David Boyle writes… The missing explanation of public service failure

The doyen of Liberator magazine, Simon Titley, just sent me through a cutting from the Leicester Mercury which gives us just a glimpse at the reasons why public services became so expensive under New Labour.

The report tells us of the unused regional fire control centre for the East Midlands, standing empty in Castle Donington, but still costing £5,000 a day to run, with burgeoning interest accruing in the PFI contract. It wasn’t just the dream of regional government, or the manifest problems of PFI, that caused the problem here. It was another example of a huge misconceived and failed IT project, like so many others.

One estimate suggested that the last government spent over £70 billion on IT projects and IT and management consultants over the past decade. The basis for that spending included a whole raft of wholly unproven assertions, from economies of scale through to ‘lean’ management systems and the fatal division between front office and back offices.

Most of these, along with other aspects of the McKinsey world view, still seem to have the Cabinet Office in its grip.

But the real problem is that the coalition are only half way through a revolution in service thinking. They have got rid of targets, half chucked out the Audit Commission… yet still our commissioning units get bigger and bigger, the disastrous shared back office systems continue to grow, and McKinsey consultants are still at large in the corridors of Whitehall. The result? Sclerosis.

In fact it’s worse than sclerosis. The response of the NHS establishment to the appalling revelations about the care of older people seems to be more systems and more training -– as if either can make up for diminishing humanity.

There is no real mystery about why such modern institutions, targeted and standardised to within an inch of their lives, have become so inhumane.

The trouble is, because they have only half-grasped the public service reform nettle, our own Coalition has not been able to articulate this critique of the previous Labour government’s disastrous record on public services -– leaving them increasingly inhumane, ruinously expensive and decreasingly effective (a miserable combination).

Thirteen years of centralised targets, standards and auditing has sucked the human element out of these and other institutions. They have been treated like assembly lines — and that is what they have become.

The reason, according to my new book The Human Element: Ten new rules to kickstart our failing organisations, published Nov 3), is that human beings have been increasingly taken out of public service systems because they are regarded as fallible.

That is true, of course, but humans are also the only real source of success and the only source of genuine change. Removing them is increasingly expensive and wasteful because our institutions are that much less effective.

Services and organisations are failing because conventional ‘efficiency’ destroys human contact and human relationships. The new agenda -– real public service efficiency through public service effectiveness -– means putting them back in again.

* David Boyle is a member of FPC and the author of The Human Element: Ten new rules to kickstart our failing organisations (Earthscan).

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  • Mark Smulian 10th Nov '11 - 10:39am

    Fire Control was an even worse fiasco than David suggests, with a veritable herd of these white elephants left around the country, as this National Audit Office report from July makes clear:

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Nov '11 - 11:42am

    Most of my friends and family work in pubic services and can tell you immediately why almost all that has been introduced in recent decades in the name of “efficiency” has had the reverse effect. Yet still we see clueless people at the top – in business, in media, in politics – spewing out the mantras on these things, the tired old lines that have been tried and have failed. This is one of the big costs of inequality in our society – too many people at the top who have reached that position despite being rather thick because they have the right accent and contacts and hot-housing eduction that pushed them forward, so many people at the bottom or middle ranks who know what’s going wrong but can’t get a voice to say so.

    We have seen a destruction of morale and of pride in service and a rise in its place of a tickbox culture where the best way to survive is to keep your head down and do what the bosses tell you, however crazy it is. The current government seems hellbent on carrying on with this. If your line is one of putting service out to lowest bidder contractor, then using regulatory mechanisms to keep up standards this is what you will get. If you impose a culture on society where everyone is supposed to be a thrusting “entrepreneur” whose only real aim in life is to make as much money as they can so they can show off about it, this is what you will get. If you constantly insult public service workers, telling them they are lazy and over-privileged, telling they can easily be replaced by cheaper workers from no-questions-asked agencies, this is what you will get.

    New Labour did seem to be so much in the thrall of snake-oil salesmen, whether for IT systems or management restructuring. You only needed some callow youth with an MBA who could spout the jargon, and they thought such a person must be so much more to be trusted in what he said than people who actually did the job. I remember this from my time as a councillor in a thoroughly New Labour council under the New Labour government. So often they seemed to regard me as a dinosaur because I didn’t trust a lot of the “IT” solutions, yet actually a major reason why I was sceptical was that I teach computer programming and software engineering at university. I remember ploughing my way through the complex paperwork of PFI, trying to work out what it really was underneath, but when I asked the questions the answers could really be paraphrased as “there’s this magic fairy dust called ‘private sector know-how’ which it sprinkles on things and make them so much better”. So, you got some bloke who’d been running things in the council, going off and rebadging himself as a “consultant”, now he had this “private sector know-how”, and was supposed so much better – then you had him teaming up with fancy bankers and lawyers who had much smarter suits and manners than we councilors and those who remained public service employees, so they must be much better, mustn’t they? My biggest regret from those days was not to have been more forthright in my opposition to all these things, but I was learning too, having found myself unexpectedly leading the opposition, with no-one to guide me and only my own intuition and knowledge to rely on. So even I was shut up more than I should have been by the smooth-talking salesman who treated you as an ignorant fool if you questioned their solutions.

    We have now a whole management structure in public service which comes from those days. Those who have risen are those who were good at picking up the jargon and looking smart and not asking awkward questions. Those who have a true human understanding, who are able to be more sceptical and didn’t buy into the rot imposed by their political masters have not prospered. They have remained at the bottom or lost their jobs or retired through stress.

  • Matthew Huntbach 10th Nov '11 - 11:43am

    Classic typo – “public services”! The alternative presents a whole new image ..

  • Tony Greaves 10th Nov '11 - 12:02pm

    Huge amount of sense here from David and Matthew. If we are going to rebuild the policies of this party, here is one place to start.

    Tony Greaves

  • Tony Dawson 10th Nov '11 - 5:40pm

    Excellent stuff from David and Matthew. So the job of the Liberal Democrats is to stop the Conservatives from keeping Britain from being as Tory as it was under ‘New’ (sic) Labour? Who’dathortit?

  • I agree with your analysis and Matthew’s response. I think there are two aspects and they are intertwined but can be considered conceptually separate.

    First is the consultancy problem. I’ve been an independent consultant contracting in the pharma sector for many years. My modus operandi has always been to deliver what the client wants; to warn them quickly and frankly if I see mistakes being made; to question and challenge where appropriate; and of course to make the sponsoring director look good by helping their team to succeed and achieve. I don’t need to throw in any “scope creep” because if you work in the client’s interest, you get re-hired.

    But in my experience, when you get a “big name” consultancy onto a project, the senior stakeholders within the commissioning company have to keep a very tight rein on them. The consultancy will throw in “scope creep” at every opportunity: of course they will. And they will displace as many client staff with their own as they can: all in the interests of making the client’s life as easy as possible, of course. Ker-ching!

    The worst thing you can do is pay top dollar to a top name when you don’t really know what you want: senior management cannot delegate fundamentals like objective-setting and scope.

    Second is the IT systems. It is crucial to understand what the users need at the outset, so getting the IT experts to write the user requirements specification is like getting a pig to write the recipe for sausages.

    Unfortunately it seems that too many public sector IT projects have started off with a blank sheet of paper and no vision. That they’re so concerned with the system for its own sake that they end up building an edifice of bureaucracy around the system, instead of tailoring the system to supporting the best and most effective processes.

    I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen one of these cock-ups make the news and thought, I could walk into GSK House (to name but one) tomorrow and handpick a team that could DO THIS PROPERLY.

    The element that makes private sector projects work (generalising!) is in my view that the enterprise spending the money is protecting its profits and shareholder value. Consultancy firms do not generally get rewarded for failure: they must deliver results within budget.

    PFI projects, in contrast, adopt this model for the protection and enrichment of the private partners, but the cost of failure, poor analysis and lack of vision/control is laid on the ultimate “client” i.e. the bottomless pit that is the taxpayer.

    That’s why throwing more money at failing projects doesn’t work.

    Don’t even start me on the legal contracts side of things… or procurement…

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