Same the world over

I write to you this month from the other side of the world (for me at least). And I’m sad to report that governments in Australia and New Zealand look to the UK for inspiration regarding public-sector reform. The landscape is full of plans for shared services, despite shocking failures, outsourcing, and moves towards central control and inspection.

I find myself having the put out some of the basic numbers: trebled expenditure in the UK on health, doubled expenditure in local authorities, so why on earth (literally) would any country follow the UK? The simple answer is ideology; blind adherence to beliefs trumps all; and, of course, ministers being in the business of ‘management’. Those who took my newsletter in the early days, many years ago, will recall my refrain: minsters should get out of management.

But it isn’t all bad. It is easier in Australia to access hard evidence about failures in shared services projects (they have been eye-wateringly costly) and there is a healthy pragmatism in the antipodean psyche that negates the worst excesses of ideological stupidity. On top of that our work, or I should say our clients’ work, shows outstanding results as ever. Although when a client presented their work at an international conference, while the Australians and
Canadians showed a keen interest, the Americans and British said something so simple couldn’t possibly be applied to such a complex environment as theirs!

Blair’s admits he got it wrong

Tony Blair was here recently. In his speeches on public service reform he said ‘Reform is always urgent when you take power because too often your predecessors have failed to face up to fundamental issues – but speed is not as important as analysis’. He added ‘These are complex systems. You need to understand them from end to end before you change them. The intellectual task is as important as your resolve to reform.’

It’s a wonderful thing, hindsight; but there is no evidence of Blair’s resolve to tell UK ministers where he went wrong.

Seeking evidence to support prejudice

Blair ought to pop along to our Parliamentary Committee on outsourcing. The purpose of this committee (take a deep breath) is: ‘To raise awareness of the benefits and best practices of the outsourcing and shared services industries; to address the issues that face the industry; and to promote dialogue and understanding between industry representatives and Members of Parliament.’ In short, it is to promulgate prejudice as evidence and help the ‘industry’ get listened to in parliament. The ‘evidence’ being put before the Committee is being collated by the National Outsourcing Association.

You couldn’t make it up.

Exposing the dishonesty of narrative

‘Narrative’ is a word used by politicians; it’s their ‘story’, their ‘line’, indeed, their prejudice; it gives them comfort when talking to voters, for they have rehearsed their arguments ad infinitum; and it is their shield when confronted by interrogative media. But it has nothing to do with truth, knowledge, evidence or honesty; it’s all about how to tell the story.

In Sydney I was given a report of research conducted on the Australian public service. It employed a novel and illuminating research method: analysing what politicians say and comparing that with the evidence. The report gives us insight into ways in which politicians tell their stories to create a picture that guides rather than informs opinion. I commend it to you. I think we should adopt the methodology in the UK; after all we have to try to stop these fools throwing our money away and we should expose their prejudices, lack of knowledge and downright lies.

The report is by James Whelan from the Centre for Policy Development: http://cpd.org.au/2011/08/the-state-of-the-australian-public-service/

Compelling evidence that is ignored

As I left Sydney to fly to Melbourne I was given a gift, a book. I was told it would show me some of the great work going on in public-sector reform in New South Wales. Having been connected to what is going on I admit to feeling a little cynical as I opened the package on the plane; but when I opened the book I almost cried with pleasure. It wasn’t a book on public-sector reform at all, my host was teasing me; it was a profound academic treatise on the failure of large-scale computer projects.

I have seen evidence published by the British Computer Society before, which ought to give ministers concerns, but this was a veritable feast of evidence. It ought to be required reading for every minister, let alone every executive. And its title is simply brilliant: ‘Dangerous Enthusiasms’. It’s written by two academics, Gauld and Goldfinch, and published by Otago Press. To sum up the extent of failure: 20 to 30% of IT projects are abandoned completely, 30 to 60% are delivered but don’t work properly, cost much more and, thus, are partial failures. That doesn’t leave many does it?

IT people get it

I have had a series of meeting with IT people here. Over the last few years Vanguard’s work has had a growing following amongst IT developers. Unlike most managers, IT people don’t have so much ‘un-learning’ to do, they are not wedded to command-and-control ideas and they really like their IT ‘stuff’ to work; they get really unhappy, as you would, when it doesn’t.

I explain to IT people that the major reason for IT failure is management thinking. Conventional service designs are industrial (scale) designs that require IT to do all the workflow (misnomer), activity management, control of workers and so on. And it is the design that is flawed. The big guns in industrial design, who promote the scale nonsense, present all IT features as benefits, for example, controlling worker activity will control your costs, and because the features all appeal to the command-and-control mind-set, we build organisation that don’t work with IT that doesn’t work. I intend to make this my theme in the various events I am speaking at for IT developers this autumn.

Social media bites back

The latest ‘feature’ in IT is social media. It is creating a frenzy of high-priced conference events promising ‘benefits’ for those who don’t want to miss the boat. I recall that as I was explaining the failures of HMRC’s industrialisation to a minister a few years ago, he turned to me to say the agenda had moved on to social media, as though it didn’t matter anymore that taxation didn’t work. He told me Whitehall was taken by Mumsnet and loads of Whitehall mandarins were exploring how this new social media could be employed in public services. I pointed out that Mumsnet was successful because mums got value out of sharing information about being mums; and I politely told him he was bonkers.

The ‘leading’ private-sector companies that have joined the social media bandwagon, in the hope (as ever) of reducing costs, have been bitten in the rump. People who are fed up with lousy service and unresponsive call centres use social media to complain out loud and in public; and they learn that when they do so the organisation jumps.

It tickles me. And maybe, just maybe, social media will force lousy service companies to get their act together. They certainly need to.

Cram full of nonsense

A man called Colin Cram keeps appearing in our public-sector media extolling the virtues of shared services and outsourcing. It is odd that he appears with such frequency. Of course he has no evidence and he trots out all the usual unthinking dogma that we find everywhere. To quote him, from his latest missive on the Guardian’s web site:

‘Why do outsourcing contracts go wrong? The main reasons are unrealistic customer expectations, lack of due diligence by either or both parties – the expected savings may not exist or circumstances are not right for success – and unsatisfactory contract management arrangements by either or both parties.’

This unintelligible wrong-headed tripe was labelled ‘pick of the week’. Clearly the Guardian’s standards are slipping. Bring back Simon Caulkin I say.

Mr Cram, and all those high on ideology, ought to read the Gauld and Goldfinch book I cite above and ask whether any big IT-led shared services programme can possibly succeed. Then, perhaps, for a strident view from the trenches, he should read John Little’s blog on outsourcing:

Mr Cram should consider the abundant and growing evidence of failure (I’ll publish a list next month). Mr Cram should also consider the solid evidence of our clients’ successes, delivering better services at much lower costs NOW, not false promises of savings later. And further, Mr Cram and his ilk should read an academic study of the costs of public services in Illinois, which shows that ‘small, local’ services cost less than larger, ‘scale’ services:

Click to access TOI-ReporttothePeople-20110110.pdf

Mr Cram needs to learn that, as Fritz Shumacher said, small really is beautiful. Or as we put it: economy comes from flow, not scale.

I would encourage readers to comment on Mr Cram’s article on the Guardian web site, for Mr Cram has no evidence and ignores, like others, the mounting evidence that doesn’t fit his view:

If enough people shout he may think twice; even if he doesn’t the noise can only help.

I shall be speaking about evidence versus ideology at conference in Scotland (October 20th); sharing a platform with the great and good who think shared services and outsourcing are no-brainers. Expect some fireworks!