Delivering public services that work depends on staff and public engagement – the same goes for public policyPosted: April 25, 2012
John Seddon published his latest book yesterday on ‘delivering public services that work’. When all of the other fashionable ideas and theories have come and gone, hopefully we’ll recognise that John’s approach (described below) is one of the few practical and proven ways to produce more effective, and so more cost-effective, public services. But his approach also suggests something crucial about how we can reduce more practical and effective public policy as well.
John is, to put it mildly, no fan of performance targets and the ‘performance improvement’ agenda. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see better public services of course, rather that he thinks that setting targets from on high is completely the wrong way to go about it. Being critical of targets is not unusual. What’s important is that John demonstrates why targets (and all of the other apparatus that has dominated public service reform for years, such as ‘choice’, inspection, incentives and back-office ‘economies of scale’) actually lead to poorer performance, and how an entirely different approach can produce much better results.
The answer, according to John, lies in systems thinking – ditching the ‘command-and-control’ mentality that seeks to impose the same (usually largely unproven) ‘solution’ anywhere and everywhere, and replacing it with a method that analyses where waste and inefficiency come from in any system and so how services can be both improved and costs reduced at the same time. The answer is ‘design against demand’ – essentially, to meet the actual rather than the imagined demands that service users have, that is, to focus on doing better the things that add real value to people’s lives.
There are two points from this, in one sense a simple but also incredibly subtle approach, that I want to pull out here. The first is that this relies on putting to one side whatever the ‘latest thinking’ is in public service reform and focussing instead on the practical matter of what is actually going on in any particular service and how it could be improved – in a non-partisan and evidence-based way.
The second is that the process of doing this requires that public and voluntary sector service managers have to engage frontline staff and service users, because these are the people who know most of all where things are going wrong – they see it directly everyday. This helps to explain why targets are counter-productive. Imposing targets inadvertently creates a purpose for a service (to achieve the targets) and constrains the methods (the way the service is designed). In contrast, deriving any targets (or preferably just performance measures) based on the purpose of the service as seen from the customer’s point of view helps to ‘liberate’ the method, and from this improvement and innovation can flow in better designing the service.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know where I’m going. We make policy in much the same way – and indeed the ‘accepted wisdom’ about what needs to be done to save money and improve outcomes (shared services, social impact bonds etc) and the policy frameworks (funding, regulation, targets etc) established by central government are often related. Further, whether they want to or not, think tanks often reflect and reinforce this command-and-control approach. A relatively small group of people develop an idea that they (genuinely) believe – often on the basis of little evidence but with a seemingly compelling logic – will finally solve the problem that we’ve been grappling with for years. All we need to do is x, because the single underlying problem all along has been y. And off we go again.
In this way, think tanks too often inadvertently act as the intellectual equivalent of what John calls the ‘inspection industry’, with their lack of practical intelligence about what is actually happening on the ground and their lack of engagement with the people who deliver services and those who use them. In a Systems Thinking approach, individuals come first, waste is reduced and responsibility replaces blame. We need the same approach to delivering better policy as we do to delivering better public services.
I had a conversation today about this project where I spent a fair bit of the time explaining what it isn’t. For example:
- It isn’t a think tank, commonly understood, because it won’t have the infrastructure or staffing or resources associated with think tanks (indeed this is a critical part of the business model);
- It isn’t a competitor to existing think tanks, because we’re looking mainly at a market that doesn’t commission research at the moment;
- It isn’t a research supplier as such, because the point of our approach is that charities and other provider organisations often have much of what they need in order to conduct policy work already (credibility, experience and expertise, relationships to stakeholders etc).
I don’t mind having to take this ‘isn’t’ approach – though it does make what we’re doing sound more negative than I’d like – but obviously it begs the question of what this is.
One of the difficulties with innovation (if I can call this an ‘innovation’) is describing what you’re doing in a simple, easily-graspable way for others, when by definition it’s something new, and at the same time as you’re still exploring for yourself and potential customers what the ‘is’ is. This is why you find yourself using more ‘isn’ts’ than you’d like (and hedging these often makes it even murkier: “Well, not exactly, it isn’t quite like so-and-so…” etc etc).
One way that anyone developing anything ‘new’ tries to get around this is to compare their ‘it’ to some existing products and services (‘it’s like x but for y’). Or they cite examples of things we’d all like more of and then suggest that their product or service will produce these things more cheaply and easily. We’ve done both of these at various times here. We’ve suggested that it’s like ‘Sourceforge [but] for social policy‘ and that we’d like what we’re doing here to support the production of many more user-led Spartacus-like reports.
Both of these approaches keep some of your options open – but only for a while. (And after all, what does it really mean to claim, as thousands of entrepreneurs must have done over the past few years, that they’re developing ‘the new Facebook, but for [insert niche but potentially profitable audience here]’? And if it’s so much like Facebook, minus of course the hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in functionality that Facebook and its investors have made, then why wouldn’t your target audience just use Facebook instead?)
Inevitably you begin to approach the point when you have to say ‘this is what it is’, in order to give potential partners enough to provide you with an honest response about whether it meets a real need they have – in short whether they’re in or not. But you resist this because you also have to give something up: the idea that your project appeals to everyone or could ever appeal to everyone. Promise and potential (which are nice things that everyone can buy into) has to give way to practical appeal (which of course means a much smaller audience of actual buyers). In this sense, the more you define what it is, the more you make it something that isn’t for some (probably most) of your potential audience.
We’re getting nearer to this point – but we’re not there quite yet.
There’s an argument that really succesful businesses are successful because they have a single-minded and uncompromising obsession with One Thing. I read about this on Jason Cohen’s excellent A Smart Bear blog a while back and it struck me as pretty convincing at the time. Then I forgot about it – until this week.
Jason makes the point that what many businesses, especially start-ups, think is their competitive advantage usually isn’t. Virtually everything can be copied by competitors, and anything that can be copied will be copied. The only real competitive advantage is that which cannot be copied and cannot be bought. It requires unwavering devotion to the One Thing that is (a) hard, and (b) you refuse to lose, no matter what.
For example, Jason notes that Google has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on their search algorithm and that this remains the single biggest focus of the company even today, a decade after they decided that was their One Thing. Their homepage continues to reinforce this message – it’s remarkably clean and clear, with the focus remaining absolutely on the central search box. The very first version of the homepage is pretty much identical, in fact today’s version is even cleaner than the original, despite everything else the company now provides.
Not only does this focus mean that your primary energy is always directed into your competitive advantage, the argument is that it makes pitching much stronger but also easier. We’ve been holding workshops with charities on this project to get their initial reactions to the idea (we’re targeting charities as our initial target customers). They haven’t been marketing seminars – they’ve been genuine customer insight workshops – but of course in introducing the idea we’ve presented a list of potential benefits of our proposed approach (having public service practitioners and service users lead policy and research work). These benefits have ranged from more credible and practical research, to more cost-effective projects, to better dissemination of outputs (because project participants will have a natural incentive to also help promote the results). But Jason makes the point that hanging your hat on just one advantage that you can own completely is stronger than diluting your message across many advantages. Also, why try to defend 10 points when you only need one or two to make your case?
I realise now that this is what we’ve been doing – albeit certainly not disastrously (I hope), just as a natural and inevitable part of the process of developing an idea from scratch in open dialogue with potential customers. But it’s meant that the offer hasn’t been as clear as it needs to be, and also that we’ve lacked a strong focus for the ‘product’ (or rather, that what we thought was the focus may not actually be the focus). It’s also meant that we’ve effectively been trying to appeal to everyone, and everyone has been telling us they like the idea (which is nice, of course) – but perhaps the definition of a successful One Thing product or service is that it doesn’t appeal to everyone, instead it appeals only to a section of the market but in a very strong way (that is, strongly enough to build a sustainable business from).
I knew we’d reached the stage in developing the idea that we had to make some important (albeit not irreversible) decisions, like what we were proposing specifically and so what the starting ‘product’ is. Then we got some useful challenge from a contact in local government who likes our idea but suggested we needed to simplify the offer a lot in order to make it explicable to customers, and he was right – and it was this that reminded me of Jason’s article and so here we are.
The result was that we had a really good discussion today where we may have begun to focus in on our One Thing. What’s interesting to me is that no-one mentioned this One Thing in any of the workshops, at least not explicitly. No-one said this was their greatest need or priority from policy and research work, and no-one said that they were being let down by their existing suppliers (including think tanks) because they weren’t delivering this One Thing. And yet it feels like it could be a unique competitive advantage that could position us nicely. And it’s not what we thought it might be either – it wasn’t on our list of potential benefits at all. But suddenly we can see how all of the other things we’ve been talking about could possibly hang off of this One Thing, and the way that it could play to our potential strengths and circumvent some of our weaknesses (or at least make them less important to the customer).
Of course, we need to kick it around a lot more – and that’s before we take it out to potential customers and partners to see what they think, and really begin to work on how it’s achievable and how we can deliver it. But that’s a decent and welcome conclusion to the first chapter of our project and, hopefully, a good start to the next chapter as well.