Should Ministers get out of management?

Earlier this month the UK saw the return of a Labour Government. It was described as ‘an untriumphant triumph’, for despite a second landslide, the political leaders sought to downplay any sense of celebration. It was the lowest electoral turnout for a very long time; there is a sense that politics has been drained of its life blood.

Aside from many of the other issues facing government, the UK still has an appalling record in public services. Despite four years of government intervention we have inadequate police, health, education and local authority services. Worse, the people employed in these services are demoralised. Perhaps in recognition of their failure to solve these problems over their first term, the Prime Minister described the election result as a ‘mandate to deliver’.

In the last our years we have seen a mania for central control; public services have been subjected to wave after wave of managerial reforms. At a major public sector conference earlier this year, I pointed out to the Minster that he, like his colleagues, judged the effectiveness of the government programmes by counting the number of organisations that get involved. I asked him why it was that government spent so much public money on these programmes of change, yet spent nothing on finding out what works? Of course the Minister felt sure ‘we did both’.

How can this be true? If a smidgen of the budget were spent on learning about what works we would not have such assertive promulgation of programmes of dubious, negligible and even negative value. Because the Ministers encourage, oblige and even coerce public service mangers to implement their programmes, to judge their success by the numbers participating is, to say the least, naïve.

Now the British Prime Minster has committed himself publicly to creating ‘World Class public services’. Should we look forward to a renaissance in government thinking about management? Or should we anticipate further promulgation of the ideas that have caused the appalling shambles of the last four years?

Is it any wonder people don’t get out to vote?

Isn’t it time for Ministers to get out of management?

***

Just one horrid example

Recently we were asked to look at a Fire Service organisation as a system. Systems thinkers start with demand – what do we know about the type and frequency of demands on the system? We discovered that a large volume of demand is what we call ‘failure demand’ – demand caused by a ‘failure’ elsewhere. It wastes fire-fighting resources. The largest part of such failure demand – and this accounted for as much as 30% of the total demand – was due to false alarms from what we might call ‘corporate premises’ – hotels, offices, factories etc.

The problem is easy to see – the systems installed in modern developments have problems, they send out false signals. Government is clearly aware of the problem, statistical reports arrive on a desk somewhere in the government machine, but what action is taken? The Fire Service organisations are given a target for the reduction of such false alarms.

But the means are beyond their control. In the area where we were working new construction was abundant. New buildings meant new alarm systems and that meant more problems. The impact of the Government’s arbitrary target was demoralisation of the service personnel.

If you ran a Fire Service organisation you would be concerned to optimise the use of your resources. If you thought about this problem in a world class way, you would seek to optimise the whole system. But as a leader of a public service organisation you would be unable to interact with your ‘suppliers’, if we could call them that, that is the people who install systems that waste your resources.

That is why we need Government. But what does Government do? Issue targets. It is so dumb it beggars belief.

What could Government do? In the short term it could transfer the costs of failure back to the supplier; it could mandate the publication of supplier performance data to warn customers of what they can expect. But these things would not solve the problem. The starting-place for solving the problem is a thorough understanding of the type and frequency of ‘failure’; then the predictability of the different types should be established. Only then could appropriate action be taken to eradicate the causes.

To what extent does current Government direction facilitate such thinking and action? Not at all. Isn’t it time for Ministers to get out of management?

***

ICL Help Desk event

I announced this event in the last newsletter and so many people wanted to attend that ICL moved the date to get a larger venue.

Thus it is now on July 16 that ICL will be presenting their work on running help desks from a systems perspective. They have been using the Vanguard methods for about the last two years with extraordinary benefits in terms of customer satisfaction and reduction in costs. There is no doubt in my mind that ICL leads the world in the application of systems thinking to the design and management of help desk / solutions centre work. The day will be hosted by Steve Parry, you can e-mail him for details: Steve.Parry@icl.com

***

Japanese book going a storm

The Japanese version of ‘The Case Against ISO 9000’ has sold out of its first run and is being re-printed. Why is it that sales of this book languish in the rest of the world but proceed at a pace in Japan? My Japanese contacts tell me Japanese managers are curious – always looking for new things to learn. How many managers do you know whom you would describe as curious?

***
Sizzling Summer offer

Want to get up to speed with systems thinking – the better way to make work work? This summer we have a special offer – ‘The Vanguard Guide to Understanding Your Organisation as a System’ and the CD-ROM ‘Change Management Thinking’ for a low low price.. only £150. a saving of almost £200.

The CD-ROM is heuristic – you learn by discovery; you can spend five minutes or five hours. The breadth and depth of the content is without equal. The Guide is linear – it shows you the steps to take to understand the ‘what and why’ of your organisation’s performance as a system.