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Walker v Seddon - the debate goes on


David Walker’s riposte to the call by management guru John Seddon for the Audit Commission’s abolition has provoked keen interest on

The public services watchdog’s communication managing director has accused Mr Seddon of failing to understand the political context that the commission works in.

In his column for Politics Matters, Mr Seddon had called for Tory leader David Cameron to scrap the commission if he becomes prime minister after the next election.

Mr Walker responded: “It’s noteworthy in the Seddon view of the world how absent citizens and voting are.

“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.”

The debate in this article - see comments - prompted an opinion article in the Daily Telegraph’s website.


Readers' comments (117)

  • I think the comments here are really good - vital reading for the Audit Commission I would say. I wonder if David Walker will report them in? If not, he's in danger of repeating the mistakes Marks & Spencers customer research people made when they didn't report to their Board the first signs that customers were finding M & S "tired" - and that nearly brought the company down

    My own view? The Audit Commission has done a brilliant job but thats in the past and if it didn't exist we wouldn't now invent it. Looking forward, its not likely to be much relevant to the decade of challenge we face from next year. I would:

    reverse the audit element into the NAO and creat Audit England ( like Audit Scotland)
    scrap the rest and put the savings in to a national invest to save fund
    deduct double that figure from the block grant ( for some of the savings from the extra cost everyone is complsaing of )
    give 10% of that to the LGA to fund an excellent programme of Peer Review ( but without the 4* ratings and public naming and shaming)
    Put the rest of the savings into the national invest to save fund for authorities fighting the impact of the recession to bid against.

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  • It is precisely because the target setters, regulators, and other walk-on bit players of the fragmented services systems that now make up public service, that any focus on the citizen - the paying customer - has been lost.

    Seddon is absolutely bang on the money [as it were] to draw attention to the dis-benefits the Audit Commission, and the rest, have brought to public service.

    I used to work for the AC. I have worked with NHS and other service and workforce regulators. I have undertaken serious case reviews when things have gone horribly wrong for those who use social care and/or NHS services. The repetitive theme pulsing through all of these has been the pressure on managers and staff to hit the target - but miss the point of what they are doing - because they have to follow chopped-up rules andreasoning, rather than focus wholely on the citizen .

    I absolutely endorse Seddon's analysis of the Kafka-esque madness of contemporary UK public service. And yes - abolition of the Audit Commission would be one change worth hastening in to signal a sea change in how we provide services to our citizens.

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  • David Walker has indulged in a personal attack on John Seddon and has failed to even consider his viewpoint. If he were really interested in improving services, he would attempt to listen. Many, many people working in the public sector believe that John Seddon is right. David Walker has a duty to try to understand why they think this. To improve, you have to understand the what and why of performance. Setting arbitrary targets and measuring against those does not not help improve performance. In fact, it causes performance to deteriorate. Millions of taxpayers are suffering as a result. We deserve better.

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  • If David Walker had taken the issue head on his argument would be far more robust. Instead he falls back on evidence that supports the debate he wants to engage in. Once again Central Government use arguments to justify themselves that have no bearing on the issue in hand. Please David... PLEASE engage with just one point made by John. Take the stroud housing point and explain, using facts, why they should go back to the old way of doing things just to hit targets?

    That being said good targets can drive success. Having something to aim for, to aspire to is important to all service delivery. Some local authorities given the chance would focus on the quick wins and crowd pleasers rather than tackling big issues on climate chnage and recycling targets.

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  • As a senior manager in a District Council the evidence is very clear - the Audit Commission's approach is centralist and out of touch with the services we provide. It shows a lack of understanding of what's important to residents and the local community most of the time.
    Systems thinking is an immense improvement in that it enables officers at all levels to engage in what they really want to do - provide good services for customers - it's worked brilliantly for us and liberated the staff who have been through it and will save us money by only doing the work we need to.
    The Commission's approach has led to limited progress and takes us backwards at times - it also adversely affects the experience of the customer.
    If the Audit Commission want to look at the evidence then they can visit here and I'll get the staff who did the really hard work to take them through why systems thinking works.
    Or we can discuss why the Use of Resources system is going to move my Council from a level 3 to a (lower) level 2 when we have continued to improve! The reason - it's a new higher standard - raising the bar - so it was wrong before and now they have got it right??

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  • The last resort of an intellectually bankrupt organisation is to engage in personal attacks on those who have the timerity to suggest that the 'emperor' has no clothes. Clearly the Audit Commission, as represented by its communications managing director, is well past being relevant to public service.

    The sooner David Cameron removes this unaccountable quango the better off we will all be. The personal attacks by David Walker on John Seddon show the real issue with the Audit Commission. The AC arrogantly sees itself as having a right to exist no matter what it asks organisations to do and whether or not those things are adding any value to the public. The AC are ill-informed on what matters to the public. Equally they are ill-informed about what is actually happening in the organisations they inspect.

    The amount of time and money spent by many organisations in preparing for inspections by the Audit Commission and pretending to meet their target regime is the real scandal. I am aware of several organisations that have squandered over £100,000 each preparing for each AC inspection.

    I don't know of anyone who thinks the AC and its specification regime has ever added any value to anyone other than consultants who help organisations prepare for the AC inspection. I do know of organisations who think up silly scams to fool inspectors by having catchy internal programmes and coach their staff for weeks on what answers to give inspectors.

    Leaders who are career minded often drive their organisations to 'play the game' with the AC. Therefore, poor leaders do bad things and are duly rewarded with further promotions, because of star ratings, thus perpetuating the belief that compliance is more important than serving the public.

    John Seddon's apparent crime was to tell the truth as seen by his organisation. What he and his people appear to have seen is that complying with AC requirements actually makes organisations worse off than if they had not bothered to comply.

    Let's hope that in these financially constrained times the next government will dispose of the Audit Commission. Then Mr David Walker can go and get a real job!

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  • Jon Harvey

    Back in January 2003, James Strachan the then new Chairman of the Audit Commission went on record to say to MPs: "The problem we have faced time and time again is the slavish devotion to targets, many of which have not been set very intelligently. It's a surefire way of not getting improvement in public services. People see targets set by government, monitored by them, and with responsibility for their validation. There is a real danger that people will not believe them,"

    (Full report,11032,871947,00.html)

    What happened?

    We need a 21st Century approach to performance improvement and John Seddon talks a great deal of sense. I hope that either this government or the next heed his words!

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  • Why don't we all just adopt the Systems Thinking approach, do just enough box ticking to satisfy the AC, improve all of our services and then wait until the AC just naturally disappears.

    Once the customer is happy because their demand is always met with value, there will no longer be any need for the AC.

    Rather than spending a lot of (wasted) energy arguing with the AC and trying to tell them how bad a job they are doing, why don't we just put all our efforts into proving how good it can be.

    This will be the best use of our resource; if they aren't interested don't involve them. Let them play in a corner on their own with their out-of-date toys while we work to improve our services for the public, while, by default, watching the AC wither away in a puff of their own pointlessness.

    Don't try and make then commit suicide, or even try and collude someone else into murdering them for us by trying to persuade Mr Cameron to disband them - let’s just slowly and surely cut off their oxygen supply.

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  • Interesting that DW suggests that CPA assessments were not targets...hmmmm maybe in his view, but the reality on the ground is THEY WERE PERCEIVED as TARGETS!!!!

    All tax payers are anxious about money and getting value for it, however they like me would be appalled at the ludicrous ways we go about spending thousands to report on pennies!

    His riposte that politics dont figure is wildly off the mark as JS has been banging on about getting ministers out of management for years. It is precisely because of politics and the desire of politicians to be seen as "achieving" and "delivering" that we have the ludicrous targets that we have.

    JS has been attempting for years to draw attention to the stupidity of managing services by centrally imposed dictats, instead of letting local services understand what their particular needs are and then deliver them in the most efficient way possible. These are as anyone who works in LG know the causes of waste and also the very reason that blockages occur when we try to make serious improvement.

    Bear in mind that the system favoured by DW, is self perpetuating to the point that the best way to get ahead for those more interested in their personal careers (you know who you are) will of course focus on what gets counted, (the targets and performance measures). This means of course that services get worse but the measures look good!

    DW suggests that he follows the evidence, well may I ask where is this evidence, show us real hard data from a customers perspective that service works better in an economies of scale environment..... will I wait a long time?

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  • At the end of the day it seems there are systems thinkers and non-systems thinkers. I know what camp I'm in. Now 40 years on let's remember it systems thinkers sent a man to the moon. I wonder, in hindsight, what heights AC will claim to have scaled.

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