“Systems Thinking in the Public Sector” is a management book. It’s a good management book, aimed squarely at the public sector (and “services” more generally. And it appears to talk a lot of sense. But it is a management book, and the combination of case studies and invective is there as you would expect.
I initially picked this up because John Seddon spoke (and wrote, some kind soul braved copyright law and sent me a copy of chapter 8) well about deliverology, and in trying to understand the beast in preparing a video that you’ve probably seen by now, I wanted to engage with as much literature as I could that addressed the issue.
In many ways, this was the review I was looking for, as it took away the political aspects of deliverology and left me with the raw management process. He is astute to note that:
“In the early days of arguing about targets with public-sector reformers, I was struck by the frequency with which people cited the literacy strategy as evidence that targets worked. Why didn’t they mention the hundreds of other targets? Surely picking out (the same) one to claim the benefit for all should ring some alarm bells?” (p120)
Having read Tymms by this point, and supported my son through two years of the “phonics” that Barber’s literacy reform mandates, I had reason to question the claim for improvement in this area. But I had yet to realise the significance of it being the basis of Barber’s entire reputation.
On this level, it is essential that new data, new numbers are used to establish a measure of success of the literacy intervention. Educational achievement statistics are frequently bewildering and often not directly comparable (as Tymms describes). And this can be used to the advantage of Barber and deliverology by bogging down any serious critique in technical statistical language.
Despite the pretensions towards science, deliverology is methodologically very simple – set targets, make a plan to deliver against targets, keep asking if the targets have been delivered, report against targets. It is, as Seddon notes, a “regime that fosters compliance rather than experimentation” (p126), and “mickey mouse command and control” (p126).
A key insight from Seddon is that Deliverology has shifted from simple command and control of structures, to a standards-based monitoring methodology – two very different approaches to performance management with a similar flaw – Campbell’s Law!
“Deliverology’s method amounts to determining change on the basis of opinion and driving activity down into systems with no knowledge of the impact on the way the system will perform. It is tampering on a massive scale.” (p126)
As we have seen the “contractualisation” of public services against targets have led to an inarguably lower quality experience for the public. By setting dumb targets (and there are no SMART targets, only dumb ones), we lock in only the performance of the metric, not the performance of the system. The most chilling aspect of something like the Staffordshire Hospitals scandal was that, on paper, the Hospital Trust was delivering. As Seddon puts it:
“The consequences of ‘devolution and transparency’ – delegating services to contractors with service level agreements – are alarming. The regime has set up factories to provide, among other things, health care, legal advice, consumer advice and local authority services” (p127)
I would add education to this list, both on the macro- (school league tables) and micro- (learning outcomes, teaching to the test) level.
I spoke to a very smart fellow-blogger (Mark Johnson) with a cybernetic/systems theory background about deliverology. His response is worth noting in full:
“Who’s problem does ‘deliverology’ solve? The answer, to me at least, is obvious. It is the politician’s problem. They want to get re-elected. Moreover, they don’t want to think too hard and have a clear ‘position’ on any of the immensely complex issues they have power over So if they can bluff their way along without upsetting anyone, regularly taking the political temperature, that’ll do nicely.
What’s this means for the rest of us is another issue. Critique and debate is neutralised by process. I suspect only when we become sick of the process itself and the state of our democracy will there be any kind redress. The politician’s problem is not everyone else’s problem. The politician solving their problem usually involves giving everyone else new problems. There’s positive feedback brewing with growing inequalities under the guise of democracy and ‘freedom’. ”
[T]his is a systemic problem. At it’s root is ‘information’, and our deep underlying confusion about it. We do not yet see information as ‘constraint’. Deliverology is an information-oriented approach to politics. It’s something that wouldn’t be out of place in Orwell’s “Minitrue”. Fundamentally this “deliverology” looks like manipulating constraints on the public by the powerful (to keep them in power) through the medium of information.” (personal email)
I also read an excellent, if less systems focused, analysis on the Dartington Social Research Unit blog. The key pull quote for me was:
“Barber developed an evidence base that was right for that context. I think of it as evidence as cosmetic. A gestalt is formed and then data is added to pretty it up. This evidence base depends on lots of graphs in which the line rises left to right. It is an evidence base formed by people who know nothing about statistical theory and have scant interest in finding out. Peter Tymms isn’t mentioned once by Barber, nor are nine of the 11 sources of data Tymms scrutinised.
The reporting from Barber’s data translates easily into political claims. Within a few years of the education reform Barber was talking about the English primary school systems as ‘third in the world,’ which is just plain silly. By the time he is done with education we have the best teacher training in the world. I asked an UK based international educational expert for her opinion and she said ‘we get a better applicant pool than most countries and add precious little value’.”
Patrick Watson of Montrose Public Affairs Consultants writes in his blog on the issues that the perceived failure of deliverology bring to the idea of state intervention in times of crisis:
“Barber perhaps demonstrated the limits of central government intervention. We have got to find ways of getting more from less and the big issue now is how to achieve this. Certainly improving public sector productivity and public value is important , but this has to be accompanied by supply side reforms which better harness private sector resources and capital, with taxpayers money now in such short supply.”
This is slightly disingenuous as the private sector have long been a feature of Barber’s reforms, from the Literacy Review onwards. For me deliverology represents a failure in the application of private sector management methodology in public sector management.
US state education critiques of Barber, exemplified by “whatiscommoncore” tend to focus on the globalised aspect of his approach to education reform.
“Did you catch that? Global standards. Barber wants every child in every country learning the same thing at the same time. Barber talks about “sustainable reform” as “irreversible reform” and he directs education policy makers to “make it so it can never go back to how it was before.”
I wouldn’t go as far as this blog in terms of flag-waving, but it is a fair point that differing cultural contexts across the world require different educational approaches – most educators who have experience of more than one national system of education will agree.
In conclusion, Barber is critiqued from a number of angles, but I have yet to come across any analysis that takes in his entire career, which is what I hope I have added to the conversation.