Designing our services from bottom up

They are meant to be public services, so let’s change the way they work and make sure we put the public first, writes Dave Watson

Public bodies, desperate to paper over the cuts, look to restructuring  the equivalent of shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. Picture: AP
Public bodies, desperate to paper over the cuts, look to restructuring  the equivalent of shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. Picture: AP

AT A time of austerity, we need to find a different approach to delivering public services. Putting citizens at the heart of the design process means we can deliver better services rather than simply cutting them.

In 2011, the Christie Commission on the future delivery of public services highlighted the importance of engaging staff in the design of services as reflected in the concept of systems thinking. More than three years later, when austerity is biting just as Christie predicted, discussion on public service reform is still focused on top-down solutions.

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At a strategic level, we have the centralisation services, the re-introduction of ring-fencing for local government, and politicians of all parties tripping over themselves to set targets for staffing numbers.

At local level, public bodies, desperate to paper over the cuts, look to restructuring – the equivalent of shifting the deckchairs on the Titanic. We still see examples of the Blue Peter management consultant – “Here is one I prepared earlier” – promoting an array of solutions such as shared services, commissioning and grandiose IT systems. They simply haven’t learned that applying the principles of efficient factory management doesn’t work with complex, people-facing public services.

A new book by systems thinking author John Seddon, The Whitehall Effect – How Whitehall Became The Enemy Of Great Public Services And What We Can Do About It, should be required reading for any minister, councillor or senior public service manager planning another top-down reorganisation.

He explains clearly, with case studies and data, the evidence that supports a different approach to service design. He argues that managers should be shaken from their “pleasant dream” by getting them to follow a citizen’s request all the way through their system, by focusing on a single question: “When the response was delivered, was it clean?” If they do that, in a short time they will discover that very little goes out clean.

In other words, the citizen is passed through a complex system instead of having their problem dealt with first time.

He goes on to challenge the targets, inspections, regulations and incentives that have been a feature of public service reform for decades. Targets are simply gamed and become the de-facto purpose of the organisation, rather than meeting the actual needs of citizens.

Inspections are likened to a disease that results in blaming people, when it’s the system that needs fixing. It’s prevention, not inspection, that improves a system.

Delivery mechanisms like call centres or shared services are rejected because they simply manage failure demand. He says that major savings are only expected to accrue towards the end of the planned implementation, IT problems are frequent – sometimes resulting in complete project failure – and claimed savings frequently fail to appear. I can think of several projects in Scotland that prove that conclusively.

There is not much succour here either for the market theorists. Seddon argues that people don’t want choice between providers; they want public services that work. It’s collaboration, not competition, that drives costs down. The current commissioning approaches have become part of the problem, not the solution. This is so obvious to anyone who looks at our social care system with its race to the bottom in the quality of care.

Politicians should focus on purpose and stop trying to manage from Whitehall or St Andrew’s House. Seddon makes the case for moving the locus of control to the front line – recognising that innovation needs freedom to learn and experiment. We should replace a culture of compliance with a culture of innovation.

Finally, for those politicians who like staffing targets, he says: “You can’t find the truth by counting heads.” So true!

For those of us who have spent years dealing with the latest service reform fad, this book is one of those rare tomes that leaves you saying, “Yes, I’ve seen that!” in virtually every chapter. I and others won’t agree with everything this book says, but it does point to a better way of designing services. It won’t reverse the pernicious impact of austerity economics, but it can deliver better and more cost-effective services.

One consequence of this approach is a much greater local delivery of services in multi-disciplinary teams, given real autonomy to help people. They would be supported by coaching and sharing best practice, rather than targets and inspection. It sounds radical, but actually is practical common sense. What’s more important – it works.

Dave Watson is Scottish organiser of the union Unison Scotland