Sitting on a working party the talk was all of governance, protocols, making sure that ‘the lessons are learned’. Life was proceeding as it has in the NHS for several decades on the general assumption that if control is good, more control is better.
This might be called the One Last Heave model of service improvement: having implemented the 137 recommendations made by Lord Laming following Victoria Climbie’s death, and being faced by the appalling case of Child P, the system homes in relentlessly on ‘further lessons that must be learnt’, another inquiry, yet more checks and controls. One Last Heave will get us to Nirvana where bad things can’t happen.
Such is life in an environment where systems are tightly coupled. And sitting there not doing full justice to my working party, I realised that’s been the major characteristic of the last 20 years of my life as a clinician in the NHS. We’ve been busy using the power of newly digitised practice to build ever more tightly coupled systems. More and more is governed, linked, joined up, defined, evidence-based. Variation has been driven out, and following agreed practice is valued over the exercise of judgement and discretion.
The dream behind building tightly coupled systems is that they will lead to control, equity and cost-effectiveness. Which may be so in the short run but in the longer term tight coupling leads to rigidity, risk aversion and declining innovation. Tightly coupled systems deliver decreasing returns – every additional goal, policy, organisation, partner or issue leads to less return. There are two reasons for this. Firstly because variation is seen as the enemy: noise, randomness, error and failure are all things to be engineered out where as in fact they are often needed to make the system work. And are an important source of insight and innovation. Second the coordination costs of tightly coupled systems rise non-linearly as the number of things to be coupled increases. So ‘joined up government’ quickly becomes toxic.
And now we are faced with an economic situation that gets ever more uncertain. It is unlikely that the ‘one more heave’ philosophy of tightly coupled systems will work in a severe recession. Being risk averse, relying on protocols, KPI’s and micro-management will fail in the newly austere state because such approaches deliberately exclude the variation from which the new solutions will emerge.
The answer to all this? Look for systems that have increasing returns. Google, Wikipedia, e-Bay, the web itself – all deliver increasing returns. The more people use, edit and review Wikipedia the better it becomes. Such systems are almost always loosely coupled. No body is forced to use Google, no one accredits e-Bay buyers, and there was no government roll out plan to teach teenagers to use SMS text messaging. Is it possible to build increasing return systems that help improve health? Don’t know yet, but if it is I know they will look more like the net than NICE, more like Wikipedia than Whitehall.