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The book and the tour

My new book (Systems Thinking in the Public Sector) will be published on April 11th. For information and pre-publication orders please go to: www.triarchypress.com

I shall be going around the country talking about this book – the argument about how government has made services worse and wasted taxpayers’ money needs to get to the widest possible audience. I am very grateful to all those who have provided me with spaces for the tour.

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Calibration tourism

A couple of weeks ago I went to a Cabinet Office event that was promulgating IT-led factory designs as the route to improving public-sector services. As the new book rips into the problems being created, I thought it would be worth checking the regime had not yet realised the error of their ways.

I was not disappointed, nor surprised. Sir David Varney, prime minister’s adviser on reform, demonstrated his obsession with activity over purpose. He told the audience we should benchmark call centre agent utilisation; apparently for every man-hour ‘bought’ the best call centres get 49 minutes of work on the phone; he told us some public-sector call centres lagged at only 12 minutes. Plausible stuff eh?

As I explain in the new book, my A-level physics teacher taught me not to assume that if a man digging a road is resting on his shovel that he isn’t being his most productive; and Ohno taught me that we shouldn’t worry about machines being idle – what matters is what they do when the ‘flow’ comes along. With call centres it’s a bit different, but the principles apply.

Varney has a lot to learn. I hope he reads the book, he has his own chapter.

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Avoidable contact guidance bonkers

Varney closed by saying he wanted to ‘get into’ the new idea of ‘avoidable contact’ next. Regular readers will know this as National Indicator (NI) 14; it was originally concerned with ‘failure demand’ (a Vanguard concept). Following the outcry from systems thinkers it has been delayed and re-written. But the regime’s guidance is still completely bonkers.

The Vanguard team wrote some Vanguard guidance to NI 14, you’ll find it on the web site. One of the things the Vanguard team point out is that the major causes of failure demand are the regime’s targets and specifications. When Varney – the architect of factory designs and ‘standards’ – realises this, it will either hurt his brain or he will go into denial. Guess which is most likely?

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I put it to the minister

During the event I told the Cabinet Office minister we were learning that lots of failure demand was being created by the new ‘flagship’ public-sector factory designs – HMRC (newsletters passim ad nauseam) and DWP. I explained we, as taxpayers, were paying many times over for the failure: we pay HMRC and DWP to get it wrong, we pay voluntary agencies and legal services organisations to help these people (and claims that go all the way are found in favour of the claimant) and we pay police and housing organisations to deal with other consequences of the failure. As an example of ‘avoidable contact’ (to be correct, failure demand) it is enormous. I put it to the minister that the primary cause was the design ofthe new ‘flagship’ factories: dumbed-down front-ends, activity-managed ‘back-offices’; managers obsessed (like Varney) with activity as cost.

I got a politician’s reply. I have not given up; we are due to talk again this week.

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The minister is being groomed

By his own admission the minister was only a few weeks into his new job. Opening the event he told us how ‘technology enables government’, but with no examples where it has to good effect; he told us how technology gives collaboration ‘scale’ with no examples of why this might be relevant to public service design; he told us technology enables ‘pin-point accuracy of service’ without explaining why this had not been the case with so many recent IT-led changes (failures) in public services. He told us we were looking forward to a change ‘beyond comprehension’ and we should ‘want to be a part of it’.

I felt sorry for him. I suspect he has arrived into his new job and been groomed by the bright young things who know nothing, whose careers are dependent on coming up with ‘ideas’ that ministers can talk about. All this plausible junk fills his head as he transforms from a typical down-to-earth labour politician to a New Labour sound-bite junkie.

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The paradigm is the problem

A reader wrote, reminding me of the heart of the public service factory problem. As he said, factory designs assume it makes sense to break work into ‘tasks’ that can be ‘managed’ by sending the work to those who have to do the ‘tasks’ in the right order. Managers put rules into computers and thus computers effectively manage the complexity. The list of thinking errors committed is long. The activity times associated with the ‘tasks’ ignore variation; hounding workers for adherence teaches them to ‘cheat’; the standardised work processes and the rules put in by managers stop the system from absorbing variety; the feeling the worker has of loss of control creates counter-productive behaviour. I could go on (I often do!).

I am sure we will learn that the last – giving control to the computer – will be at the heart of the problems in Terminal 5. Wherever we have worked in organisations that control workers with computers we have learned you have to turn the computer controls off to improve performance. It is, as Ohno taught, using computers for something people are best at.

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NI 14 a ‘classical’ mistake

At the same event I met the Cabinet Office person responsible for NI 14. It has been her job to develop the definition by running workshops with those who will have to implement it. I told her that what she was about to do would create massive waste and would fail to achieve purpose, and I explained why. She told me this was just my opinion. I said many systems thinkers in the public sector would stand their ground on this issue, and she replied for all the people I could muster to support my ‘point of view’, she could muster equivalent support. I said it was Socrates who first said you cannot find the truth by counting heads and she told me she needed no advice on that as she was a classics scholar.

So there you have it. Qualifications for promulgating management practice in the public sector? A scholarship in classics. A free copy of the new book to the first reader who sends me (I think it was) the Petronious quote on how re-organisation stops anything improving.

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The classical sycophant

Unaware, at this event, I found myself at the launch of the new ‘customer service standard’ – son of ‘Charter Mark’. The presenter, noticing my presence, remarked to the audience that I had said much against Charter Mark and wanted my view on the new standard. I was obliged to say I thought it was awful; more of the same, doing the wrong thing righter.

It drew an attack from a member of the audience who happened to be a top manager in a public service organisation festooned with awards (Charter Mark, Investors in People, top-star ratings, Beacon status et al). He told me all these things were useful because they help you ‘challenge’ what you do. Poor man, he has no appreciation that ‘challenge’ with bad theory is worse than no challenge. But I guess he sees his future in terms of the regime and the regime loves sycophants.

And no one can tell me why it is that Charter Mark needed a son.

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Audit Commission keeps ahead of the game

I went from the Cabinet Office event to a meeting of local government chief executives. I arrived early, so listened to their proceedings. The big issue right now is ‘CAA’ – the new region-wide assessment vehicle being promoted by the Audit Commission. It struck me that in the time I have been involved in the public sector we have had CCT, Best Value, Star Ratings, CPA and now CAA. The Audit Commission narrative is that each has served its purpose and assessment needs to be continually improved. I think the truth is the Audit Commission keeps coming up with new ideas that don’t work and to avoid being found out they invent new inspection regimes. You can never be blamed if you keep ahead of the game.

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Coercing doctors to behave stupidly

A reader writes:

‘I damaged my knee. I went to the GP who referred me to a hospital and, as part of the process, took me through the options under the ‘patient choice’ initiative. Basically I could go to just about any hospital in London, but guess what I said? I’d like to go to the nearest one to where I live.

After the consultation he gave me a survey to complete along with a freepost envelope to return it to Ipsos MORI (the research company lucky enough to be riding this particular gravy train!). The survey says…

‘You were given this questionnaire because your GP has referred you to see a specialist at a hospital’. The questions are:

Q1 Think about when your doctor referred you to see a specialist. Did your doctor talk with you about a choice of hospital for your appointment? Yes / No

Q2. Are you male or female?

Q3. How old are you?’

That’s it, no other questions.

I read it and just sat staring at it. I cannot possibly imagine why this survey exists other than to ‘prove’ that the patient choice initiative is a roaring success. As for the research company, how can they sleep at night knowing that they have colluded with such a waste of money, do they have NO professional pride?’

He also told me there is a freephone number to call (available in 11 languages) and a website for anyone who needs help filling in the questionnaire. If people need help with these questions they ought to go straight back to the doctor.

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How to engage ingenuity in the wrong things

The stupidity of using surveys to coerce people to do the wrong things with customers began in the private sector. I was sent an example by a reader who took delivery of a new car and then got a call from the dealer:

‘Nothing to worry about sir, just a courtesy call to ensure all is well with your new car. Also, to ask if you could rate our service as ‘outstanding’ on your [manufacturer’s name] questionnaire when it arrives. If you have any reason not to, please ring me to discuss. It may seem a petty request but we get paid on the results.’

The last time I took delivery of a new car the man who brought it was insistent he showed me things while I was insistent that I’ll find out later from the manual (I was busy). He persisted to the point that he irritated me. Only when I received the ‘customer satisfaction’ survey did I see why. The survey asked if he had done the things he was trying to do.

In their attempts to improve customer service car manufacturers make the customer experience worse. And it is tragic to have to note that this even applies to the ones you would think would be the last to ignore Ohno’s teachings.