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Book review: The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon

Book review: The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon

John Seddon is a fairly well kent face up here in Scotland, particularly amongst Holyrood conference attendees over the last decade. Last December he spoke at our ‘Leadership’ event and discussed his book with chair Brian Taylor in front of an audience of senior managers. He was, as ever, (and often all at the same time) both funny and confrontational; authentically angry and shamelessly self-promoting; arbitrary and wise. He was never less than fiercely intelligent.

The book is similar – one can almost hear John’s voice and idiom narrating as you read. Yes, he’s angry and yes, he has a clear unambiguous perspective on how services should be delivered in this country. And he is unapologetic if you feel criticised or caught in his firing line, but he thinks public service provision matters and he’s not about to back down…

The text however is both accessible and penetrable. It makes a refreshing change reading someone who is characterised as a management consultant but which isn’t written with half an eye on illustrating just how clever the author is. If your little heart desires a book full of management speak and phrases ‘de jour’ then isn’t the book for you. He does not fall into the trap of showing off and prefers instead to wear his learning quite lightly.  The Whitehall Effect is all the better for it.

The book is dynamite in parts – one highlight being the story of one social care department who had improved their performance and outcomes only to revert to failed methods because they were spooked by a forthcoming regulatory inspection which didn’t allow them to illustrate their new methodologies properly. Because the regulatory framework did not allow them to articulate what they had done to improve the service, they had to discontinue the effective methods. Madness. You can sense him shaking his head as he writes. It’s all very persuasive, and very dispiriting.  

The central thesis is quite straight forward: systems are not designed with the people that matter in mind (‘the customer’); but rather with the state and its employees. This is particularly true of large scale ICT projects, about which he is especially scathing.

But any accusations of being wise after the event would be unfair – seasoned Seddon watchers would know he has been cautioning against the Universal Credit Scheme, for instance, for years.

Overly complex and expensive systems are the preserve of ‘tool heads’ and we would be better served by a focus on experimental, flexible services with local delivery as opposed to uniform, identikit and predetermined systems. He invites politicians to visit front line services and ask some fundamental questions of staff.

There is also dismay in his passages on management culture in public service. The regulatory framework, demand management, targets and performance management all come in for heavy criticism. Anything that represents waste or gets in the way of the citizen receiving the service is called ‘failure demand’ (a concept of Seddon’s well established by previous literary efforts).  This can manifest itself across public service provision – demand increases when a problem doesn’t get solved the first time. And this happens too much for Professor Seddon’s liking…

Consequently, in part, perhaps it is a little bleak. There isn’t much which celebrates what has gone right, much less what has been adequate. But positively he opines that whilst public service is obsessed with demand rising whilst supply falls and overwhelm services, Seddon urges us to think not of the Sword of Damocles over our heads but to consider how demand is amplified by service design. It is a compelling argument, because it suggests that meaningful service provision in an age of austerity may not be the fanciful dream some would suggest. 

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