I have to drive for an hour to get to work and an hour home each day, which gives me ample opportunity to listen to the radio in the car. This is something I enjoy tremendously, especially given that my commute coincides with news programmes. Anorak that I am, and in order to pass the time effectively, I’m currently enjoying an ongoing game played out between the presenters of such programmes (Humphreys, Mair, Naughtie et al) and their interview subjects – it’s called the ‘Learning Lessons’ game. The rules are simple – I keep a count of how many consecutive days the sentence…

Well, John/Eddie/Jim, we’ve got to take a long hard look at the outcomes of this review and learn the lessons so that we can avoid these sort of problems in the future …or something like it is used live on air, and I get a point for each day. Currently I am on 78 – a new record.

In many ways this is no more than a reflection of political realities: things go wrong, problems are diagnosed, lessons need to be learned. There are though two nagging thoughts that come to me whenever I hear the ‘learn lessons’ defence:

1. To what extent can we really expect all the many lessons that are offered to be learned effectively?; and

2. How many of these problems would arise if much smaller problems which are brought to light were dealt with at an earlier point in time – nipped in the bud, if you like, before they had chance to develop? I’ll come back to Q2 in a minute, but in relation to my first, the National Audit Office published a report in February entitled ‘Helping Government Learn’. It produced five substantive recommendations, but most interestingly for me concluded that ‘much learning in government occurs following large projects, initiatives or crises, but to be more effective, learning needs to become a part of day to day practice’.

Quite.

Most of our contact with government is not through crises but through everyday tasks: dropping children to school, having bins collected or seeing a GP. And it is all too easy for our experiences of these services – educational, environmental, healthcare and others – to reflect poorly on those providing them. So in returning to Q2, two examples from my own experience strike me as instructive.

I recently attended our local school’s AGM, at which all the school governors were present. The meeting was so poorly advertised that I was the only parent who turned up. The pressure and spotlight was therefore on. When the head asked for my suggestions for improvement I offered up something I thought was a problem for many parents – i.e. not knowing in advance when key events (concerts, INSET days, sporting events etc) were coming up. The solution – simple – a summary sheet of all the important dates at the beginning of the term so that parents could put them on calendars and in diaries. It was received well. But two terms later no action has followed and the learning has been lost.

Secondly, a recent admission to hospital within the family was accompanied by an explanatory leaflet giving details of what would happen, when and where. Very little of it reflected the experience of the hospital stay. Whilst on the ward, questions were asked and the answers given were often non-committal (the ‘well, it depends on how things go…’ type) which did nothing to reduce anxiety levels at a difficult time. When it came to giving feedback on a relatively poor experience, there was little appetite to listen and learn from us, even though the messages were being offered in a positive way.

Now I fully appreciate that on many occasions, people’s experiences are very good – they are accurately informed and they offer praise for those providing the services. What I want to stress is that it doesn’t take much for this good feeling to take a nose dive, resulting in all public services being unfairly tarnished as unresponsive.

In closing I’d like to reflect back on what the NAO offered as one of the nine key ways to shift departmental cultures towards learning. They suggested that in ‘rewarding the generation of new ideas and an inquiring approach’, individuals and teams would begin to learn more effectively. Let’s hope so. Let’s believe that we can move from the glib assurances that lessons are being learned to seeing changed practices on the basis of what has been fed back.

The consequence would be that my record would be difficult to break…and wouldn’t that be nice.

Written by Dr Mark Llewellyn