What Grenfell Teaches Us About Over-Complexity

20/07/2017 11:47 BST | Updated 20/07/2017 11:47 BST

There are so many lessons to be learned from the horrific events at Grenfell Tower and we will be digesting them for some years to come.

One of the things which struck me was the amount of complexity which surrounded both the cause of the fire spreading so fast and the subsequent attempt to look after survivors in a decent way.

There were multiple agencies, regulators, commissioners, providers, subcontractors and suppliers involved and, in the end, finding out where it all went wrong is going to be tricky.

For the follow up there seemed to be a vacuum between the local council, the tenant management organisation and the national government with the local charities and community groups wanting to feed into something but finding no one willing to step up.

Some of this is incompetence and neglect or worse and heads have rolled. But it also points to another issue - are we making things too complex?

This issue has surfaced in a much of the work we do with charities and funders at NPC and has also emerged in my role on the advisory board of the Centre for Public Scrutiny.

At present, working on complex systems and system change is all the rage in the policy wonk world.

If we really want to solve problems, the argument goes, then we will need many agencies and groups to work together. To do this we need to have lots of collaboration, joining up, data-sharing, cross-cutting steering groups and so on.

One thing which is problematic in complex systems which need diagrams with dotted lines to explain things, is that it can be unclear who exactly is in charge.

While the coming of digital techniques may help put the user a bit more in control of the services they receive, if decision-making in complex systems becomes more hidden behind algorithms, there is a massive danger that we lose a human face ready to say: 'I take responsibility'.

In the end, the charity sector got out there and did things at Grenfell - it did not wait for agreement on the appropriate structures and payment mechanisms in order to move forward.

So, maybe before designing ever more clever ways of producing all this collaboration, we should first ask whether we can simplify the system, taking out as much complexity as possible, so lines of sight are clear and transparent and nobody can hide in the shelter of a multi-agency collaborative framework.

There are dangers on this path, too, of course. Many older municipalists used this sort of argument to assert that everything should come under the local authority - totally ignoring the chaos and silos within the local public sector itself and the dangers of producer capture if everything is done in-house. This route also tended to exclude other players like civil society or the private sector.

Equally, the nationalisation lobby - much stronger these days and prominent in the recent Labour manifesto - can argue that the number of different players in something like the rail system are bound to lead to cost and blame shifting, of co-ordination failures and a black hole where the passenger interest gets lost.

We can certainly do better than a world where train operating companies blame Network Rail for poor service and vice versa, while the long-suffering passenger waits for any information about train delays.

Similarly, we have managed to design systems which allow children in care to get lost and ignored. To tackle this we create more complex systems linking things up. We know the keys to success and in the scale of things there are not even that many children in care. Let's just sort it and not over-complicate it.

Sometimes the barrier to simplification is that it can appear harder than trying to do the collaboration.

We build in what some have called 'get rounds' to problems, eventually making the whole system too unwieldly. If one outcome of the terrible fire is that we think again about how to avoid over-complexity rather than focus on managing it, then we may have made a little progress.

A version of this blog was first published in the MJ.