‘Systemic failure’…

… is a phrase much in vogue this week, as the British government struggles to cope with a week of disasters. Systemic means “of, or pertaining to, a system”, and it is quite clear that the failures in the prison/deportation arrangements which allowed over a thousand convicted foreigners to escape deportation were indeed systemic in this sense. As a matter of fact, most large-scale failures are.

This point is intelligently made by Martin Kettle in his Guardian column this morning when he writes:

Leaving John Prescott’s extramarital affair to one side (although, ironically, the deputy prime minister may be the biggest political loser of the week), it is foolish to pretend that the prisons and health crises are not symptomatic of something larger. It was not mere coincidence that two big departments found themselves under fire this week. Away from the front pages and the TV news bulletins, plenty of other departments are also undergoing similar heavy pounding: the Treasury for the lost billions of the tax credit system; the Ministry of Defence for persistent cost overruns; Defra for the bungled introduction of the new system of farm subsidies; the Department of Constitutional Affairs for an overspend on legal aid that will lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs in the court service.

These are not personal failures on the part of ministers, though not all ministers are as brave as Charles Clarke in fessing up to their failures. The fact that Clarke and Hewitt have both had a horrid week is down to something more than the former’s combative brusqueness or the latter’s unfortunate schoolmarmish manner. Both, by any reasonable account, are talented and competent. What is wrong is clearly “systemic”, as Clarke put it about the prisoner releases, or even institutional. This week’s events have exposed some of the wider limitations of Labour’s way of managing public-service reform, as well as Labour’s way of governing more generally – and perhaps even some of the limitations of the modern state itself.

The problem is that the logic of the “systemic failure” analysis is never followed up. What’s needed is systemic management of these very large and complex programmes, that is to say, an approach to design and management that is informed by systems thinking. Until we get that kind of approach, we are always going to have systemic failures, because we are blind to the interactions (or lack thereof) which cause them.

When one of my former OU colleagues, Professor Jake Chapman, went to work part-time for the Cabinet Office, he spotted immediately that the absence of systemic thinking was a crippling defect in the governmental apparatus, and he co-operated with us to produce an Open University course, Making Policies Work: systems thinking in government and management, as a way of helping people understand what is needed. Maybe we should offer it for free to every civil servant in the country?