Thursday, 27 November 2014

Why are people so cross these days?

I thought of calling this blog ‘The ceaseless quest to find out why people hate politicans’. I haven’t done so, mainly because the answer isn’t terribly hard to find.

Even so, it is strange that a string of former Labour cabinet ministers still write articles suggesting compulsory voting or voting by phone, as if voting was the problem. I’ve just read another one by Charles Clarke.

I’ve suggested some reasons before. This is another one, and it occurred to me this morning, early in the damp mist in Sussex as I texted the bus company to find out the arrival time of my next bus.

You can do this in London too, and it costs about 25p and tells you what buses are arriving at your stop and when. In Sussex, you get what purports to be that, but – on closer examination – just turns out to be the bus timetable.

It wouldn’t have been my choice to spent 25p to look at the timetable, since it is also glued to the bus stop. Do I get cross? A little.

It made me realise how important this gap has become between the fundamental purpose of a public service and its actual purpose in practice.

And how enraging it can be.

The text service for the Sussex bus company is a small example. It purports to have a purpose of giving transparent information to customers. Its actual purpose is to show that they are using technology – and maybe to raise money to pay for it. The audience purports to be the customers when it his actually the county council paymasters.

This example doesn’t matter much, but take Atos, the company charged (until the end of its contract) with assessing fitness for work. Its public purpose was to police the boundary between fit and unfit claimants. Its actual purpose – built into the system provided for them by DWP – was to shave money off the welfare bill.

I am not saying that saving money on welfare is an ignoble cause. The issue here is that the gap between appearance and reality is first disturbing, and then – when you meet it in every public service – it is absolutely infuriating. It is alienating.

I interviewed a GP today for a BBC programme and was fascinated, again, by the number of prominent warnings – together with pictures of the police and blue lights – warning patients not to abuse staff.

Of course, they must not abuse staff. But the fact that these notices are as ubiquitous as they are is a symptom of that gap between the public purpose of a health centre (to cure you) and its real purpose (to control you and your behaviour).

Ask yourself what the real purpose is of your bank when it deals with you (sell you financial products) and the real purpose of many, if not most, government call centres (to get you off the phone in two minutes).

Add that up to a gap in every institution we used, public and private – and voluntary sector too, whose real purpose is often to collect target figures for the Big Lottery, then it amounts to a reason to be cross. Very cross.

My take on this, which is partly the way of the modern world and partly the by-product of the Blair-Brown control system, is that it has hollowed out our institutions.

Never mind the loss of authority and trust, which the BBC is always banging on about. People have never trusted their MPs very far, unless they happen to know them – and sometimes that doesn’t help – but when they see this unarticulated gap, day after day, between the public and real purpose of ever official they deal with, it is a reason for deep distrust.

The effect was clear in Rochester and Strood.  Perhaps I should have called this post: 'The corrosive gap between public and real purpose'.  I will next time...

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The constipation of the NHS

There is an awful lot of old nonsense written about the Health and Social Care Act.

It is said that it was a mistake to put decision-making in the hands of GPs. Well, it did at least provide the foundations for shifting power away from the hospitals – though, of course, GPs are not really in control (they are providers and the CCGs are purchasers, so they can’t co-ordinate properly, as they need to).

It is said that it has opened up the NHS to privatisation. On the contrary, most of the marketisation measures were removed by the Lib Dems, and most of what we have now are the basic outsourcing structures set out by the Blair-Brown governments (yes, there is an issue around the scale of what is happening now).

But what on earth possessed the Department of Health to split regulation between three competing bodies – NHS England, the CQC and Monitor – and to leave the boundaries between the three of them obscure enough to get in the way of innovation?

I encountered all three of them in a brief official capacity, and found them all obsessed with each other’s remits, nervous about each other and very, very careful.

It does explain something of the bitterness behind the NHS blogger Roy Lilley’s attack yesterday morning on the way the NHS is led – a dearth of leadership on the ground, and a pointless stream of negativity from the regulators to anyone who thinks differently or experiments or takes risks with the targets.

It is as if the coalition took the disastrously concrete and wasteful design of public services from the Brown years, and then set up three super-quangos to entrench those mistakes further.

When I met CQC in 2012, they were still using fax machines – enough to make any of us nervous.

Now, you can criticise Roy for trying to let NHS providers off the hook. The CQC, which is – as he says – far too big for its own effectiveness, is the illegitimate child of the Mid-Staffs scandal. But this paragraph is absolutely right about NHS leadership:

“As the boss, you have no control over the business model, compulsory frameworks that might be completely inappropriate for where you work, fixed prices, targets and tariffs that create perversity, arbitrary regulatory rules, and required to do plenty more with plenty less.”

There is the NHS in a nutshell. What can you do about it? Well, I think you have to accept that the NHS can’t be run as a vast great centralised edifice any more.

The danger is that anyone who says this tends to get accused of wanting to sell it off – but it badly needs to be decentralised to local units, and to accept that these might look very different.

You also urgently need to decentralise inspection. There is no way that mega-CQC can do more than a paint by numbers approach, and they need to be stripped down to concentrate on training local authorities to inspect instead.

I’m not sure that Monitor has a role at all, though clearly somebody has to watch over the business practices of the foundation trusts and to speak for patients and their right to be treated flexibly.

Somehow this devolution has to be done without a major new re-organisation, which is politically unacceptable. Nor can you use rhetoric like ‘setting the NHS free’, because again it sounds like weasel words for privatisation.

But you do have to rescue the NHS from its undergrowth of constipation. In short, we need a major dose of laxative.

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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Politics and the art of the impossible

I felt rather sorry for Emily Thornberry, whose innocuous tweet caused such a stir.  I wasn't sure if it was actually the sensitivities of the Labour Party she really upset.  Their conscience has been plaguing them for the complete abandonment of the working classes in recent decades.

No wonder Ed Miliband was so cross.

On the other hand, it is clearly right - given the Ukip surge - that the political elite should be examining their consciences.

I have a feeling the sense of alienation from conventional politics, which - as a Liberal, I rather share - lies in the strange loss of ambition that seems to have gone hand in hand with globalisation.

Instead of setting out a vision which can be achieved, frontline politicians have to spend their time defending a series of compromises which the establishment has made on our behalf, often for very good reasons but not conclusively so.  And maybe because they have to: globalisation has been a paradoxically constraining force.

They have to defend the status quo in energy for fear that investment in the infrastructure the nation needs won't be forthcoming.

They have to defend rising property prices for fear that buy-to-let landlords will withdraw from the market and they will have to deal with the resulting homelessness.

They have to defend the bureaucracy around global trade because it underpins the single market, and all the other trade agreements which have constrained our political freedom of movement.

And so on and so on.  It is the politics of binding compromise, with a whiff of the politics of fear.  It is the result of the political class losing control of the levers.

They may be the right compromises, and the establishment knows they are inevitable - so they never get discussed.  It is hardly surprising that a political movement emerges, simplistic enough to fail to understand them - and to contemplate tearing them all up and starting again.

There is a reasonable longing for politicians to be politicians again, to dream dreams and say 'why not?'  To act on the national stage, to make things happen.  The art of the possible has become the art of the impossible.

But when that happens, there are circumstances when the least attractive alternatives suddenly appear to some people compelling.  After all, if the opposite of populism is just to close ranks and defend the usual compromises which have dominated our lives since the 1970s, then populism has its attractions, even for me.

Especially when those compromises involve defending institutions because of what they were designed to do, when every one knows - perhaps everyone but those in Westminster - that they don't actually work as intended.

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Monday, 24 November 2014

A recipe for old-fashioned economics

The trouble with standing for election is that it gives you the potentially disturbing opportunity to see yourself as others see you.  You fail to get elected, and suddenly you are puzzling out obsessively what it is about you that sort of failed to enthuse people.

All of which is a way of saying that I'm out of sorts at the moment, having failed to get elected to the Lib Dem federal policy committee for the second time in two years.  But, hey, my electorate have spoken...


Of course there are compensations.  I won't have to crawl up to London and back again at dead of night.  I won't have to sit through interminable debates about the Health and Social Care Act, or constitutional reform as understood around 1956.  But I'm sorry, nonetheless.

I imagine that not nearly enough people want a member of the policy committee who is really pretty loyal to the current leadership.  I'm not on anyone's lists - both the Orange Book people and the Social Liberal Forum furrow their brows when I speak.  Perhaps I should be pleased to have won as many votes as I did (thank you, everyone!).

But one thing does worry me.  I stood on a promise to take the party's economic policy by the scruff of its neck and to make it work for people.  I might not have succeeded in this, but I was determined to try - because it worries me that even self-described radical Liberals seem to have almost no interest in economics at all.

The result is that Lib Dems tend to get rolled over when it comes to economics.  This is not a critique of austerity, but it is a criticism of our failure to think creatively about what else might be possible.

And when you don't think radically about economics - when you can't see the point, I'll tell you what happens.  You become deeply conservative on the subject.

So, an obscure debate took place in the Commons last Thursday, about the way money is created.  It was the first time Parliament has debated this very important issue for well over a century, and there was a great deal to be said about the underlying causes of the 2008 crash.

You don't have to agree the entirely line by Positive Money, the campaign group around these issues, or to have agreed with everyone who spoke - and many of them disagreed with each other - to find these issues pretty important for the future design of our money system.  Both Adair Turner and Martin Wolf have been talking about this issue in the last few months.

I'm not even sure what I think myself - but it is a healthy departure to have MPs discussing the possibility of varying how much publicly-created, interest-free money there is in circulation (a good deal less now than when I was born).

But here's the point.  The debate was sponsored by MPs from four parties but no Lib Dems.  As many as 30 MPs took part, including a very distinguished former cabinet minister, and - you guessed it - no Lib Dems.

I think we urgently need to take what Keynes said to heart (as a good Liberal):

“Practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

That's what happens when you stop thinking about it.  The defunct economist in all of us, the default common sense of a few generations back, comes to the fore.

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Why privatisation is over (nearly)

I have a BFI copy of the classic Post Office film Night Mail, with the Britten-Auden collaboration that emerged as night mails crossing the border-bringing-the-cheque-and-the-postal-order. It now looks like a hymn to public service commitment.

One of the other features in the DVD was a sequel, in colour, dated from 1963, called Thirty Million Letters. It is a touching, emotional and absolutely brilliant evocation of what a postal universal service obligation used to mean. There are postmen walking through blizzards, delivering post from a pony and trap, by plane and in constant supportive contact with the public.

The universal service obligation, which the newly privatised Royal Mail is so keen to dispose of, was portrayed there as a thing of beauty – a commitment of pride, a national treasure, a precious stone set in a silver sea...

I can see that the chief executive of the Royal Mail is in a difficult position. Now the Royal Mail is a private company, its continued universal obligation holds it back.

The pressure is on from innovative new competition, from click and collect to Amazon drones. It is difficult out there. It is also difficult for Business Secretary Vince Cable – criticised that he undervalued the shares, and now criticised just weeks later that he overvalued them.

But the abolition of the universal service obligation, a feature of the Royal Mail since Victorian times – which now seems inevitable – is such a scandalous volte face by the Royal Mail that I have been wondering if it marks the end of privatisation as an instrument of policy.

The appalling things is that, as predicted, a universal service obligation shifts from something which we took for granted with quiet pride in the 1960s into something which is too expensive.

Privatisation was born in 1984 as a means of improving service, encouraging innovation and providing a form of popular capitalism – and also of course of raising national revenue (selling the family silver, as Harold Macmillan put it).

After three decades, it has become something else. Here are three reasons why it is reaching the end:

1. Instead of setting free public services by giving them entrepreneurial energy, the process seems to have had the reverse effect – it transforms them into the worst kind of intractable bureaucratic megaliths, apparently without care or thought.  As bad as before, but more expensive.

2, Customer facing UK business is itself going through a period of serious dysfunctionality, based on dysfunctional CRM business practices, set in concrete by dysfunctional IT systems. The prospects of handing over any more services to that kind of customer services does not bode well.

3. Nobody any more believe that privatisation will lead to a better service. Quite the reverse.  That was not the case in the 1980, and the great privatisations back then – British Gas, BT – have retained their functionality, but it certainly is now. State owned East Coast railway lines provide by far the best service.

4. The need to save money means that there is simply no opportunity for profits that privatisation might once have offered, especially in health – which is why so many contracted out NHS services are being abandoned.

None if this suggests that privatisation will stop dead. There are also good reasons for contracting out some services inside the state system – and always will be - but, despite the scare stories, privatisations seem to me to have reached the end of the line.  The revelation of just how much universal services and competition are incompatible will only hasten their demise.

The remaining two justiications are that privatisation helps raise money – which is not enough of a reason for doing so in itself if the management is going to be worse or more expensive – and that they can then raise investment money off the government's balance sheet. This is still an important driver. But there is a political limit: if privatised services are acknowledged to be worse,  less reliable, less effective and less universal, then the tide will turn,

I think it just turned.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Iinnovation versus manipulation in the NHS

Targets came from Jeremy Bentham, in a labyrinthine journey via Robert Macnamara and Key Performance Indicators. They purport to provide transparency and accountability, and – in some ways, in the absence of anything else – they do.

The difficulty is that they never quite measure what they claim. They are indicators of the thing – success – and not the thing itself. And in that gap, so many difficulties follow.

I write all this because of a blistering attack by the influential NHS blogger Roy Lilley this morning about the effects of too close attention to targets is having on an NHS which feels itself embattled – and the tricks the managers are laying to avoid confrontation with the regulators, like delaying all operations to insert patients from the waiting list, or declaring a local emergency so that the targets don’t apply.

Many of us involved in Lib Dem policy in 2010 believed that the coalition would dump the Blair-Brown idea of targets altogether, and they did to some extent. But enough of the old edifice remains to twist the purpose of services and create waste.

Why didn’t they go further? I think because nobody had thought through enough – as they still have not in enough detail – how to provide accountability without some kind of target-driven inspection system.

But we have come some way. What we have left is the bones of the old Blairite, utilitarian design that dreamed that public services were giant humming machines, run outside politics by men in white coats, huddled over the dials.

That system remains because Whitehall has not yet realised how far the target numbers are from reality – cf. Goodhart’s Law – and how delusory their progress figures are. Or what to do about it. That is all now deferred for the next Parliament.

I thought before, and still think, that it was a wasted opportunity, but you can’t move until there is some consensus about what you do instead – and that remains elusive, though John Seddon’s work points in a pretty clear direction.

In the meantime, the NHS is still overseen in this bizarre system of management-by-numbers, which stands in relation to leadership as painting-by-numbers stands to art (see my book The Tyranny of Numbers).

You can see how targets might keep hospitals to the task in hand when budgets are increasing. But when they are shrinking, and demand is rising – partly because of the way contracts have tended to narrow services and spread costs – then targets just become ridiculous.

And in the midst of a crisis, like wartime for example, checking on the success of hospitals by peering at the target figures just becomes like satire.

The real question is this: who in the top eschelons of the NHS is watching over trusts and hospitals and supporting their leadership when they are providing innovative solutions despite targets? And who is holding them to account when they are meeting targets by putting all their energy and ingenuity into tricking the system?

Monday, 17 November 2014

Why free traders might oppose TTIP

David Cameron chose to emphasis TTIP in his speech in Australia, explaining that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – its proper title – will give a ‘rocket boost’ to the global economy.

I find this argument strange. There is very little evidence for it. The study it was based on has been discredited (at least according to WDM), and – in any case – you have to be suspicious of this kind of cost benefit analysis, which only adds the benefits and does no subtraction for the disbenefits.

Similar one-way analyses have been used to justify an end to supermarket restrictions on Sundays and the expansion of Heathrow. It is a kind of fantasyland.

There are three accusations that are being thrown at TTIP at the moment. The first is that it endangers the NHS. I believe this isn’t the case since the European Union has legislation that puts public services beyond the reach of TTIP.

But actually nobody seems to know and I find it extraordinary that, because these issues are not on the mainstream agenda for Labour or Conservative – the BBC fails to pin down the chapter and verse, or even to cover the issues much. Nor do any of the parties volunteer it.

The second accusation is that the special measures will allow corporations to sue sovereign nations for undermining their investments.

This seems to be quite true and bizarrely, presumably because it involves American corporations rather than, say, Romanian ones, UKIP stays silent on the issue.

The third accusation is not really articulated properly and is about the limits of the free market. This is the critique of the research which Cameron uses for his claims about the benefits of TTIP. Again, completely unexamined by the BBC.

There are difficulties here. It is true that open markets will tend to raise all boats, but there are already wide-ranging trade agreements between the EU and the USA and it is not clear how much this one will add.

It is also true that the meaning of free trade has become blunted and coarsened since its great days as the centrepiece of Liberal economics.

What began as a critique of monopoly, and an underpinning of the right of the small to challenge the weak, has become the opposite. Free trade, as understood by mainstream policy-makers, seems to me to have become the absolute reverse: a justification for monopoly and a buttress for the strong and rich to control the weak. This is not its original meaning or its correct one.

It seems to me highly likely, given this, that TTIP is a buttressing of the big over the small – I can’t see how my local healthcare co-op is going to be taking over any American hospitals. It is a means by which the big can ride roughshod over the small – it is a recipe therefore for poorer service and the suppressing of innovation.

Since small businesses create jobs in a way that big businesses are constrained from doing, this would make TTIP a net job destroyer and therefore corrosive of prosperity.

This column is my assertion of the right as a free trader to oppose TTIP. In the absence of clear evidence, it is a technocrat’s charter and, as such, brings the backlash against technocracy – really our biggest threat at the moment – that much closer.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Why are we so fascinated by Alan Turing?

The new Benedict Cumberbatch film comes out tomorrow in the UK.  It is called The Imitation Game and it concerns the code-breaking career of Alan Turing, the British candidate for the inventor of computing.  It is also the UK candidate for the next Oscars ceremony.

What I have been wondering is why Turing has become such a compelling figure in our recent past - and, at the age of 102 if he had lived, he might even have still been alive.

When I first began writing about him, when I was writing my book Authenticity, Turing was a half-forgotten, fringe figure.  Now he is a symbolic martyr who helped create the modern world.  In between, something happened.

There are three possible ways of thinking of this. There was his prosecution for homosexuality and subsequent suicide (and it almost certainly was suicide, as I explain in my book Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma). With the issue of sexual tolerance right at the top of everyone's radars these days, this makes him something of a martyr - enough to be given an official pardon last year.

As I explained in the book, the suicide was most probably not directly to do with the prosecution, and more likely to be linked to hounding by the security services, but actually we can't know.

The other way of thinking about his importance as a figure is that he was such a pioneer of virtuality, and as such a co-creator of the IT revolution. He conceptualised computers and then brought them into existence to crack the Nazi codes.

Finally, Turing was a contradictory personality who strongly believed that machines could think and feel - the founder, in that respect, of the Turing Test. He was in this respect another pioneer of tolerance - he believed, not so much that his computers should be given rights, but that they should be given the benefit of the doubt.

It is never entirely comfortable when a complex human being becomes a symbol of things beyond themselves. Turing has become a symbol for the modern world, as a prophet of IT and scientific rationality, a martyr for gay rights, and also of genius cramped by convention and intolerance.

He would have found none of these entirely comfortable. He is portrayed sometimes as a social misfit, somewhere on the autistic spectrum – in fact he was a witty and entertaining friend. He enjoyed Snow White and had a particular fascination for fairy tales. He was, in fact, a far more rounded figure than he is given credit for being, as the new film portrays him.

As for the symbolism of the apple, it is a bizarre twist of the modern world that Turing’s fatal apple (poisoned with cyanide) is sometimes given the credit for being the original for the logo which now graces Apple computers – as if the apple of the tree of knowledge was somehow inadequate to the task.

In fact, the Apple logo’s designer Rob Janoff denies that he had even Adam and Eve in mind when he penned his first draft. He put the bite in, not as a tribute to Turing, but to emphasise scale and to show this was not a picture of a cherry.

What seems to underpin our fascination with him is that he was a pioneer of the modern world, and perhaps of tolerance to people who approach the world more like a computer would - as perhaps he did.

The Turing Test never claimed to be able to verify anything metaphysical, but that is where the debate is going.

 It is a debate about authenticity, which asserts or denies that there are attributes which are uniquely human, not so much conventional intelligence, but love, care and generosity. Turing believed that intuition was computable. Even if a computer passes his test, we won’t know if he was right or not.

Turing was wrong about his predictions: he expected his test to have been passed by now. But we are now in thrall to computers in ways that might have surprised him: in practice, the closer to human intelligence the robot who phones us up can be, the more unnerving the experience – and, for the time being, the more frustrating, because of the inability of IT to deal with human complexity in the ways that Turing predicted.

If the corporate world wants to replace teachers and doctors with screens and software, because it is cheaper, it is not always obvious which side Turing – a great humanist – would have been on.

I like to think he would have been on the side of humanity again, but who knows.  Find out more in my ebook Alan Turing: Understanding the Enigma.

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Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Projecting our loss of innocence

When Arthur Miller was writing The Crucible, he mentioned to a friend as he left dinner for the evening that he was working on a play about the Salem witch trials.

She was astonished that he could see any parallel between witch trials and the McCarthyite hearings against un-American activities, going on at the time. Yet now we call both ‘witch hunts’ without batting an eye. It is sometimes more obvious with the benefit of hindsight.

These kind of frenzies emerge often with good reason, but involve a great deal of projection. I have a feeling the un-American witch hunters were projecting their own sense of betrayal – and nearly everybody in public life seems to carry one of those – onto the nation.

I wonder in a similar way whether the ferocious elements of the furore about child abuse is caused, to some extent, by people projecting their own loss of innocence onto children.

This is not to suggest that the child abuse campaign isn’t important, but it might explain the fringe elements like banning single adult males – or those who appear single – from public parks, as they have done in Telford and Weston-super-Mare.

So I’m grateful to Jonathan Calder for being the first to draw my attention to this. It is a frightening trend, not just because of its assumptions, but also because it undermines family life in its own way (if you need a child with you to prove your own innocence) and therefore makes abuse more likely, not less.

I realised more than a decade ago that the issue had the potential for tyranny of this kind, when someone I knew well told me that it didn’t matter if a few innocent people were gaoled in order to catch the paedophiles. Since another friend of mine was one of those innocent people facing gaol at the time, this was not comforting.

Important causes may always have the potential to draw out this kind of insanity. But we have to be careful, because this is also how causes undermine themselves - whenever something is considered so important taht a mere accusation is evidence of guilt.

There is a strong current in the child abuse ‘industry’, if I could call it that , which regards abuse as mainstream in family life, and justifies the treatment of children accordingly – seized in the middle of the night by police during the satanic abuse panic.

There is another strand which assumes that children will usually be better off in local authority care than at risk of abuse at home – though, historically, that is more often a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Both of these get in the way of keeping children safe, because they risk changing the boundary lines of the issue. A world where single people are regarded as pariahs, or anyone who happens to have left their children or grandchildren at home, is a much more dangerous one for children.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

How to waste a staggering £15bn

Martin Mogridge was a transport economist.  He was originally a physicist who wore long hair and leather trousers, and a cultivated air of exoticism. His interests included science fiction and Victorian eroticism, and just before his untimely death in 1999 at the age of only 59, he began studying Hebrew.

Over the previous three decades, while the major cities of the world enthusiastically demolished their slums and built massive urban highways, transport experts had been puzzling over the phenomenon of how new roads – even widened roads – seemed to increase traffic.

Economists had noticed that, if there is more road space, then people find it worthwhile to pay to use their cars, if they had one. Then public transport attracts fewer paying passengers and the fares go up or services reduce, and even more people go by car. 

Even in the 1930s, they had noticed that new roads released what they called ‘suppressed demand’. Worse, then the traffic goes faster and the buses find it more difficult to negotiate traffic streams or cross big highways. It all combined together to create what was called the Downs-Thomson Paradox, described like this:

“If the decision to use public or private transport is left to the free choice of the individual commuter, an equilibrium will be reached in which the overall attractiveness of the two systems is about equal, because if one is faster, cheaper and more agreeable than the other there will be a shift of passengers to it, rendering it more crowded while the other becomes less so, until a position is reached where no-one on either system thinks there is any advantage in changing to the other... Hence we derive one of the golden rules of urban transport: the quality of peak-hour travel by car tends to equal that of public transport.”

That was a vital clue: the speed of road transport and public transport are linked, and the journey times door to door for both are often very similar. Mogridge realised that, in London, everything depended on the speed of the underground system, which is why the traffic in London has stayed at a pretty average speed since 1900. 

If you build more roads, people go back to their cars because it is then quicker than going by underground – until the point when the speed is so slow that underground travel is faster. Then they leave their cars behind and go by tube.

The solution to speeding up the traffic is therefore to speed up the main public transport infrastructure. What’s more, said Mogridge, this works even if you take space away from cars to make room for public transport. It was the thinking that led to plans like Crossrail – the new high speed underground line across London – as well as on Zurich’s successful strategy to reduce car use based on better pedestrian access and investment in trams. 

By the end of his life, Mogridge reckoned that traffic speed could be doubled just by reducing space for cars, though it remains difficult for public officials – at least in the UK – to act on this new law of traffic management.  Read more in my book The New Economics.

What applies to London also applies to he trunk road system.  What is really staggering is that David Cameron has announced road-building plans which fly in the face of this knowledge.  In fact, £15bn worth, about which he claims:

“This will be nothing less than a roads revolution – one which will lead to quicker journey times, more jobs, and businesses boosted right across the country."

If Mogridge was right, and I think he was, the very last thing this will do is boost journey times.  It is a staggering waste of money and it seems at the very least unproven that it will boost business, except of course the business of road-building.  Road-building tends to move jobs from the poor areas to the rich areas, and rarely the other way.

Every one of those extra lanes, built at such enormous expense, will attract the road traffic to fill them again and I feel despairing of the establishment's ability to learn anything very much - and their amazing ability to keep plugging away with their money at the futile and hopeless.

It makes you yearn for austerity.  It's a pity it has got such a bad name.  At least it meant a little forethought before slinging money around at all the old shibboleths.

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Monday, 10 November 2014

The great system thinking battle that is to come

PictureIt is peculiar the way most of the organisations we deal with now want to prolong the agony by asking us to rate the ‘experience’ of dealing with them.

This does betray, I suppose, a kind of interest in what we think, but there is also something profoundly irritating about it – especially if it involves formal ratings. It is very rare to get this from organisations which actually provide good customer service – questions, yes (like the NHS Friends and Family Test), but ratings, never.

A friend of mine was telling me last week about a particularly irritating encounter at Santander, where they then tried to sell an insurance package in the branch and then asked them how they would rate the encounter on a scale of one to five.

If that wasn’t irritating enough, the bank counter staff then said: “It would help us if you could make it a 5.”

This led eventually to a long conversation with the manager where it transpired that they didn’t understand why everyone gave them a 4. Had they ever thought about what a 5 in customer service might look like? Apparently not, apart from their ability to perform by the rule book.

And somehow, that experience sums up the full debilitating power of the targets regime rolled out with such enthusiasm across public services during the Blair and Brown years. Because it hoovers up the available energy, imagination and flair of the organisation to make the figures look good. It transforms the customers into merely the means by which a good rating can be won.

I remember a fly-on-the-wall documentary about airport security recently where the staff focused all their attention, not on spotting potential terrorists, but on spotting the fake terrorists sent to test their attentiveness by their managers – a slightly different skill.

Imagine that same shift of resources across every public service and every service organisation, and the waste and perversity that results will be absolutely vast.  Unfortunately, it is vast.

Now it just so happens that the scourge of targets in public services, the system thinker John Seddon, has a new book out this week where he turns his attention to what governments should do instead of targets.

Seddon has the most coherent critique and probably the most practical alternative. He is so enjoyably rude to his opponents, the conversations with whom he repeats throughout his new book, The Whitehall Effect, that his old newsletters were required reading in local government.

In places like Camden, they have begun to roll out Seddon style systems thinking, and with great effect. But the debate has hardly been joined – because Whitehall is well-insulated against such a fundamental critique.

He describes his first encounter with local government in the book, when Swale District Council called him in because the back office system they had been told by the DWP to put in place for housing benefits seemed to be increasing the backlog – as we now know they do.

Seddon seems to have nailed the basic problem: imperial systems, like those built by public services during the Blair/Brown years – and especially inappropriate IT systems – can’t absorb the kind of human variety they tend to get. This enormously boosts costs.

Now, Seddon’s book has been long-awaited by people like me, who agree with most of what he says, because we were hoping for an answer to the great accountability conundrum – which is this.

Without some kind of numerical measures, how are politicians going to hold services to account? And if they don’t use numerical targets, will these not just be imposed on them by the media?

Seddon’s answer is this; politicians should set the intentions of services and let managers find the best way to achieve them. This is what he says:

“Making leaders responsible for choices about measures and methods returns validity to inspection. Instead of inspecting for errors as laid down in checklists, inspectors will pose just one question: What are the methods and measures being used t achieve the purpose of the service?, and then check their validity.”

This is exactly right. But in practice, it seems to me to be only the beginning of a practical answer, because numerical systems of control are now so powerful and centralisation, driven by IT, is so intense..

I’m not saying that the solution is wrong. Quite the reverse: I think Seddon is urgently right. And The Whitehall Effect is an important book. But this remains an argument in progress and I’m not sure we have a definitive answer yet.

I’m hoping this book will force the big service managers to engage with the argument in a way they have failed to do so far – and admit that the waters around them have grown. The times they are a-changing.

But we need their involvement if we are not going to escape from one numerical cul-de-sac, only to find we have had another one imposed upon us.

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Thursday, 6 November 2014

The risks of investigating the banks now

It is both exhilarating and disturbing to find that the great edifice of government is moving in the directions you have urged.  Not that I am in any way influential on these - the Treasury's inquiry into digital currencies and the new Competition and Markets Authority investigation into the banking market.

But it is still disturbing.  Why are they doing it now?  Will they actually make things worse?

It isn't clear to me, for example, that the Treasury has the authority it needs to regulate digital currencies, and I am always nervous when government departments start thinking about regulating areas which require innovation - they so often go about it in entirely the wrong way.

On the other hand, I would prefer UK banking regulators to have a go at setting out a framework for new kinds of money than any other European nation.  Heaven help innovation if the Banque de France or the Bundesbank start throwing their Napoleonic weight about.

The Bank of England has already written something open-minded about the whole field.  History demands that they take their responsibility to take charge of this on behalf of the continent.  Or so it seems to me.

But I am confused about the government's decision to call in the banking market.  I am not naive enough to believe that it had anything to do with my suggestion in this blog last month.

It is true that the banks require rescuing from themselves.  The domestic banking market is no longer viable with free banking, partly because of low interest rates.  None of them can afford to move first, but - if they collude among themselves to charge - they risk going to gaol.  An investigation of this kind is precisely what they need.

In which case, why are they complaining?

The other question is this.  The investigation is going to take 18 months, over the period of the next general election when the future of banking ought to be one of the main objects of debate.  It is absolutely vital that we don't allow the parties to use this process to avoid discussing it with voters.

I very much hope that the Lib Dems will campaign on their new policy of banking with boots on the ground - and will act on it, alone or with others, after the election.  Fingers crossed.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

We should nominate Elle for the Turner Prize

The mainstream arts world is a peculiar place.  It struggles these days, not so much for beauty in the Ruskinian fashion, but for controversy - to frame a contradiction more sharply, to act it out, to see things more clearly.

It is true that most of what is produced, even for the Turner Prize, fails to rise this far.  But then something comes along in real life that makes all their efforts redundant.

Can you imagine how a artist's career would have been made just by dreaming up and performing the bizarre dance of embarrassment by Elle, Whistles and the Fawcett Society over their sweat-shop T-shirt campaign.  How everyone in search of popularity managed to be photographed putting one on, how they checked - of course they did - the so-called supply chain.  But failed to pick up the phone to speak to someone in the actual factory.

I hope Elle and Whistles are pleased that they have inadvertently publicised the issue of sweatshops - but I expect they are still execrating each other behind closed doors.

What this whole mistake means, it seems to me, is that the gulf between trendy, branding campaigns and the real underlying economic issues is as wide as ever.

Yes, people can be photographed in a T-shirt, but they seem blind to the underlying economics - even a bit bored by it.  As if it was somehow unavoidable.  As if anything more than one-dimensional causes are really too much.

There encapsulated in this amazing installation is the central blindness of the modern world.  It would be enough to win the Turner Prize.  In fact, I'm going to see if I can nominate the Elle magazine and Whistles.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Why governments take so long to act

I'm a little behind with my reading, what with moving house in the summer and the constant business of navigating the remaining cardboard boxes full of books.  So it has taken until now for me to read the edition of Fortune magazine from last month about the progress of General Motors.

What I read was so fascinating and seems to me to shed light, not just on the strange business of the Home Office's failure to appoint anyone to head the historic abuse inquiry who can sustain the job for more than a few days, but the mysterious business of why governments mess up as often as they do.  Maybe even a clue about crashes like Virgin Galactic (though Branson has denied that warnings were ignored, so maybe not).

It was the strange story of GM's recall scandal involving the failure of the airbags in the Chevrolet Cobalt.  It was clear from April 2013 that the fault lay in the ignition system.  Then - nothing.  This is how the business writer Geoff Colvin put it:

"No order for an immediate recall, no report to high-level executives.  Not even the general counsel was told.  Instead ... 'the response to the revelation was to hire an expert'.  It took six months for the expert to provide his written report, which merely concurred with what outsiders had been telling GM for years: that faulty ignition switches too easily turned from run to accessory mode, disabling the airbags.".

Even then, they didn't act.  The engineer had to read and consider the report.  Then he put his views to various committees.  Finally, GM recalled the model in February this year.  They had known exactly what the problem was for nine months - and 12 years after it was clear there was a problem.

GM's new CEO Mary Barra is using the disaster - which seems to have killed about 13 people - as a way to turn GM's exhausting culture on its head, not by forming another committee but by "behaving differently every day".

One of the problems about deciding urgently important things by networks of committees - in giant corporations or in Whitehall - is that people can avoid responsibility for the decisions.  There are benefits too, but it makes change so exhausting that it happens extremely slowly - often beyond the point where it comes too late to make a difference.

Or, like constitutional reform, you wait and wait and then the committees disgorge some hastily contrived, seat-of-the-pants compromise.  I heard the late lamented Joel Barnett on the radio today, to mark his death, complaining that the Barnett Formula which still governs the fiinancial settlement for Scotland and Wales was just one of these - something to satisfy some urgent crisis at the time.  But decades ago.

So much decision making in government seems to be like that - government sometimes seems to be the sum total of every short-term sticking plaster ever cobbled together.

The bigger the organisation, of course - the more crass the management style - the worse these features tend to be.

So Mary Barra fascinates me.  As head of HR at GM, she cut their ten-page dress code down to two words - 'dress appropriately'.

It is the high risk approach to simply fly in the face of this by the way you behave.  I suspect that may be the only way to change a decision-making culture.  But could any elected politician dare?

Monday, 3 November 2014

Lib Dems, Greens must not hate/barbarians are at the gate

I was one of those young-ish activist types who took part in the extremely unofficial talks held between the Young Liberals, Liberal Ecology Group and the Green Party in the late 1980s to see if there was any basis for a re-merger.

In practice, what actually happened was that the Green Party abandoned the talks in response to their spectacular result in the 1989 Euro-elections, and - as it turned out - the Liberal Party merged with the SDP.

That probably was all for the best.  We have gone our separate ways as parties in the last decade and a half.  Everyone would agree that there are parts of the Green Party which are emphatically not liberal.  There are certainly parts of the Lib Dems which are not green.

But back in 1987 (or was it 1988?) there was a strong measure of agreement.  The main difference, as it was put to me by a prominent Green activist, was that the Liberals were more pragmatic - they compromise on the way to their objectives.

I noted this remark away rather cynically.  Just wait until they run a city, I said to myself, and we'll see how long that attitude lasts.

What I didn't understand at the time was that this division (the realo/fundi division) was absolutely at the heart of Green politics, as much as the Tories are divided between free marketeers and xenophobes or between social and economic Liberals.  The division has emerged over and over again, and disastrously, from the Hungarian Green Party to the Green ruling group on Brighton and Hove Borough Council.

All of this is a way of saying I don't agree with Caroline Lucas, the Green MP, when she dismissed the idea of any kind of electoral arrangements between the two parties, as proposed by St Ives MP Andrew George.  Because there are ways in which Greens and Liberals represent missing wings of each other's philosophy.

I like and respect Caroline.  She is a principled humanitarian, and she is quite right that we shouldn't waste time with any kind of formal electoral pact.  But I'm not sure we have the luxury of happily bashing each other when a combined Ukip/Tory force may emerge to take down the wind farms and frack us all to kingdom come.

She is quite right, it seems to me, that the Lib Dems in office have compromised too much with nuclear subsidies (I believed Chris Huhne's 2010 promise "read my lips, no nuclear subsidies" and I was horribly wrong).

But she knows as well - not just that the Green Party originally emerged from the Liberal Party, but there are important parallels between us, and that there are Lib Dems who would oppose nuclear energy or shale gas extraction all the way, just as she would.

It makes sense, it seems to me, to work together if we can do so informally, to keep them in Parliament and keep her in Parliament, and bring in some colleagues too.

So yes, I would back informal arrangements, starting in Brighton.  A Liberal UK needs people like Caroline Lucas and a Green UK needs people like Andrew George.  The barbarians are now at the gate, and we may look back in a few years and wish we had acted together when we could.