David Boyle

The human element: another kind of efficiency

Speech to RSA debate on new kinds of efficiency, 3 November 2011.

Some years ago, I went to a conference somewhere north of here – by about a couple of hundred miles – about the future of extended schools.

The first speaker was an amazing headteacher, Debbie Morrison, then the head of Mitchell High School in Stoke on Trent, who is the first story in my book The Human Element.

She told the dramatic story about how the school had been turned around, and also her first day in post. 

There had been a commotion outside her office and her secretary warned her not to go outside.  Because the angry parent was the one who had recently hit another member of staff around the head with a pair of muddy shorts.

Three years on, another angry parent was head of their anti-social behaviour unit.  Her friends had also taken responsible roles around the school.

And they were paid – unusual this one – in chocolate coins.

It struck me that this was not just a prime example of co-production in action.  It was also the logical extension of localism.

You can’t have government guidelines about how to pay people in chocolate coins.  It is depends entirely on the relationships involved, and on the people. 

Debbie Morrison is one of those people who has a genius at making relationships with people and making things happen.  You can’t boil that down into a set of deliverables.

After she sat down at this conference, the next speaker was the civil servant charged with rolling out extended schools across one of the regions. 

It was clear within a minute or so that he would fail – and for precisely the same reason that Debbie Morrison succeeded. 

He thought in terms of systems, KPIs, targets and guidelines.  Bbut he missed the one crucial ingredient that made the difference between success and failure.  The human element.

He was also revealing the besetting sin of officials.  Which is boiling down successful examples to universal principles which they believe can be applied anywhere.

This is what happens.

First, they take an intractable problem about neighbourhoods, communities and places.  Then they remove what seems to them to be irrelevant but essentially human details.


Second, they formulate some abstract maxims that can apply to any situation anywhere.

Third, they appoint somebody who can be trusted to put those maxims into effect without taking any notice of local peculiarities.

Fourth, they assign a narrow measure to every aspect of the task.  They convince themselves that you can somehow capture and pin down the progress by measuring it.

The trouble is that you can’t actually separate the general from the specific. 

The little things actually matter most.  The looks exchanged between neighbours.  The small repairs to minor pieces of vandalism.  That’s what really make the difference between success and failure.

Human details.  Relationships.

Rolling out systems and projects without that pretends that somehow people aren’t crucial. 

It imagines it’ll all work fine if individual relationships aren’t forged. 

But the thing about successful people is that they make things happen in their own way.

They use their human skills.  Not the boiled down maxims preferred by those who employ them.

No wonder hierarchies often hate successful employees.

So we have two other speakers today who exemplify the search for new kinds of efficiency – new kinds of effectiveness too. 

My friend Halima Khan, who I’ve been working with in our joint development of the idea of co-production.

John Seddon I am a huge admirer of.  It seems to me that he has the real answer to public service reform.

I don’t want to repeat what they’re going to say.  Though they are related to this idea, it seems to me. 

That human beings have a critical role to play in public services – and not just in public services.

We’re living through an era when the human factor is regarded as a pernicious source of error. 

People mess things up.  They get ill, have tantrums, make the most humungous mistakes.

We replace them with IT systems wherever we can.  Preferably IT systems that provide information to the bosses before they help the customers.

What we’ve forgotten, it seems to me, is that – especially in public services – human beings are also the only real source of success.

The only source of genuine change.

Things that succeed have a personality behind them.  We know that from personal experience, but we fly from the implications.

It means that, if you employ imaginative and effective people, especially on the frontline, and give them the freedom to innovate, they’ll succeed. 

If you don’t, they will fail. 

Because conventional efficiency destroys human contact and human relationships.

Because we have to trust people sensibly, rather than trust systems blindly.

I’ll risk just two statistics.  According to a TES survey, 21 per cent of Year 8 pupils say they’ve never spoken to a teacher.

Scary that one.

According to a survey of University of Chicago Hospital, three quarters of patients couldn’t name any doctor who had treated them.

Of the rest, 40 per cent got the name wrong.

These things matter.  They cost vast sums of money too.

There are some critical important implications as well.

For one thing it means that we should be recruiting people for their personality, not necessarily their qualifications.

John Timpson of the Timpson’s chain said he realised that expecting new recruits to have experience of key-cutting reduced their pool to about 20,000 people in the whole of the UK.

Now he recruits people according to their personality and trains them later. 

Often direct from prison, but that’s another story.

We certainly have to educate people differently. 

We have to find some ways to rescue those vital public institutions which have employed the wrong people for generations.

Where they have systematically removed their ability to make things happen.

It also seems to me that we have to reduce the scale of our public institutions. 

Factory schools and hospitals are good for the salaries of their senior staff, but big institutions have to rely that much more on systems than relationships.

They will always be less effective for that very reason.

We know from research that small police forces catch more criminals than big police forces. 

We know that big hospitals are more expensive to run per patient than small hospitals.

We know that patients recover quicker when they know the doctor.

We also know that small schools have more choice, more after school activities, more tolerance and better results than big schools.

Of course they do.  There are genuine relationships there, not systems.

So that’s the challenge for public services, it seems to me. 

Can we dare unleash again the sheer power of human relationships?  And can we dare not to?




title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers