Thanks for the feedback!

My sincere thanks to all the readers who sent me views on whether I should give up criticising Whitehall’s attempts to improve public services. The overwhelming consensus is that I should carry on. Here’s just one compelling email I received:

“As [a senior leader] of a disabled person’s user led organisation, every day of our lives we have to deal with mismanagement of services by civil servants who are so wrapped up in their command and control environment, they truly believe that they are doing well.  In fact they are making things go from bad to worse.  I am hoping soon to meet our MP and talk about social care going under a parliamentary review to truly show how appalling things have got by letting the Whitehall effect trickle through to local government.  If it was not for your inspirational updates and books, I think I would truly believe I must be insane, because the management of the establishments makes no sense to me whatsoever.  Meetings after budgetary meetings of individuals who only inflate their own sense of worth, whilst over administrating the simplest of tasks, is madness on a scale yet to be registered.”

Helping people keep their sanity has to be the best reason for shooting fish in a barrel.

Shooting the UC fish

I feel sorry for Iain Duncan Smith. He’ll never get to test his hypothesis: that if we help people with their finances in the right way they will become more economically and socially productive. Not only has he got the problems I have written about ad infinitum (we can be 90% confident the IT system won’t be delivered, even if it is a ‘digital’ service will never deal with the variety) but he’s also now up against the austerity programme.

The frequent reports of slow progress  (UC is way behind its original plan) show they have had to bring in lots of face-to-face interaction to make UC work (told you so); so by any account it will be costing an arm and a leg to administer so will never deliver the low-cost ‘digital-by-default’ promise. But hey, Duncan Smith is a minister; he has impunity when wasting money.

But it’s worse than that. The recent House of Commons enquiry was told that delays in UC are leading to an increase use of food banks, forcing people into debt and crime in order to survive. Another report says UC is leaving people penniless and there are many stories of people being declared ‘fit for work’ by ‘work capability assessments’ when clearly they are not. Many people have to fight the DWP to get what they are due, some even commit suicide. As a front-line worker puts it, UC is a ‘minefield of nasty surprises’.

Another ‘flagship’ Whitehall initiative in the same space is ‘troubled families’. Dave crows about this initiative turning around the lives of 99% of those involved. However, an academic who studied what is going, on describes Dave’s claim as a ‘bad joke’. Many families labelled ‘troubled’ simply met criteria, many got no help, many helped themselves out of ‘trouble’ though changes of circumstances. It is no surprise that local authorities cheat their ‘troubled families’ numbers, that’s how you get the dosh; more taxpayers’ money down the pan.

But the real tragedy of all this is that we know from our work that it actually costs far less if we actually help people, something the Whitehall-led initiatives fail to do. The best that can be said for the troubled families initiative is that some families get a case-worker who stays with them through the relationship, but this role is to ‘coordinate’ the mess that is public service design and it’s that that we have to change. Acting as an intermediary only papers over cracks, does nothing to change the shape of services to meet peoples’ needs and can only increase costs.

Digital dreamers

Back in the early days of UC, I went at Duncan Smith’s request to the DWP people responsible for implementation. They told me they were putting the ‘customer’ at the heart of the ‘digital’ design. What this amounted to was young people who dreamed up how claimants might like to interact with the service who designed ‘screens’ which they showed to claimants to get their feedback. Silly me, I thought they’d be sitting in front of a claimant and trying to work out how this person could interact with UC to get what they were due within the constraint of the medium (IT); how else can you work out what to do?

I put this gullibility down to public-sector leaders being led astray by IT companies. I have been shocked to witness the same going on in the private sector. Banks, for example, are being persuaded by the usual suspects to invest heavily in a digital future. The promotional patter is always the same: you don’t want to be left behind, a disruptor will come along and kill off your business; your customers expect to deal with you digitally and so on. The ‘evidence’ supporting the drive for urgency is always the same and is weak (do you really think what happened to Blockbuster can tell us about what’s going to happen to banks?) and the frame it all derives from is one of ‘push’ (e.g. use ‘big data’ to sharpen up your marketing campaigns); it’s a joke when you know the greatest scope for improving sales lies in changing how you serve customers – all financial services companies bleed sales opportunities because they make it hard to buy.

Equally disturbing to find that, just like the DWP, banks are taken in by the have-young-folk-design-how-to-interact-with-customers argument; make it up, spend a fortune building it then try it out. Of course they use IT ‘features’ – what else? – assuming them to be ‘benefits’. So, for example, we can send a message to your phone when you are near the bank to tell you that you haven’t been in for a while and we have some nice new products you are bound to want to pop in and take a look at. Hold me back.

What is the single most important thing the young folk don’t even consider getting any knowledge about? Customer demand. Duh.

We have learned a lot from working alongside these digitising initiatives. If you’re being fed the digital dream and you’d like an in-house seminar on what you can do and what you should avoid doing if you want to achieve the advantages of digitising services, contact Toby Rubbra: toby.rubbra@vanguardconsult.co.uk.

As John Dunnion (ex-First Direct and a Vanguard leader) puts it, every service he has seen shifted to a ‘digital channel’ in financial services has led to more demand in the service centres. Something you might want to avoid.

Another pop

Another fish I’d like to take a pop at in this issue is outsourcing. Again, we have to turn to academics to get an appreciation of the horrors being manifest. To quote from their book:

[Outsourcing] “is an unacknowledged revolution in the British economy, and it has happened quietly, but it is creating powerful new corporate interests, transforming the organisation of government at all levels, and is simultaneously enriching a new business elite and creating numerous fiascos in the delivery of public services.”

See: “What a Waste

The book, well worth a read, discusses many familiar cases. Alongside these I can think of many outsourced contracts that have gone awry and, shockingly, require more public cash to close down (clever lawyers). Recent examples in the news include West Sussex and Cornwall. In the latter case the ‘partner’ is taking Cornwall to court. Nice partner to have.

Another is the DVLA’s outsource contract. The costs ‘soared from an original estimate of £287 million to £1.5 billion’. Instead of telling this sorry tale in order to warn others of the risk (predictable failure), the man in charge at the DVLA crows about in-sourcing.

The spin on the DVLA announcement is that ‘other organisations can learn from the DVLA’s experience of taking its IT function back in-house’. But what we all need to be made aware of is how and why the outsource plan went so wrong and consumed so much public money.

Meanwhile, and seemingly ignorant of the well-documented evidence of failures in centralisation and outsourcing, police forces in England are planning to do the same. Again, the promise, no doubt, is this will achieve lower transaction costs; failing to see that the true costs of service will rise.

The police chiefs in England should pop up to Scotland to see what happens when you centralise, let alone outsource. The recent well-publicised tragic fiasco, where people who had crashed their car were left to die despite the police being called, is symptomatic of the problem. The primary cause is centralisation, because that leads to lack of context and, moreover, following protocols will only serve to prevent the service dealing with variety. The plan to centralise in Scotland is now on hold, some regional call centres won’t now be closed as planned, that’ll ensure the promised savings don’t get delivered and in any event, those savings will have been illusory, based on lower-cost transactions.

As I discussed in my book these call centres operate a ‘take-one/ship-one’ approach to call handling so behind them you find a labyrinthine organisation processing tasks; and this hides important things amongst the trivial. So the modus operandi is: take everything in, follow the protocol, ignore any context (no tick-boxes for that), create a record, pass it into the machine… and wait for the failure demand. What you hear the outsource providers argue is that they meet the service levels for picking up the phone… that’s all right then…

A report into what went wrong in Scotland by the inspectorate (not worth reading) acknowledges the problem of ‘failure demand’ but appears not to understand what causes it.

Not to be left out in the race to waste money by doing the wrong thing the Metropolitan Police are planning to outsource what they call ‘non-core’ services. Who will bear the cost? Will anyone be held accountable?

Dave promises more

Dave promises a fresh shakeup of public services. What he means is opening up more public services to the private sector. He argues that the private sector is ‘always looking at ways to streamline their functions so they can become more effective’ (as though the public sector can’t or won’t) and so it is, in his terms, a ‘moral imperative’ to outsource. ‘When money is tight, it’s simply unforgiveable to waste taxpayers’ money’ he says. Not that Dave and co would waste taxpayers’ money…

The waste of money, however, is overshadowed by the damage to public-sector morale. As Will Hutton observes, another consequence of Whitehall-led ‘reform’ is demoralised public-sector workers, leaving their jobs in droves.

Will it get this bad?

Beyond the damage to public-sector morale we see plenty of evidence that the ‘reforms’ are damaging communities. A reader from the US sent me the following; you have to wonder if it will get this bad here.

“What is at the heart of the riots and uprisings against the police in US cities like Baltimore, New York and St. Louis?  Beyond race and gun violence is a familiar culprit to Vanguard readers – command and control management.  US police practice their own brand of deliverology called COMPSTAT.  Early successes using data to improve method led to decreases in crime rates.  Unfortunately, once innovations were exhausted, the exercise has devolved into target setting and bullying from the top to “make the numbers”.  Target setting has had two predictable effects: corruption in crime reporting (ie intimidating rape victims to report the incident merely as assault), and quotas for arrests (Baltimore has seen average annual arrests of 100,000 for a population of 600,000 citizens); as well as one unpredicted (but easy to see in retrospect) effect: riots.  Targets and aggressive command and control from the top have led to aggressive command and control in the streets.  When the fuse is lit (the four men killed by police were arrested for shoplifting a cigar, selling a single cigarette rather than a pack, possessing a legal pocket knife, and a domestic order for child support), the community is already fractured and riots ensue.”

And he provides these links to follow:



The Vanguard Method in healthcare

Earlier this year I spent a day with chief executives and medical officers from a number of NHS acute trusts. We were invited by the group’s facilitators who kindly wrote up what transpired. You can access the report here.

The scope for improvement in health, as with all public services, is nothing short of enormous. Previous experiences of sharing what we know expose the fundamental impediments to taking action: Firstly, there is no one leader who can say ‘let’s get cracking’; doing anything requires a consensus amongst many leaders of what is a fragmented system. Secondly, to take action along the necessary lines competes directly with the prescriptions promulgated by Whitehall.

I shall be giving a keynote address at a healthcare event in Dublin in February. The organisers are offering a €100 discount to newsletter readers, just use promo code vanguard.

The e-learning site is up and running

You may know that we have spent the last five years developing and testing an e-learning site where we provide detailed guidance on the Vanguard Method; how to study and redesign service systems, with guidance on intervention theory, how to go about it and lots more besides. I’m delighted to say it is now through its final stage of development and it should work interactively anywhere in the world. Hurrah!

I’m so pleased I don’t have a boss (‘how long has this taken, what have you spent, will it ever go live?’). I’d get sacked for saying it’ll be ready when it’s ready!

And it is. Please do take a look.

Vanguard periodical

We are publishing an occasional periodical, featuring articles by Vanguard experts. The objective is to share some of our experience to stimulate curiosity amongst leaders. The first issue is focussed on financial services:

Buckingham University Masterclass

I shall be giving a Masterclass on the Vanguard Method in service organisations on 9th February. For details:


Newcastle University evening event

For readers in the North East, I’m speaking at Newcastle University Business School at 5.30pm on 11th February 2016 as part of their heresies seminar series. It’s a free event although you do need to register:


The Vanguard Method in Financial Services

Last, but not least, I am hosting a one-day event on our work in financial services where our clients will describe what the Vanguard Method has done for revenue, service, efficiency and morale – and how it has changed the way they think. More information and booking is here.

Thanks for reading!