I noticed on my WordPress dashboard today that someone had dipped into this blog to look at my post on civil service reform.

A couple of clicks and, knock me over with a feather, I found the avid follower was one John Seddon, proponent of the ‘Vanguard method’ of systems thinking.  He or his webbie-person have listed my post (approvingly) on a page on his web site entitled The Lean Toolhead Collection.  This is flagged up slightly misleadingly on the home page of his web site as

John Seddon has written extensively on the damage caused by Lean toolheads, these articles are now collected together for the first time

Yes, the page does include seven articles by the great man himself but also ten items by other people including my by now blessed post on civil service reform, not quite correctly under the sub-heading ‘In the press,’ and without any acknowledgement that it appeared on the HelpGov blog.

At the bottom of the page is the statement ‘Copyright 2012.’  Well, the Seddon articles may be his copyright but the item on civil service reform is mine.

If I sound less than wholly enthusiastic about this unexpected and unsought endorsement it’s because I happen to think Seddon is not wholly a good thing.

He has some great ideas but the adjectives ‘acerbic’ and ‘combative’ understate his essential character.

I experienced this twice.

The first was when I worked for a council.  He bid for some work we had available, didn’t get it, and within a year had characterised us on his web site as amongst those ‘toolheads,’ his favourite put down for anyone who adopts a version of lean thinking of which he doesn’t approve.  This was despite the fact that at this early stage we had published no results of what we were doing and his characterisation was wrong in a number of key respects.

The second was when I was in business for a while and had the temerity to suggest (helpfully I thought) that his company’s habit of using their Twitter feed to release all their tweets for the week on a Sunday morning in one go probably limited their impact.  Within a day or two I had been comprehensively trashed on Twitter and told I fundamentally misunderstood the concept of work ‘flow.’

Well, I’m no longer in a position to turn down any contracts he bids for or in turn bid against him for work, so I’m presumably of less interest to him now.  Except he does seem to like that blog post I wrote…thanks, John.

For reasons you might guess, I’m not desperately keen to provide a link to Seddon’s web site but I’m sure you can find it if you want.

There’s a great post today on this subject on the We Love Local Government blog – Local Government Oscars.  WLLG are broadly in favour of them but unpick the pros and cons with their characteristic deft touch.

Every industry, part of the public sector, sport, public authority and leisure pursuit seems to have them.  And if you think the UK’s awash with them just google USA public agency award ceremony and see what comes up.

I’m a bit ambivalent about them.

The best can provide great recognition of an organisation’s achievements with a boost to morale, public perception, peer recognition, even staff recruitment.

After using the EFQM excellence model for several years West Lothian Council won the UK Council of the Year Award in 2006.  You knew it wasn’t a flash in the pan.  They’d worked hard at it.  When you visited there was a buzz about the place.  You could see the unease in the eyes of (some) other council chiefs when their then CE Alex Linkston spoke at COSLA events.

On the other hand, when Bumbleshire Council’s north area waste management team gets a commended certificate in the sludge removal awards of the year from a field of two entrants the earth won’t move in quite the same way.  People aren’t daft and they can spot what really counts.

The ones that really worry me are the internal awards.

They typically have categories like

  • Efficiency and innovation
  • Customer first
  • Going green
  • Learner of the year
  • Unsung hero (all individual awards)
  • Top team.

(This is a real example.  You’ll have to search hard to find the public agency concerned)

Within one organisation – let’s call it a system – individuals and teams are being picked out as better than their colleagues.  The process usually relies on nominations.  Be you ever so brilliant, if no one nominates you you’re not in the running.   And what does something like “learner of the year” mean?  Better than every other learner in the whole organisation?  On what grounds?  And at the end of the day, so what?  Do the 99.9% of people in these organisations who don’t get an award really believe that the 0.1% who do are better than them?

The big problem with these awards is hinted at by my use of the word “system” above.  An organisation is a system and how people perform in it depends largely on how senior people manage and improve the system.  Don’t agree with me?  Check out a book I’ve mentioned before, Alfie Kohn’s now classic Punished by Rewards.  The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.

PS Literally while I was writing this an item popped up on the web from the Taxpayers’ Alliance – yes, them – Council spending on awards ceremonies revealed.  I don’t like them and their take on public services but given the coincidence of timing it would seem odd to ignore their “research” (their word).  Their concern seems to be that councils spend some of their budgets (a minuscule proportion) on awards ceremonies, a different beef from mine altogether.

Q: Why is so much of the time of probation officers [up to 75%] spent carrying out admin and other tasks rather than seeing offenders?

A (Committee chair Sir Alan Beith): It was micro-management.  It was box ticking.  It was all the things we’ve come to associate with a target culture and which really do need to be changed.

R4 Today programme  27 July 2011

Three cheers for the House of Commons Justice Committee and their report published yesterday on the probation service in England and Wales.  A thorough examination of a challenging subject.

Some of their conclusions are worth quoting

  • It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders…
  • probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS (National Offenders’ Management Service) to provide trusts with greater autonomy…
  • It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly…
  • Trusts…need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year…
  • There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority…
  • The creation of NOMS…has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders…
  • sentencers’ hands are tied by the unavailability of certain sentencing options because of inadequate resources. This makes very clear the urgent need to focus scarce resources on the front-line and to continue to bear-down on inefficiencies and unnecessary back-room functions…
  • The separation of prison places from the commissioning of every other form of sentence provision has a distorting effect on the options available to sentencers…

There’s much more but this will do to set the context for the point that regular readers would expect HelpGov to make.

Once you get over the jargon that all areas of work spawn you realise that “end to end offender management” is just another system and needs to be treated as such, so that there is a common and correct understanding of

  • what the system is
  • the processes it uses
  • communication within the system
  • culture and trust
  • consistency vs discretion
  • and the other essential attributes of a system.

The Justice Committee’s report is good on the diagnosis of the problems.  In many respects its prescription provides the basis for a cure of the ills it describes.  Let’s hope the government’s demands for a commissioner-provider split in delivery doesn’t thwart the intention.  And that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke doesn’t get distracted by louder voices and other priorities.

The FIFA crisis or “crisis-what-is-a-crisis?” has gone quiet now Sepp Blatter has been re-elected to the post of president by acclamation, and to the accompaniment of triumphal music (a presentational hint there to UK election returning officers?).

Amidst the too-many words written about this tedious charade a quote from former Scottish Football Association president John McBeth sank almost without trace

To me, football is a sport, a game…I’ve always said to them [Fifa committee members], if you look after the game money will follow, if you look after money you will kill the game. Unfortunately they’ve been looking after money for too long.

These words are eerily familiar to something one of my lesser known heroes of improvement, Czech shoe maker Tomas Bata, said in the 1930s

Do not pursue money. He who pursues money will never achieve it. Serve! If you serve as best you can, you will not be able to escape money.

These prescient words came to mind as I joined a Twitter exchange today on what the purpose for a public sector web site should be (I’m @rogerlwhite if you ask).

The consensus of the participants batting those addictive little 140-character messages back and forth was that the main purpose of a web site should always be to meet the needs of users.

If you can get over the bit about money that’s exactly the sentiment that Tomas Bata in the 1930s and John McBeth a week or so ago were articulating.  It applies no less to the delivery of public service than the making of shoes or a professional sport.

[Non-UK readers: Vauxhall = GM]

Tale No. 1 – several years ago

A while ago I attended an inspirational talk by the then local Vauxhall dealer who applied systems thinking in her business.  She walked onto the stage carrying a large holdall.

“We’re going to start with a bit of exercise,” she said.  “I’ve got some balls in here.  I’m going to pass  some down to you and I’d like you to just throw them around the room to each other.”

She took out a tennis ball and lobbed it into the audience then followed with a ping pong ball, a child’s football, a soft woolly ball and a few others.  Soon the hall was like a Wimbledon warm-up, balls being thrown everywhere, general amusement at poor passes, creative lobs and so on.

“Stop now,” she said and took out the largest, heaviest size of 10-pin bowl from the holdall.  “Who wants me to throw this at them?”

There was silence.

“Well,” she said “what if these balls were customers?  Because this is what we do to them – pass them from pillar to post.  It’s great fun.  And how would you deal with this heavy customer?”

It was an effective demonstration of the traditional way in which companies (and public agencies) treat customers.  She then went on, of course, to show the better way her company tried to practice.

Tale No. 2 – yesterday

I attempted to check if my car’s service at my current Vauxhall dealer had been completed, a phone call from them having been promised but not received by 4.50 p.m. (earlier in the day they had laboriously taken three separate phone numbers from me “so we can phone you when it’s ready”).  This is what happened.

Dial number.  Long wait

Dealer reception (DR): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: Service reception please

Line cuts to upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover extolling virtues of used car deals, urging me to contact “the sales team”.  A long wait

Mystery voice (MV) (accompanied by loud scratchy sounds):  Mmmmph, chrccctch, I mmmmph, cchhhrrrg…

Me: Is that service reception?

MV: Mmmmph, chrccctch, mmmmph…

Me: This is a really bad line.  I’m afraid I can’t hear you properly

MV (irritated): Mmmmph, chrccctch, I’m a customer chrccctch I’m waiting to speak to someone

Me: Me too.  What a cock up.  I’ll put the phone down and dial again

Dial number again.  Another long wait

DR: XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: I was just trying to get through to service reception and I seemed to get another customer who was waiting too

DR:  Oh.  I’ll put you through now

Line cuts to same upbeat music with enthusiastic voiceover etc etc.  Another long wait

DR (again): XYZ Ltd.  How may I direct your call?

Me: You were putting me through to service reception but I’ve come back to you

DR: Oh, I don’t know how I keep losing you.  I’ll try again

More annoying music and sales pitch.  Service reception eventually answer phone and claim they’re “just working on the paperwork” and my car’s ready for collection.


I don’t need to labour the difference between these two tales.  Suffice it say that I bought a Vauxhall from the previous dealer solely on the strength of what she’d said in her presentation.  The sales process was immaculate, no hassle, complete honesty about my trade-in, none of that edginess car sales people usually induce.  On the one occasion there was a significant problem with my new car they couldn’t sort the service manager came out with me for a test drive to see if he could detect the problem.  He couldn’t but said to call him directly if it recurred and he’d ensure it was dealt with straight away.  I believed him.

A couple of years later this dealer gave up their franchise.  Their approach didn’t fit the GM model and its bureaucracy – now go back and re-read Tale No. 2 for the current situation.

On the usual issue for this blog of “So what’s this got to do with the public sector?” I’d invite any public servants to draw their own conclusions.  When I worked in councils I certainly picked up the phone more than once to receive the frustrated cry “You’re the 3rd, 4th, 5th…person I’ve been passed on to.”  Oh, and by the way, a call centre isn’t the answer – not unless you get your processes, and your culture, right (back to Tale No. 2 again).

Part 4 of a response to a suggestion for topics to blog about made by Ingrid Koehler of Local Government Improvement and Development.  It follows the separate topics dealt with in Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Four random but related frustrations of dealing with and working in the public sector in the UK that should stop.  What are yours?


How we love it.  It’s what managers thrive on.  That knackered-at-the-end-of-the-day feeling, the slump into the armchair, the glass of something alcoholic to relax.  The question from the partner, “How was today, dear?”  “God,” you say, “it was hell.  Problems just came at me from left right and centre.  But do you know what?  I ran around all day like an idiot and by the time I left I’d sorted them all.”  I ran around all day like an idiot.  You certainly did my man (it usually is a male).  Like an idiot.

If it’s firefighting you want take a lesson from the fire and rescue service.  Devote your energy to fire prevention, to making sure problems don’t happen, not letting them happen and then fighting them.

Pouring cold water on new ideas

In my neck of the woods, more thoughtful Scots say it’s the bane of their country.

In central Scotland, where my partner hails from, it finds expression in the cliché “Aye, I kennt his faither” trans. “I knew his father.  He was just a miner/postman/labourer.  How dare the son get above his station in life by showing some ambition and trying to improve himself”.

I think it’s a UK-wide disease.  Not just the public sector (although that for sure) but the rest of the economy and society more generally.

For every entrepreneur (traditional, social or public sector) there are 10 naysayers who’ll tell you why you can’t do it.  Why it won’t work.  They should check out the great systems thinker Russell Ackoff who has some pertinent quotes on the subject.

Excessive bureaucracy

The litmus test at work for me is the answer to the question How do you get leave approved round here? If the answer’s

  • get your leave form out
  • write in the days you want off
  • do the sum to show how many days you’ll have left this year
  • initial your request
  • pass it to the boss’s secretary
  • she passes it to the boss
  • your boss initials the form and passes it back to the secretary
  • the secretary updates the team leave chart on the wall behind her desk and passes the form back to you
  • file your form back where it lives (This is important – in organisations like this your ability to request leave may be questioned if you lose the form – you see, you may be cheating)
  • update your paper diary

you are in bureaucracy hell.  Get out!

Getting small things wrong – because small things add up to big things

Two current public sector examples from my private life, featuring my second and third daughters (D2 and D3).

D2 was due to appear recently as a witness in a court case.  She travelled back from uni to stay overnight and attend court.  On arrival at court and after checking (“It’s not on today”) an official discovered the case had been deferred to autumn, over a year after the alleged minor offence she witnessed.

No one had told the witnesses but they said she could claim expenses.  They mailed her a claim form.  She claimed travel and subsistence.  Three/four weeks later a cheque arrived for travel costs only.  No subsistence and no explanation.  Current state of play – pondering whether it’s worth the hassle of getting the subsistence.


  • Staff time at court to establish case deferred and when to – 10/15 minutes
  • Cost of sending out claim form, processing returned claim, raising and posting cheque – £50? (some considerable time ago I remember reading the real cost of  even a standard letter cost a company about £10)
  • Potential cost of round 2 (the subsistence element of the claim) – another £50?
  • Wasted cost of travel and subsistence (which will have to be claimed again in autumn) – c. £20
  • Add in similar costs for other witnesses in the case.

D3, living in Scotland, may attend a university outwith Scotland next year.  The Scottish Government will give a loan for fees incurred elsewhere in EU.  D3 finds web site to establish ground rules.  There’s a note that the deadline for applications has passed but the online form still works so nothing ventured nothing gained she completes the form and presses the Send button.  The completed form is accepted.  Two weeks later a snail mail letter arrives saying “Sorry.  Form on web site was last year’s.  This year’s process isn’t opened yet.”


  • Staff time to intercept the mistakenly submitted application and generate a presumably standard response to it – 15/20 minutes?
  • Cost of sending letter – £10+? (see above)
  • Multiplied by the number of times potential students make the same mistake per year – 10?  100? 1000?

When I wrote about Russ Ackoff as one of my lesser known heroes of improvement I contrasted his relative obscurity with that of W Edwards Deming.

Interesting that the Top 10 searches leading people to this blog include Ackoff but not Deming.  In fact not one of all the many searches mentioned Deming.  Perhaps those interested in systems thinking – because that’s what they’re both about – already know what they need to about Deming but somehow, somewhere are having their interest in Ackoff stimulated and are looking to learn more about him.

Like all these Top 10 hits people searched for a number of related terms including, in this case, girlslink + ackoff; youtube + russell ackoff on health care; russell ackoff right thing; there’s no bigger waste than doing well that shouldn’t be done at all ackoff; and russell ackoff justice talk.

Some of those search terms look a bit off the wall (“girlslink”?) but a quick read of my earlier post on Ackoff will explain.  And they hint quite nicely at some of the big issues that concerned him (he died in 2009 aged 90).

The earlier post includes a YouTube video of an Ackoff interview which I think is just great in both content and style.  Search for him further on YouTube and you’ll find other talks by and about him.

If you haven’t heard much about Ackoff before here are just a few quotes from that interview.  All well worth thinking about in the context of public services.

Information knowledge and understanding are all concerned with improving efficiency…wisdom is concerned with effectiveness

Doing the right thing is wisdom, effectiveness.  Doing things right is efficiency

The righter you do the wrong thing the wronger you become

It’s better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right

Almost every major social problem confronting us today is a consequence of trying to do the wrong things righter

We never learn by doing something right…you only learn from mistakes

There are two kinds of mistakes…[errors of commission and errors of omission]  Errors of omission are much more important than errors of commission

Now you’re in an organisation that says making a mistake is a bad thing…if you’re a manager [somewhere like that] you minimise the chance of doing something you shouldn’t have done by doing nothing.

I mentioned Deming above.  I have huge admiration for both him and Ackoff.  But Ackoff addresses wider social issues than Deming and for that I especially value him.