Bundred gets his defence in first

Stephen Bundred, the chief executive of the Audit Commission has commissioned academics to evaluate CAA (Comprehensive Area Assessment), the latest wheeze from the audit commission for public-sector inspection and correctly described by one local authority chief executive as a ‘weapon of mass distraction’.

If they look, the academics will find the same and more paperwork, of no value to the work, but required by inspectors, taking up massive resources and
focussing the services on the wrong things. For example: Why do trading standards inspectors turn up in chip shops to ask the owners to reduce the size of the holes in their salt-shakers? Because the CAA planning process identified ‘people getting fat’ as an area issue, each party took the ‘priority’ back to their organisation to decide what they could do and the Trading Standards folk thought this up. Yes, you couldn’t make it up. But it provides an audit trail against the plan, so that will keep the inspector happy.

But academics are strange creatures. One from Warwick (who ‘researched’ industrial tourism, known in the public sector as ‘beacon status’) thinks that if people say things are good (in this case, ‘I think its good to be a beacon’ and ‘I think its good to visit one’), then things must be good. So we might expect the research to be limited to the Audit Commission’s sycophants, the man who labelled CAA as ‘mass distraction’ surely won’t get on the list, and any ‘hard’ evidence will be limited to CAA data and CPA data (CAA’s predecessor) as the basis of answering the question: did things improve?But all systems thinkers know how unreliable, even contra-indicatory these evaluations are.

I watched one of Bundred’s people give a presentation to a group of local authorities. She let them know that the more they do in their ‘self assessment’ (writing lots of ‘evidence’ in the ways inspectors like to see it), the less time the inspectors would need to crawl over them. She also treated them to a talk on the difference between a target and an outcome. Theory-less nonsense dribbled out as she portrayed what, in effect, she thought of as the right things to write about in your self-assessment.

I could have smacked her. Ever since my feuds with the ISO 9000 gang I have been deeply opposed to the idea that we should give power to the ignorant.

Our opportunity to influence a new inspection framework

In line with the Conservative’s promises to reduce the burden of regulation and inspection in the public sector, the Local Government Association is conducting a review to propose a new inspection framework. Of course the risk is that this review will do the wrong thing righter, for example recommend fewer targets – less of the wrong thing is not the right thing. David Cameron (for overseas readers, he is likely to be our next Prime Minister) is saying we need to get rid of the burdensome bureaucracy strangling public services and replace it with ‘responsibility’. Those of you who have read my book will know that this is central to the argument. Without responsibility how can you innovate?

The key to a good solution will be for service leaders themselves to make choices about methods and measures. It will make inspection more reliable and cheaper and it will stop the fools from the Audit Commission bullying people to do the wrong things. This is a great time for systems thinkers to lobby. We need the review to recommend freedom in choices of measures and methods; it is central to creating a culture of innovation, rather than compliance. To make the case please send in examples of stupid things the centre makes you comply with, how wasteful that is, and how your choices of better methods have led to massive improvements. My advice is: Don’t spend long over it, keep it short and to the point. If enough of us bang the drum the review’s leader may get curious.

Please send your submissions to: David Parsons, Chair of the LGA Improvement Board: david.parsons@leics.gov.uk

More on my spat with the audit commission

A reader wrote to me about an article in ‘Insight’ magazine (the rag for the Institute of Revenues Rating & Valuations) in which Pat Doherty, an Institute Council Member and consultant, commented on my recent spat with the Audit Commission in LGC. The reader wrote:

‘He disagreed that ‘audit fosters compliance rather than improvement’. Instead he suggested learning and understanding has come from compliance and from that – innovation! He does not share the view that targets make performance worse and, get this, the Audit Commission helps ‘to keep us awake and makes us think’ – good grief!

So where is the evidence that compliance fosters improvement? Not surprisingly, he gave none, but he goes on to say that the so-called ‘innovation’ has led to (wait for it)… ‘the manipulation of performance indicators and the development of performance management units, whose sole purpose in life is to tick boxes but add nothing to the real purpose of a local authority… the delivery of service’.

If I get this right, he is saying that Local Authorities need a ‘watchdog’ to keep them awake, impose centrally-based targets and standards and leave managers to innovate (cheat!), while ignoring the needs of the people they are there to serve. The final irony is that Mr Doherty raises some objection to ‘a performance regime designed by people who are not in the front line of service delivery’. Well, he got that right but he can’t have it both ways. System thinkers know the staff in the front line should be engaged with the people who use the services to understand their needs, then design the system to meet those needs and measure what is important to customers, not auditors.’

Quite so. Mr Doherty clearly has problems with clarity of thought; like the leaders at the Audit Commission. If you missed my spat with the Audit Commission, you can find it on the LGC web-site, search for Seddon versus Walker.

Big prices, big mistakes

My piece in the last newsletter on a PWC consultant’s view of how to beat the ‘crunch’ drew comments from readers on the expensive nonsense pedalled by big consultancies.

The first was from someone working in health. He had observed the process for managing a ‘turn-around’ in a ‘failing’ PCT. The consultants labelled themselves as ‘business turnaround specialists’. As he says, they did:

‘…really sophisticated things, such as: go around asking middle managers for lists of ideas about saving money; benchmark the PCT’s cost per patient for drugs, mental health, chiropody etc against other PCTs, and show them how much they would save if they hit top quartile (like the golf teacher who tells you that if you hit the ball further and straighter and hole more putts, you will get to single figures, but fails to tell you how). The most shocking comment from a ‘turnaround’ partner was to advise an SHA that they needed a ‘real bully’ as CEO to sort out a certain PCT.’

Asking managers for their ideas is a favourite trick; it makes sure the current problems – the wrong ones – get into the plan. Benchmarking on costs tells you nothing (see why in my Total Place paper); but all this appeals to managers with a conventional head on. It’s just a problem that doing anything as a result of such analyses could actually make you worse off. And as for getting a bully on board, it beggars belief.

The obsession with counting costs was the reason for the second contribution:

The reader wrote to tell me that her local authority is living with the results of a DECATS (Delivering Efficient Corporate and Transactional Services) report written by their consultants. The possible net savings announced are, in her words, unbelievable. Her main beef was that the figures were generated by counting the costs of everything and then compared with the average council, assuming that there is no reason why this one shouldn’t ‘perform’ as well as the average.

It is incredible; it is to know nothing of value and then to raid the organisation and risk making it worse.

A third example is even more alarming. A city council in the north is about to sign off a large contract for an efficiency programme with a big consultancy. People from within the council sought out the consultant’s previous clients. Two other councils told them these consultants have taken large fees, but no improvements were delivered. These intrepid investigators told their bosses, but the bosses felt this was a matter for the procurement process. (I beg your pardon?)

Then it turned out the very same consultants already had a contract supplying services within the very same council and that too had shown no improvement to justify the investment. That was put to managers and managers thought this was still a matter for the procurement process. (Sorry?)

Why do managers behave this way? I think it’s because the reports and plans with their detailed schedules and big numbers look impressive, but more importantly, the words promise to deliver everything the Department for Local Government wants. So you won’t get truck from the centre or inspectors if you have such a plan. It illustrates just how compliant people have become.

Voluntary sector gets its act together

I was impressed to meet some people who are working to prevent the industrialisation of the voluntary sector (newsletters passim) through working with local voluntary agencies and helping them negotiate better ways of working with local authorities and others. It is testament to the power that people can create when they decide to do something useful to stop the rot. Hoorah for them.

You can find out more at: http://www.independentaction.net/

Poor old BT

BT is, probably, the worst managed organisation I know, and recently I had to experience it first hand. We need a few telephone wires moved around. So we called BT and explained what we wanted. When the engineer came (on time) the specification he had did not match what we wanted. He told us he couldn’t do what we wanted because if he did he would run over his allotted time and this would lead to his ‘tracker’ system (in his van) sending a signal to managers that he was ‘failing’. The fools in management are trying to manage the productivity of their engineers and the result is they worsen productivity – is that management’s purpose?

When I tell friends this story, out pop BT horror stories, it seems we all have them. Here is one:

‘A mad driver knocked down the pole outside my neighbour’s house one Friday night. It put our phone(s) off for over a week. I’d been chasing it (with India!) for most of that time (standing on the back garden picnic table to get a signal on me mobile!), and then, on the following Sunday, BT rang me on the mobile to tell me it was all ‘working again now’. I said, ‘Well, that’s funny, because the pole is still lying in my neighbour’s front garden.’ He said, ‘I’ll ring you back.’ Needless to say, he didn’t…’

I remain fond of BT and pray that one day it becomes a better company. I resolutely refuse to move my account to another provider as I am of the firm belief they would no better, probably worse, and I have an antipathy towards the idea that breaking up utilities will lead to better services; instead it has led to larger costs and thus higher prices.

Talking to the Tories

I spoke to a fringe meeting at the recent Conservative Party conference, it was videoed. You can watch it here: http://www.nesta.org.uk/john-seddon/?playvideo=1

I felt the need to name some names, people who, when showed evidence, ducked their responsibility to do something about it – we vote for them, they should be held to account.

A FREE event for Welsh public-sector people

On 25th November I shall be speaking in Llandudno, North Wales. My title is: ‘Systems Thinking: opportunities for savings beyond imagination’. The event is free to public-sector people in Wales.

To reserve your place go to: WWW.PSUCYMRU.ORG.UK
Or email: sue.whitford@wlga.gov.uk

Other up-coming public events

I shall be speaking at the following events:

4th November, The Health Care Supply Association Annual Conference, Manchester http://www.hcsaconference.co.uk/date1.html

11th November, World Quality Day, Sellafield, Cumbria http://www.thecqi.org/community/world-quality-day/World-Quality-Day-Events-2009/

19th November, KvalitetsMassan 2009, Gothenburg http://www.kvalitetsmassan.se

3rd December (a.m.), I am joining John Little (Vanguard Ireland) and Jeremy Cox (Vanguard local authority lead) in Belfast, jointly hosted with Advice NI.

And Vanguard people will be presenting the following:

Achieving More for Less – A Systems Approach, 2nd November, East Devon District Council Chambers, Sidmouth

Systems Thinking – Delivering Efficiency beyond imagination in the Public Sector, 11th November, Vale Hotel, Hensol, Nr Cardiff

For information and bookings: info@vanguardconsult.co.uk