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Public Service Bookshelf

4 min read

Some favourite reads (mostly listens these days) from my Public Sector bookshelf.

Foundations of public services:

  • Radical Help, Hilary Cottam, tells the story of some amazing experiments into new ways of thinking about public services and policies. Easy to read and relate to. Has the feel of a set of research notes and the stories will keep popping back into your mind years later.
  • Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is an engaging introduction to behavioural economics and choice architecture. The “nudge” label has fallen out of favour but behavioural economics is still hugely influential in public services. You will keep spotting choice architecture all around you after reading this.
  • The Five Giants, Nicholas Timmins, recounts the history of our modern welfare state. I consumed this like an epic historical thriller. I’m glad we don’t face the same giant problems any more but maybe we could use a bit of William Beveridge’s “cranky zeal” in tackling the ones we face today.
  • The Blunders of Governments, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe, is a sobering and slightly cruel review of some damaging mistakes made by UK government over the last few decades.
  • The Digital Doctor, Robert Wachter, shares some warnings and encouragement about the introduction of digital technology. It is a balanced book written by someone who clearly has a deep understanding of technology and healthcare. With different examples, I expect the lesson would hold for many other public services.

The big picture…really, really big!

This batch of titles have an enormous scope covering the whole Earth over generations (or eons). They all challenge accepted ways of looking at the world and expose these as very transient or even just tricks of our collective imagination. The way our world works could be shaken by a collective act of will. That is a bit frightening but also a quite inspiring. I think you will spot smaller examples of the things these books cover around you and you may be able to use the insights from these books to better deal with them or just accept them [1].

Finding the right things to work on and getting them done:

This collection covers developing and delivering products and services. These are much more down to earth and pragmatic than the last set. They include practical calls to action backed by strong arguments. I’ve applied things from all of these in my work over the last few months and expect to go further in future. The different styles might not work for everyone. Eliyahu Goldratt wrote “business novels” where you learn alongside the characters in the book. Don Reinertsen has written a dry instruction manual but it is not nearly has hard going as its reputation suggests - especially if you have warmed up by looking at his conference talks and interviews.

Working with humans:

This final set are a healthy reminder that the managers, team members, customers, users, suppliers, opponents and whatever are all humans. Individually they are far more complex and capable than the roles or categories we try to put on them. Collectively they can achieve extraordinary things, especially if we treat people as humans rather than as pieces in a board game or components in a machine.


  1. I’ve shared some examples in a series of posts about trying to change things at the scale of a big team or organisation. ↩︎

  2. I am in the middle of “Start with Why”. I have watched a few of Simon’s engaging conference talks and, at first, I wasn’t getting anything new from the book. It came alive for me again when I reached the sections about finding your own “why” and I am really glad I stuck with it. ↩︎

Originally published on by Richard Barton