I thought this piece, published as a self-financed advertisement in today's Guardian, was worthy of further distribution. With the permission of the author, Mike Ledwidge, I am republishing it here on my blog.
Our public services have been devastated over the last 25 years and the reasons have been hidden in the complexity of detail. I am so angry about what has been done that I have actually paid for this page out of my own money. How angry have I got to be to do that! And yes, I do know what I am talking about.
The problem goes back to the Thatcher years. Since then, one goal and three assumptions appear to have driven government’s treatment of our public services. Their goal has been to make the public services do things to make government look good, to win votes. The three assumptions have been, firstly that you can measure the ‘complex systems’ of our public services in the same way as the ‘simple systems’ of private businesses, (Read Checkland and Seddon) , secondly that all public servants are lazy, and can only be motivated by threat or reward, (Read McGregor, Hertzberg and Mayo), and thirdly that private business is more efficient than public services.
As a direct result of the way government have managed our public services they have killed many people through the proliferation of hospital superbugs, criminalised a generation of young men by giving them convictions for crimes they have not committed, driven over a million children out of education without any qualifications, almost caused our doctors to go private like the dentists did, made the court fine system a joke, and allowed the criminal seizure of your motor vehicle when all you have done is overstayed in a parking space for a few minutes.
You CANNOT performance measure a ‘complex system’ by outputs. Now if you do not understand EXACTLY what that sentence means let us hope you are not involved in anything to do with the management of our public services. Sadly we now have thousands of senior public servants who think they do know what they are doing with targets and measurement, and clearly they don’t. Complex systems have more than one purpose. If you measure the police on arrests and detections any prevention they do will muck that up. If you ‘performance measure’ on crime reduction, officers will find ways to not record crimes. The awful tale of the rape unit in Southwark trying to improve their stats is an example of the result of government pressure and targets.
During the time of ‘hospital targets’, on issues like waiting times, they halved the number of cleaners, and gave cleaning contracts to private companies who made their money by employing cheap staff who had no idea why cleaning was important. Hence hospitals became filthy, allowing the proliferation of the superbugs to kill thousands of people.
Within two years of the Conservatives starting league tables for schools exclusions quadrupled, because if you are measuring a school like a factory they will have to get rid of what is affecting their performance. The current trick is to not allow the children who will do badly in exams to take them at all. Tens of thousands of children leave our education system each year without a single GCSE.
In policing we were being told that there were not enough ‘convictions’, so one of the tricks was criminalise drunks. Being simply ‘drunk’ is not a crime, but a process offence. Yet, they have been persuaded to sign cautions for the criminal offence of ‘disorderly conduct’, which turns a ’non crime’ into a ‘crime’ plus a ‘conviction’ for the government statistics. Because courts were being performance measured on the amount of outstanding fines they had on their books 40% of fines were never paid, because to satisfy the targets everything outstanding was written off after less than 2 years.
The bullying of the public services has resulted in a far greater turnover of staff than ever before. At one stage we were 20,000 teachers short, and some have been replaced by people who, like some doctors, are not easy to understand. We have stolen 70,000 nurses from abroad, yet British nurses currently being trained in the UK are being head hunted by Australian hospitals, which are now full of our prized British trained nurses.
Altruism, and the willingness to take poor pay in our public services for doing a well respected job, with a good pension, has been completely denigrated. My best friend walked away from a top job in social services, not because his team were performing badly, but because the bullying inspection process was so stressful and disrespectful that the pension was just not worth waiting for. Government thought to make doctors work harder by introducing a new pay scale as they believed they were lazy. But most doctors were already doing at least 20 hours a week for free. This resulted in us paying a great deal more for no extra hours from the doctors, who have been further insulted by the dirty tricks now being done to claw that money back. I know of NHS dentists who do extensive unnecessary work on healthy teeth but the NHS trusts appear to do nothing about it, perhaps because they fear losing someone who still does NHS dentistry. These are criminals committing GBH on healthy teeth.
The work of Mcgregor shows that just ‘money’ is a very poor motivator, yet the whole premise of government motivation has been one of ‘threat and reward’. Thatcher thought all teachers were lazy and so made them write down everything they did every day. This multiplication of their paperwork resulted in the loss of much of their goodwill, and their willingness to do the extra things like sport and music. They then sold off those unused playing fields to the lobbyists clamouring for places to build in the profitable south east. Little wonder most of our top athletes don’t discover their talent because they never even run round a track, or that the sports we are still good at tend to be the ones based in the private schools, where children still do sport.
The idea that private business is more efficient than public services has some merit. But there is a huge catch with that premise. Firstly private business is a predatory shark that will take it’s profit wherever it can, (like hospital cleaning companies) especially if it has a monopoly. And the only way to offer out parts of the public service is to make it a monopoly. Once someone has the right to deal with parking on the street they will obviously tow any car away they can, because they can then demand hundreds of pounds back from the ‘captive’ customer rather than hand out a £40 parking ticket. Yet if their vehicle is not causing a genuine ‘obstruction of the highway’ which can NEVER be the case if the vehicle is in a parking space, to tow it away is the criminal act of ‘blackmail’.
We have had 8 billion pounds worth of hospital construction, (much of which was not needed), but will be repaying 50 billion over 25 years, and after 25 years we still will not own the buildings, but will have to rent them back from those PPI sharks. Hence we have hospital trusts going bankrupt paying for these loans. I even know of an American who could not find anyone in a hospital to take her money for the expensive treatment she had been given. We have been screwed by foreign countries who charge for the treatment of British citizens abroad. Yet we claim almost nothing from these countries for the huge number of their citizens who should be paying for their care here. Citizenship, or illegally obtained NHS numbers appear not to be challenged, because too many of our gatekeepers now appear to be corrupt.
The government still continues to surround itself with advisors from private business. They are people who appear not understand how to manage the complex systems of our public services, or how to motivate the altruism in people doing a vocation. Cameron even has the gall to call for the gaps created by the bullying of our public servants, to be filled by the ‘big society’ and volunteers being altruistic. I suggest that, if any member of parliament ever tries to tell me that the pro bono work I do is for their ‘big society’, they will be taking a considerable personal risk.
To enable government to get away with this they needed the autonomy of people like Chief Constables under their control. This they did with short term contracts for senior officers. Anyone who would not play the game was ousted. Middle ranked officers could not advance unless they also played along. In my police force we tore an excellent policing system apart with a new policing plan that was literally just ‘made up’ so that we could play the numbers game. I even had to sit and listen to a senior officer telling us that we were not being sued enough, and that we should be ‘pushing the edge of the legal and ethical envelope’ when finding reasons for authorising house searches, to try to satisfy those performance targets. Most of the targets in policing have now gone, but we are stuck with those managers who think they know how to measure, and who will do anything to get noticed. Even the one big current government target of ‘cut crime’ just means that many crimes are not now recorded.
Because all public servants were seen as lazy government decided that our basic jobs could be done by people who had very little training. Hence we have nursing assistants, teaching assistants and police community support officers (PCSOs). The snag with that is that they have replaced an important developmental part of these public servants career path with lower quality service. I know the person who did all the research on PCSOs and none of those police services from other countries were as good as we were. We had to introduce them because the real officers were taken off the streets to satisfy government ‘targets’ and this was the only way government could force uniforms back onto the street and keep them there. I have spoken to many PCSOs, some struggled to communicate and none of those that I have spoken to had ever been taught their civilian powers of arrest.
With the reduction in police numbers we have now effectively replaced 16,000 police constables with 16,000 PCSOs who do not pay any of their wages into the police pension pot. The police pension pot always used to be in profit, but it is now ‘in the red’ to the tune of many millions every year because of government interference. A problem they are resolving by shafting public servants once again.
We are heading towards public services run by people who can only manage by bullying, threats, or by dangling carrots. Public servants will continue to be treated as if they are on a factory floor, as supposedly self interested, work shy, employees. Many good people with a vocational bent, or a desire to ‘make a difference’ have, or will do something else, or work abroad where they are appreciated. Many managers will progressively be the ones McGregor describes as X personalities, and like certain politicians they will bully their staff as they try to get noticed by making changes, regardless of how stupid they are. The recent ‘quality of care’ issues were ultimately our own government’s fault.
Some idiot will say ‘but you have to measure the public services’. Doh! Well of course you do. But if you do not know how to do it, you should not be doing the job in the first place. ‘Output’ data is valuable, but in ‘complex systems’ you have to measure ‘quality of process’ to get positive changes, especially as there is no ethical control of some of the ‘inputs’ to the system, and resources are limited.
In ‘simple systems’ the failure to achieve suitable ‘output’ targets means the company goes bust. We have given private business our public service monopolies, which means they make their profit by failing to maintain or replace infrastructure, or by disbanding repair services. Hence our rivers regularly flood with sewerage and power cuts take much longer to deal with. Even the banks are not ‘simple systems’ as they could not be allowed to go bust. So, because banks are ‘complex systems’ and not just about making a profit, being given ‘targets’ and ‘bonuses’ for sales of mortgages has bankrupted the western world for a generation.
Mike Ledwidge has a degree in Systems Management and Statistics, an MBA, and 29 years of public service.