Go with the flow… or not

9. August 2010 – 15:00 by John Heaven (TuTech Innovation GmbH)

Call Centre, by vitorcastillo on Flickr

Call Centre, by vitorcastillo on Flickr

In the course of researching our keynote speakers for the PEP-NET Summit I came across two articles, one of which is very relevant to (e-)participation, and the other will be of interest to anyone working in or with the public sector. They both put a matter of conventional wisdom under the microscope:  in one case, the assumption that bigger engagement excercises are always more valuable, and in the other, the idea that economies of scale improve efficiency. Hence, they both challenge the assumption that bigger is better.

So the message is not to go with the flow — unless it’s economies of flow you’re talking about. Confused? Then read on …

The first article is from the ScienceWise, the UK body that helps policy makers commission and use public dialogue to inform policy decisions in emerging areas of science and technology, and is called “Widening Public Involvement in Dialogue”.The fifteen-page report starts off by untangling three different types of dialogue: i) communications or campaigning, ii) research, iii) upstream dialogue or ‘true engagement’. It may be an interesting exercise for readers to think about what category their engagement exercises fit into.

Interestingly,  and contrary to what one often hears on the web 2.0 scene, there is a place for one-way communication, which is a valid form of communicating decisions that have already been taken. Perhaps this is about expectation management, and making it clear when the phase in which decisions can be influenced is over?

The most interesting part of the paper is when it examines motivations for commissioning engagement exercises; motivations which are often not expressed openly. It goes on to discuss the circumstances under which it makes sense (and is value for money) to involve, say, 10,000 people in a consultation rather than a group of 50. In summary, bigger is not always better — but is always more expensive. Bigger groups are not necessarily more likely to bring out more issues; and they are not per se more representative.

Papers like this are just what is needed to move the (e-)participation discussion beyond whether or not to engage to a more differentiated, nuanaced approach. For the full picture, read the paper!

A second paper, which I found through ConnectedRepublic.org (and which is admittedly only of tangential relevance to eParticipation), is “Why do we believe in economy of scale?” by John Seddon. It tackles the idea that, by pooling services within or across organisations, you can automatically make efficiency gains. Drawing upon examples from industry — including the key to Toyota’s success — and the public sector, he really takes the sword to a lot of what is assumed to be a “no brainer” in public service, advocating the economy of flow discovered by the late Taiichi Ohno, discoverer of the Toyota production system. Ohno’s management of car production flew in the face of much of what is held sacred in production line factories: standardisation, reduction of machines’ idle time, and keeping stocks high were out; responding exclusively to customer demand, using non-standard parts and products, and getting the most out of smaller machines was in. (You’ll understand this if you read the article!)

Seddon argues that the limitation economies of scale put upon the kinds of cases that a system can deal with mean that failure demand (demand on services caused by previous failures to deliver services) increases and thus costs climb. For example, although the cost of a phone transaction is cheaper than a face-to-face enquiry, because a call centres can only deal with standardised cases the mistakes that are made lead to repeat phone calls, and the extra management that is required increases costs. Seddon proposes a shift to economy of flow, as opposed to economy of scale, and value management rather than cost management.

I’m sure those of us who have worked in large public organisations can identify with a lot of what is said here, but the challenge is to show that the problems associated with one industry-inspired model can be solved by applying another industry-inspired model.

By the way, can you guess which speakers I was researching when I found these articles? (See pep-net.eu/pep-net-summit/ for the list of speakers.)

Tags: , ,

Post a Comment

The PEP-NET Blog uses the gravatar service to display your picture next to comments!