Wednesday 27 March 2013

The real reason things don't work

Back in 2003, a Roman Catholic priest told the story of one of his constituents who had given her papers over to Lunar House - the central hub of the Border Agency - and they had lost them, and left her in miserable limbo without apparently any qualms.  It led to an amazing church inquiry into the way that the bureaucracy dealt with people there, and thence to the Independent Asylum Commission.

I have a nervous shiver down my spine when I drive past Lunar House in Croydon (which I do far too often) even now.  It gives me the heebie-jeebies.  It was like some kind of monster that only knows two emotions: rage and fear.

There is no doubt that the Border Agency is an extreme case of hollowed out institutions.  They neither managed to treat people with humanity, nor managed to provide effective and fair controls over immigration. If they had managed one or other, it might have been possible to forgive them - as it was, I can't think of an organisation that more thoroughly deserved being broken up.

And lo and behold, that is exactly what the Home Office is going to do

I find myself linking it in my mind with the Francis proposal that doctors and nurses should be prosecuted for failing to blow the whistle on abuse - a staggeringly ineffective idea.  I know an NHS whistleblower and have heard directly from her what the system puts her through.  A far better idea would be to make it a criminal offence to suppress whistleblowers, but that is another story.

What this combination of stories suggests to me (and I know this is a continuing theme of this blog) is that the failures of the Border Agency is really the tip of a huge iceberg.

When it came into office, the new coalition realised that there was a serious problem in the way the last government centralised control over public services.  They got rid of many of the most corrosive targets, but unfortunately their understanding of quite how dysfunctional our institutions had become has never quite caught up with the reality.

Consequently, they still embrace major IT investment when there should be an emphasis on building relationships.  They embrace centralised procurement when anyone who has tried to extract an invoice from the Whitehall machine will know where that will lead.  They embrace shared back office services despite mounting evidence that it makes services more expensive.

Each of these approaches make our public services less effective - less able to deal with diversity, as the systems thinker John Seddon explains.  And if our institutions don't work, the demand on them mounts and they get more and more expensive - especially when contractors are paid just according to their manipulation of the demand.

I find it enormously frustrating that a government, where the Lib Dems are playing an important role - and which I therefore have a great deal of sympathy for - is continuing half-in, half-out of the disastrous old New Labour model.

But there was a glimmer of light today.

Home Secretary Theresa May said during her announcement that hiving the Border Force off from the Border Agency last year had been a great success.  It showed what she called the benefits of having smaller structures.

Quite so.

So if she reads this blog (which of course she won't) I hope she will see the implications of this.  We know, for example, that:

  • Small police forces catch more criminals than big police forces.
  • Big hospitals are more expensive to run per patient than small hospitals.
  • Patients recover quicker when they know the doctor. 
  • Small schools have more choice, more after-school activities, more tolerance and better results than big schools.
If you want the evidence, you will have to read by book The Human Element, but it is overwhelmingly in favour of the effectiveness of human-scale institutions.  So why is so much effort still being expended in government in pursuit of non-existent economies of scale?

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