Friday 1 July 2011

Reactions to the Christie report on future delivery of public services in Scotland (or "why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing")

Yesterday saw the publishing of the Scottish Government report "Commission on the Future Delivery of Public Services" chaired by Dr Campbell Christie. Despite presenting a radically different way of delivering public services, it has met with repeated media criticism that the report says nothing new or actionable. Damning with faint praise, the SNP Finance Minister, John Swinney, in a Newsnight television interview, indicated that the proposals were broadly in line with what the government was already doing.

So is this report 100 pages of predictable "Motherhood and apple pie" or is there some substance? If there is substance to this report, then why is the media unable to see it and why are contributors to the report uneasy to back it wholeheartedly?

Lacking substance?

It's clear why many people see this report as lacking substance. It doesn't provide specific steps on moving forward like saying that region X should merge it's 5 frontline services (1,2,3,4 & 5) into a single coordinated user facing service by May 2012.

But the reality is that this report was not commissioned to do this, nor did it have the capacity to get into that level of detail. Politicians know that the media like this kind of bite-size proposition and they are good at delivering them. We should think twice about criticising a report of this quality, depth and coverage for failing to feed the media.

The report presents and argues the case for long term focused strategies for delivering public services. These strategies may not appear radical on paper but the fundamental issue is that these are strategies that are completely different from what is happening today.

It doesn't matter that these individual proposal seem obvious. There is a reality gap between what most people see as obvious and what happens in practice every day. It is a scary truth that a large number of the people who deliver our public services are either working with systems that prevent them from doing the job they want and need to do, or are so isolated from the underlying purpose that they cannot see why they are failing to deliver value.

I shouldn't need to explain these things, because the report actually says them very well. But there is clearly a need to explain how this report will make a difference.

Making a difference

If the proposals and implications of this report are delivered then we will see a massive change in the delivery of our public services. The changes, whilst following common themes, will differ from region to region and service to service. They will be driven by the needs of the communities they serve and those needs vary dramatically across the country.

These proposals are based around service delivery and organisational change that have been tried and tested. If you need evidence then search the internet for some of the books or online video presentations of John Seddon whose company "Vanguard" has become synonymous with the practice of 'Systems thinking' in the UK public sector. Like him or loathe him, John Seddon has applied these principles throughout the UK and collected the evidence to demonstrate the results.

If you want something even more radical but closely aligned to this reports proposals of reducing organisational complexity, get your hands on the BBC Wales series, "Ban the Boss" and the work of Paul Thomas. His truly radical and fairly risky work in the public sector in Wales claims up to 300% increases in productivity. Yet, on paper his strategy of reducing "managers" could so easily be criticised as being nothing new and could, so easily be implemented in a way that delivers a disaster rather than reduced cost and improved service.

The problem

The problem is that most people who read this report have no idea how to implement the changes. These changes might as well be written in a foreign language or complex scientific notation.

Despite being in English, the language of much of the proposals of this report is the language of organisations, systems, complexity and change. This language draws us in to a false sense of understanding with terms that seem to make sense yet hold vast meaning beyond common usage.

Page seven of the report makes cursory reference to "failure demand" which is explained as "demand which could have been avoided by earlier preventative measures." That sounds so obvious and yet the topic of 'failure demand' is the subject of whole chapters if not whole books. It is neither an obvious concept nor one that is well understood or applied either in the public or private sector.

In other words, this report contains big ideas that are compressed into succinct and specialist language that should be fully understood by those who need to implement the proposals but could so easily be missed by the general public or journalists or indeed politicians.


So, how can these ideas be turned into action? The secret sounds simple. They need to be implemented by people who understand the ideas.

Changing organisations is not something everyone gets taught about at secondary school. Even those with management degrees will be lucky to have received any guidance at all on how to restructure organisations to reduce complexity. Yet, unless something radical happens, this report will be digested and actioned by people who have no specialist knowledge or experience in organisational change and systems thinking.

The Christie report is a radical report. But it's proposals will have little effect unless the government can find and appoint a large enough group of skilled individuals who have the capacity to assess regional issues and turn them into practical proposals. Those individuals need to be given the authority to ask questions and initiate change.


In summary:

  • There is no point in trying to turn this into a standardised and centrally driven policy of change across Scotland. It needs to be driven at a local level.

  • It has to be implemented by individuals who have been selected because they fully understand the organisational issues being presented not because they are "solid and reliable people who have delivered good reports in the past". This also excludes appointing a group of "management consultants" from some "safe" big brand consultancy.

  • By delivering these policies locally the government benefits from spreading its risk. Not every plan will go according to plan. Some of the people chosen to drive change locally will not live up to expectations. But only fudging the facts or avoiding the issues will avoid this and the cost of doing nothing is far, far too high.

  • If the government acted quickly they could have a handful of specialists in place by the end of August 2011. Acting locally with central backing they could provide the skills and energy to start delivering the first steps of change immediately.


There is clearly a large overlap in Scope between the Christie report and the last week's McClelland report on the ICT Infrastructure of the Public Sector. If the government is going to deliver joined up services then the proposals of these reports should be joined up too.

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