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.