Whitehall watch: business plans will stymie innovation

The new coalition government wants local groups to form cooperatives or civic associations to take over running local services. OK as far as it goes, but one might wonder how many people would have the energy to put their hands up. And will this solve the problem of our public services being poor? The minister promises help for those who do; and the ‘help’ on offer is for writing a business plan, provided by the usual major consultancies, yes those who have been instrumental in the failed reform agenda. The minister even emphasises that the business plans will be based on scale ideas. Bonkers and completely depressing.

Perhaps it reflects the centre’s need to feel in control, but this won’t lead to control at all. The business plans are likely to include opportunities for the command-and-control consultancies to be parasites on the new enterprises; after all it will be their ‘expertise’ that colours the plans.

If the minister listened to me he would make it really simple. The better way to go would be to say to people: ‘look here, it currently costs £Xm to run this service in this locality. Please take it on and we want you to learn how to provide the same or better for less. If you do that you’ll keep the service, if you don’t you won’t.’ That would be a ‘yesable’ proposition; people would be up for it, because they know that much of the current costs in the services were created by mind-numbing adherence to central directives. Any fool could do it for less and a systems thinker could do it for much less.

Business plans will be a waste of time and will stymie innovation. The minister should be told.

Whitehall watch: CQC dysfunction still reigns

A reader writes:

‘The next quango to challenged should be the Care Quality Commission (CQC). Our council will be inspected by the CQC this October. In preparing for this inspection, we have to answer 1062 issues, searching for evidence. The framework, to my mind is seriously flawed because it is heavily activity-based and function-based rather than outcome-based (although that’s what the CQC claimed it to be).

We have spent months answering these 1062 issues and all of our work is now CQC-focused and it’s driving many of us mad because we have been told that we could not challenge the might of CQC and its guidance and framework. My first impression is that there must be many extremely super intelligent at the CQC and very dumb and stupid people at local government. Hence who are we to challenge their thinking, tools etc?’

And we have to. It amazes me that while central control has been removed from most local services it remains solidly in place for care services, where it has been more damaging in human (and economic cost) terms than for any other service. And, of course, the ‘stupid’ people are the ones in the CQC. If only they knew.

Whitehall watch: Benefits fraud and errors

Apparently benefit fraud costs us taxpayers £1.2bn, while benefit errors costs us over £4bn. The minister announced that a credit-checking company has been awarded a contract to find the fraudsters. Yes, I had to read that twice: let’s go after the £1.2bn, not the £4bn.

Why are there so many errors? Because the services have been industrialised, they are command-and-control factories, they deliver poor services at high costs. How do the fraudsters work? You only have to know what to say over the phone and how to get the right documents into the ‘back-office’ to get the factory to ‘pay out’. Factories make fraud easier.

What improves the quality of benefits delivery? Design against demand, local services delivered by people, face-to-face. What improves fraud detection? I think you can guess. You have to wonder about the minister’s logic.

Whitehall watch: one good move

Last month ministers ditched the ‘Place Survey’. It was a postal questionnaire, asking people for their views of their council. It was always a bone of
contention; councils felt it was unreliable because many respondents had no first-hand knowledge of the council’s services and yet it formed a central plank in their ‘assessment’ and annual punishments by the Audit Commission. This shockingly unusable junk also cost more than £5m every year. It is gone, good news.

Mr Page makes a bad move

The man who made the money from the Place Survey, Ben Page, chief executive of Ipsos Mori, said he welcomed the minister’s decision to ditch the ‘clumsy’
survey; he was also reported as saying ‘good riddance’ to it. Funny that. Good riddance to his revenue? Why did he do it if he knew it was junk?

Then we learn what is behind his posturing. Mr Page is working with the Improvement & Development Agency (IDeA – I call them ‘no idea’) on a ‘new and
improved’ survey. Oh, that’s all right then.

Anyone who buys it must be a fool. Mr Page and the ‘no idea’ people think surveys need to show comparability and so design surveys that teach you nothing
of value. We advise our clients to ask their customers just two questions: how was the service out of ten and what would have made it ten? You learn lots that will help you improve your services. And you don’t waste money on the Mr Pages of this world.

Hey Bruce and Sheila, speak up!

One thing you notice about Australians is their pragmatism. Their political leaders, however, have been sold the argument that running ‘delivery’ units in
the centre will improve public services. As we have learned in the UK, all this does is make the services worse while ‘improved numbers’ are sent through to
the centre. An Australian magazine has published an article by my on this theme. So here it is for all you pragmatic Aussies who get the newsletter, go
tell your ministers they have been sold a pup:


Failure demand in the command-and-control streets

Failure demand is a systems concept. But as it is so easy to (mis)understand, it has gained legs in command-and-control land. Failure demand represents cost
(doh), getting rid of it will reduce costs. So-called ‘blue-chip’ organisations attempt to get rid of it by: (a) focusing on the people (wrong) and (b)
focusing on the processes (also wrong but nearly right, for it is the system not just the processes which create it). And they are buying voice-recognition
IT systems to measure it; this is completely stupid. It is to use computers for things that people are good at and it will never work. The costs of setting up the computers’ ‘rules’ will just keep growing as the techies keep trying to
make the computer behave like a human.

And, of course, worst of all, these companies alienate their most important asset, their people; the very resource that has a profound ability to understand demand from the customers’ point of view. It’s the same old story,manage costs and you create costs. Some costs are knowable others can only be guessed.

What got you curious?

Shortly we will be publishing some research on what got people curious about systems thinking. I wanted to pull this out of the report for the newsletter.
We asked: what got you curious about systems thinking? One person responded thus:

‘The answer is ‘Several years of working for the Audit Commission as an inspector!’ I realised that, despite the caveats, inspection inevitably assessed services against national criteria which were often inappropriate for local circumstances. Worse still, the inspection process was of little help to
managers. They already knew most of the problems and we made platitudinous recommendations, such as ‘improve performance management systems’. The final
straw was when I returned to a council that had introduced a green waste collection service, at virtually no environmental benefit, because the Commission had criticised their recycling performance. Then a colleague in the Commission lent me ‘Freedom from Command and Control…..’ There was no going back.’

A good person in a bad system.

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 results and astonishing revelations. It will be the Systems Thinking event of the year.