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 – but 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 increased funding to tougher performance targets will not succeed in the long run.
Renowned systems thinker 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 offers 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.
Since the original publication of System Failure in 2001, many of its core ideas have been taken on by government. In this second edition, Chapman reflects on the experience of putting systems thinking into practice in public services, and explains why the changes he suggests are more difficult – and more urgent – than expected.
Systems thinking at work
When System Failure was published in 2002 struck a chord with a lot of people and it became a best selling pamphlet. It was reprinted in 2003 and then a second edition produced in 2004. Whilst its critique of much of government thinking was broadly accepted the pamphlet was criticised for not providing people with enough information to make the necessary changes. Jake Chapman responded by writing a short course for the Open University based on System Failure. The course, “Making Policies Work: systems thinking in government and management” is aimed at civil servants and public sector managers and provides them with the basic skills to use systems ideas in their everyday work. The course, first available in May 2005, is presented in May and October each year. The course is ten weeks long, is web-based and uses System Failure as the set book.
More information about the course Making Policies Work: systems thinking in government and management.
System Failure has also found its way into a post-graduate management programme at Hull University and is also included in a course at the Graduate School of Business at University of Cape Town.