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Jesper Christiansen

Policy-based evidence or evidence-based policy?

By June 25th 2009

“If we want people to innovate, the responsibility has to be with them” (John Seddon, 2009)

At MindLab we often experience how innovation the public sector can be a complex matter in a system that seems to be built for stability and not for development and change. John Seddon addresses this issue in his new book ‘Systems Thinking in the Public Sector’ where he tries to come with solutions for what he calls “the failures of the reform regime”.billede1

According to John Seddon innovation in the public sector is drowning. An intense monitorism poses systems of extreme control which leaves public workers demoralized in a high rate. Seddon argues that this is due to the neglecting of one almost too evident matter: the creation of systems based on the implementation of service experience from the points of view of workers and users.

He introduces what he calls ‘systems thinking’ which is based on the basic thought that the design of the system determines how actors behave. The only plan you will need, he argues, is knowledge by studying the system and the flow of demand in customer terms. Seddon puts it this way: “Things always go wrong. If something is going wrong predictably, you can only turn it off by re-designing the service”.

This should be done by involving public workers in control and development. “If you want someone to do a good job, design a good job to do. Workers have to have the means to control and improve their own work. The work of managers then changes to a cooperative role, working on the system. Working on the work with the worker”.

The measuring of public service should instead be based on the actual local work that is being done and in this way make room for variety and unexpected innovation. Thus, for Seddon there is no good way to set up target standards because they will always be arbitrary and never fit on a broad scale. This means, as we often underline at MindLab, that the complexity of public demands should be taken into account and policy should aim at coping with these rather natural and human circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that governments should stop talking about visions and purpose. As Seddon puts it: “It’s entirely legitimate for the government to talk about purpose, but it must be the managerial responsibility to make choices about measures and method”. This changes the locus of control and puts public workers at the centre of understanding and improving their work. As it should be according to Seddon to avoid a regime “that looks for policy-based evidence, not evidence-based policy”.

Quotes taken from the lecture ‘Cultural change is free‘ at 2009 conference of the Human Givens Institute.

Also read “Systems Thinking in the Public Sector” (John Seddon, Triarchy Press 2009) and check out The Systems Thinking Review.systems-thinking-cover


  1. Jonas kl. 15.57 10/08/2009

    If you are interested in systems thinking and John Seddons work in Danish, see the Danish web-site http://www.vanguard-consult.dk

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