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Public services have emphasised targets and guidelines at the expense of understanding the importance of human relationships according to a new book by David Boyle FRSA. Changing this will be vital to driving down costs and improving outcomes but has major implications for the shape of institutions and their workforce.

Some years ago, I went to a conference 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 to remain where she was. An angry parent had recently hit another member of staff around the head with a pair of muddy shorts. Three years on, one of the angriest parents was the head of the school’s 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 at the time that this was not just a prime example of co-production in action; it was also the logical extension of localism. You cannot 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 is a genius when it comes to making relationships with people and making things happen. You cannot 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.  But he missed the one crucial ingredient that made the difference between success and failure: the crucial, missing human element. He was also revealing the besetting sin of officials; the habit of boiling down successful examples to universal principles that they believe can be applied anywhere.

Rolling out systems and projects without the human element pretends that somehow people aren’t crucial.  It imagines systems will work fine if individual relationships are not forged.

We have been 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, and they make the most humungous mistakes. We replace them with IT systems wherever we can.

In the process, what we have forgotten is that – especially in public services – human beings are also the only real source of success and the only source of genuine change. We know from our own experience that projects that succeed have a personality behind them, 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 will succeed. If you don’t, they will fail.  It means that conventional efficiency destroys human contact and human relationships.

These things matter; they cost services vast sums of money and have other important implications. For one thing it means that we should be recruiting people for their personality, not necessarily their qualifications. We certainly need to educate people differently, so that they are prepared for the creative challenges of working with people, rather than just the less creative one of submission to systems.

We have to find some ways to rescue those vital public institutions, which have employed the wrong people for generations, and whose ability to make things happen has been systematically undermined. It seems to me that we also have to reduce the scale of our public institutions. Large 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. So do we dare unleash again the sheer power of human relationships?  Can we afford not to?

David Boyle is a fellow of the New Economics Foundation and the author of The Human Element: Ten new rules to kickstart our failing organisations (Earthscan). He will be speaking at a RSA lunchtime debate 1pm, 3 November: Is there a better kind of efficiency?


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