Thursday, June 05, 2008

John Seddon's book should be an early Christmas present for all politicians

Like so many others I rejoiced when New Labour and Tony Blair were first elected. By the time of the next election I could not bring myself to vote for him or New Labour (not that I voted Tory either). By the time of his departure I was so relieved that we threw a party and invited all those friends who felt like us ...and it was a good crowd.

John Seddon in his book 'Systems Thinking in the Public Sector' (Triarchy Press) gives a good account of all the reasons (Iraq aside) why I wanted to celebrate Blair's departure. Unfortunately most of the thinking and the practices his term spawned or perpetuated did not leave office with him. New Labour are in an intellectual mire of their own making. It is hard to imagine that they can break out of these profound conceptual and practical traps before the next election. And there is a great danger the new Australian government led by Kevin Rudd will import the same intellectual deficiencies. For one thing the brand of economic thinking which Seddon quite rightly criticizes is even more entrenched and perverse in Oz.

Here are some tasters from the book:

'[In the UK] 'bureaucracy and red tape' have driven public services in the wrong direction. The cost is not just the cost of the bureaucracy itself; there is an additional cost because the changes being mandated by the bureaucracy are the wrong things to do. The bureaucracy has made services worse, and public sector morale has been sapped'. (p. iv)

'We invest in the wrong things believing them to be the right things. We think inspection drives improvement, we believe in the notion of economies of scale, we think choice and quasi-markets are levers for improvement, we believe people can be motivated with incentives, we think leaders need visions, managers need targets, and information technology is a driver of change. These are all wrong-headed ideas. But they have been the foundation of public sector 'reform'. (p. iv)

The language of his text speaks to the frustration he has experienced and his appreciation of how the principles and practices of systems thinking could make things better. Throughout the text he refers to New Labour as 'the regime' which in the strict sense it is (regime means both the 'diet we are prescribed' and the 'system of government or rule') but I am sure his correct usage of the term will not win him friends in high places!

In his first chapter Seddon explores the ideological ground on which a lot of New Labour policies stand - as I outlined earlier this was a theme developed in Adam Curtis' three-part TV series 'The Trap: What Happened to our Dream of Freedom'.

Chapter 2 on 'choices' addresses a particular bete noir of mine and does it well. Take the following example:

'I recall being embarrassed watching a PMDU [Prime Minister's Delivery Unit] representative explaining to a Swedish public sector audience how people should be able to choose their treatment in the NHS [National Health Service]. The Swedes took the view that doctors would know best, and the patient would expect 'advice' not 'choice'. Now in a hole, the official hurried on to the view that 'choice meant choosing another hospital if the local hospital was too busy to treat them. The Swedes politely pointed out this was no choice (Hobson's choice); what mattered to patients was not making choices but getting their problem solved.'

There is also a lovely example of how in an attempt to emulate good practice from the Netherlands they fell into the trap of 'copying without knowledge rather than seeking first to understand the thinking and principles behind the original design'.

I look forward to reading the rest of the book. If you are feeling flush send a copy to your MP as an early Christmas present! If you do ask her or him why there is not more opportunity for learning and practising systems thinking in the UK.

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