'Without the ability to predict outcomes, the policy maker is confronted with no rational basis for choice'
The current model of public policy making is no longer right for a government that has set itself the challenge of delivery. Improvements are driven by central policy initiatives which assume a direct relationship between action and outcome. This is a false assumption.
Public services are complex adaptive systems which are subject to the law of unintended consequences, so intervention can make problems worse. That is why the carrot-and-stick approach to reform which links funding increases to tougher performance targets will not succeed in the long run.
Jake Chapman describes how the government's energetic attempts to force change from the centre are becoming counter-productive. The alternative is government based on continuous learning. This is increasingly important as the impact of communication technology and other accelerating social trends offer a moving target for public service reformers.
Systems thinking offers a better model for change in complex organisations such as the health service or the railway network. Case studies provided by the NHS Confederation show the unintended and often bizarre consequences of introducing new policies without considering their impact on the whole system.
Imposing targets produces unintended consequences which can reduce the effectiveness of the overall system. Long term solutions should rely more on the inherent adaptability of complex systems, rather than pushing for endless efficiency gains through penalities and incentives.
Jake Chapman is a renowned systems thinker and was professor of energy systems at the Open University until 2001. He acted as a consultant to the Performance and Innovation Unit's energy review. System Failure is part of an ongoing research programme on public service renewal.