John Seddon’s “The Whitehall Effect” Is Essential Reading for Anyone Interested in the Public Sector

John Seddon is an academic, author and consultant who has very strong views about much that governments have been doing over the last few years in terms of managing service delivery to citizens. In his new book, The Whitehall Effect, he takes aim at the UK government in the main, but anyone interested in the delivery of services to citizens will find much of interest here.

Seddon's firm, Vanguard Consulting, promotes the "Vanguard Method" a means for helping service organisations change from a conventional ‘command-and-control’ design to a systems design. The firm claims that "application of the Method results in astonishing improvements in service, efficiency, revenue and morale," and they do have some good evidence to back up their claims.

"The Whitehall Effect" is subtitled “How Whitehall became the enemy of great public services and what we can do about it.” In the book, he explains, "how successive governments have failed to deliver what our public services need and exposes the devastation that three decades of political fads, fashions and bad theory have caused. With specific examples and new evidence, he chronicles how the Whitehall ideas machine has failed on a monumental scale – and the impact that this has had on public sector workers and those of us who use public sector services."

Seddon is very dismissive of a number of commonly held views such as the whole idea that standardising and automating processes will lead to greater efficiency and effectiveness. He is not a believer in economies of scale, or regulation as a tool for improvement. His methods not only look to slay these "sacred cows" of business theory, but tend to put people at the heart of systems and processes, with apparently brilliant results in many cases. He writes about his firm's experience in the Housing sector particularly, with some very convincing and interesting case studies along the way.

He lays into politicians, consultancies and others (including Sir Peter Gershon), and procurement does not escape, as he criticises the way government procurement ends up choosing the "wrong" suppliers. I had a conversation about this with him recently, and pointed out that some of his points are unfair. So he states that pre-contract engagement with suppliers is "not allowed" by EU rules, when it is (if done properly). The new EU Directives make that even clearer, and Francis Maude, our Minister for Procurement in the UK has gone out of his way to stress how important such engagement is.

But that aside (and I had a very positive discussion with Seddon), the book makes some excellent points and indentifies problems that most of us who have worked in government for any time will recognise. For instance, he is very suspicious of most of the government shared services philosophy, which given the experience to date (DfT, Research Councils, Arvato) is not unreasonable. He is sceptical about outsourcing, and even queries the move to digital-based services, which is very much the flavour of the month in Whitehall.

He also believes that politicians are (usually at least) incompetent when it comes to running public services, and certainly there is much evidence to support that view. Here is a brief extract from his book:

Politicians should limit their focus to the purpose of public services, something that is properly their responsibility to mandate. Purpose must be thought of in customer (citizen) terms. Conceiving it this way puts politicians where they need to be: connected to the people they represent, able to appreciate the value of public services in their terms, to see sub-optimisation in terms of failure to work (meet the purposes) from the citizen’s point of view, but also to understand how better services build stronger communities, resolve social problems and lower costs.

Accountability will no longer mean compliance and reporting and spurious efficiency gains; instead it will be transparently focused on improved effectiveness with lower costs as a result.

That objective of "improved effectiveness with lower costs as a result" is not a million miles away from the Michael Porter / James Lee view of healthcare that we wrote about here. Seddon, like them, believes that focusing principally on cost reduction does not give the right results for the recipients of the services.

Overall, the book is a enjoyable and stimulating read. It can be a little like taking a bracing cold shower on a hot day - the opinions come thick and fast, and most issues are very black and white in Seddon's world. There isn't a lot of space for gray areas or doubts. But whether or not you agree with everything he says, (I'm at 80% or so agreement I guess), the book is very much recommended reading for anyone interested in public service delivery, and it is available here at £20. Seddon is also an excellent and motivating speaker, so if you ever get the chance to see him, then it is well worthwhile.

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  1. David Atkinson:

    “Most issues are very black and white in Seddon’s world.”

    I like Seddon. Never met the bloke, but know people who have, and I’ve seen a lot of him on YouTube. He has been accused of being arrogant, and it’s easy to see why, but his ‘black and white’ worldview is borne of a deep understanding of systems thinking. His inspiration is W.E Deming, that long gone old fella who helped transform Toyota and co-created the Toyota Production System. Deming is a mostly forgotten giant in business and productivity thinking, and Seddon carries his torch with a focus on the public sector, and he has demonstrated over many years that systems thinking really works.

    Another thing I like about Seddon is that he dismisses big IT as an ineffective waste of money; and he rubbishes call centre/shared service ‘solutions’ (LOL) that place real expertise further away from the customer, leaving the inexperienced handling the calling complainants.

    Businesses and politicians have much to learn about systems thinking and I hope Seddon continues to rattle their cages. He’s a thinker well worth listening to.

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