David Boyle: applying the ‘people principle’

The importance of human-scale institutions has been a key theme throughout David Boyle’s work. Now the former journalist has written a guide to restoring ‘the human element’ to organisations. Clare Goff meets him

‘What we require is a revolution,’ says David Boyle. ‘A revolution that takes us away from the idea that all organisations are basically factories and that all public services are assembly lines.’

His latest book The Human Element is a guide to kick-starting that revolution. It sets out ten new rules for organisations, beginning with recruiting staff for their personality rather than their qualifications.

He identifies so-called ‘super-catalysts’ like Debbie Morrison, the headteacher of a failing school in Stoke-on-Trent. When Morrison arrived at Mitchell High School, violent confrontations between teachers and parents were the norm and levels of aggression among the children so high that she was warned not to walk down the corridors alone.

Within a short period of time, however, the school had been transformed. The key to her success? Inviting the most difficult parents to come into the school and work for her in return for chocolate coins.

‘It’s not something you could write a government strategy on: how to pay people in chocolate coins,’ says Boyle. ‘It worked because of Debbie Morrison’s magnetism and her specific human skills.’

No computer programme or one-size-fits-all set of targets and processes could have achieved what Morrison did, yet government and organisations elevate those systems and processes and often fail to recognise, and even stifle, the essential human skills that make a difference.

Over the last 20 years, Boyle argues, the human skills that need to be at the heart of public services and all organisations have been allowed to diminish. ‘We have systematically tried to remove human beings from the system because they are the source of all error, but they are also the critical factor in success,’ he says. ‘If you take the human elements out, organisations become more expensive and decreasingly effective.’

The elevation of management and IT consultancies during the 1990s has led to a misplaced understanding of efficiency and a loss of confidence in what people can achieve. The fallible skills of humans have been replaced by IT systems, and by processes and monitoring. Mergers have increased, fuelled by a sense that increased size creates increased efficiencies; reams of targets and rules have been introduced and an over-reliance on technology has arisen. But despite the investment, the same problems are there. Beveridge’s five giants – want, disease, idleness, ignorance and squalor – remain.

Despite research, particularly in the US, that shows that bigger hospitals, police services and schools are less effective as they fail to allow human relationships to flourish, the move towards larger institutions continues in the UK. And despite the coalition’s government bid to scrap a targets culture, and plans to free up institutions to innovate, the trend towards less human systems and services continues, encouraged by Whitehall.

‘Most policy denies that specific human beings are what you need and there are lots of reasons why the left and the right don’t want it to be true that human beings make a difference,’ says Boyle.

‘There’s an idea that these skills are scarce but they aren’t. Human skills – the ability to make relationships with people – is something we all have. We all bring up families successfully without government intervention, everyone has the ability to do that.’

Boyle believes there needs to be a debate about scale and management and that now, with money tight, is the ideal time to have it. His ten-point rulebook calls for human relationships to be placed at the centre of organisations, for big IT systems to be thrown out and for merged organisations to be broken up into smaller units.

He cites examples of where the ‘people principle’ is working in action. Timpson, the high street shoe repair and key-cutting chain, allows store managers to make their own rules and decide what prices to charge. It chooses staff on the basis of personality and now recruits direct from prisons. Chair John Timpson is quoted as saying: ‘Our whole belief now is that running things is about process and that all you have to do is follow the process and all will be well. But if you can recognise good people you don’t need processes, you can run the business more efficiently with fewer people and you can have more fun.’

Louise Casey, brought into the New Labour administration to tackle homelessness, managed to break through the targets culture and use her human skills to create real change. While monitoring and targets encourage a focus on the ‘low-hanging fruit’, Casey tackled the most difficult rough sleepers first. Ironically her division was one of the only areas of government to achieve its targets, overseeing a 70% cut in rough sleeping.

During his observations Boyle come across service managers forced into breaking the rules in order make change happen. He argues that there is now no choice but to recognise and revive human skills to the heart of public services and organisations. If we fail to do so, those institutions will be overwhelmed by costs and each generation will continue to slay Beveridge’s five giants over and over again.

‘This revolution will happen because it works,’ he says. ‘Wherever people are able to put human skills back the difference will be so obvious that there will be no choice to do anything else.’

His interest in the human element began ten years ago when he wrote a book called The Tyranny of Numbers, a complaint about the lengths to which measurement and targets were getting in the way of intuitive skills. ‘Our organisations and institutions were being hollowed out,’ he says.

His journey to search for ways for organisations to regain and restore the human element led him to time banking and – from there – to co-production. He was ‘blown away’ by a meeting with Edgar Cahn, the founder of timebanking, in the US, and on his return to the UK, raised money to bring him over and spread his ideas. ‘Edgar’s message was that human skills are vitally important, overlooked and undervalued. But it was his ideas about the delivery of services by co-production that were really radical.’

‘The resources that we need to transform society are there in public service users and in society. Co-production provides that critical element that organisations need to be effective, by recognising and using human skills and capabilities to make change happen.’

Cahn’s appearance on Radio 4’s Midweek programme led to hundreds of letters and resulted in timebanks emerging across the UK, including the Rushey Green timebank at a GP surgery in London, one of the first examples of a co-produced service in the UK. Co-production is now gaining momentum, with partnerships emerging to deliver public services – but not fast enough for Boyle.

‘It’s not as if we can wait around to get it perfect, there are financial and social crises going on. The ability and skills to deal with those crises already exist.’

Meanwhile, policy continues to move in the opposite direction. Boyle says government is ‘still wedded to a defunct idea of efficiency’.

Plans for a Universal Credit system have been predicted to fail by John Seddon, a management expert who has for many years railed against the government’s centralised control of services and its focus on targets and ‘deliverology’.

Yet government continues with the fantasy that the bigger the scale the better, Boyle says, by merging schools and getting rid of local courts. ‘It’s absolutely disastrous,’ he says. And while he finds much to praise in the localism bill he describes it as a ‘politicians’ version of localism’.

‘They think that the highest purpose in life is to sit on a committee and make decisions but there are so many other aspects, such as economic localism and setting professionals free. The rhetoric is there but not the practice.’

In a report written earlier this year, Ten Steps to Save the Cities, he set out a vision for regeneration in difficult times, one which uses the assets that already exist and the imagination and drive of the people who live there. He calls for enterprise coaching and support to help local people set up businesses; for wasted resources – be it spare land or buildings – to be brought back to use; and, most importantly, for flows of local money to be maximised.

‘Cities need to be distinctive and to replace the imports we are losing and to use government procurement powers to do so.’

He cites Cleveland Evergreen in the United States as one of the most exciting regeneration projects around. It has used the spend of local hospitals and universities to set up co-ops for laundry, renewable energy and food growing.

‘It recognises that it’s not about how much money goes in but about how that money is used. The difference between a successful city and a failing one is how much money stays put.’

Boyle has been involved with the New Economics Foundation (Nef) since 1987. Having graduated in theology he worked as a journalist and it was as editor of Town and Country Planning magazine that he came across Nef, where he has worked ever since as a part-time consultant and fellow.

His background in theology has helped shape his work, allowing him to focus on ‘what is really important’. ‘How do you create systems to make that possible, how do you build an economy that gives people what’s most important in life?’

As he contemplates the problems of many areas – a lack of community or means of exchange or places where bureaucracy has sucked the life out of local institutions – he says we need to develop a new language, one focused not on restoring growth or GDP but on restoring life.

‘For what lies behind all this is life,’ he says. ‘It’s like Ruskin said, “there is no wealth but life”. What we are talking about is the renewal of life itself.’

  • Find out more about David Boyle here


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