Archive for September, 2009

Double Choice

Tony BlairSince Tony Blair’s departure from government, we seem to have heard much more about ‘voice’ (people power) than about ‘choice’ (enabling people to exercise preferences) as a way of driving improvement in public services.  In his speech today at the Labour Party Conference Gordon Brown used the word ‘choice’ more than 20 times but only in the sense of the choices that the government has made in tackling the recession.

I’ve been thinking about what the relationship might be between councils seeking to steer people to make smarter choices in terms of lifestyle decisions and the Blairite choice agenda – offering  a wider range of services into and out of which people can opt. Might there be a Double Choice agenda as well as a Double Devolution agenda?

In Crimes & Misdemeanours, Woody Allen’s take on Dostoevsky, he suggests that, ‘we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices.’  By extension you can see a community as being defined by the sum total of the choices we make collectively. 

If we live in communities where people are hostile towards each other, maybe that comes back to individual choices we make to act selfishly.  Was the behaviour of some MPs with regard to their expenses really so out of kilter with the wider values of our society?  And how many of us would choose to say ‘no’ to the bonuses on offer in the city if we were awarded them?  It seems to me that sometimes there are some double-standards at play in our media-fuelled moral outrage at the behaviour of other people.

‘Choice’ doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Many of the decisions we make are influenced by other factors like affection, obligation and convention.  Moreover, some people given a situation are better equipped by ability and/or privilege to make advantageous choices.  That is why there remains a strong egalitarian challenge to choice – it exacerbates inequalities because those people who make the most of the choices available tend to be those who are best connected and able to work the system for their own ends.  Indeed, it can be argued that it’s the often patchily practised values of those same, sharp elbowed, people that lie at the heart of the behavioural change agenda. 

So extending choice is complex.  Choice may be a way of ensuring more effective and accountable services, and for sure supporting people to make more sustainable choices is in all of our long term interests.  But how best to make a reality of Double Choice so that the communities so defined are fairer, happier places where more people can fulfil their promise, remains a huge challenge.


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In a Work Foundation report, Public Value: The Next Steps in Public Service Reform, David Coats and Eleanor Passmore suggest that our pre-occupation with constant reform of public services may have its downsides.  They argue that,

‘the continued use of the language of reform has convinced the public that something is wrong. After all, ‘reform’ is usually needed to eliminate abuses, reduce inefficiencies or address other sources of inadequate performance. By creating the impression that public services demand a permanent revolution, ministers have lodged in the public mind the belief that public services are poor and that initiative overload has failed to resolve any of these problems.’

Reading Alan Milburn’s speech – Reforming public services – which he made at the start of September to the Eidos Institute in Brisbane, I felt that they may have a point.  In the speech, Alan Milburn talks about the ‘new problems’ politics must confront and then cites improving health, beating crime, regenerating communities and safeguarding the environment.  Of course none of these are remotely new but somehow we’ve become accustomed to the language in the speech, phrases like ‘propelling change’ ‘a different kind of state’ ‘a paradigm shift’ which creates this sense that it is only through constant reform that progress can be achieved.

Of course we need to challenge the status quo and try out new ideas and approaches but I wonder if sometimes we need to give reforms a chance to succeed before the next wave of changes. Has change become too much of a panacea?

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Charles Darwin's tree of life sketch

Charles Darwin's tree of life sketch

In a collaborative study the United Nations, European Community and other organisations including Defra are exploring the economic benefits of biodiversity.  The study intends to put a value on forests, deserts, animals and plants to ascertain the value of ‘natural capital’.

I fear that we are firmly in Thomas Gradgrind territory here, an unyielding obsession with facts and quantification.   Gradgrind, ‘with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.’

If life on earth is a process of natural selection between inter-dependent but competing species, then clearly bio-diversity is fundamental to existence – do we need a cost-benefit analysis to demonstrate this?

Oscar Wilde famously observed that, ‘A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’  And it seems to me we must live in cynical times to be seeking to price the financial value of our planet’s finite natural resources.  This is particularly so when you consider how much we still don’t know.  It’s estimated, for example, that there are between 10 and 30 million species of insects but only 950,000 have been identified.  As for the total number of species of bacteria, nobody really knows, estimates range from 10 million to a billion.  So while Domestos may kill 99% of known bacteria, that really isn’t much to boast about.

Coral reefs support extraordinary biodiversity.  It is not unusual for a reef to have several hundred species of snails, sixty species of corals, and several hundred species of fish. Of all ocean habitats, reefs seem to have the greatest development of complex symbiotic associations.   In Nurturing the innovation reef  Mario Morino suggests that innovation is like a coral reef.  Marine biologists don’t fully understand what causes the reef to form but we do know that human actions can nurture or harm the process.  The same is true for innovation, he suggests – a natural chaotic unpredictable process that is hard, perhaps even impossible to foster.  ‘We must focus on finding ways to nurture and accelerate the natural processes of innovation once they’ve begun naturally.

So let’s nurture the diversity of the reef – both the coral and the human.  After all the same DNA molecules build the cells of the coral polyps, the sea urchins and the sponges that break them down, the parrotfish and us.  We are all natural capital; all worth investing in.

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I am continuing to enjoy the eclectic mix of ideas and views that come my way each day via the bloggers’ circle. One post that caught my eye this week was Joe Nutt’s piece about the building schools for the future programme. Joe paints a gloomy picture of the government’s attempt to rebuild every secondary school in the UK. He has been heavily involved in the programme and highlights a number of failings . ‘If you want to build great schools, ‘ he argues, ‘ask advice from people who run and manage great schools, not techno-zealots or local politicians.’

Personally I think there is a legitimate role for local politicians. Schools are a resource for the whole community to my mind. I was lucky enough to hear Matthew Taylor talking about behavioural change at an excellent London Sustainability Network event today. Matthew pointed out that children only spend 20% of their time in school so that schools need to work with the local community so that the 80% of their time over which schools have much less control becomes one which better equips children with what he described as the ‘emotional readiness’ to profit from the school experience.

Joe suggests that rather than focusing on the fabric of school buildings, the key issue is the quality of the teaching. I don’t disagree, but I do think the motivation of the child comes into play and also the environment in which we study and work does affect how we feel. For many years in the 1990s my sister taught in Nissen hut built for Italian prisoners of war in 1944.

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Tomorrow, my younger boy starts school.  My two older children have been in school a few years now and it’s been a generally positive experience for them.  They’ve made friends, learned a great deal and had plenty of fun.

And yet, I find myself fighting against this first day at school.  For one thing, there’s the dullness of the uniform – the grey trousers, grey jumper, white shirt, black shoes.  And by taking all these little individuals and making them look the same, it feels like we are complicit in enmeshing them in ‘the system’.

But as with most things, this isn’t a new feeling.  Giovanni Guareschi is best known for his Don Camillo stories but I also like very much a collection of short stories he wrote in the 1950s about his family life – My Home Sweet Home.  One of the stories, October Revolution, describes how he is entrusted with taking his little daughter to school on her first day.  He feels that he is abandoning her  – ‘You’re leaving my life, you’re entering the life of the state.  They’ll teach you public hypocrisy and even your thoughts will no longer be yours, and you’ll begin to see with the eyes of the Minister of Education.  Goodbye, goodbye’.

But at the point at which the children file into school, Giovanni and his daughter (the Pasionaria) jump into a taxi and race away through the streets of Milan to the blue waters of the port and the empty sun-drenched avenues.  Her first day at school is deferred.

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The tyranny of habit

The other day I was in a meeting where a number of us where talking about how best to initiate a conversation across the organisation about dealing with cuts.  We were talking about the need to deliver quantifiable efficiencies when a colleague pointed out that in our personal lives if we find ourselves with financial problems, we talk simply about saving money.

It seems to me that the more we can try and approach the issues we face in public services in ways that align with people’s real lives – both in language and substance – the better.  Too often, if we are honest, we like a bit of complexity.  Why review a service when you can business process re-engineer it? 

If undue complexity has become habitual, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  Habit is a force not to under-estimated.  In Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out how important it is to get default options right because they tend to stick and once people are in the habit of them, they can be tricky to change.  If the default for refuse collection wasn’t once a week, perhaps we would all be in a different habit when it comes to generating rubbish?

The success of behavioural change initiatives like Smarter Travel Sutton is based on a recognition that how people travel each day is as much about habit as choice. When I buy a newspaper, do I consciously think about which paper to buy or do I always purchase the same one?  In reality I have a choice but habit may mean I don’t even think about the alternatives.

So as councils, perhaps we need to think more carefully about the habits we encourage directly or indirectly by the way in which we configure and provide local services.  Do some of our services encourage habitual dependency and erode self-esteem?  Perhaps we need a citizenship impact assessment?  New policies and service changes could be evaluated to see if they will encourage good or bad habits!

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