On being a Tsar

Thanks to all who have signed the Number 10 petition for me to be appointed public-sector ‘Tsar’. A small minority wrote to tell me that ‘Tsar’ was very ‘command and control’. One even described the number 10 petitions as Blair’s cynical attempt to siphon off public energy; a fig-leaf of ‘democracy’ that enables the government’s mopping up of dissent.

Well, for those who feel that way, take it easy! Do you think they’ll offer me the job? If they did, would I take it? Only on my terms.

Let me say this for the sake of clarity: ‘Command and control’ is the prevailing logic for organisation design (top-down, functional design etc). It is not about being bossy. In fact many of the best systems thinkers I know are bossy; they are just bossy about the right things. So, if they offered and I accepted, what would I be bossy about?

My manifesto

The first thing this Tsar would do is close down the specifications industry, the armies of people who spend their time creating specifications for public-sector managers’ compliance. This would create two savings: The money it costs to have these people (significant) and the waste caused by complying with their ideas (much larger).

The second would be to rein back the Audit Commission to following the money. No longer would the Audit Commission be able to coerce public-sector managers to comply with their and other specifiers’ dumb, ill-founded and without-evidence requirements. When auditing performance, the inspector will ask only one question: ‘What measures are you using to understand and improve performance’?

The choice of measures and method will be with the local service managers. It will foster innovation rather than compliance. And for the first time we will actually know who is responsible.

So there it is: from compliance to innovation and with more reliable audit to boot! If you want to vote for that (and have not done so already), please vote at: http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/PublicServices/

Factory folly started in the private-sector

Thanks to the many readers who sent me examples of massive waste created by factory designs in the private sector.

One wrote: ‘I have spent most of the past 12 years as an interim fighting ‘systems integrators’ from ripping-off their private sector clients. They have admitted to me that they expect to get an extra 30% over the agreed contract price by using ‘Change Control’. It seems that the public sector has not understood this and is going to learn an expensive lesson.’

Exactly so. Every public-sector ‘partnership’ with private-sector suppliers I am aware of is costing much more than originally planned, and all private-sector ‘partners’ have internal targets for extracting more money from the host.

The grossest example of a private sector shared service centre programme is reported to have had 220 (!) consultants working on it. The plan was to establish a pan-EMEA shared service for the finance function in Dublin. It failed because no one realised there were important operational differences in each country’s accounting and invoicing practices. Can you imagine that? All that planning, model-building, IT-specifying etc and, yet, no knowledge of what actually goes on in operations. Just like the public sector.

In fact, if you are going to share services, that’s the place to start (get knowledge of each local service). Then the second step is improve them where they are (you get massive improvements if you know what you are doing) and from there you can determine whether or not to share. The enormous savings from redesign make the savings from sharing look very small, even negligible. It is a lesson in economies coming from flow not scale.

Given the continued push to create more IT-dominated factories in the public sector, I have asked two private-sector clients to explain how ‘economies of scale’ is a myth. It will appear on our web site soon.

IT providers given opportunity to flog their junk

Last month the Cabinet Office hosted something they called ‘Tower 09’ – it was this year’s event for their push to improve the public sector. What Tower 09 amounted to was IT providers telling public servants how ‘technology-enabled government’ will solve their problems. Amazingly (for yours truly was at Tower 08) they talked about how ‘Mums Net’ is a model for public services (as did the minister in 08). Help me out here – Mums Net is a site where mums talk about mumming. It works because mums find it helpful, but what can we learn from Mums Net that will help us design public services? I give in, but the IT providers wouldn’t.

To build on the obfuscation, the audience at Tower 09 was regaled with an abundance of models invented by the IT providers – lots of circles, triangles, star-shapes with words like ‘process’, ‘culture’, ‘customer’, e-enabling and so on – all made up and without any evidence-base, and no light was shed on how Mums Net, or for that matter, any other application might illuminate the problems of better service design.

Then they were treated to Sarah Fogden (she of the NI 14 debacle), who warned the audience that every public-service organisation had better appoint a director of contact, to make it easier for her to get everyone to sign up to the Contact Centre Standard. My advice: don’t. The Standard is total command-and-control junk, so applying it will make your service worse. Just hide from Sarah. Better to avoid her than try to explain what she doesn’t understand. I know, I’ve tried.

And – you couldn’t make it up – we are now advised by Sarah that we should spread ‘Best Practice’ through twitter. It can’t get any dumber, or can it?

The minister for Digital Engagement (sic), Tom Watson, was there; but readers may be aware he has since resigned. I imagine he is sitting at home, digit engaged.

Targets killing people

A reader writes:

‘I attended the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing event in Glasgow. You made the point several times that the target-driven approach is wasting millions of pounds of our money. It’s worse than that. It kills people!

The Scottish Government has set a target for A & E departments to process patients within four hours. Glasgow Royal Infirmary employs a manager (God alone knows how much he costs) whose job is to ensure that the four limit is not ‘breached.’ Nurses are being bullied to get people in and out within the time whether it is right for their treatment or not.

Keeping people alive no longer matters. The only thing which counts is that they do not ‘breach’. There is a computer system which alerts the management when someone is approaching the four hour mark and they harangue nurses when someone is not processed in time. People are then sent home before they are fit, often requiring them to return. Some die!

It’s crazy and inhuman! Good staff either keep their heads down or, as my wife did, quit.’

And we lose another public-sector worker to this nasty and pervasive regime.

Medical practitioners are saying (again) that targets damage lives, this article starts with the Stafford fiasco, and DoH insiders tell me Stafford is not an unusual case. See:


And now, new from our PM, targets on steroids

The Prime Minister has announced the move to ‘entitlements’ instead of targets. Instead of a target to treat people in 18 weeks, we will have an entitlement to treatment within 18 weeks. The difference? We now have the right of redress; we can bring in the lawyers.As ever, no realisation that this will lead to the same distortions as we had with targets, and nothing that helps with method. Same tune, worse consequences.

Philip Johnstone wrote a powerful piece in response, see:


Failing on complaints management

Thanks to the many readers who sent me this: a GP surgery punished by inspectors for having no complaints – if you have no complaints you cannot show the inspector how your complaints system works, so you fail the inspection. See: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/5405902/GP-penalised-for-lack-of-complaints.html.

New Housing regulator = more of the same

Housing people tell me of their disappointment with their new regulator, the Tenant Services Authority. Everything they are seeing amounts to more of the same; so tragic when there are now many who know both what was wrong with the previous regulations and what is right with systems approaches to measurement and improvement. One of the new TSA appointees is an ex-Audit Commission housing inspector – no new thinking there then – and another has the title ‘assistant director of choice’.

People don’t want choice, people want services that work. Maybe the TSA should appoint a director of ‘services that work’.

Council takes on the Audit Commission

A council that has transformed its Housing Benefits service got panned by their Audit Commission inspector. Even though they deliver the service in unheard-of times (compared to the targets) they didn’t have the features the ‘tick-box’ wallah wanted to see. In particular, in assessing the service from the users’ point of view, the council asks ‘how was the service on a score of 1 to 10?’ and
anyone who rates it less than 8 is asked what should have happened for them to rate it 10? This is a standard Systems-Thinkers approach to determining the customers’ nominal value (what matters to the customer) it is a powerful way to learn the things you need to learn.

But it doesn’t wash with the tick-box wallahs. The Audit Commission wants to see citizens being asked specifics like did customers wait longer than they wanted to, whether the staff were nice to them, whether the opening hours are suitable, whether the translation services and target times are right and so on. They don’t understand that customers will tell us such things of their own free will
in the ‘what matters’ survey. And they don’t understand that surveys of the type they want to bully people to use create meaningless, misleading data. Instead the Audit Commission inspectors tell the Systems Thinkers that the people who claim benefits (‘this socio-economic group’) are ‘accepting of rubbish service’, and wouldn’t articulate the things that the inspectors know services need to do better.

We should get rid of them all; Audit Commission inspectors blight service performance.

Get badges, punish our children

A reader writes:

‘I have a 1 year old son and he has been going to swimming lessons at our local Leisure Centre since he was 6 months old under the tutorage of a woman who has been doing this successfully for more than 2 decades. However, the centre has now decided that everyone must have an NVQ in whatever it is that they do. So, last week, a young man in his teens turns up with a clipboard and pen, sits down
and watches the session. At he end of it the tutor noticed that there were a couple of boxes on the tick-sheet that were not ticked so she asked the young man what this meant. He replied that he was unable to pass her for the NVQ as she had not fulfilled some of the essential criteria namely that she had not given her class, (5 children aged between 1 and 2), ‘enough negative feedback’!

As you say, you couldn’t make it up and, in the meantime, we can only speculate as to whether or not the class will continue or whether our children will be subjected to this ‘negative feedback’ just so the tutor can continue to do what she already knows she can do.’

It reminds me of a story I would tell when teaching managers the difference between summative and formative feedback. Renee was a teacher in a gym, she knew this distinction and thus would tell children what they had done well (summative) after they jumped the horse, and she would then tell them what to do better (formative) just as they were about to go again. Children found both types of feedback constructive. But like my reader’s tale, Renee didn’t have the ‘badges’, so she was fired and replaced by a teacher who gave both types of feedback after the event. The class size went down to one, and this child cried a lot.

The difference between advice and criticism is only a matter of timing.