Sunday, 20 November 2011

Referendums and demonstrations: a coda

I mused recently about why I felt increasingly concerned about referendums in contrast to protest activity such as demonstrations and marches. This set of questions continues to rumble around my mind and in particular the relationship with aspects of post-democracy with which I've been concerned for some time. 

One aspect which was crunched very well in this article by Peter Beaumont is the degree to which the e-petition initiative and the referendum are at root a transactional approach to securing change. Not a programme. Not a hard slog through democratic processes and checks and balances. But a way of allowing niche ideas to gain a level of prominence that they would not otherwise have managed and avoiding some of that fuzzy and difficult balancing of differing interests that is the stuff of deliberative democracy. They are an over-ride mechanism to try to secure a quicker answer. 

The fuel tax petition recently is a 'good' example of the way that a single perspective has in practice held representatives hostage, although clearly they have to some extent allowed themselves to be so held. One anticipates that the conclusion of a debate on an e-petition on wholesale further regulation of emissions in the interests of slowing down climate change might have been rather different.

I was very taken with Beaumont's phrase that 'democracy is a conversational process that moves at a human speed'.

That clearly doesn't work for the financial markets. But there is a greater sense of impatience: that representative democracy should not be allowed to obstruct particularly when it hobbles progress on a single issue obsession. Indeed, that Government and discussion are part of the problem.

Transactional democracy has a completely different set of values to those of deliberative democracy. The former simply wants an answer, preferably entirely on the terms of the proposer. The latter may be more cumbersome and it may be messy but it provides a basis on which wider interests are given a proper airing.

Personally, I prefer a conversation to a monologue.

Missing the target and still missing the point

The announcement this week that NHS waiting time targets are to be reintroduced was hardly a surprise. You don't need to be a health economist to have anticipated that the effect of removing the target when budgets were being squeezed harder than at any time in the history of the NHS and when massive change was being unleashed on all parts of the system would be to see greater rationing of the available services. That is a rational response by a system under strain.  

What this does reveal though is that the debate about targets remains frustratingly polarised. At the risk of annoying a number of former colleagues, the truth is that there is a strong case for national targets when there is a need for a general shift in focus or performance and the targets are simple and well designed. The use of targets by the last Government in health and in education on basic issues such as literacy and numeracy was in my view entirely appropriate even if there was some collateral damage at the margin. 

The case against the target culture is also well understood: perverse incentives from badly designed metrics; micro-management when there should be more discretion for managers; poor data quality; gaming by professionals to get management off their backs; adversarial relationships which ruin co-operation. One could go on. 

So the present Government had some good points to make about the way that the McKinsey inspired delivery chain culture instituted under the Labour administration with performance metrics coming out of the ears of everyone involved had gone way too far. That critique was shared by many people working in public services frustrated beyond endurance by the amount of time and effort spent on useless activity and by the immense lack of trust that it implied. 

Badly designed performance metrics were the bane of existence. When I worked for a London borough our frequent refrain was that either we or someone else would be 'hitting the target but missing the point'. 

The removal of a top down bureaucratic performance culture may be something that superficially brings together central and local. But in practice it’s a blunt instrument.

Where we are now is another depressing example of binary views of the world which refuse to accept that neither one nor the other might have all the answers.

The positive aspects of performance measures and targets - such as minimum requirements, making strategic shifts in focus and performance; providing comparability between organisations to allow them to see where improvement is possible - are being under-valued (see the frankly ridiculous decision to remove the Audit Commission at a time when the pressure to improve cost effectiveness is greater than it has ever been).

The negative effects of an obsession with a 'freedom from' culture and a hollowing out of those parts of organisations which had focused on performance because of the demise of LAAs, the NPI set etc. is increasingly clear whilst the single data list reveals very clearly that the Government has no coherent or consistent view about what should be solely local and what is genuinely national; nor any clarity about what the appropriate response will be if the data starts to go in the wrong direction.

So it’s also hardly surprising that we have a purported localism which doesn't feel remotely localist. That's because the Government is still driving the whole thing just on the basis of a different set of ideological parameters.  

What we never manage to have is a more sophisticated discussion about the place of different approaches to performance. That would be greatly aided by some real engagement with the question of what organisations like local authorities are actually ‘for’, a proper examination of the implications of principles such as subsidiarity and a recognition that wholly binary views of the world are not going to take us very far.

In short, it’s hard to have a sensible discussion about targets before having a sensible discussion about roles and responsibilities. As the Government has found, targets do have a role. They need to be well designed, they need to be determined by the relevant body and they need to be backed up by an understanding about their place in the system. There are ways of sensibly approaching these questions such as outcomes based accountability. They don’t have all the answers but they do at least offer an intelligent way of trying to think about the issues.

A couple of years ago we may have been hitting the target but missing the point.

Sadly now, it seems, we can't do either.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Referendums and Demonstrations (and the French Revolution)

The film Bob Roberts - about a right wing protest singer and politician - was such a successful satire because, of course, protest singers are associated with being left wing.

I was reminded of this by a piece in New Statesman by Rafael Behr about the intense anger which is emerging about the current economic climate from which a strong anti-politician culture is developing. Towards the end of the article Behr briefly identifies the degree to which referendums and demonstrations have romantic attachments for right and left respectively as a means of expressing such anger.

That really set me thinking about why that should be and why, as someone who identifies themselves as being of the left, I feel instinctively comfortable about participating in a march or a rally but very uncomfortable about referendums.

I think (although I may well be wrong here) that as with many other things, the French Revolution was pivotal in the relevant developments. The Constitution of the Year One (1793), initiated by Robespierre, established a popular right to optional referendums if 10% of the eligible citizens sought to force a vote on a law within 40 days of its being passed in the Assembly. The Constitution of the Year One is notable for many things (including a right of rebellion) but crucially it marked a shift from national sovereignty to popular sovereignty. That matters because the tradition of national sovereignty is associated with a constitutional system of government in which the nation is superior to the individual. Under popular sovereignty the opposite holds good. 

It is common to right and left that democracy must be about more than just elections, so what are referendums good for? The Council of Europe recommends the use of referendums 'as a means to reinforce the democratic legitimacy of political decisions, enhance the accountability of representative institutions, increase the openness and transparency of decision-making and stimulate the direct involvement of the electorate in the political process'. 

But burrow underneath this and my one liner is that referendums are about populism; demonstrations are about collective action. These are fundamentally different in purpose and in wider constitutional terms.

Referendums are comfortable for right wing populists because they circumvent the brake that the representatives can place on issues such as abortion, the death penalty and immigration. The introduction of a right to initiate through referendums is a crucial development which is being seen across Europe and feels like part of a wider neo-liberal approach not just to demand change but to be able to secure it. 

In contrast, demonstrations are usually a protest about something that is being done by the Government - the invasion of Iraq, nuclear weapons, public expenditure cuts, removing trade union rights. This tradition is one of exhibiting solidarity about a common cause and exerting moral pressure on the Government to change tack. The Occupy protest at St Paul's is a classic example. Its interesting that apart from far right marches which are designed to intimidate the only other right wing mass protest I can recall was on the fox hunting ban and the purported defence of the countryside way of life against the depredations of the Labour  Government.

Recent initiatives by groups such as 38 Degrees use social media and electronic petitioning to show public anger at issues like health reform but to my mind this remains much more akin to the demonstration focused on the sheer weight of numbers involved. 

So what lies underneath these differences which makes me fundamentally suspicious of referendums other than on very rare occasions? Rather snappily, I think its because I have a strong attachment to a strain of civic republicanism which is founded on concern about the arbitrary in political decision making. 

One branch of republican libertarianism sees the priority being non-interference - a very comfortable, negative freedom, doctrine likely to be espoused by neo-liberals. 

However, another branch of republicanism places the emphasis not on non-interference but on freedom from the arbitrary in decision making - in other words freedom from domination without recourse.

In this second conception of civic republicanism the freedom from the arbitrary is provided through properly made and constituted laws, institutions and social norms. 

Clearly that leaves decision making in the hands of those elected to the institutions. There needs to be some enhanced democratic influence over that process. That does not mean a more populist model in which all laws and policies must in some sense express a collective will (which is where referendum based approaches start to go) but instead opportunities to contest decisions in ways which make government answerable.

So in such a schema decision making should be guided by deliberative public reasoning which is open to public debate; with opportunities to contest decisions which are open to all and with institutionalised forums for such debate where objections can be raised*. Translating this into practical propositions is by no means straightforward and I don't entirely rule out referendums as playing some role, but certainly not a dominant one.

Previously, I'd not really associated the modern proponents of referendums with the Jacobin in the French Revolution. But come to think of it .... 

* This is a much condensed description of a very useful discussion of these issues in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Community in Hard Times

I attended the Edith Kahn Memorial Lecture on Monday given by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of NESTA. It was described, rightly, by the chair for the evening as something of a tour de force so it is with some trepidation that one ventures to comment. In fact what follows is less about the lecture itself and rather more about the balance between some of the very positive opportunities it suggested and the effects of the wider socio-economic climate. 

The full text can be read on the following link:

The gist is that, despite the pressures of the current economic and social situation, new social networks can be developed which will increase giving - whether in cash or in kind - to the community and that choice architectures can be developed which will facilitate and reinforce the operation of our innate instinct for reciprocity ('do as you would be done by').

There is a lot to agree with in this and I was particularly struck by the point that simply being asked and being recognised are powerful incentives to do good things. It makes us feel good about ourselves.

Yet there are several things that seemed less certain.

The notion of choice architectures is one that plays out in a good deal of current debate about behaviour (I for one very much welcomed the view in the lecture that in practice we know very little indeed for sure about what actually drives behaviour). The RSA Social Brain project suggested 'steer' as an alternative to the 'nudge' (much beloved by some in the current Government) since context is so important in influencing what might otherwise be seen as automatic behaviour. So the notion behind a steer is that it is possible to provide citizens with insights that allow the individual to be better able to shape their own actions (as opposed to a nudge which purports to press buttons which light up hard wired short cuts). Choice architecture would push that rather further by maintaining pressure over time to respond.

The lecture posited the choice that we each make between the acquisitive and the compassionate aspects of our nature. This is similar to the way that Stephen Pinker has suggested that our 'better angels' have to a considerable extent had success in combating our demons with a significant and ongoing reduction in violence. The Pinker argument reflects a welcome emphasis on the Enlightenment idea that rational agents value their own well being and do not want to be harmed and that logically it is impossible on that basis to see it as acceptable to cause harm to others. This universality is then further supported through laws and institutions. In short, the wider socio-cultural circumstances have both led to and reinforced the change. Pinker identifies a fundamental shift to a less violent world but he accepts, in theory at least, that a socio-cultural crisis could reverse or significantly affect it.

Back to Monday's lecture .... the importance of solidarity came up towards the end of the discussion following several points about altruism (in this context I think it is better to think of universal benevolence which incorporates respect for the self determination of everyone including oneself and the wish to defend the right of others accordingly - a classic Enlightenment idea building on both autonomy and respect for individual dignity). Solidarity is an expression of reciprocity at its best and works in a well functioning society by virtue of a sense of respect for each other's place in the world. The possessive individualism which has been dominant in recent decades is deeply antagonistic to such notions.

This is important because the evidence - cited in the lecture and highly plausible to my mind - is that people who feel useful are more likely to volunteer and otherwise contribute than those who do not. In an economic climate in which many more people are feeling far from useful and indeed unwanted and unrecognised it is less clear that choice architecture rather than more fundamental change in a very unequal society is going to be sufficient to unleash reciprocal behaviour on their part. 

Even so, that does, of course, still leave large numbers of people who feel more valued and more likely to be open to being stimulated to give. One aspect of the lecture which was given more prominence in the delivery than in the written text was about the initiatives launched recently by some of the most wealthy to give away a significant proportion of their wealth. So far, so laudable. But that also rather presupposes that gross inequality now is worth some jam tomorrow. It also points up the fundamental problem with philanthropy: the philanthropist (generally and of course understandably) decides how their money is to be used which may bear little relation to where the real need lies

A very sour interpretation of some of the possibilities here are that we end up with increasingly invasive attempts to secure giving and a greater dependence on it both at the level of large scale philanthropy and small scale activity rather than democratically mediated choice and solidarity with others that comes from a feeling of mutual respect in a society which itself embodies greater reciprocity at a systemic level.

But, as I say, that's a very sour interpretation.

Personalisation - it's not (just) the money

A very enjoyable seminar at OPM last night about the likely success of implementing personalisation on the timetable envisaged by the Government across a range of services (although focusing not surprisingly on social care). The seminar was arranged as a debate between proponents of the view that we are on course and those more sceptical. For the record, I'm largely with the latter but the really interesting points which were clarified for me in the discussion were that focusing on the budget may be to miss the main point.

Personalisation can of course be decoupled from personal budgets and there are a range of problems with passing budget management over to clients, sometimes exacerbated by the way in which information is made available (or not) and from a genuine fear for the individual of being overwhelmed. Indeed, arguably asking individuals to manage the budgets is unnecessary. The main point of personalisation is to give the client greater control over what is done. Provided they can do so, who manages the administration of the budget is a second order question and might often best be left in the bailiwick of professionals.

But it goes further:

- the personal budget is on current plans only ever going to cover a portion of the range of services needed to secure personalisation;
- the trigger for a personal budget is tied to eligibility criteria as care needs are assessed but personalisation is needed well before this point and is also needed by people who may not end up being assessed as eligible, particularly as budget cuts bite ever deeper. 

Focusing only on the part of the package covered by the budget is an error for professionals and a problem for clients.

There were many interesting points about the potential for clients to pool their resources to secure greater leverage but also potentially to have a relationship with providers which may help to assuage some of the concerns of the latter about the implications of personalisation as block purchasing by councils seems likely to disappear over the hill. There remain some big questions about the way that such pooling might be undertaken and with what support - which might come from peer and user led organisations although they could then end up standing in the shoes previously occupied by the local authority. But again, this suggests that  some rethinking on how budgets are held might be beneficial.

The other highly significant point is about what was variously described as the need to bolster 'buyer literacy' or, rather more colloquially, how to give many clients the first clue about what to do with a budget. This is often not being handled well at the moment. I'm currently working with an organisation which has volunteering as its whole raison d'etre and the scope for volunteers - with some training - to provide non-judgemental, one to one support that a family member might otherwise offer to help navigate through some of the more professional forms of advice which are available (although insufficiently) seems strong. 

However it is done, securing what a contributor described as greater equity of support for different types of client seems absolutely essential and should be a pre-requisite for moving to providing a personal budget. 

For me the main lessons from all of this are to focus on securing self-direction first with all of the cultural change that is needed on the part of professionals and providers and to put more emphasis on ensuring that there are proper support arrangements available for clients. 

So maybe its not the money that matter most.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Public Service Reform in Scotland and England

I'm currently doing some work on accountability in a world of more decentralised services. As part of some thinking about the position in Scotland I went back and read (I have to admit for the first time) the Christie Commission report on the future delivery of public services published this summer 

It makes extremely interesting reading, the more so when compared to the Open Public Services white paper (OPSWP) setting out the direction of public service reform in England.

The five principles set out in the OPSWP are - increasing choice; decentralisation of services to the lowest appropriate level; being open to a range of providers; fair access; and accountability to users and taxpayers.

The starting point for Christie is an analysis which suggests that the main issues are:

  • taking demand out of the system through preventative actions and early intervention to tackle the root causes of inequality and negative outcomes;
  • working more closely with individuals and communities to understand their needs and mobilise a wider range of Scotland’s talents and assets in response to these needs, and to support self reliance and community resilience
  • tackling fragmentation and complexity in the design and delivery of public services by improving coherence and collaboration between agencies and sectors; and
  • improving transparency, challenge and accountability to bring a stronger focus on value for money and achieving positive outcomes for individuals and communities.
The commission report is powerful in the connection that it draws between the need for greater involvement of the community in helping to design services; the need for much more integration including in budgeting, governance, duties and accountability in order to be able to respond effectively; the emphasis on prevention in order to save money in the longer term and the need for shared approaches in the shorter term to improve value for money.

The contrast between the two approaches hardly needs drawing out although it is of course fair to say that the OPSWP does make some play of community budgets and a role for local authorities to integrate resources around some of the most intractable problems, particularly where these are related to families. But this comes across as something of an adjunct to the main proposals.

If one looks at the five principles in the OPSWP and compares them to the very forthright thinking in Christie about the future reform of public services it shows an absolutely massive difference in emphasis.

The Scottish principles are all around co-design with communities and the need for an overhaul of the relationships within and between public agencies to move towards much greater integration of decision making (possibly - although on this they are clearly sceptical - a single public authority for an area); joint planning and budgeting; and shared services whether back or front office with robust external challenge from well informed and powerful regulators and from central and local bodies holding each other to account for their respective roles in achieving defined outcomes which are about addressing root inequalities (rather than focusing on mitigation measures to achieve fair access in a world which may well remain inherently unequal).

The routes that England and Scotland follow in relation to public service reform look set to diverge rapidly and significantly if the Scottish Government follow anything approaching the course suggested in Christie.

As a footnote I did word searches for the terms 'decentralisation', 'choice' and 'competition'. They each turned up a blank. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Post Democracy - happening now

I wrote recently about a post democratic world

This story - which has been running in a variety of ways for a little while now - about the influence being exerted by some of the insurance companies that potentially stand to gain from the changes in legal aid is a worrying example of just that phenomenon.

Some may say that lobbying has always been part of the process of government and that it's much more pronounced in some other countries, notably the US.

But this is about repositioning the role of lobbyists from asking the questions to helping to construct the answers. That should give us all pause for thought.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

'Changing Fortunes': the 'rubber band' model

Changing Fortunes is a fascinating new dynamic sociological analysis of income and poverty by Stephen Jenkins from the LSE. The particularly interesting aspect of this work is that it is a longitudinal study (using data from the British Household Panel Survey) of the same cohort over a lengthy period rather than a series of snapshots using different sample populations and that it looks at all sources of income including wages, savings and benefits rather than focusing solely on one source. 

If the population is then divided up into 10 blocks containing equal numbers it is possible to look at both the overall shape and the degree of movement between the blocks. Two metaphors are perhaps useful here - a building for the overall shape and a rubber band for the degree of movement.

In terms of the building what is increasingly apparent is that it is a skyscraper rather than a bungalow which is entirely consistent with the plethora of recent studies showing increasing income inequality.

The rubber band is more interesting. There are both relatively small movements between consecutive floors in the building where the band is stretched a little but not greatly but also some much larger tensions where someone moves several floors up or down.

The extent of movement is considerable. About 50% of those in the basement (the lowest floor) will move upwards although the tension on the rubber band means that the movement up becomes increasingly difficult so smaller and smaller numbers reach the upper floors. But about 30% of the inhabitants of the building (taking all floors together) will at some point visit the basement.

This is fascinating since it suggests that:

- the extent of a residual underclass may be overstated in some analyses (although it has to be said that whilst this study is a reasonably lengthy one going back to 1991 it is not and does not pretend to be an inter-generational study and even on this analysis about half of the people in the basement stay there)

- there are some perhaps unsurprising developments for individuals (such as educational attainment) which allow them to access the stairs between floors

- the experience of poverty (using the standard definition of <60% median income in the relevant year) is much more widespread across the population at least at some point in the lives of individuals.

The study ends in 2006 prior to the credit crunch, the recession and the austerity package introduced by the current Government. The analysis suggests that the policies designed to address income poverty had some effect in the period under consideration and made the UK less vulnerable to increasing poverty than some others such as the US.

The big question for the future is how far the pattern described in the study will be affected by the recession and by changes in public policy.

But the most interesting point of all is that poverty is something that many people will experience in their lives, certainly not just the the province of a feckless, lazy or feral underclass. If that experience is increasingly shared it should make us all think about our attitudes to those who happen to be in the basement at a given point in time and just how tall the building rising above them has become.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Transparency and Accountability

Last week, the Government published the responses to consultation on its proposed code of practice on transparency:

Relatively little seems to have changed as a result of the consultation. There are substantive arguments about the benefits, the scale of the additional burdens and the practicability and effectiveness of the proposed approach which are given a thorough airing in the responses, some of which are hard hitting and don't need repeating here.

In many ways the bigger problem is how narrow the whole debate has been. Any purposive analysis of transparency as currently envisaged would inevitably conclude that it is narrow in the extreme: removing 'top-down bureaucractic' mechanisms and providing raw data to people who are assumed to have the time and the energy to form substantive judgements about it (although this does of course fit with the wider assumption that people know better than politicians which was the subject of a previous post).

Lets just examine briefly two of the ways in which this misses some bigger opportunities. 

The first is that the approach remains partial. For example:

- it fails to recognise that the aim of the Government in increasing diversity in the responsibility for the delivery of public services should place analogous requirements on all bodies which are undertaking such activities not just a requirement to be clear about the amounts going to third sector bodies (something which is frankly neither here nor there in a properly value driven system)

- there is no adequate treatment of how significant comparability of data is for being able to draw any meaningful conclusions. Mechanisms and organisations which previously provided some of that comparability are being removed in parallel.

The second is bigger again. As the Centre for Public Scrutiny set out very clearly in their response, there is no proper engagement with the substantive questions about true accountabilty which must include discussion of governance and decision making. Transparency, even if achieved in an effective manner, is only ever one element of accountability.

The response to consultation does deal briefly with concerns that the code and the current approach may lead to the emergence of a compliance culture. Perhaps it is not overly surprising that there may be a focus on compliance with process requirements when that is where most of the attention has been placed and in the absence of a more purposive approach.

In contrast, a substantive discussion about how to enhance the broader accountability of decision making for public services would be very welcome. It would, however, look rather different to a discussion primarily about the provision of raw data which is focused on how much is spent - rather than why and with what effect.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Imagination and the value of 'theoretical everything'

'Philosopy bites' is a fantastic set of podcasts which provides accessible but top end contributions from leading philosophers on a variety of subjects. I listened again recently to one on the role and development of the imagination and how it helps us to understand and appreciate causal relationships

In evolutionary terms, the very extended and protected period of childhood allows exploration through the imagination without the responsiblities associated with survival so that once adult the individual can apply the product from this learning to get things done. The podcast rather facetiously suggests that children are the 'R&D division' and adults the 'production and marketing division' of human beings plc. The insight that not having to focus on short term goals allows us to be able to accomplish goals in the longer term is increasingly well appreciated in spheres such as think tanks, strategy units and firms in silicon valley which all pride themselves on innovation and where efforts are made to capture (through the use of play rooms and play things) some of the child like exploration from which our ability to think differently arises. But it also reinforces that a constrained and regimented approach to child development particularly through the education system is short sighted and in fact counter to our basic evolution!

There is then some discussion about philosophy as 'theoretical everything' i.e. there is always a more abstract and theoretical end of any spectrum (so for example ethics might be seen as the very theoretical end of law; aesthetics as the theoretical end of art). Importantly, these are points on a spectrum or different parts of a web; not different worlds. Perhaps a statement of the  blindingly obvious. But an under appreciated one.

Imagination developed as an evolutionary tool to help us to think about cause and relationship. The abstract tells us a huge amount about the concrete. It was meant to do so. Recognising that there is a  'theoretical' in everything at a time when the emphasis is on the supposedly practical is worth well worth remembering.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Post Democracy and Post Modernity

'Night Waves' (BBC Radio 3) always provides stimulating discussion even if the experience can be as exhausting as it is exhilarating as one feels increasing feeble in the presence of the great minds.

Last week, one of the subjects under consideration was that of 'post democracy' as identified by professor Colin Copus. The basic notion of post democracy should, rather unsurprisingly, be worrying for democrats. It is that whilst the mechanisms and structures of democracy remain in place - elections, rights, rule of law, separation of powers - the content is being emptied of substance since, as Copus puts it, 'the energy has gone elsewhere'.

Just where has it gone? To major interest groups, particularly wealthy corporate interests, which now not only spend their time lobbying but do so 'within the chamber' i.e. they are not just making the case, they are helping to form the response. This direct involvement and indeed entanglement (see hacking scandal) is a major threat since it renders decision making much less visible and less accountable. In other words decision taking is increasingly done in ways other than through the channels that have been established to give effect to democracy.

To some extent politicians have been encouraging of this sort of development. The impatience with opposition or obstacle of any kind has manifested in various ways from the 'one of us' style of sofa government to the reduction in powers for bodies such as local authorities. Thanks to recent scandals on expenses and on hacking, light is now being shone on some of the murkier post-democractic recesses.

At much the same time as thinking about post democracy, I read a piece by Hari Kunzru which was the most lucid writing on postmodernism that I have yet found:

Kunzru makes some penetrating distinctions between modernism and postmodernism: 'If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.' Modernism had as its heart the idea of form following function. It supported a rational future. But its failings became all too apparent in the swathes of high rise tower blocks and grim functionality which all too often was in practice dysfunctional. The emphasis on reason and order which had been integral to much political and sociological thought since the Enlightenment but already buckling in response to some of the horrors inflicted in the 20th century seemed to have run up against the buffers.

At this point I enter highly risky territory in bringing together slippery concepts which apply in relation to both art and philosophy. But here goes.

Democracy has to combine form and substance or it dies. We have become very adept at style and the debasement of terminology. Everything is 'democratic' in some way. The favoured way in a post democractic world is that of grass roots activism and community organisation. It is one that meshes well with a broad neoliberal emphasis on the removal of constraint; on seeing choice and opportunity as the hallmarks of a good system and on fewer rules as almost always a good thing (except perhaps when it comes to personal morality - which, ironically, is in part response to the relativism unleashed by post-modern thinking).

But the dangers of post democracy are very real - irresponsibility among decision makers and a failure of the democratic system to deliver for those who are most disadvantaged in society.

Our wealth may be unequal. Our votes should all score the same. If there is an inside track and a weakening of the rules of the game, such democractic check as there is on inequality is significantly reduced.

A final quote from Kunzru: 'You look around at your beautiful house and your beautiful wife and you ask yourself, like the narrator of the Talking Heads song: 'Well, how did I get here?" After that, it's only a short step to deciding that this is not your beautiful house and your beautiful wife at all.'

In respect of democracy we do actually know how we 'got here'. We may enjoy the playfulness and the wit of posst modernism but we need a democracy which is about more than a pick and mix borrowing of the ideas of the past and an easy way with dressing up systems in democratic colours. It is easy to be playful when unhelpful rules can be wished away. In contrast playing by the rules is a lot tougher. How we 'do' democracy matters deeply - its form is there to give effect to its function which is precisely to try to ensure that what is done commands broad support and that decisions are not taken in the interests of the few.

Post-modernism may now be behind us but it may be replaced by a future of post-modernity characterised by 'disorganisation' rather than by the order and reason which underpinned modernism. In such a disorganised future - which envisages a disintegration of the role of the state; the growth of consumerism and an increase in the strength of multi-national corporate interests - post-democracy fits well. 

That certainly makes me want to restate the case for the full substance of democracy - warts and all. 

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Localism Bill Transfer of Functions: Is Government back tracking already?

There has been support across the political parties for amendments to the Localism Bill which were developed by the Centre for Cities and which will allow for the transfer or delegation of the functions of Ministers, Departments and NDPBs to local authorities either in structures such as combined authorities or to individual councils. In the debate in the House of Lords there were claims, which are far from grandiose, that these amendments represent the biggest step towards genuine localism in the Bill.

It feels churlish to carp a little when these are big steps forward for more genuine devolution. Yet in responding to what had been a very positive debate, the Minister, Baroness Hanham, slipped in some statements which may give supporters of the amendments some cause for concern. Here are two:

‘I need to stress to the House that this new power, to which we are all signed up, does not mean that we intend to unpick the arrangements for the national delivery of certain economic development functions as set out in publications such as the Local Growth White Paper and skills strategy. Those would not be able to be devolved’

She did not explain further and clearly there will be some major practical questions whch arise in unpicking current arrangements. However, but one can well anticipate that this includes the whole gamut of Work Programme provisions and probably much of the skills agenda both of which would be seen as significant elements of a well rounded economic development strategy. It would be helpful if Ministers were pressed to explain further what this apparent pre-emptive strike takes off the table.

Secondly, there was the following reference:

 'Any such proposals that were to come forward would need the clear support of local enterprise partnerships’

Given that the amendments were in part designed to provide ballast for emerging LEPs, at one level this makes sense. One would also expect that it would be unlikely that authorities would be putting forward proposals with which any LEP strongly disagreed. But at another level it does seem rather odd that bodies that will have no standing in statute and which have complicated and less than transparent accountability will apparently trump the views of democratically elected local authorities.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Co-Regulation: A Positive Step

A recent report on the prospects for effective local co-regulation by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning set me thinking about the way that the debate on regulation in the UK has become so binary and negative in nature.

For some, regulation is pretty much always a bad thing; for others it is an essential tool of control. The main proponents in this discussion are often business on the one hand and public authorities on the other. Individuals tends to see themselves as consumers wanting quite properly to have recourse where things go wrong and to have their health and other interests safeguarded. Local communities tend to become involved in controls over nuisance and anti-social behaviour in their area.  

The debate is very rarely couched in terms of wider citizen interests and even more rarely in terms of promoting positive outcomes from regulatory activity.

This Cambridge report has some reasonably detailed discussion about the experience with various forms of particpatory techniques much of which will be familiar to those who immerse themselves in these questions and does not come up with any specific prescriptions for the future. But three things emerged from it for me:

- it helps to delineate the role for citizens as opposed to consumers (although to be fair the report discusses at some length whether this is always a helpful distinction to make) and between citizens and professionals. As the report says 'citizens should not be treated as experts. Their role is .. to express their aspirations, values and concerns ...' . That seems absolutely right; providing an input on the general manner in which regulatory activity is conducted; not usurping the role of professionals in its detailed translation and not becoming a set of essentially individual consumer demands

- co-regulation goes beyond self-regulation in that whilst it may draw on a broader range of interests it is undertaken in the expectation that it will be enforced

- well designed and thought through processes to develop co-regulation could provides a basis on which to have a  positive dialogue rather than one focused either on removing almost all constraint on economic activity or on demanding ever tighter and more draconian control over some actions or people deemed undesirable.

If a greater degree of co-regulation can start a discussion about the way that regulatory activity can be used to promote good things and to secure outcomes - reflecting views on sustainability, justice and the like - which are ones that are good for the area and the people that live in it, that would be a huge step forward from the sterile discussion that generally takes place. As the report suggests, couching a conversation and a process around safer streets is far preferable to the kind of inherently negative discussions about restricting alcohol sales, banning people from certain activities and so on.

If approaches of this kind can help to put the discussion about regulation back into the context of making places better, that  can only be a good thing.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Social Impact Bonds: Some Questions

There is some fanfare today about the announcement of a small number of further social impact bond pilots.  The idea is now coupled with the notion of introducing more extensive private funding through what have been termed rather speculatively 'social ISAs'.

There are some cheerleaders and some naysayers. Its not surprising: the idea has attractions but it also makes many suspicious that this could become another complex 'conjuring trick' (courtesy PFI) from which the winners will seldom be public sector institutions. More significantly, if PFI was largely about building things; SIBs are about services for some of the most vulnerable or troubled in our society at a time when many services are suffering very significant reductions in funding and when the pressure on our preventative and rehabilitative programmes is more intense than ever in the wake of the recent wide spread disorder in our major cities (I appreciate that I will already have annoyed some by uttering the phrase PFI in the same breath as SIB).

Having watched the development of the SIB idea by the Young Foundation and then the initial application in Peterborough here are six questions which are worth asking about SIBs:

- would we be interested in this in the absence of the cuts in public expenditure? There is a world of difference between  SIBs as a substitute rather than a supplement to public spending. The recent damning report on PFI suggested that from now on in every case where that mechanism is being considered the public expenditure option should be fully appraised.  The Allen report on early intervention where some of these ideas were proposed a  few months back also suggested that there were now some opportunities to re-develop a local government bond market. In short are SIBs to be considered against the full variety of other opportunities in terms of their costs and their benefits so that they are horses for courses rather than a one trick pony

- will SIBs really transfer risk? As ever the key is good design. The PFI experience is largely bad, but not entirely so. The big question is whether the interests of investors in securing the return of their capital with some gain can genuinely be married up with the interests of the public sector in securing real improvements in outcome without massive complexity or introducing false incentives (see below) and how widely such an approach can be applied across different outcomes and services.

- who will decide on when and how SIBs should be used? Despite a long and generally laudable tradition of charitable trusts which have chosen specific aims for their investment, many people remain concerned that it should not be for philanthropists to decide on which services or groups in society are funded. That is a job for politicians. But this concern becomes even more pressing an issue if the baton is passed to instituional investors - if the notion of moving to a more undustrial scale of operation were ever achieved via social ISAs and the like. For many people, picking investment either on moral grounds or on the basis of returns - rather than need -  is not attractive.

- will SIBs really stimulate innovation and doing things differently? This is where social entrepreneurs start salivating with excitement and we all know that innovation needs some incubation. But the question on SIBs is whether any innovation is down to the SIB and payment by results or whether better working between organisations (which is largely what is needed) could be achieved in the absence of a different financing vehicle. So in short have SIBs and PBRs required some things to happen which could have happened through other means, including through pooling of budgets to recycle up front savings across a wider range of organisations as an incentive to greater integration

- are the potential costs and complexity justified - the more so when what is measured as outputs or outcomes can be a huge problem if they are wrongly idenitfied or measured? This takes us right back into the whole  imbroglio  of the target culture. The fear for some will be that the targets used to gauge success will encourage gaming or a focus on what can be measured rather than what is important

- can mechanisms of this kind possibly be deveoped sufficiently quickly and have wide enough application given that SIBs are a small pilot but massive reductions in services are happening now? The question about whether the technical issues can be overcome and then whether the mechanism is suitable for more than a relatively small number of situations will take some time or may prompt what might be little more than a stab in the dark. But the loss of services and the loss of opportunities for more integration and prevention are being felt now.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Speed Cameras: a loss of perspective

The obsession with speed camera data continues with further announcements today on a central repository of information on the siting of cameras and on their 'effectiveness' .

The inclusion of data on speed cameras on the single data list was always highly questionable. Surely these are properly decisions to be taken by local authorities and police forces. Yet Government effectively requires the publication and then compilation of data on the siting of cameras. We all know that this responds to the visceral, irrational hatred of some motorists about having their ability to drive at whatever speed they choose curbed. The argument that cameras are used as cash cows covers this with a veneer of respectability. But lets leave that to one side.

The interesting point about the notion of effectiveness is that it is apparently to be gauged entirely in terms of the number of prosecutions, offences and penalties.

There is some sense in looking at numbers of offences. Clearly tooo it is important that cameras provide information that can be used to prosecute successfully. I hope that is the intention. But to be clearer it should really be examining the issue of whether prosecutions failed because of technical problems with siting or visibility or reliability.

That's all the more important because, of course, the real point of cameras is about compliance with speed limits and prevention of accidents. True effectiveness would be no prosecutions because drivers were actually obeying the law and sticking to the speed limit.

Hopefully we are not glimpsing the rather bizarre prospect of the effectiveness of cameras being judged by the numbers of people still driving too fast. Indeed, is a camera to be judged less effective if the numbers of prosecutions go down from one year to the next?

Its all passing strange. Perhaps just acknowledging that there is a need for enforcement of the law on speeding might be enough in other circumstances. Its hard to see the same debate about effectiveness going on about CCTV or other mechanisms which apparently can be deployed with impunity. But then it all depends on who are judged to be the victims and the perpetrators. In the case of speed cameras one can sometimes be forgiven for thinking that the main victims are those who are breaking the law.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Policing in your pocket

Surrey police today announced a new mobile phone app (apparently only available for iphones so tough if like me you are an android user!) called 'policing in your pocket'

It builds on the website which has been up and running for a few months providing detailed crime mapping statistics on line allowing citizens to look at the latest available data for their area for a variety of types of offence.

In large part the new app simply makes this data available on mobile devices but the point which really struck me in the press release and in the short explanatory film clip from a very avuncular Surrey policeman was the phrase 'there is also the opportunity ... to vote on local policing priorities'.

Is this really a good idea?

There has been much debate about the merits and shortcomings of the initiative. There are concerns (almost inevitable in any exercise of this kind) about accuracy, about how those viewing the data will choose to label areas (in worst case scenarios almost back to the highly moralistic judgements inherent in late 19th century mapping of communities in London by Charles Booth) and just how meaningful the data can be when there is no context about the nature of the crimes concerned.

There has also been some excellent debate about the effectiveness of the initiative in terms of the very good question - just what is it intended to achieve? A very good piece on this is on the Open Rights Group blog

If you put together the concerns about the data mapping itself; the unanswered question about what it is intended to achieve and the recent experience of public reaction to the major disorder suffered in many part of our largest cities and conurbations, have we really thought through the implications of encouraging people down the local pub or at dinner parties to use the new app to identify priorities? 

Clearly, people are already able and indeed encouraged to attend meetings at which local policing priorities are discussed and the app can be seen as making that sort of process far more accessible. Clearly too, the ultimate decision rests with the officers concerned. But am I alone in feeling nervous that this is likely to result in populist pressure for solutions without the benefit of having heard the debate that would take place at a meeting; without the opportunity to engage the beat team and others in more dialogue about particular problems in specific places rather than a generic response; and with the most likely reactions almost inevitably likely to focus on understandable fears about violent crime and burglary?

To go back to the termnology used in a previous post - better to think about using the app for crowdsourcing on solutions and dialogue rather than using it for purported decision making on priorities?

Or am I just a died in the wool classical republican (and former bureaucrat) with a deep rooted horror of anything that smacks of the arbitrary in decision making?!

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Co-ordinating Council

A striking title and the subject of a stimulating event convened by the London Borough of Enfield in June (summarised recently in this article

The central 'who decides' question underpins most of the issues which were considered. Ultimately there are only a few options which have been the basis of much discussion in public policy circles in recent years: the politician, the professional, the community or the individual. A very sophisticated discussion of the role of each is set out in Barry Quirk's recent book (see presentation at

Accountability in the sphere which one would anticipate as being properly the province of the politician - choices between competing outcomes and the allocation of resources to meet them - is currently fractured between national and local and between different organisations at local or sub-regional level.

This fragmentation in what should be political decision making seems a critical problem for attempts to address the role and opportunities of a 'co-ordinating council'. One proposition which I made at the Enfield conference but which was largely side stepped in the discussion is for the development of a council executive which is a more genuinely multi-functional public service board.

This would involve directly or indirectly elected council executives with cross sector portfolios (health and social care, community safety and policing, education and employment etc). It moves the executive into being much more clearly an assembly for their area, avoids further silo accountability of the kind that is engendered by separately electing commissioners and the like and offers the possibility of giving effect to the underlying vision of more integrated and effective use of public resources that have underpinned the incremental movement through LSPs, LAAs, Total Place and Community Budgets but doing so in a way that goes beyond just managerialist or professional approaches.

Ideas of this kind are not new. Some huge questions have to be addressed. But for democratic localists surely this has to be considered as a way of making sense of the contradictions within the approaches currently being promoted.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Do 'people know better than politicians'?

The recent Open Public Services White Paper is, according to its authors, not based on ideology but driven by 'a belief that people know better than politicians'. Given public outrage over MPs expenses and phone hacking one might be tempted to nod in agreement. Politicians ethical compass has been very wonky indeed in recent years. 

But one can go further. This sort of claim or assertion has become increasingly commonplace across the political spectrum not just out of some self abasement to public concern about ethics but also from  arguments about the role and need for the apparatus of the state itself. 

So such a thoroughgoing statement  deserves a lot more scrutiny. Taken to its logical conclusion it would support huge changes in the way that we govern ourselves. Our politicians may have a lot to be ashamed about but that is mainly about how they have played their role rather than what they are there to do in a representative democracy.

With apologies for a quick diversion into classical antiquity, Western democracies still derive some of their ideals from the reforms introduced by Cleisthenes in 6th century Athens intended to break up the power of the old aristocratic families and subject the boule (the council of 50) to the supreme authority of the ecclesia (the assembly of all the citizens). The notion was that the ecclesia would meet sufficiently frequently to deal with any important state matter.

Since then much time and effort has been spent on the arguments about the roles of more representative and more participative forms of democracy. Modern democracies strike the balance in a rather different way to the ideals proposed in 6th century Athens. Most of us would view that as a necessary thing if only as a matter of scale but whether it is a good thing has become subject to more debate in recent years (referendums being an issue that arouses particular passions).

There have also been various modish (not to say faddish) ideas about the 'wisdom of crowds' and 'crowdsourcing' which have generated interest among (elected) politicians. At the risk of misrepresenting what each of these mean my twopenneth is that the wisdom of crowds suggests that the aggregation of independent individual views will produce a better outcome than leaving it up to experts; crowdsourcing on the other hand suggests a rather more practically based approach that it is possible for decision makers and others to tap into a wider pool of knowledge and secure a better outcome as a result.

The seductive attractions of the wisdom of crowds is clear for those seeking to argue that the formal apparatus of decision making, experts, bureaucracies and, yes, politicians can be slimmed down (or indeed removed). Free individuals can do it themselves provided that those pesky interruptions to the free play of ideas don't corrupt the process thereby, one is tempted to say, crowding out the crowd.

There are well acknowledged isues about how well participative techniques can move on from more practical solution orientated crowdsourcing to more deliberative decision making. Councils up and down the land have arrangements ranging from citizen panels to participatory budgeting in place. But they still need politicians however strong the input from their communities.

The reason why it is more complicated than the view of the people being better than that of the politicians arises from the simple fact that different people think different things. The reason that we elect people is to make decisions where there is a need to make choices between competing interests, whether those are the interests of individuals or of sections of the community. That is the very stuff of politics. We expect decision making to be done properly and we have rules in place to ensure that it is free from corruption and undue influence. But we need decision makers.

Certainly, decisions should be subject to proper scrutiny and be improved by informed analysis. 'Which' is expert at presenting the perspective of the consumer and many of us have a good deal of sympathy with much of what it says. But it is self selecting. It has no wider legitimacy. Nor do any of the other organisations which have been touted as having a role to play in holding public bodies to account. They hold sectional viewpoints, many of which are far more capable of being disputed than the views expressed by 'Which'.

But there is a role for a modern form of the ecclesia. It is captured well in the recent proposal from Compass and NEF for a People's Jury at the national scale to help 'tame the feral elites' (one suspects Cleisthenes is nodding in sympathy). The aim is to help put the public interest ahead of sectional interests. The output from the Jury would be a clear statement of the tests that could be applied when judgements are being made about what are at root ethical decisions which should be made by the politicians without fear or favour in terms of the media, financial or other interests. This seems to me to place responsibilty correctly. Decisions are still being made by politicians but with a clear grounding in a considered, researched and properly discussed view from people drawn from across Britain to help guide them and gird them.

This is the ecclesia working with politicians to keep in check the sectional interests that always seek more and more power. That Cleisthenes knew a thing or two.

Friday, 29 July 2011

My next leadership course - a Brancusi exhibition

The famous aphorism - 'simplicity is resolved complexity' - from the sculptor Brancusi encapsulates for me how the simplification of forms which was crucial to him as an artist applies to the way that I seek to work with colleagues and partners. That doesn’t mean being a solitary individualist living in a garret! Nor do you need to be a mystic. I think it’s a good rule of thumb for us all.

A successful Brancusi sculpture has coherence but also precision. It is the product of persistence and an understanding of the material - the way in which it has been constructed reflects whether it is wood or bronze or stone. There is respect for difference in seeking out the essence which can then be captured and described in a way that connects with others.

I should own up at this point to being a bit of a wonk.  Yes, I’ve worked on developing policy and legislation and intellectual coherence has been a value in many of the organisations in which I’ve worked. But I believe that the fundamental journey followed by Brancusi in creating a sculpture is very similar to the one that we follow when confronted by the need to make sense of what can often appear close to chaos.

The great truth that I think Brancusi expresses is that there is a nub, something at the heart of the issue that can, often through sheer perspiration, be identified and that doing so releases the energy and the creativity to take things forward. Often it’s not easy and describing the steps on the way and giving people the confidence to take them is one of your main roles. Sometimes nerve needs to be held in the face of external pressures.  But you tend to know when you have arrived; things seem clearer and the foundations on which to build can be discerned. At that point the journey back to simplicity accelerates.
A perfectly formed Brancusi sculpture is a prize worth all of the effort and the energy involved in its creation. I wish I could afford one but the systems diagram for that little conundrum requires some more work.

Straws in the wind or thin ends of potentially big wedges?

There has been the usual pre-Recess semi-deluge of papers and reports issued by Government and committees. On occasion one hovers over statements or suggestions which do not seem to have been the subject of much commentary (often for the perfectly good reason that there are many other noteworthy and more immediate things on which to respond). Yet some of these are potentially highly significant in terms of the role and powers of local government. Quite how significant is moot but here are just two:

(1) Buried within the Allen report on early intervention is a proposal on restarting a local government bond market. The basic argument being that (a) some of the expenditure involved in early intervention is on human capital and should be reclassified through a capitalisation direction as being of a capital nature thereby allowing borrowing to fund it and (b) that as a result of interest rates for PWLB borrowing moving closer to market rates there is more scope than has been the case in the past for local government bond issues to be competitive in vfm terms if some standard products can be produced reducing the transactional costs involved in issue.

Clearly as Allen himself says a more straigthforward way would be to allow borrowing to fund the investment and issuing bonds does not avoid the fact that the additional borrowing would continue to score in terms of the PE measures used to assess the deficit. Allen argues for a limited bond issue on this basis consistent with deficit reduction. In other countries, bonds are of course a major part of the financial package for local government (some of which are now coming under intense strain in the US as it teeters on the brink of budget catastrophe).

Allen has already been pushed back on some of the other proposals in his paper, notably on cash for his proposed Foundation, but will this one fare better in a world in which TIF is now on the resource review agenda?

(2) In the Open Public Services White Paper, there is a surprisingly extensive description of the role of local government and a commitment to working with local authorities (rather than, intriguingly and perhaps deliberately, local government collectively) to develop a shared vision about the new opportunities for it in the post OPS world.

I hadn't been expecting to see this and whilst one can certainly debate the nature and ambit of that role, previous papers from both this Government and its predecessor have more frequently been characterised by either a complete absence of discussion about such a role or one which eschews any structured description in favour of an emphasis on opportunity to occupy space (usually with copious references to the general power of competence) and the potential for variable geometry (which may be where the reference to working with 'local authorities' rather than 'local government' starts to bite.

I will be writing shortly about the arguments for a more codified and embedded description of the role of local authorities. However, for present purposes, the interesting point is how that role when expressed in more concrete terms might start to affect the rest of the OPS white paper arguments. When the White Paper starts to list some of the opportunities to be explored with local authorities it includes:

'be able to integrate the full range of public resources to solve complex social, economic or environmental issues, such as the needs of people on housing estates who have multiple disadvantages'.

At one level, so far so unexceptional. There is clearly a strong connotation of community budgets and the approach to commissioned services described elsewhere in the paper.

But at another, this rather blows the gaffe. Or rather has the potential to do so. Many of the people on 'housing estates' (and one might venture quite a few not on them) will be the recipients of services which are in OPS terms, 'individual services', sometimes involving significant sums. Their quality of life will be influenced by the operation of 'neighbourhood' services. And the ability to integrate some of the 'commissioned' services will be affected by the emphasis placed on 'opening up' functions such as housing management and family support.

As ever, it all comes back to who decides. If a local authority is to be able to integrate the full range of public resources on some of the most intractable problems that they face, it looks as though one of the opportunities that needs to be seized is to resolve the balance between what are, one senses almost deliberately, competing elements in the paper.

This 'who decides' question is another to which I will be returning.