Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Hogan-Howe approach would be disastrous

The long shadow of the BlairBrown approach to public services seems to still reach across the years.  The Metropolitan Police commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe has spelled out what should happen to the police to save money.  And, reading through the list, I was wafted back to the infuriating days of 2007 or so - when I was so cross at the state of public services that I set out to write a book.

It eventually emerged as The Human Element, three years later (or was it four?)

Now one of the great omissions of the coalition, in my humble view, is that they failed to draw a line under the public service reforms of the past.

Yes, they promised to reduce targets - and they did a bit.  They very sensibly abolished the tyrannical Audit Commission, which was standing in the way of innovation like a serious case of constipation.  But that was it.  They never articulated what the problem was, and precisely the mistakes Gordon Brown had been making - and often carried on making them as a result.

It is easier to see those fake solutions a little more clearly now for what they are.  If the commissioner gets his way, and merges police forces into mega-forces, organises more combined back office services, contracts out key non-uniformed functions and relies more on IT, they will not just find their way disturbingly back to 2008 or so - but costs will rise considerably and effectiveness will go down.

How do I know?  Well, the last study I saw of merged police forces showed that smaller police forces catch more criminals than bigger ones.

There was also the famous explanation by economics Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom of why crime went up in Chicago when the police went off the beat and began to rely on communications equipment.  It was because the public no longer felt they were needed to fight crime - when, actually, they make all the difference and it is quite impossible without them.

I accept, of course, that one of Hogan-Howe's purposes is to avoid cutting community policing, and he's right about that.

But the rest of the Hogan-Howe approach, rather like the Gordon Brown approach, reduces the public to mild irritants who ought to get a grip so that they can be processed more easily.  It doesn't work - and for very good reasons, outlined better than I can by the systems thinker John Seddon - it is extremely expensive.

Why have we still not learned these lessons?  Well, partly because - despite the original rhetoric - the coalition never learned them.  Partly because Whitehall finds this kind of counter-intuitive evidence very hard to hear.  And partly because, despite all the sound and fury, our services still exist in a world, not just shaped by Brown, but has ended up as extreme Brown.

We have to articulate a better, more effective way, before we all drown in bills.  May I humbly submit The Human Element as my contribution to the debate we are not yet having about the economies and diseconomies of scale.

Monday, 15 December 2014

The myth of the myth of the Christmas Truce

I don't think I realised how much the 1914 Christmas truce has become mythologised until I saw this year's Sainsbury's Christmas advert.

It's a heart-warming affair, not terribly accurate - everyone dashes out too quickly (which  they didn't), the impetus seems to come from the British (which I don't think it mainly did), they have a real football (which they hardly ever did), and the trenches are too sophisticated - this was the very beginning of trench warfare.

But still, it is right that we are talking about it - because, as I wrote in the Guardian on Saturday, we need to take the truce seriously as history, rather than as an isolated moment of magic (though it certainly did feel magical to those at the time).

The article I wrote gathered more than 300 comments underneath over the first few hours after publication - though it was also in the main paper - which, in true Guardian tradition, were often not that friendly.  Many of them were friendly, on the other hand, and really engaged with the issues I raised, pointing out my own little inaccuracies (which I don't necessarily agree with).

A couple of the messages said they believed the whole truce was a myth, in the sense that it never actually happened.

This is not so.  There are hundreds of first-hand accounts and more come to light every year.

Others said that the idea that there was a football match in No Man's Land was a myth.  Strangely, this seems to have been the prevailing story in the media in the last few days.  There seems to be a whiff of positivism abroad, and - unless we can find confirmation from both sides about each football game - they therefore didn't happen.

It is true that 'match' is an exaggeration.  These were hastily contrived kickabouts, usually without proper balls.  It is true also that, for some reason, the score is usually remembered as 3-2.

The Lancashire Fusiliers near Le Touquet ended with a score of 3-2 to the other side. That was also the score of the match between the RAMC and the Saxons. A later game on New Year’s Day, organised by a major in the Medical Corps, which ended with the Saxon soldiers playing God Save the King , also ended 3-2 to the Germans. So did the Seaforth Highlanders game against the Saxons outside Ploegsteert Wood.

Not all had that score, and it is true that the repeated 3-2 implies an element of mythologising.  But there are so many accounts in letters home, which still exist, or which were sent to and published by local newspapers, which mention football, that you can't dismiss the games that easily.

Football was a repeated theme because so many of the Germans the British met spoke English because they had been living in England before the war.

One account explained that the German soldier he spoke to had lived in Alexander Road in Hornsey, and had really wanted to see Woolwich Arsenal play Tottenham the following afternoon.

So don't let's dismiss the football too sanctimoniously.  It happened, and surprisingly often - which is why the celebrations continue at the weekend.

But if you really want to know what happened during the Christmas Truce, and what it led to, download my ebook Peace on Earth (it costs £1.99).

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Thursday, 11 December 2014

Christopher Jefferies and the mob

During a New Year's Eve party at the beginning of 2011, a peculiarly irritating fellow guest offered his ill-informed opinion to the others: "Well, I think it was obviously the landlord who did it."

He was talking about the murder of Jo Yeates, and the landlord was then in custody, largely it seems on the grounds that he was a little unusual.  I was horrified by the remark because it seemed to me to be, very quietly, an echo of the mob.  More than a downer on new year's eve.

It is a strange thing when your English teacher, of some decades ago, becomes a household name and gets mini-series about himself.  I haven't seen Christopher Jefferies since I was at university, but the first part of the series last night - which I watched rather guiltily - brought him back in a dramatic and emotional way.

The actor who took the part, Jason Watkins, was not imitating Jefferies, and was actually very different from how I remember him, but he got something of his manner and his humour - and his seriousness.

A say guiltily because, like so many others who had been stretched and inspired by his English teaching, I wrestled with my practical conscience.  It was clearly a gross injustice that he was in custody.  Those who spoke to the press - and I seemed to have known nearly all of them - had their words twisted to suit the agenda, almost whatever their intention.  With one notable exception, they made things worse.  I kept quiet, wondering rather pointlessly what someone like me could do.

But the series, which ends tonight, was moving and subtle and I was very glad I had watched it, though there is an added horror in the way Jo Yeates herself died somehow in the background.  There is a chilling moment as Jefferies was brought into the police station as someone in the background says: "Yeay, they got the landlord!".  I took the following from the first half:

First, I know something from my own experience long ago of finding yourself innocently in a police cell, and the series did communicate some of the extreme alienation this brings.

Second, I personally owe a huge amount to Christopher Jefferies and his colleagues, who taught me about literature three decades ago - and exist in that sense in my inner life - and have taught me enough about how to live that it has lasted me ever since.  As I wrote at the time, those values seemed to have been directly attacked by the press.

Third, the drama show just how much the police were responding to the mob, and the sense that this was a man rather out of the ordinary.  By so doing they wasted resources and wasted time.

The two events of 2011, the arrest of Christopher Jefferies and the riots later in the summer, have begun to intertwine in my head.  It was about what happens when the mob take over.  The police managed eventually to get the looters under control later that year, but I'm not sure they weren't on the wrong side in the Jefferies affair.

When we start arresting people on the grounds that they are different, life becomes not just uncertain - but institutions like the police start working extremely ineffectively.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Primaries better than secondaries because they are smaller

If I was asked, which of course I never am, I would have said that the UK's state primary schools are the jewel in the crown of our public services.

They are a Rolls Royce example of what services could be, if they were flexible enough, and were as prepared to tailor their services around the needs of individuals in the same way.  They are civilised, humane, imaginative, and they are overwhelmingly effective.

I feel I've seen a lot of them in the last few months and they are also extremely different.  They are ambitious about the right things.  There some Gradgrindian hints one occasionally runs across, but generally speaking they shine with creativity.

I was thinking about that as a result of the latest Ofsted report which compares the primary schools with the less successful secondary schools.  Why the difference?

Well, it is a tough making the shift from primary to secondary.  There is ample evidence in research which shows what a traumatic moment it can be, and it often knocks children back academically.  It is kind of obvious that part of that trauma is the shift from small and personal to big and impersonal.

It may be that this mismatch in standards is partly to do that larger organisations are simply more difficult to manage than smaller ones.  They are difficult to run with the same level of human flexibility.  Perhaps it is the peculiarly British disease of giant institutions which lies behind the problem.  Too many secondary schools are too big.

Of course, this sounds a bit glib. You can imagine companies, factories, schools, hospitals or doctor’s surgeries that are just too small, and rely too much on one individual. We all know communities that are too small, inward-looking or actually in-bred. I certainly do. 

But the basic proposition is implied by most research into small schools over the past generation, which has challenged the idea that schools are better when they are bigger. Despite this, for the past generation or so, most policy-makers have believed that big schools are better. 

 They seem to have started thinking this in the USA after the successful Soviet launch of the Sputnik spacecraft. They persuaded themselves that somehow only huge schools could produce enough scientists to compete with the USSR. It is one of the peculiar ways that Soviet thinking filtered into the West.

Since then, the process has been driven partly by the idea that more subjects can be offered in big schools - though it is not difficult to think of alternative ways to do the same thing.  And partly by pure ambition for larger salaries by the senior staff - the public sector equivalent of the remuneration committees.

The first challenge to school giantism came from Roger Barker, who set up a statistical research centre in a small town in Kansas after the Second World War and researched the local schools to within an inch of their lives. It was his 1964 book Big School, Small School, with his colleague Paul Gump, which revealed that – despite what you might expect – there were more activities outside the classroom in the smaller schools than there were in the bigger schools. 

There were more pupils involved in them in the smaller schools, between three and twenty times more in fact. He also found children were more tolerant of each other in small schools.

I've had reason to doubt more recently the cult of small schools.  There are problems when they are too small too.  But, if Sir Michael Wilshaw wants to find a major reason for the gulf between primary and secondary education, he might usefully look at the cult of giantism.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

The origins of the Thorpe affair

Jeremy Thorpe was the leader of the Liberal Party when I was first politically aware. I found myself drawn to the party through their string of by-election victories during my O Level years, though I didn’t actually join until David Steel was leader.

I remember him fondly, not because I really remember anything he said, but because he landed by helicopter in my school playing fields in 1974 and made me aware that I was a Liberal – and because he kindly hosted a fund-raising party for local candidates (of which I was one) in his home before the 2001 election.

I always admired him.

I remember his trial in amazing detail, collecting the press cuttings, which I still have somewhere or other. I remember Mr Justice Cantley’s outrageous summing up – dismissing one of the co-defendants as “the kind of man who has a cocktail bar in his living room”. George Carman won for Thorpe, but the forensic stuff that emerged during the trial fatally undermined him.

I went to school in the early 1970s in Swiss Cottage and the whole place seemed to reek of that same razzmatazz Liberalism. Lunch at Lord Beaumont’s mansion. Here was Derek Nimmo. There was Clement Freud. It was as if all that 1960s radicalism had settled down to a sediment of Liberalism.

The difficulty was that Thorpe’s Liberalism was too much razzmatazz to remember the content. Looking back, it was a fatal period when the party came to believe that – if they just hired a hovercraft here and there, or won a celebrity endorsement – the world would beat a path to their door. At least long enough to vote correctly.

It doesn't work like that.  Parties survive long-term by thinking as much as by campaigning.

There was more thinking in the Ashdown years. Much less again in the Kennedy years and, despite being shackled to Whitehall, there does seem to me more of an intellectual striving during the Clegg years. For obvious reasons, it just hasn’t included the leadership.

But there are continuing mysteries about Thorpe and those years of 1970s conspiracy. And it is surprising that none of the commentary in the media after his death last week has revived it.

It seems unlikely, with the benefit of hindsight, that Cyril Smith was being framed by the South African secret service, as so many people seemed to think back then. It isn’t clear yet what history will say about some of the allegations of conspiracy.

But it seems to have been forgotten that the Thorpe affair began to be dug out by two Sunday Times reporters who had been asked by Harold Wilson, in conditions of the strictest secrecy, to find out if he was being targeted by the UK intelligence services.  That conundrum has never been resolved, and Wilson resigned the following year.

The real story behind Wilson’s fears has still not emerged, though there have been strange hints over the years. Whatever the truth is, the origins of the Thorpe affair lie partly in that peculiar twilight world of conspiracy, private armies and rumours of extremist coups which so infected the mid-1970s.

It is probably time somebody told the whole story properly.

Monday, 8 December 2014

The corrosive nature of contract culture

I am beginning to feel that the unresolved, unresolveable struggle between privatisers and nationalisers has so stymied debate in the UK - almost as much as the race debate bogs everything down in the USA.  Nothing seems to change.  Nobody changes their mind.  The old battles continue with the advocates on both sides slugging it out with the same old phrases - like the Bourbons, they forget nothing and they remember nothing.

So I do kind of welcome unusual interventions, especially about the future of public services, from wherever they come from.  My friend Jonty Oliffe-Cooper, and his colleagues at Reform, have produced one of these - in the shape of their new report Markets For Good.

The authors say the problem isn't using markets in public services - the problem is not using them enough.  He identifies absolutely correctly two of the major blocks to urgent reform, the piecemeal unconnected nature of public services across the sectors, and the way that the exhausting business of contracting private and voluntary sector suppliers bogs everything down further.

They are absolutely spot on about this and I hope the report gets read.  There are aspects of their solution which are eminently practical - basic licencing rather than contracting, and opening up all services to all providers across the different departmental and geographical boundaries.

Those are bold and exciting ideas.  But there is a difficulty, which is the long reach of contract culture.

In fact, I've come to the conclusion, not that privatised services are somehow inherently worse - though the extra expense will soon be making them very much rarer - but that contract culture narrows what they can achieve down to ever-narrower numerical outputs.  These are then gamed voraciously by the big players, which as a result spread extra costs around the system.

The problem isn't public versus private, it is small versus big, and contracted versus flexible.

Jonty and his colleagues say this can be tackled by payment-by-results.  But the real problem is that payment-by-results agreements have precisely the same effect as the much-hated contracts: they narrow outputs down, minimise effort from the service providers and spread costs elsewhere in the system.

Yes, I know that PBR can be made more difficult to game.  But the result is an acceleration of the kind of complexity that made the old contracts so exhausting, and to load bureaucracy in such weight that - once again - the small mutual suppliers can't compete.  Even if they could afford the up front costs.

The report authors are right that we need to open up the whole system to achieve broader results.  But PBR will never achieve that, because it is always narrowing results down to deliverable, reportable, numerical outcomes.

My own feeling is that the way forward is being pioneered by the Department of Health, thanks largely to Norman Lamb, and involving the integration of increasing swathes of the public sector at local level - governed if necessary by wider contracts - which can still involve smaller players to help them with specific issues.

They will also need a preventive layer of infrastructure, which is as informal as possible, and which can support people before they need formal services, or when they are coming out of direct professional care.

This kind of thing will need to be planned in via local government, but traditional contract culture - and traditional targets - will kill it.

The underlying problem is much more far-reaching, as I set out in my book The Tyranny of Numbers - though not quite in these terms.  How come, when we have reached the kind of technological sophistication that we have, has humanity increasingly constrained their own judgement with approximations?

Because that is the corrosive power of contract culture - specified, gameable, inaccurate approximations of reality.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Shovelling money into great black holes

I've been mulling over the big items in the Autumn Statement and have come to the conclusion that the establishment have very little sense of how economics actually works.

I suppose they are muddled by the politicial rhetoric that house prices rise because there aren't enough homes - which of course they do, somewhat.  But it isn't the main reason, and it isn't clear to me why Whitehall doesn't understand this.

If you thought the main problem was too few homes - and there are too few homes - then perhaps you might imagine that lowering stamp duty would tackle the problem.  But even then, I can't see how.

The reason house prices rise is that there is an infinite amount of money flooding into the system, initially via London - from unequal salaries and foreign investors taking the place of limitless mortgages.  The prices rise to meet what is just achievable for enough of those who can buy.

So lowering stamp duty will give a breathing space for a few months before the prices rise to fill the gap.  Any other wheeze to make prices seem temporarily lower will have the same effect - whether it is subsidising mortgage deposits or 40-year mortgage terms.  The prices will rise to fill the gap.  They always do when there is so much money in search of property, as I explain in my book Broke.

The same goes for the £15 billion largely wasted on trunk road building.  It will bring a temporary relief, but then the suppressed demand will simply flood in and fill the gap again.

In both cases, we will be back where we started, but taxpayers will be £15bn (roads) and £800m (stamp duty) poorer.

Yes, I know I'm cross that my stamp duty was paid in full only three months ago.  But it's more than that.

I understand the drama that is being played out pre-election.  But even so, why do we have to keep shovelling money into these huge craters, while allowing the basic problem to continue from generation to generation?  Why don't we try and solve the problems in a sustainable way?  Why don't senior politicians understand suppressed demand?

And speaking of sustainability, the Autumn Statement just happens to coincide with the revelation that - once again - we are living through the warmest year on record.  Does nobody look any further than a few months ahead?  Or do they really want their political obituary to damn them with the faint praise that they made house prices - the rack on which we eke out our indentured servitude - seem to dip for a few months?

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