Manifestos and public services

The next election is not until 2015 but the political parties are already working on their manifestos. I have been invited to talk to policy development groups about public sector services and I find myself giving them the advice I often give leaders in private-sector companies: please ensure the manifesto is strong and different, not weak and similar.

While politicians show at least some awareness that targets didn’t work, few know why and some still think it’s a question of finding the ‘right’ target (yawn). Like naive managers they confuse ‘target’ and ‘measure’. They also get into a bit of a pickle with wanting localism but also wanting aggregation of measures (upwards) for ‘accountability’. As soon as you aggregate measures you lose any value they have in understanding and improving things and you are on the slippery slope of cheating. In short there are clear signs that manifestos might be weak and similar.

I have been trying to clear the fog with a bit of theory: The relationship between purpose, measures and method. I have been giving examples of the folly of politicians and regulators specifying measures and methods; how this creates a culture of compliance; and compliance with wrong-headed ideas to boot. Politicians who think they have a better idea/lever/specification would exemplify ‘weak and similar’; bend over, here it comes again.

To be strong and different politicians and regulators should limit their role to specifying the purposes of public services. Those who deliver public services should be free to make their own choices about methods and measures. This shift in the locus of control is essential if we are to innovate and, moreover, stop the centre driving massive costs into public services.

Politicians live in fear of the media; that’s why weak and similar is safe. Some think this shift in the locus of control will lead to media criticisms for abrogating responsibility. I’m telling them their candidates should be ready to offer a robust and never-ending stream of examples where ‘pulling levers’ from the centre has led to disasters; plenty of those. Wouldn’t it be great if politicians could recite at will the numbers for large-scale IT failure, the reasons why putting services into call centres and the web can drive costs up and worsen services? Wouldn’t it be compelling if politicians could show they have insight into the reasons for massive failures in IT-dominated, shared services involving the private sector? Oh that they could visit their planning, benefit and care services and, as a consequence, articulate to voters how the targets drive up costs and worsen services; that would connect them with voters!

Politicians also fear this shift in the locus of control will be labelled ‘soft’. If they get this attack they should assertively declare that this route is tougher: No longer will public-sector leaders worry about compliance, filling in and fiddling the returns required by Whitehall, they will have to make choices themselves about the measures and methods they will employ to better achieve the purposes set out.

As well as giving an immediate lift to transparency it will improve the way we regulate. Instead of tick-box regulation the regulator will start by asking about the choices made about measures and methods and then will study what is happening where the work is done to see what impact these choices are having on achievement of purpose.

It is simple and profoundly better; it is strong and different.

But don’t hold your breath. The groups I have met have to write reports, which will wend their way up the political hierarchy, being re-written en-route. What we will end up with is whatever the leader’s group agree with.

UC in the news

I know, I know, we’ve heard enough about the Universal Credit here and elsewhere. But as I write this newsletter Iain Duncan Smith is being held to account ” again ” in parliament. His recent announcements regarding delays in implementation (resetting the programme in his parlance) have meant he has been all over the media; and if he is saying anything new it is his emphasis on the economic benefits of the programme.

Duncan Smith claims boldly that UC will bring £38bn in economic benefit over 12 years. It’s a big number. But when you dig down you learn that 38% of these savings are to come from fewer overpayments and increases in employment, while the bigger savings ??” 68% – will come from the economic benefits to claimants. You might want to read that again.

Leaving aside my usual argument that the delivery mechanism will fail, producing high levels of failure demand and catastrophic effects on peoples’ lives, this ‘benefit analysis’ is one shocking guess.

Overpayments occur because successive governments have industrialised tax and benefits services; no longer do claimants have a relationship with people who administer credits and benefits; many of the errors are down to systemic failures in administration: badly designed services, which, for example, take so long that peoples’ circumstances change during processing and ‘back offices’ that apply rules (instead of meeting people) which fail to take account of variety, and some are due to the difficulty people have accessing services. In fact underpayments are as big a problem as overpayments, but Duncan Smith doesn’t mention that. Although he doesn’t say so I think Duncan Smith wants us to believe we have overpayments because people are naughty (‘scroungers’). There may be a few, but an IT system is the least efficacious way to catch them.

Does Duncan Smith have a magic wand that will conjure up jobs? Of course he doesn’t, but he does have a lever: he can make the pips squeak for unemployed people. During his evidence to the Select Committee Duncan Smith was arrogant and dismissive to committee members who had been petitioned by whistleblowers in his department. He said he didn’t recognise what members described as the pressures put on Job Centre staff to put people into sanctions.

In case you doubt the probability that his department is making life harder for people, see this research reported by a campaigner. It describes how ‘statistical norms’ become targets in the contracts for assessing the need for benefits:
You can’t argue with Duncan Smiths assertion that having people return to work would create economic value for society. But is making their pips squeak the right method? For many people unemployment is merely one issue in their lives. Our ‘locality’ work shows that peoples’ needs have to be understood in context. UC will only work to prevent such a ‘joined up’ perspective, serving as it does to treat only one issue (money), with methods that can only be described as rules and coercion.

Duncan Smith’s main policy objective is to incentivise being in work. It ought to be to help people get their lives back on the tracks. When you provide such a person-centred joined-up service you deal with the credit and benefit issues as just one (usually minor) hurdle ??” often one which exemplifies a failure of the current system to meet legitimate needs. Helping people get their lives back on track actually delivers the types of savings Duncan Smith is arguing for and much more besides; the fall in demand means lees consumption of resources in all public services, saving eye-watering amounts of taxpayer cash.

As regular readers know, I offered Duncan Smith an insurance policy: a human service to deliver UC face-to-face. Our locality work has shown this should better be thought of as a human service to help people get their lives back on track.

The differences between the Vanguard Method in locality working and Duncan Smiths plans are profound: The Vanguard Method (tVM) is human, UC is a computer, tVM is based on flow thinking, UC is scale thinking, tVM absorbs variety, UC fails to through rules and standardisation, tVM is evidence-based (it has already delivered), UC is speculative,
tVM is cheap as chips, UC is… not!

Duncan Smith soldiers on. He thinks appointing a new leader, Howard Shiplee, who, he kept reminding the committee members, delivered the Olympic project ??” as thought that qualifies him to deliver UC ??” will do it. But committee members watched as Shiplee took a different view on ‘digital by default’ and, although declaring himself a layman on IT systems, said the IT will work because it is going to be using the cloud. Cloud cuckoo land, methinks. He and Duncan Smith argue that despite write-offs UC now has a £150m software ‘asset’. This asset is a cost. No one asked why software should cost as much as that. Shiplee thinks it’s sensible to get UC working for ‘simple’ cases first ??” I would say work on the highest frequency demands first. Asked what percentage of UC claimants are ‘complex’ Lord Freud didn’t know, but talked about arrangements with local authorities to mop up failure demand (my words). So still no knowledge of demand.

If you want to watch Duncan Smith et al act out this train crash in boringly slow time it is here: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14420.

A shot of evidence

Encouraged by followers of our work I submitted further evidence on public-sector reform to a Select Committee. It gives examples of current wrong-headed initiatives that waste huge sums of money:


‘Renewal’ is a done deal

The big private-sector companies caught stealing public money and sent away by ministers to ‘renew’ themselves (whatever that means) are set for a comeback. Ministers have recruited a trio of private-sector people as an ‘oversight’ panel, whose job is surely is to ‘approve’ the thieves as ‘renewed’. All three hold other part-time posts in Whitehall; what other conclusion could they reach?

A clarification

In the last newsletter I described how commissioning on price (one example of politicians dictating method) increases costs and that commissioning on cost would drive costs down. It confused some readers. So to explain:

The current approach to commissioning assumes that markets will drive efficiency. In these markets service providers compete on price; to compete on price requires a specification. Specifications don’t meet the variety of human needs, so failure demand occurs ??” further demands for services.

When service providers provide exactly to peoples’ needs no further demand occurs and costs are (always) lower. The commissioner should thus pay the cost of the service, not any arbitrary price.

Vanguard events

I expect to be speaking at a public event in Melbourne (details not yet finalised) during the week of 3 to 7 February, for information when we know please contact Charlotte: charlotte.pell@vanguardconsult.co.uk
I shall be presenting a Leaders summit in Wellington, New Zealand, on 17th February. I’ll be joined by practitioners of the Vanguard Method in New Zealand. To book a seat contact our New Zealand office: office@vanguardmethod.co.nz.

Our Locality working event is scheduled for March 20th. To register your interest please contact Charlotte: charlotte.pell@vanguardconsult.co.uk
We are planning an event on tVM in health, date not yet set, but likely to be the end of March. To be notified please contact Charlotte: charlotte.pell@vanguardconsult.co.uk

And readers might like to know I have been asked by the European Commission to speak on public-sector reform, what works and what doesn’t, in January, to be attended by member states. I can’t wait!