Thursday, 29 January 2009

Blairite Modernisation at 8.10am

Amidst the normal chaos of a family breakfast I half caught a Today programme item on adult illiteracy this morning. The relevant Minster, John Denham, praised the existing programmes, claiming that they were recognised as world leading - despite criticism by a Commons Committee. The other interviewee was Phil Beadle, one-time ‘Teacher of the Year’.

Now Denham is, in my view at least, very much the principled face of New Labour: I don’t agree with him about much but I do recognise his integrity. He knew how to deal with Humphreys – he gave competent, political answers. Beadle – who I also respect as a communicator – didn’t. He gave professional answers: he stressed that the existing programmes weren’t targeting the right people, that the current definitions of illiteracy were bizarre, that the easier cases were being targeted and that the wrong methods – e.g. something other than phonics – were being used. Humphreys simply didn’t understand the detail and, for once, seemed genuinely bemused.

It set me thinking, once again, about the target driven culture of public services. People game play when faced with targets. Things which feel like basic management information for those at the top of the tree can seem like byzantine and pointless form filling for those actually doing the work – and form-filling which actually prevents them from telling people higher up what’s really going on.

I don’t believe this is unique to public or not-for-profit services. But I do think that the culture is more pernicious in public service as it seems much more plausible that a profit driven enterprise might well have relatively simple aims – boosting revenues, financial returns and share values, for example – whereby top management can accurately measure local performance on the basis of a limited number of indicators. Public service is inherently different: what counts as success - or failure – is more complex to define, and may change over time due to political perceptions of the current balance of problems. So either targets grow like topsy so there become simply too many of them – or they just measure the wrong things. Both routinely happen in my experience.

Never mind all this ideological stuff about 'provider capture'. Any well run enterprise wants to be captured by its staff, because it wants the staff to feel it owns the work that they do. & that means facilitating a dialogue between the top of any organisation and the people who work for it - and the people who consume its services - over what they're trying to do in the first place.

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