Book review: The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon

Written by Barry Sheerman on 2 February 2015 in Culture
The picture Seddon paints of catastrophic mismanagement leading to terrible and expensive public services does not always chime with my experience.

From its ominous title you could be forgiven for thinking that management guru John Seddon’s latest book The Whitehall Effect is yet another boilerplate rant against the alleged waste and incompetence of the public sector. But to my relief Seddon avoids the hackneyed approach of unfavourably comparing the public sector with the more ‘innovative’ and ‘dynamic’ private sector, and instead offers an original diagnosis of the public sector’s problems, as well as a provocative prescription.

Seddon’s central claim is that since the Thatcher era, governments have continuously tried to improve standards in public services while reducing costs but the claims for actual improvements are often “doubtful” while costly catastrophes have become commonplace. To deal with rising demand, governments have tried outsourcing, setting targets, increasing competition and choice, publishing league tables, using large-scale IT systems, and seeking  economies of scale, to name but a few of the much-vaunted reforms. Most of the time, according to Seddon, this has resulted in higher overall costs, less efficiency, lower staff morale, an expanding public sector, and poorer quality of services.

Seddon argues that if you concentrate on cutting unit costs while ignoring overall efficiency and performance, overall costs will go up; inspections drive up costs and fail to address variety; targets lead to gaming, perverse incentives and sub-optimal performance, and so on. He admits that much of his thinking is counterintuitive and hard for the Whitehall establishment to swallow, wedded as it is to these ‘improvement’ models. He pulls no punches: the Audit Commission (now effectively abolished), the NAO and ministers who seek evidence to support predetermined policies (‘spray-on evidence’, as civil servants call it) are dismissed for closing their minds to the evidence of failed methods or the possibility of different approaches. Their answers are always to ‘plan better’; ’show more leadership’; ‘improve performance management systems’. Just bang your head a bit harder!

Interestingly, Seddon is equally scathing about the large-scale private sector providers now earning vast sums from government contracts – PFI schemes, outsourced services, large call centres, back offices etc. He is particularly critical of commissioning and fragmentation in the NHS.

Seddon advocates a very different ‘systems thinking’ approach which was successfully adopted by Toyota and has been adapted for some services in the public and private sectors. Services should be designed from a thorough knowledge of the demand and not according to predetermined specifications. He does not advocate complex or expensive methodologies – beware the “tool heads”. Instead of trying to “industrialise” public services and fit variable and complex public needs into a monolithic IT system, he advocates experimentation, flexible services and local delivery. He was one of the first to predict that the Universal Credit scheme, based as it is on a large IT system, would run into trouble as the system would be incapable of dealing with the variety of demands presented.

Instead of debating management philosophies, he invites politicians to go and visit frontline services and ask some simple questions – particularly, how long does it take to resolve a case from beginning to end? This is very different from asking how long it takes to get through to the call centre. He cites examples of local government services – planning, housing services, food safety and others – that have been transformed using the systems thinking approach.

Reading through Seddon’s examples of failures, I couldn’t help thinking that he might be subject to certain cognitive biases. It is all so negative. What about Whitehall’s quiet successes, where money was well spent and better services delivered? These are less likely to be noticed because success is less newsworthy. Newspapers never publish a story saying ‘Government scheme performing adequately’ or ‘Things going roughly as planned’.

It is not as if these successes do not exist. The Cabinet Office’s release of the GOV.UK site, which has consolidated information about the public sector into a single website, has been widely heralded as a success. In my time as Chair of the Education Select Committee I witnessed several successful reforms such as the regulation of class sizes and admissions code reform.

It is possible for politicians to come up with effective, evidence-based policy which cascades down the civil service and results in better public service outcomes. The picture Seddon paints of catastrophic mismanagement leading to terrible and expensive public services does not always chime with my experience. Nevertheless, The Whitehall Effect is a lively and stimulating read that warrants the attention of every civil servant, politician and citizen who takes an interest in how our country is run.


Barry Sheerman is Labour Co-op MP for Huddersfield. This article first appeared in The House magazine.


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