Tackle the most difficult cases first

This is the first blog post of 2014, and along comes an opportunity to write about one of New Weather’s objectives for the year ahead – beginning to set out the parameters of a new kind of measurement system for public services which doesn’t actively undermine the objectives.

Actually, this goes back a few weeks, to the thrilling interview by Decca Aitkenhead in the Guardian with Louise Casey, the head of the government’s troubled families programme.

I realise that ‘thrilling’ is not a usual epithet to use about this kind of thing.  I found it so because it was authentic and because I admire Louise, which is why she played such a key role in my book about the future of organisations, The Human Element.

Perhaps I also imagined some echo of the thesis I made there when she said:

“All of what we do turns on something very simple: the relationship between the worker and the family.”

I believe that to be the case, and it is a revolutionary doctrine to be articulated from inside government because so many of the approved systems imply something so different, and – as I believe – very much less effective.

What I originally found so interesting about the way that Louise Casey worked, back in the days when she was tackling rough sleepers, was her refusal to accept more than the most basic official targets.  She did this, as she does everything, through sheer force of personality – but the reason is illuminating: because projects of that kind need to concentrate their resources on the most difficult cases first.

If you do that, then the less difficult cases tend to get swept up in the process, but if you are bound by targets then you tend to focus on the easiest first.  Especially if this is a payment-by-results contract.

What happens then is that the most difficult cases just get further entrenched, while government resources are poured into supporting mild cases.  You can see this absolutely everywhere: it is part of the tragedy of UK public services in the Blair/Brown years, and it has still not really been tackled.

So when I heard that the Universal Credit’s delivery chief has decided to test out the system on the easiest cases first, you kind of suspect the game is up – which is a pity, because it is a radical and important idea, disastrously implemented.

And if you are still wondering why the DWP is boasting that it has an IT asset worth £150m after writedowns, take for a moment the case of the US insurance giant MetLife.  They have a new app that allows them to see into all their 70 different and incompatible databases and see what each customer needs.  Guess how long it took to build?  Ninety days.

I’m afraid this doesn’t set out what we can do instead, but it does explain some of the constraints.  The human element is vital, partly to deal with variety, and partly because human beings will probably be very much better than IT systems at inspiring change in people.

And because IT systems find the difficult cases, well, difficult.

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