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