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By all means criticise us, but get your facts straight


John Seddon, the prophet of ‘lean’, is an outsize critic of targets. And now he is seeking to make a living as the self appointed scourge of the Audit Commission.

Mr Seddon has a consultancy product to sell and he is entitled to propagate a view of the world in which he can step forward with a magic solution. He’s not entitled to get the facts wrong nor ignore the evidence.

Take his bland assertion ‘users know public services aren’t working’. It’s usually more rewarding to read Ipsos Mori reports rather than the first paragraph of a press story. The Place Survey data, taken together with opinion polling, suggests a complex relationship between views of service and views of place. Public satisfaction with aspects of health – notably those where targets have been more intense – has risen. 

Take his assertion ‘targets always make performance worse’. It’s a nonsensical statement, whether applied at the organisational level or the public sector at large.

Audit Commission reporting under the Comprehensive Performance Assessment was nothing to do with ‘targets’ anyway. These were disinterested appraisals of corporate performance produced not for our benefit but for local citizens and councillors and the officers they appointed to use.

It’s noteworthy in the Seddon view of the world how absent are citizens and voting. Councillors, media and the maelstrom of politics don’t figure. To him all organisations seem to be the same: working for Toyota equivalent to working for Torbay. He seems to live in a world in which there are no taxpayers, anxious about value for money, pressuring ministers who in turn seek assurances that public money is being effectively spent. 

 Mr Seddon is incontinent in his judgement. To say ‘economy of scale is a myth’ betrays what can best be called a religious rather than an empirical mind set. For us, it’s a matter of what the evidence shows. Unit cost and volume (quality adjusted) are inversely related in some services.

Mr Seddon’s clients will need to judge for themselves whether there is proof that his ‘lean’ nostrums work. They will take into account his own cavalier way with the evidence.

David Walker, Managing Director, Communications and Public Reporting, Audit Commission

Click to read the ‘Cut the Audit Commission, not public services’ column


Readers' comments (56)

  • Disinterested appraisals of corporate performance?

    That would only work if the Audit Commission knew what good performance looked like. But it doesn't.

    Everybody at our authority has been gaming the statistics for years. When the Audit Commission came to visit, after we had spent over 100k on preparation they asked us into a room to go through the policies and procedures. They gave us a good. When Vanguard came in to do some work later they found a failure demand rate of near on 80%.

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  • David Walker takes the prize for ignoring the facts.

    I am not a ‘prophet of lean’ – ‘lean’ is promoted by those who argue that the Toyota System is a set of tools. I often write about the folly of that idea.

    My assertion that public services are not working is made on the basis of seeing the same everywhere I go: ever-increasing failure demand, caused by adherence to regime-promulgated wrong-headed ideas, with the Audit Commission leading the charge. I write a lot about the evidence too.

    As for my claim that targets make performance worse, Walker should read Deming, who showed how targets and all arbitrary measures have the consequence of distorting the system. In my last book I summarised all of the arguments for targets, showing how they are simply received wisdom, not based on knowledge.

    And economy of scale is a myth. To show what is being learned in the private sector I asked my private sector clients to explain the plausibility of the idea, how they fell for it, what they subsequently learned and how they now design their services (leading to massive improvement in efficiency and service).

    Walker didn’t do his homework. Instead, he adopts the Mandleson approach: if you can’t win the argument, take out the man. Labelling my work as a ‘nostrum’, labelling me as a ‘prophet’, ‘incontinent’, ‘nonsensical’ with ‘bland’ assertions, proffering ‘magic’. Walker will be happy at the Audit Commission, where facts rarely get in the way of their wrong-headed prejudices.

    Perhaps he would like to take up just one of the substantive, fact-based challenges I offered in the article: Can he show me how the recent Audit Commission report extolling the use of back-offices provides evidence in support of its conclusion?

    I’m not holding my breath.

    Professor John Seddon

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  • "These were disinterested appraisals of corporate performance produced not for our benefit but for local citizens and councillors and the officers they appointed to use"


    If only they knew.

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  • I am astounded that the Audit Commission is allowed to get personal with somebody who is actually highly valued by many of my colleagues in the public sector.

    The Audit Commission are civil servants aren't they? And Seddon is only making well-argued and evidence-based points about where the government could save huge amounts of money, increase quality of services without much pain to service users.

    Where is the evidence that the Audit Commission uses to inspect?

    Where is the evidence that shared services work?

    The questions rack-up, but the insults from these public servants keep flying as they try to avoid answering the questions.

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  • This is the most appaling response I've seen to date from the AC regarding any criticism of their work. Seddon asks a straightforward question and in return is treated like a member of the BNP by a quangocrat who represents the interests of an unaccountable and remote organisation that is running out of excuses for its existence. Every Council in the country has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds setting up structures to deal with this rigid and irrelevant body that still cannot point to a single example of how its work has actually improved local services ....Its most recent announcements would make Sir Humphrey look honest, accountable and useful.

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  • Seddon does sell a service it is true.

    Although unlike the Audit Commission that forces organisations to swallow its bad advice, his clients invite him because they want to learn how to improve.

    Of course the problem for the Audit Commission is that the service that Seddon sells work.

    When the organisation changes its thinking and learns the reality, from the AC perspective they get awkward. They question. They won't go back quietly into the box. What does the Audit Commission do, because it can't openly attack the public sector organisations apart from giving them a poor score? It attacks the man who helps them escape from a servile and abusive relationship.

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  • “It’s noteworthy in the Seddon view of the world how absent are citizens and voting. Councillors, media and the maelstrom of politics don’t figure. To him all organisations seem to be the same: working for Toyota equivalent to working for Torbay”

    Seddon is a systems thinker. If you were a systems thinker, David, you would understand that everything you need to know about the what and why of current performance lies in the organisation you are studying. Professor Seddon would say precisely the opposite to what you accuse him of; organisations are not all the same. ‘Best practice’ from Toyota or anywhere else cannot and should not be transferred from one to the next.

    Do your homework.

    Did you know that 1130 public sector managers, civil servants, academics and journalists are publically supporting John Seddon to become public services advisor to the Government?

    Why is that?

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  • Davis Walker's article is frankly laughable. He clearly hasn't a clue what he's contending with. He seems to think it's all about John Seddon and his consultancy. He clearly hasn't realised it's much, much more than that. It is a paradigm shift in thinking about how public services are provided. Indeed it is part of a wider philosophical shift in western thought on a range of issues.
    Here Walker simply reduces the argument to the parts which touch the paradigmatic bubble he is encased within. Within his realm systems thinking ideas do not make sense. He thinks that to say that targets always make performance worse is "nonsensical". This is very telling. To him and old paradigm thinkers this is a self evident truth. Only those who have bothered to ask the question "how exactly are targets supposed to improve performance?" and then demand an answer with some empirical evidence or at least a level of logic will realise that the target culture is intellectually vacuous. I have never heard of such an answer (empirical and/or logical)- if anyone has please let me know. When this is put to the purveyors of targets they almost always ignore the question. It is, to them, so obvious that targets are right thing to do that they need no explanation! It is this kind of thinking, epitomised by Walker's rant, that smacks of blind faith and a religious mind set - not Seddon's well argued assertion that in the service sector it is economies in the flow that are important not economies of scale.
    Walker even says of Seddon that "he seems to live in a world in which there are no taxpayers anxious about value for money....etc". A central pillar of Seddon's book on systems thinking in the public sector is providing value for money. He even breaks down the type of demand on services as value or failure. On the other hand "Value for money" in the minds of the Audit Commision is about cost, or at best the relationship between cost and prescribed "good practice" activities (most of which are not good and certainly should not be practiced).
    "Value" is not something the Audit commission as a body understands. Clearly David Walker doesn't. It would have been of much higher value were he to have engaged with the argument rather than attempting a character assassination - and quite dismally failing, I might add. But no doubt he ticked the boxes of the character assassination inspectorate - he's probably a 3 star assassin.
    I bet John Seddon is quaking in his boots!

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  • I will go to work today in the Corporate Policy section of a large urban council. All 30 people who work there will squander 8 hours of valuable work-time to service the wasteful demands of the Audit Commission's inspection regime.
    Organising "self-assessments", preparing for inspections, responding to dismally opaque, badly written and woefully misconceived inspection recomendations.

    We are like hand maidens servicing the demands of a sweaty tyrannical Roman Emperor, mopping his brow attending to his whims, the only purpose being to keep him happy and quiet.
    There are people there who seem to believe that this is a worthwhile and useful occupation. David Walker owes them a real job.

    I support all the comments from others above. I have worked previously in improvement roles, and now daily service the Audit Commision, I see that these two roles are incompatible. Keep the Audit Commision and its twisted ways, and you can't improve.
    The AC requires huge amounts of people and time to service, and this requires a constant stream of good news. To really improve you have to uncover problems. The presence of the AC and the culture it creates in Councils, causes problems to be hidden or not recognised as no-one is looking for them, instead we are looking for evidence of "good news" to support inspection agenda to reach some inspection score that is useful to nobody.

    David, why do you think I would be saying these things if they weren't true? I am at the coal-face of the inspection regime. I encounter empirical evidence every day that show how it damages organisations prospects for improvement.

    Here's hoping that someday soon the right people in the right places will recognise the huge cost and and waste of the Audit Commision, but in the meantime, I'm off for another 8 hours to service the Emperor.

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  • Bottom line is Audit Commission needs a bomb under it, to either destroy it completely or reduce it by 40% to 60% and to start with a new mandate, informed by the views of both Mr Seddon and Mr Walker.
    I've spent the last 10 years ticking boxes mainly FOR THE AUDIT COMMISSIONS BENEFIT. There are hundreds like me in my authority. Multiply that up for the whole of the public sector and it amounts to a criminal offence against the taxpayer. Its in the same league as the bankers, Parliament, Iraq, .........

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