Monday, December 20, 2010

Is Nick Boles MP right to call for 'chaos' in public services?

You may or may not have caught the Cameroon outrider Nick Boles MP opining in recent days about the creative beauty of chaos within public services. What he was saying was that you need to remove most of the institutional processes involved in the planning of public services to make the vital Great Leap Forward we are all seeking.

I have some sympathy with this view, particularly since I have become a Councillor. The modus operandi of local government, and indeed the whole public sector, often resembles what I imagine Czechoslovakia was like circa 1982. Just replac iron-ore or butter with adult social care and you've pretty much got the same meeting. Lots of preoccupation with 'co-ordination', joining up' etc, not much on delivering the right service at the right time in the right way. That somehow gets lost in the mix.

So I have some time for Boles and his world-view. We do need to throw out a lot of the outdated nonsense which passes for good planning and governance. However, we also have to be bright about this. Planning is necessary. So too is Governance. We need enough grit and wagons to salt the road. If Nick Boles slips on the ice and bangs his head, we need to ensure that somebody gets to him quickly enough and takes him through the right procedures - ones he knows he will receive whether he falls over in Westminster or Walsall.

There is, whatever anybody says, a role for planning, even in the internet age. I am currently reading an amazing book about the development of management thinking in America called 'The Puritan Gift' by William and Jim Hopper. The book charts the way Puritan values of thrift, hard work, honest and, yes, good planning, gave America the management model through which it established its 20th century dominance.

By way of example, the book details the meticulous planning that went into the Puritan migrations to New England, the most successful in history up to that time and, following that, the Mormon migration to Utah. Huge efforts were taken to learn from previous failed migrations. Enormous time was taken to ensure that risks could be mitigated. Planning is not all bunkum.

What would the Puritans of the 17th century make of the situation in today's public services? Well, my guess is that they would do three things. Firstly, they would be unimpressed by the way we have separated out the delivery of things from the managing of them. In their day, the planners also had to implement and the processes were iterative. Today's leaders would be forced to actually put into practice what they espoused as operating principles.

Second, they would, I believe, like Boles, be deeply bemused by the level of activity taking place in the name of planning, co-ordination etc which actually did not serve much real purpose. Like him, they would seek to tear apart much of what passes for
necessary administration and planning.

Thirdly, however, unlike Boles, they wouldn't, I venture, be seeking to leave a vacuum into which an informal market kind of sorts things out. They wouldn't be happy with that because it forgets the important roles of both planning and leadership. You do not regenerate communities by merely stepping back. Neither do you achieve it by saying 'You do this, not us'.

My guess is that the Puritans would take a highly pragmatic view: getting rid of many of the current structures which clog up the way we are governed but, at the same time, being zealously organised in their long-term planning for the creation of a strong economy, a capable citizenry and the levels of social capital needed to sustain all of this. Not for them 'creative chaos' - just creative planning.


David Floyd said...

I think my position's fairly similar to yours. Planning is important the problem is when it becomes more important than what's being delivered as part of the plan.

One problem is that local authorities have to spend a phenomenal amount of time producing strategies - that may or may not even be read by the people who've asked for them to be written or the people who have to deliver them, let alone anyone else - and aren't given enough time to work with local people to actually do stuff.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

What really got my interest about the Social Entrepreneur approach is that it offers a way to combine the best of public and private ownership, e.g. the public service ethos combined with private sector efficiency approach via the Community Interest Company Social Enterprise model.

Nick Boles MP, has provided a real benefit to the UK by being one of the driving forces behind Big Society, itself a perfect example of wanting to find better ways of delivering services more effectively.

In rural Cumbria there is a fascinating nexus happening between Big Society and rural broadband where now Big Government, in the form of BIS and its delivery arm BDUK are now engaged with introducing public subsidy into the mix.

Your thinking regarding the need for planning, and, reading between the lines, the essential aspect of learning from past experience, is helpful.

What is required is to avoid the over-swing between too-much Big Government and too-little learning about the good reasons why planning came about in the first place.

Not an easy pathway to discern as to be effective there must be a constant balance between competing, or actually more accurately mutually uncomprehending, top-down vs bottom-up philosophies!