Last week saw the launch of the latest book from John Seddon’s stable, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: Case studies delivering public services that work. It is a volume of case studies showing how local authorities using his ideas have made massive improvements in service in conjunction with dramatic reductions in costs. At the launch Phillip Blond, the Red Tory, described Seddon as a friend and innovator.
Seddon has pioneered something he calls ‘systems thinking’ as the antidote to conventional (‘command-and-control’) management. The case studies show how local authority managers learned to understand how their services worked from the customers’ point of view and then re-designed them to match, confident that their decisions would lead to improvement. Seddon describes this process as ‘getting knowledge’ and contrasts it with change by ‘plan’ (project management), favoured by DCLG, which on the contrary entails no learning at all.
Seddon has little time for DCLG, the Cabinet Office, the Audit Commission and the other ‘specifiers’, as he describes them, in Whitehall, all of which block rather than encourage the getting of knowledge. Collectively ‘the regime’, Seddon argues they have coerced local authority managers into implementing ideas that are ideological rather than practical, driving up costs while making services worse. Seddon is adamant that ‘economies of scale’ is a myth – shared services, call centres and separate ‘back-offices’ are ‘solutions’ tried and rejected by the private-sector and now being promulgated as ‘best practice’ by the centre, that actually waste millions if not hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds.
The book of case studies illustrates Seddon’s alternative. Economy, he says, comes from flow (that is, managing individual demands from end to end), not breaking it up into individual bits in pursuit of scale; it means designing services against citizens’ demands, an elementary and essential step that is almost always overlooked. The consequences are delighted citizens (they bring flowers rather than complaints) and cost savings that make Gershon look like a wimp.
Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh, Leader, Hammersmith & Fulham Council and Head of the Conservative Councils Innovation Unit says:
"Everyone involved in the delivery of public services on the ground should understand the principles that underpin systems thinking. John Seddon has become a one man army in his battle to dismantle today's command state and inspection industry. These case studies show how the application of the Vanguard method transforms the lives of both the customers and the people who deliver our local public services. This is essential reading for anyone who is interested in delivering better local services at lower cost."
In the current climate Seddon’s is a voice that should be heard. Replacing compliance with local responsibility will mean radical surgery in the centre and greater freedom to innovate at local levels. Localis estimated billions to be saved by removing the costs of compliance, their estimate being based in large part on Seddon’s evidence. Seddon warns that by focusing on cutting costs we create more of them; but, counterintutively, when managers learn to manage value, they drive the cost of doing the wrong things out of the system at the same time as they improve service, as the cases in the book testify.
We shouldn’t waste a good crisis.