more work to do before you get started and more requests for you to withdraw your application (or it will be rejected). See the article he refers to at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/7786331.stm

All of this being made worse by the new computer system called ‘One App’ being foisted on local authorities (see last newsletter) – another example of IT-led change that fails to absorb variety.

As I pointed out in the last newsletter, no amount of evidence of this sort will cause HMG to listen, for they only want to hear things that fit their moribund narrative.

What is the right noun?

A reader writes:

‘…but you haven’t actually completed the task until you have produced a noun …… ‘over knowledge’ to correctly define the OFSTED inspection of our village primary school last week.

Where: (a) the Head and her professional colleagues, (b) the parents as consumers, (c) in a slightly different way, the children because they keep on being obstinately
happy, (d) we the governors, and, actually, to give him his due because he certainly seemed to know a good school when he saw one, (e) the Government Inspector, all seemed to be in happy agreement that we have a good school.

But how can you possibly tell that when you haven’t got THE EVIDENCE?

Ah now, what’s that? Oh you mean the paperwork. Reams of it. Teacher hours spent in compiling it… There’s got to be some kind of ratio here: Teacher time spent in compilation…divided by all the other things they could have been doing…multiplied by the cost of the central computer system needed to collate…equals customer satisfaction of the minister and his civil servants…or something like that.

What’s the right noun?’

He suggests ‘over-knowledge’. Yet much of what is being collated does not constitute knowledge. Ohno said that the worst form of waste is over-production. All this stuff is over-production in the sense that it not of value to those doing the work, and much of it bears no relation to achievement of purpose. But it also makes the work worse. So it is a cause of waste as well as a type of waste.

Going back to adult social care, in re-designing care services we encourage people to collect ONLY the information that is of value in making a decision. The idea is that regulation should support good use of data and should not drive sub-optimisation. But that puts them in danger of beatings from the regime.

Any other contributions? What is the right noun? Perhaps a noun to describe the prevention of beatings?

Getting leaders to change

A systems thinker working in the private sector writes:

‘Your comments about leaders needing to understand Systems Thinking rings so true. In our organisation we have delivered some great results using the application of knowledge gained from understanding the system. However, leadership hasn’t changed. Even though we piloted a way of working that reduced call centre failure demand from 70% to 25%, no roll out to the entire call centre has occurred. Why? Because the leaders do not really understand why it happened. They lose themselves in attempting to explain an outcome that confronts their extremely limiting beliefs about how things work.

So, if Ohno himself never attempted to explain, how do you get leadership to change? In all of the companies I have worked for, the paradigm is ‘pitch and sell’ ideas and gain approval through the command and control steering committees that blight progress. To put my question in other words, how do you break this retarding (and retarded) decision making paradigm without leadership action? I’m guessing your answer is ‘you cannot’ but I’m an optimist at heart!’

And I’m an optimist too! He is right to point to the stultifying effect of having to use the hierarchy to get things done, ‘pitching’ through committees with spurious cost/benefit analyses and the like. So we avoid it. When new clients insist we provide a plan and cost/benefit analysis, we refuse. We tell them the only plan is to get knowledge and the first piece of work is to take the leaders out into the work to learn about it as a system, for if they don’t understand and we change something beneath them, they’ll undo it faster than we helped others build it. Been there, got the tee-shirt, don’t need to learn the lesson twice.

Ohno didn’t explain because he knew that counter-intuitive ideas are best learned by doing. And Ohno’s favourite word? Understanding.

The power of the plonker

A reader writes:

‘In our recent housing management inspection, we were criticised for 70% of our repairs appointments not been kept. Our response: ‘Yes, but they were all completed early – our contractors have instructions that, if they’re in the area, and they have time, they should pop by and check if it’s convenient to do the repair early. Better use of contractor time, more cost effective, very happy tenants, blah, blah’. Inspector’s reply? ‘Yes, but you’ve still missed your target!’

These inspector-plonkers are just doing their job. Maybe 2009 is the year for publishing plenty of evidence on the Audit Commission’s contribution to damaging performance and morale. Your evidence welcome!