Tuesday, 31 March 2015

We need a new Thomas Becket

Back in 2002, I came across an old copy of Hilaire Belloc's book The Old Road.  It was being sold off for 40p by my local library, along with many of their other books most worth reading, and I bought it and devoured his journey along the old Pilgrim's Way.

Reading Belloc changed my outlook on many things.  He was a former Liberal MP who left the party and launched one of those Liberal breakaway movements - like the Greens - this one called the Distributist League.

I've written elsewhere about the links between the Liberals and the Distributists, but it is a diversion and a controversial one, so won't do so again now.

The Old Road had been published in 1904, and Belloc described himself setting out from Winchester on old St Thomas Becket Day, 31 December.  I realised that if I did the same that year, I was probably leaving exactly a century after Belloc's own journey. And so it was that, on 31 December 2002, bearing umbrellas on a very drizzly day, Sarah and I set off past the ruins of Hyde Abbey and along the flooded route towards the Winchester bypass.

Every few months we would do a little more, eventually with a buggy and a baby, and then with two children.  On Palm Sunday, we finally reached the end of the pilgrimage.  We were even blessed by a resident chaplain in Canterbury Cathedral.

At the end of the book, Belloc writes:

"In the inn, in the main room of it, I found my companions. A gramophone fitted with a monstrous trumpet roared out American songs, and to this sound the servants of the inn were holding a ball. Chief among them a woman of a dark and vigorous kind danced with an amazing vivacity, to the applause of her peers. With all this happiness we mingled..."

The awkward transition back to modern life, from a medieval dream, which Belloc hints at rather strangely here, I have also now been through.  But part of the dream has stayed with me - more than part actually, but this is the relevant bit.  It is the meaning of the cult of Thomas Becket, the murdered archbishop, and how much we need something similar now.

Because Becket became a symbol of spiritual resistance to conventional authority.  That was the ideal which united all those pilgrims over three and a half centuries.  It was a celebration, not just of resistance, but of the possibility of supra-national authority.  Or a moral appeal beyond the king and parliament.

It would be too simple to say that this role is covered by the European Convention or the European Union, though they are the flawed successors of the Roman Catholic Church - it is no coincidence that Brussels now plays the same role in the English psyche as Rome once did, irritatingly interfering until we need it.

Becket was not just resisting civilian authority, he was murdered by the king.  In these days, the comparison is with Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Oscar Romero, and other spiritual leaders murdered by governments the world over.

You can see why Henry VIII, the great tyrant, was so keen to seize Becket's shrine and how frustrated he must have been that Becket's bones eluded him.

The trouble is, nobody knows where the monks hid Becket's bones, so they elude us too.  We need a parallel authority to the state, to support conscience and the possibility of spirituality.  The church can aspire to that but it is extremely rusty and very careful, and I remain enough of a modern Liberal to believe it might be stronger if it could unite its voice with the authority of the other faiths which now cover this island (heavens, I'm even intoning like Belloc now...).

Because if there was an annual pilgrimage which underpinned the possibility of moral and spiritual authority, powerful enough to hold the state to account where necessary, then I would set out from Winchester to follow it all over again.

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Monday, 30 March 2015

Why the election 'debate' was so dull

I watched the so-called debate that wasn't a debate with rising incredulity that any two men aspiring to the highest office in the last should be quite so dull and predictable.  The only element that was less predictable was Ed Miliband's unexpectedly human smile.

I don't know if it was authentic or not, but it came across as such - and I'm sure it lies behind his sudden rise in the polls.  But let's face it - it wasn't much.

I've been thinking about the political offering for next month's election and it really is staggeringly uninspiring.  Then I read the column in the Financial Times (thanks again, Joe) which talked about a similar disconnect in Washington - the growing gulf between the new thinking of Silicon Valley and precisely the opposite in Washington.

This is how Edward Luce put it:

"Every week, some audacious start-up aims to exploit the commercial potential of science. Many are too zany to succeed. A few will deserve to. Every week, it seems, a presidential campaign is launched. Some of the 2016 candidates are actively hostile to science. None, so far, have hinted at original ideas for fixing America’s problems. One will undeservedly succeed. The root of America’s intellectual disconnect is cultural. In Silicon Valley, “fail harder” is a motto. A history of bankruptcy is proof of business credentials. In Washington, a single miscue can ruin your career..."

We don't have the same extremes in the UK.  We don't have fundamentalist anti-science candidates for prime minister.  We don't have Silicon Valley mavericks either, except perhaps clustered around Silicon Roundabout and one or two other places.

But the basic division is horribly familiar.  It is as if UK politicians regard their failure to propose anything new as a demonstration of their fitness for office.  It makes them safer from Paxman of course, but also perhaps insulates them from each other.  They are dull enough to be safe.  It is the besetting sin of the British political elite.

On the one hand, we have the Conservatives failing to reveal where they are going to save huge sums form the welfare budget, as they say they will.  On the other hand, we have Labour wrapping themselves in the NHS, complaining about all those elements - outsourcing, PFI contracts - which they did so much in the 13 years to 2010 to encourage.

On the one hand, we have the English nationalists, on the other hand the Scottish nationalists.  Nationalists believe in a thoroughly old idea - nations - and seem to be muddled by the modern world in which the lines between foreigners and everyone else get blurred.

I am biased in favour of the Lib Dems, of course.  The pupil premium, the Green Investment Bank and free school meals as a means of socialisation - those are all new ideas, at least for the UK, and ones to be proud of.  But they played little part in the last election, which makes me wonder whether the list of those groups of people who really find new thinking pretty irrelevant, and rather inconvenient, should also include political correspondents.

It is the clash of slogans that interests them, and the more familiar the slogans the happier they are.

Nor are the Lib Dems thinking much at the moment, except for the narrowest policy opportunities.  Big thoughts are dangerous, but they need not worry - nobody in government has big thoughts any more.  There isn't any time to have them.

So there is a dilemma here.  The nation needs the Lib Dems in government like never before.  But the Lib Dems need a period in opposition if they are going to start thinking again.  It is hard to know quite what to wish for most fervently.

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Thursday, 26 March 2015

Who dimmed the university mind?

I’ve always believed that fairy tales have a role in understanding the contemporary world, and therefore of politics.

This sounds a little sceptical or satirical, but I don’t mean it like that. You can use fairy tales as a positive way of extracting the underlying narrative and taking stark reality by surprise, so to speak.

Marina Warner is the great modern interpreter of fairy tales and I’m still reeling from reading her new demolition job on the management of universities in the London Review of Books.

Her devastating indictment was summed up most effectively in this letter she received from a professor who had just resigned from a top UK university:

"Although the department was excellent, it was freighted to breaking point with imperious and ill-conceived demands from much higher up the food chain – from people who don’t teach or do research at all, or if they ever did, think humanities departments should work like science departments …The incessant emphasis was on cash: write grant applications rather than books and articles in order to fund one’s research … accept anyone for study who could pay, unethical as that was especially at postgraduate level, where foreign applicants with very poor English were being invited to spend large sums on degrees … Huge administrative duties were often announced with deadlines for completion only a few days later. We had to spend hours filling in time-and-motion forms to prove we weren’t bunking off when we were supposed to be doing our research and writing during the summer ‘vacation’ … It was like working for a cross between IBM, with vertiginous hierarchies of command, and McDonald’s..." 

The bone-headed distortions of the Research Excellence Framework, the ridiculous managerialism, the gagging clauses in contracts, the embarrassing secrecy about top salaries, the bullying of staff – it all amounts to a disastrous dimming of the university mind.

Marina Warner compares the language of management to the bleak, simplified, meaningless language of Newspeak in 1984:

“As universities are beaten into the shapes dictated by business, language is suborned to its ends. We have a heard the robotic idiom of management, as if a button had activated in a digitally generated voice.”

But there is a problem here, because I don’t think she is right that this has anything to do with austerity, or the politics of the coalition.

In fact, universities are about the only part of the public sector to have enough money. Vince Cable’s much-criticised formula for changing student loans has replaced them with a kind of graduate tax on the better off, combined with higher fees, which has made the universities financially secure for the first time in decades.

It also potentially frees them up from day to day government interference. The decline of arts research money has changed the dynamics, but – let’s be honest – it is the extraordinary waste of so much academic research, with its long, pointlessly expensive glorification of meaningless distinctions, that underpins the economics of this disaster.

No, the growth of corrosive managerialism pre-dates austerity. Nor can you blame business exactly.

The relationship between failed contemporary economics and the tyrannically dimmed thinking of contemporary managerialism is not quite clear – though there is one. Both shake off effective criticism by ignoring it – partly because there seems to be no alternative, partly because status depends on it, and party because of the way this approach has stifled innovation and basic questioning.

It seems pretty secure against ridicule too. What we need is the kind of thinking about alternatives to utilitarian process, and bogus measurement, that is beginning to emerge against failed economics

The same horrors are hollowing out business with its boneheaded KPIs. Just as we need to reinvent universities, we need to start reinventing business as an insurgent, challenging force, capable of driving aside these prehistoric management techniques by sheer effectiveness and boldness.

Once again, the corporate world is being hollowed out by this managerialism.  It is up to small enterprise to shove the old dinosaurs aside.

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Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Tolstoy's lesson for climate change

1812 Moscow fire during Napoleon invasion
If all philosophy is footnotes to Plato, as they say, I have been wondering whether all politics might be footnotes to Tolstoy.  I've been reading War and Peace - at the age of 56, I thought it was about time - and I've been struck by his perceptive attitudes to human behaviour.

Take this for example, as Napoleon drew near to the gates of Moscow in 1812:

With the enemy's approach to Moscow, the Moscovites' view of their situation did not grow more serious but on the contrary became even more frivolous, as always happens with people who see a great danger approaching. At the approach of danger there are always two voices that speak with equal power in the human soul: one very reasonably tells a man to consider the nature of the danger and the means of escaping it; the other, still more reasonably, says that it is too depressing and painful to think of the danger, since it is not in man's power to foresee everything and avert the general course of events, and it is therefore better to disregard what is painful till it comes, and to think about what is pleasant. In solitude a man generally listens to the first voice, but in society to the second. So it was now with the inhabitants of Moscow. It was long since people had been as gay in Moscow as that year...

Now I've been excited by the stance of the Guardian to disinvestment in fossil fuels, taking on the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust at once, in order to force them to disinvest.  I'm sure they will succeed.

I am equally sure that removing investment from the richest philanthropists in fossil fuels may well be the quickest way to make change happen.

Until now, people have felt that the extraordinary double-think that our leaders have managed - both that it is urgent to tackle climate change and that we must have more airport capacity - is evidence that maybe we none of us need to take the threat seriously.

I know that, in the deep recesses of my heart, I draw some comfort from this myself, and it seems to me that Tolstoy nails the phenomenon.  But I also believe what I'm told by scientists - though we shouldn't accept it all without question - and they say that Napoleon is at the gate.

I find the case espoused by Matt Ridley pretty unconvincing.  Yes, I'm aware that often the disasters don't actually befall.  But that is often because of the warnings, not despite them.  Society acts, we think ahead, we avert disaster.  As Tolstoy reminds us, if climate change was taking place in the most dangerous way, what we would expect is an increasingly frenetic turning away from the problem by those who lead us - a determined concentration on what is irrelevant.  

As we hurtle to disaster, without taking action, we might say - as Tolstoy did of 1812 - that "it was long since people had been as gay in London as that year".

My personal belief, for what it is worth, is that we will act - the climate will change, but disaster will be averted - simply because we invest our money more effectively in new, renewable technologies.  As we do so, we will find the right wing critics of green energy split on this very issue, as they have been in Australia and the USA - because solar technology provides a kind of economic independence which people crave.

For a while, the critics will bluster and the old model will respond by taxing solar panels to pay for nuclear waste - or some similar horror - but, in the end, we will turn the corner.

But not because we always do.  It is because we stop partying at the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and start taking action.

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Tuesday, 24 March 2015

An end to education for placid obedience

My father got cross with me when I was sixteen for insisting that I wanted to stick solidly to the arts subjects for my A Levels.  He insisted that my only chance of rescuing my renaissance future was to do an AO Level in Navigation - which I did and duly failed.

I'm not sure I could have survived a scientific A level, but I'm also pretty sure that I ought to have tried.  I'm almost sorry I didn't.

I have a great deal to thank the people who educated me for.  My grounding in literature, my fascination with ideas, their ability to let go and trust me sometimes to find my own way (though not my ability to speak a foreign language - how is it possible that I could have sat in classrooms for nearly a decade without being able to speak fluent French?).  But I was lucky.  I had the right teachers.

I was thinking of this when I was sent an article (thank you, Joe!) by the fabulous Gillian Tett about the decline of liberal arts in the USA, and why we need something of the kind over here.

She quotes Fareed Zakaria, the CNN host, in his new book In Defence of a Liberal Education:

"Thus, Zakaria reasons, what a country like America really needs to do is give students skills that robots cannot replicate (or not yet), namely the ability to think clearly and creatively..."

This seems to me to be spot on and some way in advance of most of our politicians.  The Lib Dems in government have an excellent record on vocational education, having finally eased the academic obsessives like Michael Gove out of office.  It wasn't good for the nation either that we were unable to provide people with the education that suited their talents, or the UK with the engineers it needs.  We've waited a long time for an effective intervention, and now we seem to be getting somewhere.

This is not a small achievement.  Nor are Vince Cable's apprenticeships.  But beyond them, the great mass of politicians have still not got beyond the rhetoric about the need for job-relevant skills and more programmers.

Joe Zammit-Lucia and I tried to see a bit further than that in our recent pamphlet A Radical Politics for Business.  Because what business actually needs, as opposed to what politicians so often say they need, is not so much programmers as programmers who can also solve problems.  They need creative people with a range of multi-disciplinary skills.  

Yes, they badly need engineers, but they also want problem-solvers and people who know things (I find people don't tend to these days, but I may be showing my age by saying so).

This kind of cross-disciplinary creative skill set is precisely the opposite of what the UK education system has been churning out so exhaustingly over the past few generations - academic specialists at one end; obedient machine-minders who can spell at the other.  

In fact, if Liberals can collect their thoughts about business together and sum it up, putting small enterprise at the heart of policy - as they should - it is kind of obvious what the implication of this is for education.  We need our schools and universities to knuckle down and start producing broad thinkers, creatives, problem-solvers and people who can, as Anita Roddick used to say, imagine the world differently.

In short, we need to be producing entrepreneurs - social entrepreneurs, entrepreneurial engineers, creative entrepreneurs.  

I hesitate to say it, because New Labour helped to turbo-charge the soulless utilitarianism that still besets some of the UK schools sector, but Tristram Hunt is right that we need to end the culture of 'exam factories', and - although he didn't say this - an end to anything else that educates for placid obedience. 

And while we're at it, let's redesign the curriculum so that we can have pupils speaking foreign languages quickly and easily by brief immersion, not by battering verbs into them slowly over a decade of wasted classroom time.  Or was it my fault I failed to learn?

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Monday, 23 March 2015

The 16 disadvantages of the pound, euro and dollar

I've decided it is time that I asserted my rights as the person who coined the phrase 'virtual currencies', which I'm informed by Wikipedia was not used until 2005 (my Financial Times report Virtual Currencies was published in 1999).

You might not entirely approve of bitcoin, with its mysterious, anonymous creator, but that need not stop you understanding that new ideas are out there and being put into practice - especially in the broader field of digital or virtual currencies.

There is no longer any need for a city or a nation to be defined by one single unit of value.  No reason why, if one country is imprisoned by debt in one currency - like Greece - that it can't open a chink of light that might keep people alive via another one.

Nor is there really any need to leave the euro, however disastrous a framework it has been, since these other options are now possible.

Which brings me to one of the great thinkers in the new economics, the former sidekick of the Australian corporate raider Robert Holmes a Court, and a former holder of the round Australia flying record.

Shann Turnbull has produced a list of 16 great advantages that a bitcoin-style virtual currency has compared with conventional fiat money.  He has couched them in terms of the disadvantages that the conventional design of the Australian dollar has compared with a new virtual currency, pegged to the value of sustainable resources:

1. It (the Australian dollar) creates government debt instead of government assets:
2. Australians cannot control its value;
3. It has been overvalued in recent years, closing down manufacturing and other industries to create unemployment.
4. It is impossible for the central bank to carry out its purpose: “to contribute to the stability of the currency, full employment, and the economic prosperity and welfare of the Australian people”.
5. It misallocates resources by creating misleading price signals.
6. Its value is not defined or determined by Australian sustainable resources.
7. Unlike bitcoin it can earn interest.
8. By earning interest it creates a disincentive for investment in assets that increase productivity that however lose value by wearing out of possessing limited life.
9. It increases inequality by making the rich richer with interest payments whether or not the money owner or the money necessarily increases prosperity.
10. It is not created by producers of wealth but mostly by bankers who consume a disproportion of wealth for their services.
11. It is not tagged like bitcoin to stop its duplication.
12. Its creation is not limited like bitcoin.
13. It allows a 'black' economy to exist from the use of untraceable notes and coins.
14. It cannot be traced like bitcoin to identify fraud, bribery, money laundering, profit shifting, tax avoidance, criminal activities or the funding of terrorists.
15. It does not incur a storage cost when not used like any real commodity used as money.
16. It does not inoculate the economy from internally or externally created financial crisis.

You don't have to agree with the letter of every one of these to realise that something is happening out there.  The multi-currency world is emerging.  It is possible to re-design the money we use. 

So here is the peculiar thing: how come the only people not talking about the pros and cons of these ideas are politicians and (with the possible exception of the Bank of England) mainstream economic policy-makers? 

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Thursday, 19 March 2015

Financial regulators vandalise co-ops

The sad tale of financial regulators is the same sad tale of regulators everywhere. There is an inevitable, even biblical, tendency for them to strain most enthusiastically at gnats and miss camels. To seek energetically the mote and to miss the beam altogether.

That’s what I mean by biblical; it’s just like a parable. They have an unerring instinct for the trivial while missing the bigger picture entirely – especially when it is a trivial matter that they don’t fully understand. Or when it is an important innovation that has emerged from outside the narrow financial world where they came from.

And so it was that Labour’s Financial Services Authority managed to prevent all but one banking start-up from getting a licence, while entirely missing the rising threat to the entire banking system.

So they were shut down and replaced by the coalition’s Financial Conduct Authority. And now, guess what, they are busily trying to frustrate the efforts of the emerging retail and energy mutuals – because, apparently, they don’t really understand them.

Never mind the burgeoning threat from derivatives and the continuing reliance on debt. No, somebody is pushing forward the boundaries of what might be possible at a local level, so the regulators get nervous.

It is once again a sad and horribly familiar story.

Community share issues have been an important innovation for keeping the benefits of investment locally and providing support for renewable and local shops that could not otherwise exist.

They have quadrupled in size over the past two years. That is why the coalition legislated to simplify the regulation.

But once the FCA got hold of this, they decided to go in the other direction. In the summer, they stopped approving applications for community energy share options.  Now they are proposing to reinterpret co-ops on an archaic basis as charitable or philanthropic bodies.

A strict reading of the FCA’s definition appears to exclude the UK’s consumer retail co-operatives, which are the foundations of the UK co-operative movement and have a combined turnover of £16.6bn.

They also want to limit the returns people can earn from investing in mutual energy mutuals to the same as they could get in a savings account – which, of course, will undermine the whole thing.

This is a quite extraordinary backward step which will potentially torpedo one of the few innovative formats for raising money locally – but people do need to be able to get a reasonable return, if such a return is possible.

This tussle has not yet emerged as a political issue, and I hope it can be sorted out before then. But regulators need to be able to do their job in a way that does not throttle innovations at birth.

Especially innovations which can provide means for neighbourhoods to look after their own needs more effectively, without falling back on dependence on central government.

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Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The first step towards reinventing political language

Well over two decades ago, I was briefly on the Lib Dem sub-committee which oversaw the party's party political broadcasts.  This was before I had ever sent an email, let alone watched Youtube, so there were only a few opportunities for this kind of thing every year.

I remember I tried to persuade my colleagues that we should experiment with a broadcast featuring a Lib Dem councillor, as if it was a fly on the wall documentary.  We dubbed this broadcast, which was never actually made, 'Shirley Valentine' - quite why, I don't remember.

I believed, and still do, that politicians need to reinvent the language with which they communicate with voters.  It needs to be less about telling and more about showing.  It must be a difficult lesson to learn since, two decades later, they have barely tried.  The megaphone is more subtle, but it is still a megaphone.

But I'm grateful to Jonathan Calder for drawing my attention to a Lib Dem election film which does exactly this, about Watford's mayor and prospective Lib Dem parliamentary candidate Dorothy Thornhill - and it is very simple but surprisingly powerful.

It also takes place in Dorothy's one and only kitchen.

But there is a critical line in there which potentially changes everything: "I'm not a miracle worker."

How often do politicians make that admission?  How many of them are addicted to the politician's besetting sin - the desperate need for constituents to be grateful to them? They find it so hard to wean themselves off the magical view of themselves, stepping forth and flying over any given situation while they sprinkle fairy dust and everyone cheers.

That is a disempowering lie.  Successful politicians spread power.  They don't cling onto it.  They spread gratitude around, rather than hoarding it.

Somehow we need to reinvent political language along the lines laid down by Dororthy Thornhill - "I'm not a miracle worker".  In fact, it seems to me that this is the language of a potential Liberal government - it is a language that could be dismissed as an admission of powerlessness, but is actually precisely the opposite.  It is a statement  of honesty and therefore the basis of everything else.

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Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The stupidisation of public services

I don't know who else had this experience last week, listening to David Miliband on the Today programme, of feeling a sort of nostalgia for the man.  There was something about his confidence and relaxed delivery which contrasted rather well with his brother's rather strained, slightly wheedling tone of voice.

For just a moment, I said to myself that Ed Miliband's attempt to challenge his brother's right to the leadership of the Labour Party had robbed the nation of a competent politician.

This did pass after I thought about it.  The great problem, if David not Ed had been preparing for a general election as leader of the opposition, would be pretty simple: he would still be leader of the Labour Party, an organisation without ideology and apparently - at least in government - without much in the way of belief.

I realise that the Labour Party doesn't see it this way.  They believe one thing in government and a completely different set of things in opposition, and they barely relate to each other at all.  It is a peculiar, value-free institution, which sort of spreads forgetfulness about itself.  Rather like the pain of childbirth.

So as I drove along, the voice of David M. echoing away in my head, it took me only about five minutes to remember that we endured 13 years of a Labour government presided over by a man who agreed with the richest and most powerful person in any given situation - this is known in Labourspeak as 'being realistic'.

He then handed over to a centralising control freak who had presided over the de-regulation of finance.

Which brings me to the point of this post: the news about the failures of the Sheffield police, during that same period, to investigate the sexual exploitation of underage girls - which turns out to have been because central targets were dictating that the priorities were burglary and car crime.

None of the reports of this have begun to make these links.  The reason for the police failure was clearly numerical targets from the centre.  It was the same reason why old people were abused in Mid Staffs Hospital in the same period.

In fact, despite the original coalition rhetoric about this, we have not yet grasped how much public services were hollowed out during the Blair/Brown years - how much they were rendered incompetent, unresponsive, inflexible, and probably much more expensive as a result.

I have argued also that the narrowing of deliverables in contracting out contracts may be behind the bizarre rises in A&E attendances too.

And don't think I'm letting the coalition off the hook here.  They came into office determined to rid Whitehall of targets, but had no real understanding of why or how or what to replace them with, and consequently have failed to really make the shift - and failed to build this narrative.

This is a pity because it seems to me that both Milibands need to be held to account for their role in the Stupidisation of UK services.  I realise that isn't a word - or it wasn't until I coined it just now (I now see I didn;t coin it, hence the photo here, which is from a campaign in the USA).  I suspect that Mid Staffs and the Sheffield police are just the tips of many icebergs, and that they still float unnoticed - an explanation of a great deal that has happened since.

So when Labour accuses the coalition of undermining public services, just remember that there is another side to this argument, and not even the coalition parties are making it - because they have failed to break out of the iron cage.

Somebody needs to join up the dots.  Someone needs to follow, if not the money, at least the target numbers.

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Monday, 16 March 2015

Time for a fiercer Liberalism - especially on enterprise

Nick Clegg is right that the Lib Dems will do better than their poll ratings.  This isn't fanciful.  The Lib Dems nearly always do better than their poll ratings said before a general election.

It is true that these are unusual times and this is a strange election, but don't let the journalists get away with the idea that Clegg talking up the party is some kind of whimsy.  I would be staggered if the Lib Dem poll rating stayed down when polling day arrives.

I missed the Liverpool conference of the party for family reasons.  I've heard Clegg's final conference speech before the election and felt proud, as I was intended to.  I felt proud that the primary school results - as far as they prove anything - have never been higher for disadvantaged children as they are now.  That is a huge achievement, and the pupil premium must be at least part of the reason.

The brave decision to provide a free hot meal every day to Year 2 pupils and below will have a range of social effects too.  It is an important unifying decision which will echo down the years (a pity it wasn't used to revitalise the local food economy).

I even buy into the heart of the speech, which seems to me to have been this:

"Britain is an open-hearted, open-minded, optimistic country. Full of decent, hard-working, generous people. Buzzing with creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism. There is nowhere in the world like this country. Nowhere as gutsy. Nowhere as hopeful..."

Now, I am an author.  I know perfectly well that my pessimistic books (The Tyranny of Numbers) have consistently outsold my optimistic books (Authenticity).  I know that optimism is tough to communicate politically because it doesn't always chime with the public mood.  It needs to be mixed with gritty determination and a crusading zeal.

This is not the mantle that the Lib Dems have wrapped themselves in during the coalition years.  In practice, and for very good reasons, they have transformed themselves into a humming machine of pragmatic practicality.  Clegg himself has become an effective operator in government, squeezing the last ounce of Lib Dem influence in any situation.

The achievements in government he listed are impressive and are testament to his success.

But pragmatism doesn't win elections.  Nor does optimism, unless it is forged into a furious crusade to shake the system up which made it so difficult to get anything done.

So yes, I want to hear a note of optimism about what people can achieve, and do achieve, every day.  That is the distinctively Liberal understanding of the world.  But I want a fiercer Liberalism, which understands - not just the wrong-headedness of their opponents - but of the various systems that underpin them.

Above all, I want a fiercer Liberalism that is prepared to shake up the economic system so that all that "creativity, innovation, entrepreneurialism" isn't sidelined by the big banks, throttled because of a lack of skills because of our bizarrely over-academic education system, or squeezed out by privileged semi-monopolies.

I want a fiercer Liberalism that is pleased with the achievements so far, but angry about what holds people back - and is prepared to make a major difference.

For three decades or more, the language of politics has pussy-footed around these issues - because being serious about business appeared to involve saying you will do almost nothing.

Well, times have changed.  It is time the new Fierce Liberalism, if I can discern one, accepts its historic destiny: to  rescue enterprise from the great blancmange of monopolies, speculation and banks that don't do what they are designed to do.

I hope that will be our economic platform at the election: not just to gargle with rebalancing the economy, but to put enterprise at the heart of every area of policy.

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Thursday, 12 March 2015

Vanquish tyrannical bosses: no more customer service ratings

I've always been rather a fan of the Friends and Family test in the NHS. It is simple. Holistic. Hard to spin.

That kind of measure is never going to be very sophisticated, but it can provide an early warning system in the NHS which – in a highly centralised control system – is pretty important, as Mid Staffs Hospital showed.

Of course, there are pressures to make it more sophisticated, to add numbers and measure progress. There are arguments for doing this in theory, but not many in practice – because it rapidly becomes useless. Goodhart’s Law takes over. The numbers are gamed by managers and staff alike. They accrete perverse incentives. They become meaningless.

Hardly a day goes by now without me being contacted by phone, text or email by one of the organisations I’ve dealt with, asking me to rate the service or performance I have just received.

Often these are accompanied by a request from the call centre staff member, or even the public service staff, to give them a 5 – the prevailing orthodoxy in the world of management fads suggests that a five-point scale is somehow necessary.

These ratings have now become another meaningless prop to the HR regime of organisations too big to show leadership effectively to their staff. They are no longer about taking the temperature of the organisation. They are about the central control of the staff.

This is the tyranny of numbers in operation and it transforms me from a client of a professional into an opportunity for the Pavlovian dogs to earn their blessed 5. I am de-humanised by it as much as they are, transformed by the numbers into simplistic laboratory rats.

I know it seems tough to refuse to rate staff. They may treat you worse as a result. But if we want to take an effective stand against the tyranny of numbers and targets, that’s what we have to do.

Give them feedback, discuss performance by all means. Its useful, after all. But refuse to use a numerical scale.

If we can do that in sufficient numbers, we have some chance of undermining this pernicious tyranny of central computers over local staff.  So who's with me?

Let's do it now. Take the pledge with me. No more customer service ratings from this day forward. OK, repeat after me....

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Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A glimpse at the NHS which can survive

I've told the story a number of times of the patient I met during the Barriers to Choice Review, but it looks like the right moment to tell it again.

She had muscular dystrophy and had to see her consultant every six months, which meant a two-hour round trip plus half an hour or more in the waiting room. It meant going over a large river and paying a toll, and all she said when the doctor asked her how she was doing was: “I’m fine”. What she really wanted was to check in occasionally by phone, and see him when she’s not fine. But she couldn’t because his slots were full seeing people who are also fine.

What struck me about her was that she was asking for something quite simple, though important to her as a long term patient. It was a ‘choice’ about her treatment, in a sense, but not one that is recognised currently by the system in the UK. I was particularly interested because it seemed to imply a broadening of the boundaries of choice.

Looked at like this, choice means flexibility.  That is what I said in my CentreForum essay on 'How to save public service choice for Liberalism' (well, liberalism, actually - we didn't agree about the capital L).

I mention this because it seems to me that the new NHS announcement about the pilot areas experimenting with broad service integration at local level is one of the most important steps forward for the coalition - and it is the beginning of finding ways to inject flexibility into a hideously inflexible system.

It is therefore the very beginning of an attempt to humanise the bureaucracy of the Blair/Brown years, and - by making services flexible enough to suit individuals - to bring about a major breakthrough in effectiveness and cutting costs.

Well, that's the theory and I believe it to be true.  Flexibility is the way forward now, even if it means unravelling some of the formal structures for choice, because flexibility trumps narrow choice - making any choices possible where appropriate.

Even if it means unravelling some of the formal structures designed to inject competition, because flexibility usually trumps competition too.  Because flexibility can provide for choice and competition and the reasons we might want them.

Perhaps it is premature to talk about the next steps along this road, but they need to be in preparation now.  These are they:

1. We need a general Right to Request Flexible Service Delivery. In each case, the provider would not
be obliged to provide flexibility if it is impossible, but they would be obliged to explain why in a letter, the text of which would then have to be public. It would be aimed particularly at situations where systems or bureaucratic arrangements get in the way of what people need. For example, if they want the choice of a consultant who won’t mind them asking lots of questions. Or to study Spanish at A-level when all that prevents them from doing so is their school’s timetabling system. Or to be able to go to bed later than 5pm when their carer comes round. 

2. We need to move on from the pattern of an exhausted professional class ministering to the needs of the punters, who have to stay passive to make them easier to process.  The huge resources that are available to look after people, with patients working alongside professionals to deliver services, can be tapped if we shape the institutions capable of using them.  This is the co-production agenda.

You can read how one example works in my book Give and Take (written with Sarah Bird) about time banks in healthcare.  

Put these three things together - flexible integration, a Right to Request, and co-production - and you will be able to glimpse the shape of the new NHS.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Liberal business paradox and why it is so infuriating

Wander through the nineteenth century and what you find, over and over again, is an alliance between business and Liberalism. Not so much with the Whig landowners but with the radicals and non-conformists.

Because, as I argued in my recent pamphlet with Joe Zammit-Lucia, it was a different understanding of business and its potential – based on the right of the small, weak and new to challenge the big, strong and feather-bedded with economic privilege.

What’s more, the two key Lib Dem ministers in this area have re-invented the old radical tradition with a range of important measures from clamping down on unfair competition from tax avoiders (Danny Alexander) to turbo-charging apprenticeships (Vince Cable).

But then there is the paradox. Because most modern Lib Dems have a breathtaking blindness when it comes to economics of all kinds. It isn’t that they don’t think it’s important – just that it doesn’t interest them. At all.

But worse, once the party marketing or campaigning staff get hold of it, Lib Dem economic policy takes on a smug embrace of the status quo. It reeks of self-satisfaction. It loses any sense of a radical challenge.

Why is this? I would love to know. Is it because the copywriters are just going through the motions because it is about money? Is it because they hand over to smuggest business lobbyists because they are prepared to write it?

How else are we to understand the party’s briefing on business yesterday?

It isn’t that it is wrong. It just misses the point. It is also headed by a grandiose and vacuous statement of ambition - why would we want to be the biggest economy in Europe if it isn't spreading prosperity?  Who wants to be the biggest economy if it is all earned by billionaires in London?

But the real gap is in the ‘finance for growth’ section. Vince Cable’s British Business Bank is an important achievement, but it isn’t a solution to the glaring problem faced by the UK economy - which is that small business lending is still falling.

Why?  Not because of a lack of capital - the BBB looks after that - but because there is no effective lending infrastructure and even the British Business Bank needs that to work, because it doesn't have its own.  The big banks are no longer able to lend to SMEs, the drivers of the economy, because they lack the local infrastructure, and their risk software at regional office is wholly inadequate.

So what are we going to do about it?  Pretend it isn't a problem for fear of upsetting the banks (they don't like this kind of talk)? Or doing what Lib Dem party policy now recommends:

A new, diverse local banking system, including community banks and community development finance institutions (CDFIs), funded by the big banks - which will pay for the infrastructure to lend in places and sectors where they are unable to lend themselves, using their geographical lending data to calculate how much they pay each year.

I know Danny Alexander and Vince Cable are aware of this.  But when their pronouncements get mediated by the party marketeers, it turns into vacuous mush.  What is the point in making these pronouncements if they neither identify the problem nor look forward to a solution which hasn't already been enacted?

A far better purpose for the Lib Dems, to demonstrate their clarity of thought and boldness in business, is to put enterprise - and small business especially - at the heart of every area of government.  

You want to know how to do that?  Well, you start by building the kind of lending and investment infrastructure that might have some chance of making it possible.

The UK is blessed by having the leading financial sector in the world in the City of London.  The problem is that it has no skills, no track record and no expertise in the one thing the UK really needs - turbo-charging the SME sector.

Would Lib Dems in government tackle this problem?  Because if they would, maybe it might be an idea to say so.

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