Wednesday 8 May 2013

Towards a bit of human-by-default

There is a point in the film Gandhi when the man himself says that: "When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall - think of it, always."

I'm not of course accusing the Government Office for London (GOL) of anything of the kind, but I must say I did think of Gandhi when I walked past the site of their plush offices at the north end of Vauxhall Bridge, to find the whole building gone.

For those of us who suffered under their boneheaded rule - especially in the voluntary sector during the Blair years - the demolition of their building is a much-deserved fate. If they had acted like a regional office ought to, drawing down powers from central government and spreading it around, then maybe I would have felt a moment's regret. In fact, they went the other way, taking powers from local government and inserting their own miserable brand of utilitarian targets.

This is what I said in a speech on the subject in Coventry in 2006:

"This is the world the voluntary sector has stumbled into by accepting the task of delivering government services – or should I say delivering outputs.  It’s a delusory world where nothing is quite what it seems. Where outputs are more important than achievements. Where every charity has targets imposed by funders who have their own miserable yoke of targets to deliver as well.  Big fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite them.

And each time the bites are passed down, they get tougher and more intransigent. So while the mandarins at the Treasury can be relatively relaxed about the standard of proof they require before acting, those Whitehall targets descend via funder to funder.  Until they reach the bottom flea – the poor charity which has to make something happen on the ground – by which time they have become a gradgrindian nightmare which bear no relation to reality.  

“If you can’t prove it, we can’t pay for it,” one of our time banks was told by their funder, the ultimate beneficiary of the Stalinist systems that emanate from the Government Office for London.  But they can’t prove it. How can they prove it? All they can do is desperately mould the reality into the targets."

Never in the field of human government has one agency frustrated so much.  The sad thing is that, although the coalition has grasped some of the problem with targets - the inflexibility, the failure of target systems to deal with variety - they haven't actually followed that insight through.  We have payment-by-results, which turbo-charges the target effect.  And we have 'digital by default', which - although it isn't exactly about targets - it also fails to deal effectively with the variety of humanity, because it reduces people to a set formula that may work sometimes but often won't.

The cognoscenti will realise that I am relying here on the approach pioneered by the systems thinker John Seddon.  I wonder if he ever encountered the terrifying GOL inaction machine.

All of which brings me to an amazing blog which pedals a similar view called systemsthinkingforgirls, including this particular post called Human By Default, the antidote to digital by default, which the anonymous author defines as:

"human services that are so human that they work well for all humans”.

I absolutely agree, and I tried to say something similar - at rather greater length - in my book The Human Element.  Human beings are much more flexible than systems and they have a great advantage: they can make change happen by building relationships.  Any digital by default policy that excludes this where it matters will redouble long-term costs.

Perhaps someone should put up some kind of memorial to inhuman systems on the site.  If only I could be sure that GOL-style target culture was actually dead.

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