'Delivering Public Services That Work' is the latest book on using systems thinking in a public service context by John Seddon and his team at Vanguard.
John Seddon is a big critic of the Whitehall-inspired initiatives, backed up by think-tanks, consultants, lobbyists and politicians. The top down ideas-factory driven by ideology rather than common sense. As he describes it, present anyone in this ideas-factory with evidence of solutions being delivered on the ground and you're met by: "very interesting, but I have an unproven idea that I believe will work better". The end result is £millions wasted on crazy schemes, that only make the consultants who drive them richer, at the expense of service delivery.
His 2008 book 'Systems Thinking in the Public Sector" is one of those books that screams common sense at you. I found myself saying "I have seen that" on almost every page. His case studies, particularly on Housing Benefit, illustrate how systems all too commonly simply generate 'failure demand' - work generated because the system doesn't work. You see it so often in call centres and shared services where failure is just passed around. He argues instead that what has to happen is for the right service to be given to the right person first time. It's cheaper, public satisfaction rises and staff morale improves because they are starting and finishing the job. Not getting grief for the failure.
This new book, edited by Charlotte Pell, brings together a number of new case studies to illustrate the approach. Police, hospitals and local authorities engaging those who have real knowledge and experience of the service to design sensible systems. Putting staff back in charge, or as Pell puts it, "someone who has the authority and expertise to understand what is going on and treat customers as human beings, not as individual transactions".
John Seddon's chapter in the book entitled 'Shared Services - A No Brainer?' - should be compulsory reading for those wedded to this approach. Particularly those in Scotland who have already wasted taxpayer cash finding out that this doesn't work. He is very critical of the industrialisation inherent in shared services, arguing for, "a better approach: placing the human expertise required to solve peoples problems at the place where they meet the service provider, usually locally".
This approach fits in much better with the Scottish model of public service delivery. It is reflected in our own recent joint publication with APSE 'The Front Line Starts Here'. Designing services from the bottom up was also championed by the Christie Commission. However, it is not yet fully understood by many public service managers and politicians whose first reaction to change is to grab a consultant from the ideas-factory school of thought. My advice is to read this book - you will certainly learn about a better way to organise public services.