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Book review: The Whitehall Effect

whitehall effect

The Whitehall Effect chronicles government mismanagement and makes a case for a new person-centred approach to public services, says Rob Foster

‘We need a new paradigm that puts the citizen/customer first, drives value into the lives of recipients, and costs less, not just because we have cut costs but because we have improved value. This is the challenge behind what needs to be our 21st century vision for services-to-the-public.’

This quote, taken from Lord Adebowale’s foreword to The Whitehall Effect and quoted on the back cover of John Seddon’s latest book, boldly sets out the scope and ambition contained in the text.

Seddon traces the recent history of public sector reform programmes introduced by government, from the Thatcher administration onwards, and the resulting industrialisation of public services.

In doing so, he skewers notorious examples of mismanagement (universal credit, Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust etc) and deconstructs the narratives promoted by politicians, consultants and public servants to support and justify their actions.

This is a polemical text, and few if any of the concepts or directives introduced by central and local government over the last 35 years escape the author’s scorn.

Shared services, outsourcing, IT-led system change, commissioning, procurement, risk management, lean and so on – all of the major recent trends in public service ‘transformation’ are subject to Seddon’s laser eye for cant, hyperbole and unjustified claims of success. Equal disdain is shown for the ‘false gods’ of regulation, inspection, targets, incentives, and choice ‘that are part of the problem, not the solution’; and fads such as ‘best practice’ and ‘nudge’ that have been in fashion in recent years.

A compelling case for public services to understand service demand

from the customer’s point of view, not that of managers or politicians

All good polemics have memorable turns of phrase, and The Whitehall Effect is no exception. ‘The universal credit IT project is a train crash in slow motion.’ Focussing on targets ‘is quite different from improving performance; it means looking good, not being good.’ Technology can be beneficial but ‘problems come when IT is used for automating things that people do better.’ And how many public sector employees would privately agree with the opening sentence of the introduction: ‘Politicians don’t know much about management’.

However, it is important to state that the text is not confined to criticism of previous and existing approaches to public sector service design. Seddon goes beyond the deconstruction of the ‘underlying assumption(s)’ that bigger is better, via standardisation and economies of scale, by arguing for an approach that values evidence, initiative and service design ‘focused on problem-solving rather than problem-management’.

The book makes a compelling case for public services to need to understand the variety and predictability of service demand from the customer’s point of view, not that of managers or politicians. Rejecting the notion of rising public expectations, Seddon’s view is that increasing volume is driven by initial failure in service (failure demand) and poorly designed systems, resulting in rising customer dissatisfaction.

Focussing on the need for understanding of demand from customers and communities, and the multi-disciplinary nature of real issues affecting people, Seddon argues for a radical shift from accountability to responsibility in public services.

Referring back to his opening gambit, Seddon’s diagnosis for change states that ‘Politicians should get out of management. But they should have a lot to say about purpose’.

The model proposed is that politicians should focus on, and have a responsibility to mandate, the purpose of the public services they oversee e.g. to think from the customer’s point of view. From this the measures of success are derived, and the ways in which the purpose is achieved, are arrived at through innovation and freedom to experiment by the services themselves.

This turns on its head what is termed the ‘conventional thinking’ of imposed targets and standards creating the de facto purpose of a service and constraining the method of delivery. An example of this approach given in the text is of a food safety service focussing on its ‘real purpose (keeping food safe)’ through advice and guidance to businesses, rather than being driven by targets, regulation and performance league tables, and the subsequent improvements in performance, relationships with customers and staff morale.

There are flaws in Seddon’s book. The food safety example, whilst encouraging, hardly seems groundbreaking or unique; which would be less noticeable if the author didn’t spend so much time rubbishing all other approaches. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few if any examples provided of success have not been directly involved with Vanguard, Seddon’s consultancy.

Again, without the author’s frequent references to the self-serving narratives of large consultancy firms this would not grate so much. And while the polemical bite of the text is largely well aimed, snide references to ‘bright young things’ in Whitehall policy circles seem misjudged and petty.

Despite these issues, however, ‘The Whitehall Effect provides significant insight into the Vanguard approach to evidence-led policy and service design, alongside a comprehensive debunking of recent dominant narratives and political consensus in public sector reform. As Seddon states, in the current environment ‘the opportunity is nothing short of breathtaking’, and The Whitehall Effect will be a key text for citizens, officers and politicians looking to grasp that opportunity.

  • Read more about The Whitehall Effect here

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