Monday 23 December 2013

Recovering from the McKinsey 'disease'

The almost complete disappearance of Gordon Brown from public life has done little for his reputation.  Without him around to remind us of the huge contribution he made to staving off financial collapse, all we remember was his Sauron-like tendencies - the all-seeing eye, the moments of jealous rage.

Yet it is worth remembering that, as Chancellor and Prime Minister, it was Brown who presided over what I have come to regard as the most disastrous years for public services - the hollowing out, the digital nightmare, the targets and detailed management from the centre, the disempowering destruction of frontline initiative.

The coalition has only begun to counteract this, partly by default - by creating a funding crisis in frontline care and releasing the energy locally to innovate.

Unfortunately, the coalition's record on benefits has gone in the other direction, mainly because they have accelerated in the same direction that Brown laid down - disempowering targets, no local discretion, systems which can't deal with diversity.

The question is: has Ed Miliband's leadership been able to hammer out a new way forward for public services in a time of austerity?  The answer, as a fascinating blog by Rafael Behr on the New Statesman site suggests, is no ('Miliband's sheet is still blank on public services')

As Behr suggests, this is partly because of the legacy of the Blair/Brown struggle, but it is also partly because Labour remains a centralising force in UK politics.  They have not begun to face up to the problems of their legacy in public services.

Only Jon Cruddas seems to be making an attempt with his concept of the 'unresponsive state'.

Of course, this is all disputed territory - even if it isn't disputed very much in Westminster yet - but ideas are beginning to shift.  Even the author and cause of the unresponsive state itself, the management consultants McKinsey, seems to be having a bit of a re-think.  This is what they said:

"Government by design calls on public-sector leaders to favor the rational and the analytical over the purely ideological, and to be willing to abandon tools and techniques that no longer work. Four principles are at its core: the use of better evidence for decision making, greater engagement and empowerment of citizens, thoughtful investments in expertise and skill building, and closer collaboration with the private and social sectors. Each of these principles is central to creating more effective yet affordable government."

Quite so, but a closer examination reveals that they have only half understood the way the world is changing:

1.  They are too obsessed with data.  Yes, data is important, but there is no point in data if there are no systems and no people to use it.  So much energy goes into monitoring older people at home, and so little - so far - into how to prevent the alarm going off in the first place.

2.  They miss the human element.  The vital element in modern services is a fully responsible, innovative front line cadre of staff, able to take action flexibly so that they can deal with diversity then and there.  McKinsey doesn't yet get the power of 'human by default'.

3.  They are still in thrall to Goodhart's Law.  Which, as you may remember, is that any measure used as a control will always be inaccurate.  That is the problem with the Moscow city 'dashboard' of indicators they praise so highly.  If these are targets, then the figures will simply measure the ability of staff to massage the figures.

But let's give McKinsey their due.  They are beginning to understand the importance of co-production, where service users and their families and neighbours work alongside professionals to deliver services.  They praise the New York 311 system, quite rightly, but don't yet take it to its logical conclusion: that everyone has something to offer that is vital for the success of services.

In those circumstances, a website just isn't enough.  There needs to be some kind of infrastructure that makes this partnership possible, it needs to be extremely local - and it will only work, to start with, if it is human and face to face.

The McKinsey disease - that all effective action is strategic, distant and arms-length - wreaked the most devastating results in UK services during the Blair/Brown years.  They are beginning to shake off the infection, but they are not there yet.

Perhaps they need to take their own advice and "be willing to abandon tools and techniques that no longer work".

This is the last blog before Christmas, so thanks so much for reading over the year.  See you in 2014!  Subscribe to this blog on email; send me a message with the word subscribe to  When you want to stop, you can email me the word unsuscribe.

1 comment:

Sanjay Mittal said...

Yes, GB made a “huge contribution . . . to staving off financial collapse”. On the other hand prior to the collapse, according to Mervyn King, banksters were welcome at Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street, where as boring old bank regulators were given the cold shoulder. So perhaps that cancels out the “enormous contribution”. It’s hard to judge.