john seddon

Delivering Public Services That work

A little bird told me there has been a interesting follow up to John Seddon's book 'Systems Thining in the Public Sector' which is being described as 'proof of the pudding' Delivering Public Services that Work is a book of Case Studies showing how Systems Thinking has been applied to a particular public service in six local authorities. Each case study – written by the manager or project leader responsible – describes what was done, how it was done and the results achieved.

'Someone rang me just to thank me this morning. They didn't want anything. They just wanted to thank me. I've worked here for 8 years and that's never happened before. I was so surprised I didn't know what to say.' Team member, Stroud District Council, quoted in Delivering Public Services that Work

Seddon's prescription then and now (for the UK and for any other country using the quasi free market model for public services) is this:

  • scrap the myth of 'choice' (because the public don't want a choice of hospitals, they want a good hospital)
  • scrap targets (because they don't work and people spend their time trying to massage the statistics)
  • scrap specifications (because they're wrong and they don't work)
  • scrap inspections (because they're expensive to do and to prepare for and they only serve to ensure that people are doing the wrong thing correctly – meeting bad specifications)
  • scrap 'deliverology' (because it's nonsense)
  • scrap the obsession with sharing administrative and back-office services in huge call centres and 'data warehouses' (because they don't work half as well as front offices where people talk to the public)
  • scrap the Audit Commission (because it's a white elephant)
  • scrap the centralised regime that oversees the disastrous public sector (because it is the problem)

Then use systems thinking to understand and fix problems and deliver joined-up public services that ...

  • work better
  • work faster
  • save money
  • delight the public and
  • delight the people who deliver those services.

This book offers practical examples of how 'systems thinking' can both save money and transform services.

"There is currently a lot of talk of 'designing services around customers', of 'better community engagement', and of 'innovation in the front line'; all laudable ideas but with little more than hope that they will produce improvements in services.  This book showcases exactly how to go about realising those hopes; it lays out clearly the method to be adopted and demonstrates the results that can be achieved. It should be the first thing anyone aspiring to improve our public services should read." Andy Nutter, Director of Governance and Transformation, Islington Council

Masterclass with John Seddon

Last week I attended a Master class with Professor John Seddon: Beyond Targets in the beautiful Oran Mor in Glasgow. Having recently read John's latest book "Systems thinking in the Public Sector" I was keen to learn more about the parallels and differences between a systems thinkers and a service designer. I attended on behalf of the team at Thinkpublic to learn more about the how the public sector and third sector can work together to move ideas forward.

The aim of Seddon's work is to get people to change the way they think. An array of subjects were highlighted throughout the day ranging from adult social care, pot holes, housing benefits to retail banking. Not to forget the familiar example of  why we have to stay in all day and wait for the fix it guy to mend our broken phone...but he never really fixes it does he?


A lady from the audience highlighted that the event may well have been called "Thinking in the Public Sector" and I agree. It seems that thinking with people in mind is quite rare in the public sector. Taroub Zahran from The Glasgow Housing Association revealed they now provide an ideal service as they have changed their availability from 9am till 4.30pm to offering 24 hour a day, 7 days a week help line. I was bewildered to hear them saying that putting people at the heart of their service was huge change in thinking for them.

"Millions of pounds of tax payers money is wasted because we design services badly"

I heard the phrase "It is a design problem" several times. Although, in conversations with John, council workers and social workers afterwards - they believe that system thinking is very different from service design. It seems to me they are very much the same thing. System thinker or service design you deal with problems before they happen, you understand problems and study systems to learn where change is needed.

People get too caught up in quick fixes and short term solutions. How do we move this thinking forward?Are we making the best use of our systems?How can the third and public sector work together?

Designing a system or a service is a journey of improvement and empowerment that is all about change. It is about an increase in pride - intangible satisfaction. Services need to match with the people, not the other way around. We need to work from the outside in - spend time understanding what we do - what we do right and what we do wrong.

I strongly recommend John's book for those of you who are interested in services and systems. Freedom Command Control Better and Profit Beyond Measure were also mentioned for further reading.

I propose Systems Thinking is a shift in perspective rather than something completely new.

Systems thinking in Scotland

A Masterclass with Professor John Seddon, the author of Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, is happening in Glasgow on the 12th of May.2074420227_7af4fff5a2_b

Beyond Targets - Improving Efficiency, Morale and Staff Well-being in the Public Sector is an important event on how Scotland’s public services should be run for heightened efficiency and staff morale.

Photo by woody

Systems thinking in the public sector

This book is a thinking book. It is a book that presents a massive challenge, making it essential reading for anyone who cares about public services.

"John Seddon here dissects the changes that have been made in a range of services, including housing benefits, social care and policing. His descriptions beggar belief, though they would be funnier if it wasn’t our money that was wasted.

In place of the current mess, he advocates a Systems Thinking approach where individuals come first, waste is reduced and responsibility replaces blame. It’s an approach that is proven, successful and relatively cheap – and one that governments around the world, and their advisers, need to adopt urgently."

Seddon describes “systems thinking” as an approach that considers the organisation as a whole and taking the customer view from the outside looking into the organisation. The main task for a systems thinker is to truly understand what is happening in the system. By studying the flow of work and realising how everything works end to end from the customers point of view.

"A system must have an aim. Without an aim, there is no system."

He tells us that every service is subject to specifications, inspections, targets and incentives, founded on an implicit negative view of the public servant and human nature. It is these things that are making services worse.


"Politicians imagine that the people delivering the service must be bad. They are not. They work in a bad system, designed around targets. Leaders can become so wrapped up in their own rules and procedures that they lose sighs of simple, practical, common sense that applies to all human beings."

The book is packed with thought-provoking case studies:

"The first time a person seeks care, he or she will usually go through a call centre. The work taking the call will be following a script - usually a Department of Health - approved assessment 'tool' or something similar that meets wuth the regime's guidance. The worker's purpose is not to listen to the need, but to ask the caller for the information the call-centre worker requires to determine where to refer the case. The failure to listen is manifest."

Seddon talks of the concept of 'fragmentation' : imagine how people ( who are already vulnerable) feel when they are asked ( as this is often the case) to repeat the same personal details four or five times over.

The argument of this book is that the way to improve public services, and thus also their reputation and status, is to design against demand. Seddon presents over whelming evidence that within any system- design should be in the process, working with common sense and knowledge.

This book introduces radical changes to regimes, telling us to think outside-in. It left me wanting to know more. I now understand, more than ever before, how services and systems get clogged with waste.

To learn more visit Systems thinking in the public sector: The Systems Thinking Review aims to create curiosity about systems thinking, support individuals and organisations (a coalition of the inquisitive) who are practicing, and a showcase for the amazing results being achieved across the public sector. This site is for people who are inquisitive about how to improve service for customers and seeking to learn proven systems thinking principles.