What works?

In the dying days of the coalition our government has launched the ‘What Works?’ units. Remember Tony Blair saying ‘what matters is what works’? Oh really? It seems to me that what matters to politicians is keeping to a narrative – the story they want to tell – and only acknowledging evidence, however flimsy, that supports it. As for evidence that contradicts the narrative… well I wrote a book about that!

When I heard about the ‘What Works?’ units I imagined it would mean people getting out and about, to scour the country for evidence of what works. How naïve of me!

The ‘What Works’ units are a mishmash of prejudice and process; some, like the ‘early intervention’ unit are based on ideas representing the narrative and others, like crime reduction, are preoccupied with having robust research methods. Many are still in the planning stage, meaning they have to submit plans to Whitehall in order to get their funding – a favoured Whitehall tactic that will only serve to institutionalise whatever transpires, to ill effect. Why should any plan be more than ‘we’re going to get out and find things that work’? Not the trivial 5%ers but the 30-40%ers or better.

The ‘early intervention’ unit is an example of prejudice. It seems plausible to argue that early intervention would resolve human problems more effectively, reducing costs over the long term. Fine, but the question is ‘by what method?’ What we see when we ask about the means for working on early intervention is (a) having meetings, (b) drawing new org charts and (c) putting multiple services in the same building. I think: good luck! These interventions flounder because nothing changes, the same specialisation, form-filling, activity targets and the same preoccupations with budgets and thresholds ensure managements’ attention is away from where it should be.

If the ‘what works?’ units had, as per my naïve suggestion, been out and about they would have found that we have dissolved such problems by ensuring the participant groups study together the way the current specialised, fragmented and cost-obsessed arrangements waste buckets of money while failing to help people. That’s what creates the energy for a new design – out with the old and in with the new – dissolving all the old conflicts.

Similarly, if the academics running the ‘what works?’ unit in criminal justice got out and about they might find, for example, our published work on policing, showing enormous scope for improvement or perhaps our work in the Netherlands where an intervention in the youth justice system won a best-public-service-of-the-year award. Fewer young people being removed from home; fewer on probation; more young lives and families back on the rails and a highly-motivated workforce. Better service and lower costs. But the academics aren’t out looking.

I could go on… our cup runs over with outstanding, jaw-dropping, evidenced examples of what works… but, as I describe in the book, Whitehall is systemically incapable of working with evidence. The ‘what works?’ units will merely add another layer to the Whitehall management factory, consuming money in their bureaucracy while raining down inconsequential or ill-informed interventions.

What works is changing thinking

Current performance is, axiomatically, dependent on current thinking. When we change our thinking we can achieve profound results. My favourite example is from the private sector, and in sales. In sales we believe it’s all about the people (‘what makes a good salesperson?’) and incentives (‘how do we motivate them?’). However, when you study sales you learn neither of these ideas helps, in fact they are counter-productive. By changing the system you get more sales, for example in financial services our clients typically improve sales by around 30 to 40%!! Who wouldn’t want that? And having achieved these results, they throw away their sales training programmes, give up their incentive programmes and cease hiring psychologists to assess applicants for suitability…

Think of all the people whose livelihoods are threatened… But, at least in the private sector, results speak volumes and so change occurs; wish it could be so in the public sector but, sadly, Whitehall is the road block, systemically maintaining the status quo.

I’m not the only one

I’m not alone in arguing that Whitehall is the problem. I was given a book about the life and times of Andrew Mawson, a social entrepreneur who developed an outstanding community enterprise in Bromley-by-Bow. It was so amazing it caught the attention of Whitehall; but as his book describes, the Whitehall machine only served to misunderstand and muddle because of its own processes of institutionalisation – committees, policies and other Whitehall paraphernalia were favoured over getting things done. It is a good illustration of the Whitehall problem.

Prizes for failure

If the ‘what works?’ units are mere window-dressing, the latest from Whitehall is, by comparison, unbelievably stupid. Frances Maude (minister for the Cabinet Office) has announced a ‘greatest failure’ initiative. Maude, no doubt egged on by bright young things in consulting suits, thinks we have to be ‘open to failure’, ‘to fail is cool’, ‘to fail is inevitable when we need to be radical’ and other junk ideas. Maude’s big idea is that people should send submissions describing their ‘failure’ and how they reacted to get over it. Two things occur immediately: to win prizes people will dream up ‘failures’ that have already been ‘fixed’ to win prizes. Secondly, if Maude popped out of his ivory tower for only a moment he would see a landscape of profound failure, propped up by ideological narratives (think: Universal Credit, IT systems failure, health service reform, care services failures, outsourcing deals going sour, sharing services not saving money and on and on…).

Iain Duncan Smith ought to be awarded top prize for the longest slow-motion train crash of all time. Universal Credit – years overdue and fantastically over budget – is now ‘rolling out’, but only to the ‘easy’ cases and – most commentators don’t spot this – with a human intermediary; the IT system, such as it is, is worked by Job Centre staff. UC was heralded as the first ‘digital-by-default’ service; the basis upon which the big cost-savings were promised. If it ever ‘works’ it will always have a human intermediary because of the variety of demand so it will only be, at best, a high-cost solution that also creates massive failure demand. Sadly it will never test Duncan Smith’s policy idea, what people need to support, rather penalise them, for working; because the system is built on rules.

Or perhaps Dave should win an award for the most egregious compounding of failure. Children are being groomed for sex in many of our cities. Investigation reveals children and their families had sought help from public services, but these pleas for help led nowhere. Dave’s solution is a new law against ‘wilful neglect’. What Dave fails to realise is it isn’t the people who are wilful in neglect, it is the system. Study any police or social care service and you will discover they are focussed (with rules, forms, targets and so on) on transactions. There is no capability to understand communities or people and their context. Repeated requests for help are not seen to be what they are; they are dealt with as no more than another transaction.

Dave’s solution will merely add to the bureaucracy because fear will drive more cover-your-backside reports, stuffing the system with paperwork which will hide those at risk.

Pro- or anti-business?

As we trundle towards the general election we hear the same old arguments about private-sector delivery of public services; the media report it as Tories pro, Labour anti; keeps it simple for the voters. Labour dare not take a different view of private-sector deals (which are evidenced to be shockingly costly) for fear of being labelled anti.

Stepping on to dangerous territory Jon Cruddas MP (Labour thinker working on the manifesto) expressed alarm at the amount of money going to private-sector providers who put profit above social purpose. He makes some important observations about what’s going on – and costing us money – but his arguments were drowned out by a chorus of attacks branding him as ‘anti’, arguing he doesn’t understand business.

But I think he does understand; at least he points to problems that need political leaders’ attention: if you outsource work and find your provider is (a) fiddling the figures to rob you, (b) cherry-picking work to maximise revenue and (c) only doing the minimum to deliver the contract at the lowest cost, then your understanding of business would lead you to question, as Cruddas does, whether the way business works with public services is optimal. But we never get to this level of debate; Labour leaders distance themselves from Cruddas because they see criticising the private sector as an electoral risk.

Simon Caulkin put it this way in a recent article: “The pro- vs anti-business spat currently being vented by politicians in Westminster and certain red-faced businessmen is as meaningless as it is dispiriting. To call opponents out as anti-business because they suggest that all is not 100 per cent for the best in the best of all possible business worlds is childish, self-demeaning and deeply insulting to the rest of us.”

Stock Right Now

Back to what works: Regular readers will recall my enthusiasm for a bunch of people who took our work in materials management in housing repairs and developed an IT-based materials management system that works entirely on ‘pull’, materials are bought at the rate they are used, minimising the costs and improving the ability to repair houses on the first visit. Their work is now being applied in other sectors, any organisation that uses materials will benefit from their approach. No surprise that it stands in direct contradiction to Whitehall’s obsession with centralised procurement (‘we all buy the same things, let’s club together to buy them cheaper’) which is the wrong answer. If you don’t believe me go to any public service with centralised procurement and spend time in the stores (look for dust on bought items) and the front line (find out what they don’t get as they need).

I recommend Stock Right Now: http://www.stockrightnow.com/

New programme at Buckingham University

I am delighted to announce a new programme to be run in conjunction with Buckingham University Business School. In simple terms we are going to offer to help people in the public and voluntary sectors apply the Vanguard Method to person-centred services (i.e. care, health and in more general terms people whose life has fallen off the rails). We know from the work we have done that not only are services profoundly better but the savings are enormous. We intend the programme to be cheap as chips. It will be based on our work with Locality. The programme will be published in the next few weeks. If this interests you and you don’t want to wait for an announcement, please register your interest with Maria: office@vanguardconsult.co.uk.

I will be talking about the ‘Locality’ work in Birmingham on March 24th. To find out more and register: click here.

The Whitehall Effect

I shall be talking about the book in Belfast on March 31st. If you want a free ticket please register with: kerry@ceni.org; for more information click here.

Vanguard events

A listing of upcoming public events can be found here.