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December 3, 2014

The Whitehall effect

Before the financial crisis struck, expenditure on public services had been growing in real terms each year. Apart from the fact that spending had already reached unaffordable levels, the outcomes being delivered were not matching the amounts being spent. This was the broad conclusion of the Christie Commission and is why public service reform is so high on the Government’s agenda. Many theories are put forward as to why our public services had become so dysfunctional, but one that is particularly compelling is John Seddon’s idea of the triple whammy generated by what he calls the Whitehall Effect.


Professor John Seddon

A favourite game is the one where you ask friends which of our current practices will look most ridiculous and unacceptable in 50 years’ time. In other words, what will be the early 21st century’s equivalent of slavery?

The usual answer is some aspect of our devastation of the environment or our seeming acceptance of grotesque imbalances in the distribution of wealth across the world’s population. Of course, many people already acknowledge these. We may not act to remedy them, but we know we should. My own answer is more parochial, but very rarely acknowledged: ‘The Whitehall Effect’.

For 35 years, successive administrations have set out to ‘tighten up’ and ‘clamp down’ on our public services with the twin intention of ‘increasing efficiency’ and ‘cutting costs’. But because they have all relied on the same disastrous triple-whammy of wrong theory, wrong principle and wrong practice they have, without exception, driven costs up and made things worse.

Whammy 1 – Wrong Theory

Embodying Douglas McGregor’s Theory X (that people – in this case public servants – are idle, dishonest and untrustworthy), Whitehall has sought to micro-manage through regulations, directives, incentives, standards, targets and audits – all of which assume that Whitehall knows how to run (say) a hospital ward, a police service or a housing benefits office better than people who actually deliver and run those services. And all of which assume that people cannot be trusted to do their job. The result, sure enough, has been the emergence of a whole new species optimised for finding ways to work the system – massage the figures, get round penalties, appear to meet targets, do anything, in fact, other than meet the needs of the citizens they should be serving.

Whammy 2 – Wrong Principle

Persuaded by the private sector corporations that sell these things that call centres, back offices, economies of scale and Big IT can work, Whitehall has consistently sought to wring car-factory economies and efficiencies out of services delivered by one lot of human beings to another lot of human beings. The result, sure enough, has been the emergence of a whole new species of humiliated and demotivated public servants who can’t wait to leave or retire.

Whammy 3 – Wrong Practice

Because Whitehall is peopled by politicians with agendas (they should have principles instead) and young policy-makers with one-word ideas like Nudge, Choice and Lean (they should simply gather evidence instead), it is constantly seeking to impose some new and better ‘initiative’ on our public services. The result is a classic case of trying to do the wrong thing righter. Instead, Whitehall should get out of management altogether.

The defence of Whammy 1 is that Whitehall has to micro-manage because, if it doesn’t, we get Rotherham, Mid-Staffs NHS or Hackney social services. But, of course, these tragic failures occurred because staff were looking the wrong way – at targets, ratings, paperwork and appearances – rather than at the citizens they were there to serve. This is a systemic failing caused by over-regulation from Whitehall. Tightening up afterwards simply makes it worse. Free up doctors, nurses, social workers and police officers to deliver the best possible service to the public and they will do a much better job than if you hem them in with constraints and regulations.

The defence of Whammy 2 is that the private sector knows best.  But the private sector has the rudder of profit. It knows how best to make money. So, in public services, Big IT projects (for example) universally make big profits for the IT companies and almost universally fail the citizens they were supposed to serve. Public services should have the rudder of service (how can we meet the needs of citizens?) but instead have the soul-destroying rudder of compliance (how can we get 5-star status from Whitehall?).

The defence of Whammy 3 is that the brightest and the best should be hired by Whitehall and paid to think about improving our public services. In fact they’re paid to find policies that fit the ministerial agenda and they rarely have any experience of the services they’re butchering. We’ve worked with hospital departments, housing repairs staff, benefits teams and many other groups of public servants; remove their regulatory shackles and we have found that they consistently come up with ways to deliver better, more appropriate services, when and where they’re needed. Invariably costs fall.

You need to read the book to understand the extent of the damage caused by Whitehall, but the headline is: The Whitehall Effect drives up incompetence, misaligned services, failure demand and costs. Like abolishing slavery, all that is required is for us, the electorate, to insist that Whitehall get out of managing public services. It’s a crime against the citizen that the Whitehall regime is still trying to command and control public services that it doesn’t understand. It has to stop.

  John Seddon’s The Whitehall Effect is published today.