Sarah called Croydon Council yesterday to report fly-tipping in the local woods. Their response goes to the heart of the problem of public services over the past decade – and David Laws might do worse than looking here for a more radical and effective way of saving money.
The lady at the call centre replied: “I don’t think we can do this.”
What she meant was that our local park, and the woods attached, don’t have a street address, which means the fly-tipping incident couldn’t be entered on the council’s database. And if it couldn’t be entered, it couldn’t be communicated to those who might do something about it.
The IT problem was solved in the end – though not the fly-tipping – but that sentence is telling. “I don’t think we can do this.” As if somehow the failure of the council IT system is the definitive problem. Nothing can happen without it, but they are notvery interested in any problem which can't go into the system either.
Let’s just go to the heart of this. The first issue is the disastrous front office/back office split, which the Labour government set such store by. The staggering inefficiencies of this idea have been set out clearly by John Seddon (www.systemsthinking.co.uk) so I won’t repeat them now.
The second, related problem is inappropriate IT systems.
These two issues are related. They mean that inadequate procedures have been set in concrete by IT systems which don’t work very well anyway, and which excise the crucial human element. They have been put there at enormous expense and they are steadily removing the ability to act from the public sector.
They also shift costs elsewhere in the economy. This is the real narrative of public service efficiency which we badly need to get to grips with before the cuts take place.
What’s the solution? End the front office/back office split, put members of the public back in touch with people who can help them directly, train professionals accordingly. It’s about trusting people, an eminently Liberal ideal – but also, in the medium-term, a cost saving one. Because, in the end, imaginative and committed people are more effective than systems.