For the next six months I will be spending some time focusing on the issue of public service reform, as I have been appointed as an expert advisor to the Christie Commission on Public Service Delivery in Scotland.
When sorting out my reading for this, I returned to John Sneddon's book Systems Thinking in the Public Sector. For those not familiar with his approach he argues that ill thought-out public service reform has led to unwieldy systems of mass production that do little for the people they are supposed to serve. Many services are victims of a dysfunctional regime created by a culture of deliverology that puts targets and red tape before people. He argues we should forget sticking plasters like CRM and citizen empowerment and says don't tweak the system. Ditch it. Instead he emphasises the importance of understanding and managing organisations as systems, empowering the managers and staff who understand the value demands users place on services.
He illustrates his point with a number of examples of how the whole performance management culture has led to enormous waste. It is one of those books you find yourself nodding at almost every page because the examples chime with your own experience. I have seen staff in call centres gaming the system to meet arbitrary targets that simply generate more failure demand and frustrated service users. Managers who spend more time generating useless statistics than actually sorting out the users requirements. Only last week a police steward described to me how not one police officer went on patrol in a large Police Station on a Friday night.
Systems thinking is not the total solution. But it is an important contribution to the debate and points to a different way of approaching service delivery.