Tuesday 15 December 2015

Bigger scale children's services will fail bigger

Imagine you are in need of some human sympathy and your care is handed over to a computer, or at least to human beings under the rigid orders of a computer. How would you feel?

Because that seem to me to be the main side effect of handing over failing children's services regimes to other local authorities.

If the main story today has been the second British astronaut in space, the main story yesterday is still echoing round what passes for my mind. It is the removal of children from their mothers at birth and the failure of some children's services at local authority level.

And what happens when they fail? They are given to a more successful local authority, defined as a "high performing" one. For high-performing, read good KPIs - not necessarily the same thing at all.

There are a number of arguments in favour of this approach. It doesn't require external commissioners and it means, at least, handing over services to someone who knows what they are doing. But there are drawbacks too. and it seems to me that the argument about this is never really engaged - and yet it may be the real division within politics in the next generation. It is about scale.

Most assumptions behind the administration of public services are that we are still in the era of mass production and economies of scale, which means that services seem to be more efficiently delivered in large quantities and by big units.

But there is an emerging counter argument, from people like the system thinker John Seddon, which suggests that economies of scale are very rapidly overtaken by diseconomies of scale - and that these tend to remain invisible in someone else's budget, so the system ignores them.

I've spent this week at the round of nativity concerts at school and I'm reminded of how this works in the education system. Despite the occasional blip, our primary schools are the jewel in the crown of UK public services. They are effective, human-scale, widely co-produced by parents and extremely efficient.

The secondary schools are not always these things at all, and I've been puzzling out why, despite the rhetoric, they tend to be aloof, technocratic, somewhat intolerant and overly concerned about appearances. They stress children out in the interest of their education and they, in turn, stress each other. I'm particularly concerned about the failure of my son's school to provide enough tables at lunchtime. It may seem a little thing, but it matters.

Why this gap? Because they are too big. They need technocratic systems to control them. They need to be managed by rules and computers, rather than by a human-scale, humane, flexibility that most primary schools seem to manage. Educationalists obsess about 'maximising the teaching time' because actually the whole set up is not very conducive to learning in the first place. Learning requires relationships and the institutions are too big to manage that.

Now imagine the same shift happening in social services, and you can see why this is important. Big scale social services or children's services will be less effective, less humane, more inflexible and will deliver themselves feedback in the form of target figures and KPIs that will entirely obscure this reality.

Some years ago now, I sought out the research on scale on both sides of the Atlantic. We have known since 1964 that there are activities outside the classroom in the smaller schools than there in the bigger schools. There were more pupils involved in them in the smaller schools, between three and twenty times more in fact. Children were more tolerant of each other in small schools. There was more diversity in the teaching in small schools.

It seems pretty clear also that the smallest police forces are the most effective, catching more criminals for their population than the big ones. That is another reason why American hospitals cost more to run per patient the bigger they get. These are the costs of scale in the public sector.

There is some evidence of the costs of size in the private sector too. When the business writer Robert Waterman says that the key to business success is “building relationships with customers, suppliers and employees that are exceptionally hard for competitors to duplicate,” you know things will have to shift. Because size gets in the way of that. 

There is evidence that the bigger companies get – and the more impersonal – then the less innovative they are able to be, which is why so many pharmaceutical companies are outsourcing their research to small research start-ups. In fact, this trend seems to have been going on for most of the twentieth century. Half a century ago, the General Electric finance company chairman T. K. Quinn put it like this:

“Not a single distinctively new electric home appliance has ever been created by one of the giant concerns – not the first washing machine, electric range, dryer, iron or ironer, electric lamp, refrigerator radio, toaster, fan, heating pad, razor, lawn mower, freezer, air conditioner, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher or grill. The record of the giants is one of moving in, buying out, and absorbing after the fact.”
We have known this for years, but the system still struggles with the idea. It is time the issue of scale was made centre stage, as it deserves to be.  More on scale in my book The Human Element.

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