John Seddon of Vanguard has written a book called Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, criticizing something he calls “The Regime” – by which I think he means the dominant forces within government based on targets. The extracts I’ve read so far indicate that Seddon has been strongly influenced by Deming. I also detect some influence from Stafford Beer’s POSIWID principle when he writes: “the de-facto purpose of the regime [is to] make services worse”.
This kind of analysis is absolutely in line with the kind of analysis we have been doing here on the POSIWID blog. I have ordered a copy of the book, and I look forward to reading it. But are the right people (by which I mean the people who might be able to change things) going to read it?
Some years ago, Seddon originated a concept called “failure demand”. This concept was taken up (and, according to Seddon, completely misunderstood) by the regime. When he wrote to representatives of the regime explaining their error, he got a “snotty, curt reply”. Well, who could have predicted this?
This raises an interesting question. Seddon and his colleagues have some pretty sound insights on the flaws in the regime. But the regime is unable to accept these insights. This is not very surprising – regimes do tend to be resistant if not immune to external criticism. So how can Seddon (or anyone else) use these insights to cause real change? Okay, I’m sure he will be happy to sell more copies of his books, but I don’t think he merely wishes to bask in the warm glow of “I told you so”.
From an insider’s perspective, uninvited “insights” from consultants might possibly seem like unwarranted meddling. I use the word “meddle” deliberately, because this is a word Deming uses for attempts to change a system without systemic understanding. Seddon understands what the regime is doing wrong, and he may well be working brilliantly behind the scenes, but his public interventions to change the regime seem to be based on the optimistic logic that telling people what they are doing wrong is going to persuade them to do things differently.
Sadly, the exact opposite is true. Telling people what they are doing wrong makes them defensive, it encourages them to construct elaborate rationalizations for why they are doing what they are doing, and makes them all the more determined to continue along the same track.
Meanwhile, some organizations have a sophisticated mechanism for resisting alien ideas, which is to introduce these ideas in a deliberately weakened form. This is like vaccination: you expose people to cowpox so they won’t succumb to smallpox. Perhaps some highly intelligent and utterly devious people within the regime deliberately exploited some vagueness in Seddon’s original formulation of “failure demand”, implemented something that conformed to the letter of the concept but not the spirit, and then sat back with smug satisfaction when Seddon protested that his original idea had been misapplied, knowing that the regime cannot now succumb to the original power of “failure demand”.
In situations like this, I believe the would-be agent of change must change weapons – relying not on rhetorical insight but on analytic rigour. Concepts must be razor sharp, evidence must be carefully assembled and meticulously deployed. I hope that’s what I’m going to find when I get hold of the book.
See also Easier Seddon Done 2