November 4, 2015
My book of the month is ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed. Black Box thinkers see mistakes and failure as the best way to learn. They are the opposite of those who deny making mistakes, blame others or attempt to spin their way out of trouble.
The book is particularly pertinent for us in Wales because I think we have developed a public service culture that can make it very difficult for senior officials or politicians to admit to mistakes or failures for fear of public humiliation, misrepresentation or damage to reputation. This can lead to defensive and self-preservation behaviours which are ultimately barriers to good learning. Syed demonstrates, through some excellent examples, why we need to develop a culture that encourages the reporting of and learning from failure. I like this book so much that I’m going to recommend it to every manager in Denbighshire and to Academi Wales for wider use across Wales.
I went to see ‘The Father’, by Florian Zeller, at The Wyndhams Theatre. The performances were outstanding. The play is about Alzheimer’s but the acting was so good that it was funny as well as sad and thoughtful. The writing was so clever that the audience actually experienced some of the confusion that Alzheimer patients suffer from.
The play made me reflect, once again, on how unsustainable our current Health and Social Services are in responding to the demographic challenges we are facing. We must now address this and come up with integrated services in the community, even if that implies some unpopular decisions about current Health service provision.
October 6, 2015
I have just finished reading ‘The Power Broker’ by Robert Caro. I started reading this book in July but set it aside during August because it’s too big to take away – over 1200 pages long. It’s by far the most impressive book I’ve read this year. It is the story of Robert Moses, the most powerful man in New York’s history. The book is a study of how a single person accumulated and used power to change a whole city and the lives of millions of people. Barack Obama’s thinking about politics was shaped by this book. He says that when he read it he was ‘mesmerised’. So if you are interested in power and how it can be acquired and applied and how it can ultimately corrupt and do more harm than good then this is the book.
This month my PA Olwen Williams retired after 20 years of service for Denbighshire. She had been PA to every chief executive since the council was created. When staff leave we ask them to fill in an exit questionnaire; the idea being to learn from staff’s experiences of working for the council. One of the questions is: ‘what did you least like about your job’. Olwen said she least liked taking minutes. This was surprising to me because for the six years that we’d worked so closely together I didn’t have a clue that taking minutes was not one of her favourite jobs. Her minutes were always excellent! We all have aspects of our jobs that we like less, but it’s hard to see that in a true professional, which Olwen certainly was.
Recently there was some controversy in England when it became public knowledge that some health care packages included what appeared to be luxury items. I recall pony riding and holidays being mentioned. Some sections of our media described it as unacceptable use of public money. However, there are instances when what public services do is both expensive and ineffective and we must try new ideas, even if they seem odd. We had a case of a man who kept calling out an ambulance – more than 20 times- in one month, even though he didn’t really need one. Each time an ambulance is called to his area it costs the tax payer around £400. All attempts at pleading with him, explaining the impact of his behaviour on genuine cases etc were unsuccessful. The police didn’t really want to prosecute him because he is quite vulnerable and more a nuisance than a criminal. His real problem is loneliness and his only real interest is watching sports. We offered to purchase a sports package for a year and a TV for him, if he signed a contract to say he’d stop calling the ambulance service, unless urgent. We knew the media and some sections of the community would have criticised us for this but we were prepared to give it a go. However, he didn’t sign a contract because he didn’t want the responsibility of keeping to it, so it didn’t happen. I congratulated the staff for their innovative thinking.