Sunday 5 September 2010

Why did Blair achieve so little?

I happened to hear Anthony Seldon (Blair's biographer) talking about that biography on the BBC this morning, and - apart from saying you learned nothing new from it - he listed three things in particular which the book should have shed some light on, but didn't.

1.  Why did Blair join the Labour Party?  Worth wondering that one.  Was it really from conviction - if so, what was he convinced about?

2.  Why did his decade in power achieve so little?  OK, peace in Northern Ireland and devolution to Scotland and Wales, plus the banking bubble - but what else?

3.  Why has there been such a slump, in mood and economics, since he stepped down?

They are the key questions and they are, in their own way, more important than the outstanding questions about Iraq.  Who was this man?  Who was he really representing?  What did he believe, and the key question: why did so little change?

It seems to me that there is a clue to the second question in the current scandal about Inland Revenue mistakes to six million tax returns.  I gather that the first letters will go out this week (I'm not holding my breath - the post doesn't arrive until mid-afternoon these days - Blairite 'modernisation' no doubt).

Why, despite huge IT investment and reorganisation, does HM Revenue & Customs make so many mistakes?  This is a microcosm of all those other services which also received huge investment and are at least no better as a result.

The problem was that New Labour was obsessed with a combination of centralisation, IT systems that controlled staff ever more closely, and massive shared call centre silos.  This subdivides jobs even more than before.  Call centre staff use a software system that often bears little relation to whatever the caller wants.  They take details and send them in bits to be reassembled by the back office experts.

But it is the way their jobs, and so many others, have been salami sliced that is important here. The call centres face the customers, with their CRM software and scripts which appear on the screens in front of them. Then they chop up their requests and send them to different departments for processing.

One of the most famous examples of all this is the way our tax returns are now dealt with at HM Revenue & Customs. The number of people who deal with each return has increased from two to six – and every one of those handovers between them are opportunities for confusion, misunderstandings and mistakes. The more work gets sorted, batched, handed over and queued, the more it has to be done again.

We know that most medical mistakes in hospitals happen when staff hand over to the next team at the end of their shift. It is the same in offices, where nobody sees the whole job, except – theoretically at least – the distant manager, poring over the misleading statistics on his screen. They will be misleading, because any statistics that are used to control people will always be inaccurate (Goodhart's Law, this is called).

So the overwhelming feature of New Labour policy in these areas as been to chop and dice public service administrative tasks as if they were a factory assembly line. It is to bring outdated industrial systems into the public sector and to excise, as far as possible, the human element. 

The problem is that splitting jobs up into tiny segments does not suit human skills, because the human ability to deal with human complexity – though not necessarily technical complexity – gets obscured. The result is miserable workers and rising mistakes.

Somewhere in here is the explanation for why New Labour invested so much to such little effect, and why the result is more mistakes.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating. This whole process/ systems/ customer relationship management thin has been central to my workin life for maybe 20 years...and i'd say your analysis contains much that is spot on.

A couple more thoughts to put in your pipe...

Have frequently had arguments with large companies about the "right" place to draw the line between control and empowerment. With one major credit card purveyor, looking to be known for their customer servc, i advocated setting guidelies and letting staff operate broadly autonomously within the rules - as opposed to central rule setting.

This is very difficult to computerise and automate, so you will not be surprised to learn that they did not go or it.

Second is the role of measurement, management consulting and accountability. Sadly, if you leave assessment of people to subjectivism,you do get it wrong: in every organisation, you discoer that people widey praised for their performance are far less effective than the headline suggests. So you have the rise of "SMART" principles - everything must be "Specific, Measurable, Accountable, etc.".

When you bring consultants in, you don't want feelgood homilies: you expect system, process, flowchart...and yoonly do that if you are building the underlying system in a certain IT-focused way.

Oh, well: if this interests you, do drop me a line.


Barry said...

That's a nice explanation/description of top down systems David.

Maybe Blair came in believing that it would be possible to improve the bureaucratic systems which existed then. But, all he did was to unintentionally make matters worse. Now, maybe, he sees the way forward as decentralisation. But then he would be supporting what the coalition want to do.

Is it possible that the gradual process of centralisation, seen to be inevitable by those who set it in motion, was coming to a "natural" end when Blair took over and everthing he then did had the opposite effect of what was intended?