Thursday, 31 December 2009

Raising the Elite of Tomorrow

Originally published in hardback in 2008 but now high on the Christmas 2009 bestseller charts in Germany (a ‘Spiegel bestseller’), Julia Friedrich's book Gestatten: Elite is essentially one journalist’s inquiry into how the young in Germany are being groomed to form the next generation of leaders of the economy and, perhaps, politics.

Why has it been so successful? The tale it tells is not encouraging – but perhaps Germany , like so many other countries, is now ready in the middle of the financial and economic crisis to reappraise the social and economic policies of the boom period.

The basic story of the book is that Germany is now raising new elites – in private universities, in private business schools, in private boarding schools, even in private kindergardens – who are being given enormously expensive education in the expectation that they will eventually take over at the helm of the German economy – its biggest firms, its investment banks and its consulting firms. However, they are not an ‘elite’ in the traditional sense of being particularly gifted – indeed, many if not most of the beneficiaries of this elite education are at or even below average achievement level in educational terms. Their advantage is not their ability, nor even particularly their dedication to hard work or their special ability to work with and lead other people – no, it consists essentially of the wealth of their parents, combined with their parents’ determination that these children will inherit power as well as wealth.

Worse, the book retails how the state is encouraging this new elitism in a variety of ways. At one level, it is importing these ideas of elitism into secondary and higher education in the public sector, in ways which are allowing rich parents to commandeer a disproportionate share of public resources for their own, not particularly gifted, children. For example, it is now common in Germany, as it has been for generations in the UK, for well-off parents to move into areas where the state schools have a reputation for being particularly good – something which Germany has largely avoided until relatively recently. Moreover, the private education sector is benefiting in tax terms from charitable status, just as in the UK, although the effects of this system are far from being ‘charitable’, being to the major disadvantage of the ‘losers’ who are not able to claw their way into this ‘elite’ class of students.

I guess that most UK readers of this book will feel a degree of Schadenfreude . After all, the ills which it documents have already been a central reality in our society and a matter for political disagreement for many decades. It is, naturally, a little comforting to find that others, particularly those who have long enjoyed enviable social and economic circumstances, now share some of the same plight as ourselves. The book provides a journalistic ‘human touch’ to put flesh on the bones of recent academic research, such as the recent book by Charles Harvey and Mairi MacClean into business elites in the UK and France, which demonstrates that the main factors which influence business success in both countries are family and education (along with professional bodies). Nevertheless, it is rather surprising to find that the Germans, who have for so long prided themselves on having transcended the ‘class society’ traditionally associated with the UK and the ‘two class’ society which scars the USA, have recently allowed and even encouraged the incursion of similar perversions of justice, with the economic inefficiencies which they bring in their wake.

However, my main reaction to the book was a reinforced horror of the way in which we in the UK have not only failed to tackle these issues – which are both more longstanding and more serious in the UK than in Germany – but have actually proposed in recent years to make things worse. We now have private universities, privately-funded and -controlled secondary ‘academies’, and are proposing to introduce a new generation of US-like ‘foundation’ schools, where the wishes of parents will override the social values which should be at the heart of any publicly-funded school system.

It is not as if we are unaware of the divisiveness and the mediocrity which ensue from an education system dominated by the decisions and expenditures of rich parents. Research has long charted the damaging effect on the UK economy of inherited positions and the promotion of those young people whose parents have bought their entry into the right schools and universities, irrespective of their abilities. However, this revealing book , which shows us how the same damaging tendencies have now surfaced and become strong in one of our closest neighbours, should remind us that we have been quiet for too long about the nonsense of current government policy, allowing the moneyed ‘elite’ to suffocate the meritocratic society which we once hoped to build in the last half of the twentieth century.

The book does not look beyond the education of the ‘new elite’ – it doesn’t attempt to map out for Germany the damage done to major private firms through MBA-itis, in the way Mintzberg has done for North America. It doesn’t attempt to highlight the demoralising effects on staff which nepotism has had in UK firms. And it doesn’t attempt to quantify the effects of lower innovation in companies due to favouritism towards less capable managers and staff, who happen to have come from the ‘right’ schools and universities. However, it holds up a mirror in which we can see our own faults more clearly.

At a time of New Year resolutions, it would be good if this book encouraged more readers to take a stand against the untalented and damaging ‘elites’ in our country, just as the author encourages her readers to do in Germany.

Such a platform needs to be debated and widely promoted. For starters, I suggest:
• no more tax breaks for private schools and universities;
• free choice of local schools for all parents, with lotteries where schools are oversubscribed;
• free choice of state universities for all students with the right entry qualifications, with lotteries where universities are oversubscribed;
• attractive bursaries for all students whose parental income means they do not have to pay student fees, so that more low income students are attracted to university;
• two-year exemption from national insurance contributions (by both employers and employees) for the top 10% of every degree class in the UK, whatever sector they are employed in
• a guarantee for the top 5% of performers in every degree class in the UK that they can enter a two-year training programme in the public sector, so that entry into the public sector is on merit;
• a proper wealth tax which ensures that people can spend the money they earn but not the money which they have inherited, through no skill or contribution of their own.

An elite based on merit has many drawbacks – but far fewer than an elite based on family income. It’s time to tackle the deep injustice and inefficiency of our current system. Your suggestions are welcomed.


Gestatten: Elite - Auf der Spuren der Mächtigen von Morgen, Wilhelm Heyne Verlag, München, 2009 (by Julia Friedrichs).

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Public influence outside political parties is not an illusion!

This is a response to a post by Andrea DiMaio headed ‘Why Citizen Participation May Be An Illusion’ on December 5th, 2009 at in which he argues that “It is all fair and good to say that politicians and government officials will carefully listen to what virtual communities say, but until when those communities can sit at a table and have a voting right, they won’t be able to make much difference”. He illustrates his point with reference to recent experiences in his original home town, near Milan, where a ‘city league’, i.e. a group of citizens not associated with any political party, decided to self-organize as an alternative to traditional politics, achieved a high profile and significant support, but didn’t have a single member elected as a councillor. Now they are considering forming as a more traditional political party, paradoxically in order to combat traditional party politics. He argues that this suggests that unorganized citizen involvement, e.g. through e-government and e-governance, will never have as much influence as organized involvement, which means getting ‘a vote at the table’.
Normally I enjoy the posts by Andrea DiMaio very much but this one had me shaking my head with dismay. I think he’s almost entirely missed the point here. Yes, many community groups and social movements will ‘go formal’ from time to time – they have that right. And, yes, many will become indistinguishable from the parties they originally formed to combat. (Of course, a few of them will go on to take over from those very parties – he has some good examples in Italy!). But this is NOT the way in which most citizens, even activists, have an influence.

We need to make a very clear distinction between ‘activists’ and ‘general citizens’. Most ‘general citizens’ are reluctant to spend much of their time making any positive contribution to civic debate or action, as Nick Jones points out very well in his comments above. However, they also resent being kept out of the debate, so they expect clear and visible invitations to participate, if only ‘arms-length’, on a reasonably frequent basis, though they will not generally take up those invitations. So it’s essential that they receive these invitations and feel included, if only at this very peripheral level. Occasionally, on issues which really switch them on, a proportion of general citizens (although usually only a quite small proportion) will become ‘activists’ for a while – not necessarily for long but it is likely that for a long time afterwards they will judge the responsiveness and the quality of the public sector by the experience they have in these periods of intense engagement.

Activists are different, of course – they know about and they care about the issues. But they often DON’T believe that they need a vote at the table. They do generally believe that they need a PLACE around the table. However, becoming formally enmeshed in ‘the system’ often seems to them to be counter-productive. We recently did a survey of a large number of high profile national and local activists in the UK on behalf of Communities and Local Government, our government department responsible for community empowerment. The majority had little involvement with MPs or local councillors, who of course DO have ‘a vote at the table’ but, as activists see it, almost no influence. Our activists had, however, huge involvement with the people they see as shaping the decisions made by public bodies – many of whom hold relatively low posts in public agencies and ministries, but write the reports which are rubber-stamped further up the decision-making chain. And our activists were VERY media-savvy. Almost NONE saw any circumstances in which they would be prepared to become MPs or local councillors, believing it would be of no value in furthering the causes and issues on which they were campaigning. (This is reminiscent of Tony Benn’s statement, when he announced that he would not stand as an MP again, that he was ‘leaving Parliament in order to be able to spend more time in politics’!) Yet these people generally have a very much higher profile than most national or local politicians and are believed by top decision makers to have an important influence on decisions which are made in government.

So, I would argue that the experience in Andrea DiMaio’s town in Italy is common but not a good guide to how the public can influence decision-making. In particular, we should recognize that both the public and activists can exert important influence on those with ‘a vote at the table’ and do not necessarily have to have a vote themselves. Moreover, those with ‘a vote at the table’ may have little real influence on the debate shaping decisions. Let’s not confuse having a vote with real influence over the debate, or authority with influence!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Creativity: three reasons why organisations have less than we would like

First, because we know better how to put down creativity than to create it – see Haefele’s suggestions, but no doubt you can add some corkers of your own:

 “We tried something like that years ago”
 “That’s ridiculous/ too radical”
 “Let’s form a committee to consider it”
 “That’s against policy”
 “Has it been tried elsewhere?”
 “It won’t work”
 “That’s too obvious/ superficial”
 “We could never market that”
 “That’s interesting but … we don’t have the time … the staff …”
 “That ‘s not the kind of idea we expect from you”

Source: Haefele, J. (1962) Creativity and innovation. New York: Reinhold Publishing Company.

Secondly, because we don’t employ the sort of people who are especially likely to be creative. Remember Tom Peters’ slogan: “Crazy times need crazy people”, followed by his warning about that department in your organization, one of whose key tasks is to make sure that any job applicant whose CV shows even a nano-second gap between the moment they left university and the moment they applied for this job, then THEY ARE NOT TO BE SHORT-LISTED!

Actually, even these potential creatives are short-listed, what chance do they have of getting the job? Remember Anthony Storr’s summary of the research into the characteristics of creative people (below) and ask yourself “How many people like this will get through our tests and interview panels?”

Characteristics of creative people:

- Independence
- Influenced by inner rather than outer standards
- Likely to belong to fewer organisations & social groups
- Sceptical, reluctant to acquiesce in the findings of authority
- Aesthetic Sensitivity
- Concern with form & elegance of design
- Preference for Complexity, Asymmetry & Incompleteness
- High level of tolerance of tension & anxiety
- 'Incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge' (Keats)
- High Intelligence
- Level of intellectual ability (but not necessarily IQ scores)
- (For males) High Scores on Scales Measuring ‘Feminity’
- Openness to own feelings and emotions
- Understanding self-awareness
- More than average share of vanity, narcissism

Source: Anthony Storr (1976), The dynamics of creation. London: Penguin Books.

And, anyway, apart from you and me, how many such people ARE there around, nowadays?!!!

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Unacceptable behaviour – Ministerial sackings

The rules in the UK which govern how and when Ministers can sack officials and advisors need to be changed. Two dreadful decisions have been made in recent times which undermine the credibility of government and Parliament – the sacking of a local authority Director of Children’s Services by Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, and the sacking yesterday of Prof. David Nutt, Chair of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, by Alan Johnson, the Home Secretary.

Of course, Ministers should have the right, in the appropriate circumstances, to sack the people they have appointed. This is not in question. It is the criteria for deciding when the circumstances are appropriate that we need to get right – and they are clearly not right at the moment.

Let us take the two cases in turn. The sacking of a top local government officer by a Secretary of State, for behaviour in office in that local authority, should not be acceptable. If the behaviour of that officer had serious consequences in other agencies, in other areas or for the country as a whole, then there is indeed a case for a Secretary of State to step in. However, this was not the case. Their mistakes, if indeed they are properly found to have made mistakes, should have been dealt with by their own agency. If that agency is generically mismanaged, then there are indeed powers for the Secretary of State to step in and arrange for the management of such an agency to be supplemented or even replaced. But picking on one Director, on the grounds that the Secretary of State can tell more appropriately than the local politicians who should be employed and who shouldn’t, is patent nonsense. That way, madness lies. It is necessary to change the rules so that Ministers cannot again intervene in this way in the affairs of a local authority.

Turning to David Nutt and the Home Secretary, it is NOT in question that Ministers have the right to disagree with the advice given to them by scientists and other expert advisors – and indeed, sometimes it is essential for them to do so. Scientists and experts don’t know everything. Politicians bring different expertise to the decision making process – in particular, they bring a value system which has been legitimated by their election to Parliament and their appointment to Ministerial posts. However, we need to be clearer as to when it is appropriate for Ministers to exercise these powers to countermand expert advice. When it is in the public interest, and Ministers clearly have an understanding of certain public interests to a greater degree than their expert advisors, we should celebrate that we have a system which protects us from the narrow perspectives of ‘experts’. This particularly applies when there is a moral dimension to a decision or when choices have to be made between the interests of different groups in society which are in fundamental conflict. No way do I want ‘experts’ to get their way on such decisions – here, all politicians, but especially Ministers, must be up front and brave in challenging the ‘expert’ advice they get and making sure the policies recommended to Parliament take into account the public interest.

Inserting a moral dimension? Resolving fundamental conflicts between groups in society? Were these the grounds on which Jacqui Smith, the then Home Secretary, intervened to regrade cannabis as a drug more harmful than alcohol and tobacco, when her advisors have unambiguously told her the opposite? No, it does not seem so. Sheer party political interest, driven by ill-informed and hysterical commentary in the national media, appeared to drive her decision. Not acceptable grounds for overturning scientific advice.

And Alan Johnson’s decision now to sack the Chair of his Advisory Council? He writes in his letter of dismissal: “When you wrote previously around the relative harms of drugs comparing ecstasy to horse riding my predecessor made it clear that it is not the job of the chair of the government’s Advisory Council to comment or initiate a public debate on the policy framework for drugs”. Yet, actually, it is precisely the job of that Advisory Council to advise on the evidence for the relative harms of drugs. To do so in a way which makes the issues clear to the public (albeit embarrassing to the government) would seem especially praiseworthy (and, of course, particularly unusual).

Then Alan Johnson goes on to write: “It is important that the government’s messages on drugs are clear and as an advisor you do nothing to undermine public understanding of them.” Well, I think we would all drink to that. (Sorry, ‘agree’ to that).

So, have David Nutt’s recent statements in the press “undermined public understanding” of the government’s messages on drugs? In no way. In fact, quite the opposite – they have significantly increased the public’s understanding that the government has acted to regrade cannabis, not because of its likely harms to the public, but for party political advantage. Here, it is clearly the government which is behaving unacceptably, not its advisor.

And can we justify Alan Johnson’s decision by using the general principles of public interest? For example, has he injected moral values into the debate, on behalf of those who have elected him? No, the government claims it is simply reacting to the evidence given to it on relative ‘harms’. Or is Alan Johnson claiming that his intervention is to resolve fundamental conflicts between the interests of different groups in society? No, the government claims that there is a general public interest in reducing the harms from drugs – so that both those groups who argue for utterly draconian penalties on drug takers and dealers, and those who argue for complete legalisation of (unadulterated non-lethally-poisonous) substances have got it wrong – both groups will have their interests best served if the government acts to reduce the harms arising from drug misuse.

Conclusion? Ministers are currently taking significant decisions on the appointments of public figures without any reference to the public interest and with clear intention to secure party political advantage. This may not be surprising. It may not be unprecedented. It may not be easy to eradicate. But it IS unacceptable. We should launch a search for new rules which make it harder and less likely in the future. Parliament should debate this immediately and set this search for new rules in motion.

Saturday, 17 October 2009

'Opinion' elevated over 'expertise' in government 2.0?

In a recent blog, Will Davies (following Mirowski) has argued that 'government 2.0' is the final realisation of the neo-liberal state. “No auditors, no experts, no objective knowledge, no sense of the common good, just maximum freedom for individuals to form opinions and privately process information.” He goes on to argue that siding with perspective over expertise cannot be the basis for legitimacy (

While these concerns are understandable, Will Davies in this post does a disservice to the government 2.0 debate. He is actually talking about ‘non-government 2.0’ and sets up a straw-man-opponent in which hardly anyone could possibly believe, then demonstrates convincingly how to knock this opponent over. Most of those involved in the government 2.0 debate want much richer interactions between citizens, service users, professionals, managers and politicians. Few want the views of citizens and service users to trump the views of the others. They just want those views to have much greater weight in the future - not a lot to ask, given how little weight they have had up to now.

A long way down the line, we are going to have to face up to the issues which Will Davies raises here, deciding where the proper balance lies between expertise and 'perspective' (better characterised as 'formally-validated expertise' and 'experience-based experience'). And we will certainly wish to ensure that BOTH play major roles in decision making on public services and issues. But it is wholly implausible for Will Davies to suggest that we are now reaching the point where 'expertise' is being swamped, so that the legitimacy of current governmental decision making structures and systems is threatened by ill-informed, non-expert 'opinion'-peddlars.

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Press Complaints Commission, the Daily Mail and Jan Moir

I submitted a complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about the Daily Mail article by Jan Moir ‘A strange, lonely and troubling death …’ on 16 October 2009. My complaint, under clauses 1, 3, 5 and 12 of the Code of Practice ran as follows:

“This article is speculative without any attempt to find out the facts, intrusive into private issues and a family grief without any relevance to issues which are in the public interest, and outrageously homophobic in both content and tone. If this kind of abusive and ill-informed comment is allowed to proliferate, we will have a press full of insinuations against anyone in the public eye, full of poisonous innuendo, pretending to preach warnings and caution to a public intended to be terrified, but based on absolutely no research, knowledge or intention to inform. It is not sufficient to sanction the author, who appears to be simply a big mouth looking for attention. A national newspaper which publishes such material, without any attempt to verify its insinuations and without any regard to the insult which it gives to the gay community which it belittles and demonises, should be publicly upbraided for its shockingly low standards of taste and banned from carrying any advertising for a period of at least a month, to ensure that it suffers an economic sanction for its lapse of standards.”

I very quickly received the following reply:

“Dear Tony Bovaird

Thank you for sending us your complaint about the Daily Mail article on the subject of the death of Stephen Gately. We have received numerous complaints about this matter.

I should first make clear that the Commission generally requires the involvement of directly affected parties before it can begin an investigation into an article. On this occasion, it may be a matter for the family of Mr Gately to raise a complaint about how his death has been treated by the Daily Mail. I can inform you that we have made ourselves available to the family and Mr Gately's bandmates, in order that they can use our services if they wish.

We require the direct involvement of affected parties because the PCC process can have a public outcome and it would be discourteous for the Commission to publish information relating to individuals without their knowledge or consent. Indeed, doing so might unwittingly add to any intrusion. Additionally, one of the PCC's roles is dispute resolution, and we would need contact with the affected party in order to determine what would be an acceptable means of settling a complaint.

On initial examination, it would appear that you are, therefore, a third party to the complaint, and wemay not be able to pursue your concerns further. However, if you feel that your complaint touches on claims that do not relate directly to Mr Gately or his family, please let us know, making clear how they raise a breach of the Code of Practice. If you feel that the Commission should waive its third party rules, please make clear why you believe this.

Press Complaints Commission”

Somehow, this doesn’t seem very convincing, does it? I find it hard to believe that this very weak response has anything to do with the fact that the Chairman of the Press Complaints Commission is Paul Dacre, who is editor of the Daily Mail. However, I’m thinking about what else might explain it and haven’t managed to come with anything very plausible just yet. Can you help?

Thursday, 15 October 2009

From self-organising of services to co-production

David Gale, in a post to a blogsite on which Martin Ferguson of SOCITM is asking for ideas on issues to raise at a forthcoming PSI event on service delivery, suggests that the posts made say nothing at all about taking a few steps back and starting by putting the customer at the centre of service delivery and information management ( This note is based on my reply to that post.

Actually, most users are already at the centre of what public sector professionals and managers would see as 'the service', since they are already doing lots of things that either make the service unnecessary (core preventative activity, e.g. eating better, exercising more, taking more stuff to recycling centres, locking their houses and cars more carefully, etc.) or are undertaking some of the core problem-alleviating service activity for themselves or with friends and neighbours (e.g. caring for a loved one, learning a new skill, taking a course of non-prescribed medicine, cleaning up a dirty corner of the local pond, intervening to ask local kids to stop making such a racket around the local bus stop late into the evening, etc.).

The big and embarrassing issue is this - users and citizens DON'T see this as 'co-production of public services' - and quite rightly. That's because they very often see themselves as pretty well producing the improvements ALONE and without help from professional staff, whether from the public sector or third sector (never mind the private sector). 'Co-production my arse', you can probably hear them mumbling. So actually, it's not really a question of 'us' (public service professionals) putting 'them' (users and citizens) at the centre of service delivery and information - no, the challenge is to find ways for US to get to the centre, alongside users and engaged citizens. And if we are to ask their permission to get in there with them, and make use of their energy, commitment, expertise and time – and get them to recognize and make good us of OUR expertise and other resources - well, then, we're going to have to do something to improve our credibility, which in many cases is pretty shot through in the eyes of these 'everyday' makers of real improvements in the life of our communities.

I think that such an approach (‘from self-organising to co-production’) is directly tackling David Gale's point, but it suggests that we need to step back and see things from a very different perspective. Good news, bad news - bad news first: it's a humbler perspective, which is a bit hard for many professionals to take; good news - it often doesn't involve trying to create something that doesn't exist, rather it's about asking service users and citizens for permission to join them in their everyday mission to improve their own lives and those of the people around them. In other words, co-production would often be easy - if we weren't always trying so hard to see it and sell it as something WE have to convince THEM to do!

Role of user and community co-production in service transformation

Martin Ferguson of SOCITM has been asking for issues to raise at a forthcoming PSI event on service delivery, which would interest colleagues from Cabinet Office and other Whitehall departments. The following suggestions are mainly taken from my reply. You can add your own comments here - or at his blog (

A key element in service transformation in the next decade will be intensifying and systematising the co-production of services by users and other citizens - expert patients in health, recycling champions in local environmental services, neighbourhood watch convenors, peer support in social wellbeing, 'street champions' in neighbourhood service commissioning, 'job buddies' for NEETs, etc.

SOCITM members, and others working in social media, can help in several ways - one is just in improving the content and availability of information on WHAT co-production is happening and HOW to support it, but another key role is in connecting up all the users and citizens who already do a lot and want to do more, with professionals who can find ways of making use of their contribution.

Building up the role of co-production is a two-way process - in the public services, it's about helping professionals to understand and to access the huge contribution which users and other citizens can make to improving services; for users and citizens it's about helping them to use the expertise of professional service providers so that their largely self-organising activities become more effective, more widely spread, and less burdensome to them.

Of course, many local authorities (and probably most of Whitehall) will be especially interested in the potential efficiency savings arising from user and community co-production. We're currently researching this for LARCI (the Local Authorities Research Council Initiative). Ideas, examples and case studies gratefully received!

Friday, 9 October 2009

Seminar on Co-production of Services, Co-creation of value




Seminar on the shaping the research agenda

In the last few years, an enormous groundswell of interest has arisen in the potential of ‘co-production’ and ‘co-creation’, working with users and citizens.

Lots of different terms are used to describe what's going on here. They include working with users and citizens on:
• Co-production of services (e.g. expert patients) and products (e.g. software)
• Co-design of services
• Co-planning of public policies
• Co-creation of value
• Co-evaluation of public programmes and policies

A number of staff in Birmingham University are working on these themes. So far, many of these efforts have been unconnected. We think that it might be good to see if we could productively join up some of these research streams.

So we invite you to a seminar to explore what we are all doing, and potential links. And, if some links are found, we hope to have a few follow-up events.

Tentatively, we have pencilled the seminar in for 10 December (probably from 10.30 – 12.30). But let us know if that doesn’t suit – we may have to change it. In any case, you may catch us at some of the follow-up events.

To make sure something happens, we’re seeding the seminar. The people whose names are at the end of this email are committing to say something about their own research – but add your name, too, if you’re going to come along and say something. We’ll find someappropriate format, however many (or few) agree to come along!

And let’s co-produce this flyer like a wiki. Feel free to edit it (don’t bother with tracking mode) and send it out (to all the people who were copied into the email you got it from) with a short note of what changes you made – so feel free to improve the scope, the content and the process as best you can.

One other thing, we’ve invited a few people from outside the Uni Bham community to come along, too, as they have some really interesting things to contribute – if you want to do the same, feel free and add their name to the list (but only if they have agreed to come!) – but do please make it clear that you've done that in your subsequent emails, so that we keep a handle on the potential room and refreshment implications!

Tony Bovaird, INLOGOV and Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham
Elke Löffler, Chief Executive, Governance International
Graham Hill, Strategyn UK and Customers and More

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

The Governance Impossibility Theorem

Kenneth Arrow famously fashioned an Impossibility Theorem 60 years ago which changed the course of welfare economics and social choice theory: no voting system can convert the ranked preferences of individuals into a community-wide ranking, while also meeting a certain set of reasonable criteria, each of which is likely to be widely supported.

In other words, we cannot base collective decision making simply on the individual preferences of the members of the collective – we need to trade off some ‘reasonable criteria’ against other ‘reasonable criteria’, when we made a collective decision. (And, of course, this means giving more weight to the values of some members than to others).

So what? Well, in the intervening period, we have learnt to live with Arrow’s theorem and have reconciled ourselves to the necessarily limited claims that welfare economics and social choice theory can make about the social rankings of different courses of action. However, we have allowed an entirely new substructure of criteria to grow up in relation to social choice and community decision making, without noticing that a similar logic is likely to apply to them – the ‘principles of good governance’.

I don’t wish to attack the desirability of these ‘principles’. I’ve actually written quite a lot on them in the past (see, example, my article with Elke Loeffler on “Evaluating the quality of public governance: indicators, models and methodologies”, International Review of Administrative Sciences, Vol. 69 No. 3 (2003), pp. 313-328). However, even in that article, we hinted that any full set of principles of good governance might be ‘over-determined’ – it might not be possible to achieve all of them simultaneously. Not a surprise, when you consider that we were proposing principles which related to all of the following dimensions of public governance:

• Citizen engagement
• Transparency
• Accountability
• The equalities agenda and social inclusion (gender, ethnicity, age, religion, etc.)
• Ethical and honest behaviour
• Equity (fair procedures and due process)
• Ability to compete in a global environment
• Ability to work effectively in partnership
• Sustainability
• Respect for the rule of law

Now I’m much more confident that there is indeed an ‘impossibility theorem for public governance:

no decision making system in any organisation or society can conform simultaneously to all the reasonable principles of good governance, each of which is likely to be widely supported by most members of most stakeholder groups

I was most recently reminded of the importance of this when reading Amitai Etzioni’s essay “Strength in numbers” in the recent RSA Journal (Autumn 2009, pp. 24 -27). Etzioni contrasts the obligations which arise from one’s commitment to the community (or communities) in which one lives to those obligations which arise to all our fellow men and women – universal human rights. He writes "One cannot maximise either individual rights (and in their name destroy particularistic values and the communities on which they are based) or community (thus ignoring our obligations to all human beings). Comunitarians like me see the tension between the two as a given; hence, it is best to seek out how the commitments to both core values can be combined.” In other words, bad news, a trade-off is needed.

So what? Well, I think the main implication is that we now urgently need to explore the grounds on which we might be prepared to make this trade-off between different ‘good governance’ principles. As with the reactions to Arrow’s original impossibility theorem, we are likely to find that the trade-offs we consider most convincing will actually differ significantly between contexts, and over time. And, of course, between stakeholders – so that there is likely to be disagreement (if not outright conflict) between parties as to which governance principles should have highest priority at any given time.

This is hardly a surprising lesson. However, much of the governance literature still suggests that there is always a potential ‘win-win’ situation for all stakeholders, if they only buckle down, engage with each other, seek compromise and accept the principles of ‘good governance’. Not so. These governance principles are indeed a basic part of human interaction. But human interaction requires collective choices and prioritization – and some people are always likely to lose out in such collective processes. We should not pussyfoot about in trying to hide this.

A further implication is that there may well be more important tasks in governance today than the endless elaboration of each of the ‘good governance’ principles. Of course, it is interesting and, in the long term, it may be valuable to make ever more sophisticated our understanding of what is meant by ‘achieving transparency’ or ‘respecting diversity’. However, many of these principles are likely to be only partly met in practice, so that finding better social and political methods for achieving an acceptable trade-off between these principles may bring far greater benefits to our citizens than pushing our definitions of the principles to their logical limits.

This is not to say that governance principles do not matter. Far from it. It is because they matter so much that we need to be become more adept at choosing which ones matter MOST to us, in the communities in which we live, at this particular time.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Participatory budgeting in a period of financial restraint

Last week, at a seminar for the KGSt (the German equivalent of theUK Improvement and Development Agency for Local Government), I gave a paper on ‘Participatory Budgeting in the Financial Crisis’, mainly focusing on the UK case. There were over 60 German and Austrian participants, mainly from local government or local government associations. It was clear that participatory budgeting is now a real issue in Germany. Moreover, it was clear that a key driver was the growing concern in Germany that the financial crisis is going to hurt German local authorities – they have been forecasting for years that this was likely to happen but, to UK eyes at least, German local government has continued to be financially well-off in recent years. It seems that real financial restraint may be about to hit German local communities, as it is now hitting UK local authorities.

The key issue, however, was whether a set of approaches to participatory budgeting which were fashioned through experimentation in times of ‘plenty’ will also be appropriate in times of financial restraint. The 32 PB pilots in the UK, all supported by the Department for Communities and Local Government, and the best-known German examples of PB (Berlin-Lichtenberg, Köln, Freiburg, Potsdam) have all developed at a time when service development was a key issue. Now attention is spreading to how PB might help in a period of cuts (or ‘decommissioning’ as some now like to call it in the UK, perhaps to make it sound less political).

However, there is one huge difference between participative approaches in relation to development proposals, as compared to proposals for cuts. When development proposals are put forward, people tend to focus on, comment on and promote those proposals about which they know something and in which they are interested. Their comments on these proposals are therefore based on strongly-held preferences and these preferences are (at least partly) well-informed. In this sense, many citizens (and certainly many service users) are actually more appropriate judges of priorities than politicians, service managers or professional staff. The views of informed and interested citizens deserve to be listened to – and, rightly, they are likely to have an effect on others who participate in the decision making process.

However, this is not the dynamic when citizens are asked to comment on proposed cuts. Here, citizens are likely to suggest cuts in areas about which they know little and have no interest. This is natural. They will lobby to protect the services which they value. So the dynamic is that most citizens will focus on services where their judgements are NOT well-informed and where they have very weak preferences. Relying on information like this in the decision-making process is dangerous. It leads naturally to widespread demands for the abolition of those services which are used by minorities and which are disliked by majorities – often ‘equalities’ units in local government come under threat, services to those disadvantaged groups seen as ‘undeserving’, and (in the UK at least) arts and cultural services are vulnerable.

This is not to say that PB can’t be useful in the cuts debate. But it has to be redesigned. It has to be undertaken in such a way that the preferences which people express are given most weight when they have knowledge and interest in the services concerned. It has to allow the strength of the preferences of those who benefit from services to be explored and understood in the decision making process. It has to ensure that the decisions on which people express their views are decisions about which they actually have views. Otherwise, major damage can be done to the balance of the overall public service system on offer to citizens. Worse, people who are highly dependent on public services may find those services withdrawn or seriously reduced in effectiveness for their purposes. And, perhaps worst of all, the faith of citizens in the democratic decision making system – already seriously weakened in these times of political scandals and media hyper-criticism – will be further damaged, as the implications of unthinking cuts slowly sink in and their impacts become evident.

So, the challenge is: how to design a PB system which can give citizens real voice in the cuts process which now faces us – without running into the potential pitfalls outline above? Comments will be welcome – and some innovative thinking is seriously required.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Should we reward the weather?

“If the weather is to blame for the bad years, how can it be that the talent, wisdom and hard work of bankers, traders and Wall Street Executives are responsible for the stupendous returns that occurred when the sun was shining” (Michael Sandel, Professor of Government at Harvard University, in New Statesman, 14 September 2009 - Interesting starting point, and worth asking where it might lead us. One route would surely lead us back to the idea of a ‘betterment levy’ on capital gains?

Saturday, 12 September 2009

‘One-hand clapping': discussing the National Debt in a vacuum

In all the discussion of ‘stimulus’ packages in the newly Keynesian world of the 2008-09 recession, one highly misleading line of analysis has been given major prominence in the media. This is the argument that the National Debt is going to be increased by an enormous amount and will hugely increase the burden on the average citizen. The argument typically runs along the lines: “The annual government deficit has risen from 2.7% of GDP in 2007 to 11.6% of GDP in 2009 and the Treasury predicts it will hit 13.3% in 2010”. Scary stuff.

But, wait a minute, why are we comparing changes in the National Debt to GDP? This is like working out how well off a family is by comparing its increase in debt after taking out a mortgage with its annual income, without taking into account the value of the house bought - or calculating the value of a company to its shareholders by just comparing its debts to its annual dividend. Would anyone be so stupid? But we’re doing it all the time in relation to the government’s borrowing.

Let’s look at it another way. Figures calculated for the BBC ( show that household wealth (including housing wealth and financial wealth) dropped in 2008 from £6,730bn to £5,920bn, a fall of £820bn. The increase in the national debt in 2008 was £60bn and in 2009 is likely to be around £83bn. If these increases in debt, due to the financial stimulus package, do succeed in reinvigorating the economy, promoting house price increases and recovery of the stock market, then they would appear to be a very small price to pay. (And there is the danger that, without such a stimulus package, the UK economy could be stuck in zero or low growth for a long time – see David Blanchflower in the New Statesman (14 September 2009 - Certainly, most voters would consider that an attractive package. But that is not what they are being told is happening.

Of course, economists will blanche at such a simple way of picturing what is happening. For them, the real pay-off from the stimulus is the increase in the stock of assets (not simply their financial value) and the increase in annual consumption goods which the stimulus allows. Funnily enough, this hasn’t been talked about much, either, in the media, although there have been widely expressed concerns about job losses. But it’s pretty obvious that the recovery will bring significant gains along these lines – and the debate should be about whether these gains outweigh the disadvantages. (The problems with the economist’s line of argument are well known – the calculation of the value of increases in the stock of assets, and indeed the flow of consumption, is fraught with contentious assumptions and there is still major debate on how to calculate the damage to ¬economy efficiency through the methods used eventually to repay the debt – either cuts in public services or tax increases).

Moreover, all of this analysis leaves out one major element which, in the long run, may be the most important piece in the jigsaw – the value of public sector assets. In large measure, public sector borrowing is undertaken in order to invest in public assets – schools, hospitals, roads, museums, social housing, etc. To worry about the value of debt without considering the value of the assets which it has bought is plain silly. And to allow these assets to deteriorate in value simply in order to avoid an increase in debt would be utterly foolish. Yet, we very rarely hear about the value of these assets ( even though this value now has to be calculated on a regular basis as part of the government’s resource accounting process).

Taken as a whole, these arguments suggest that the National Debt is often a symbol of an active and successful government. Having a high debt is highly desirable, if matched by high public asset levels and if it has seeded fast growth in the economy, and therefore in household wealth. Having a low National Debt is a symbol of government incompetence, if matched by very low public asset levels and if it has constrained the economy, and household wealth, to very low growth levels.

These arguments are not simple and, even more awkwardly, they are hard to encapsulate in one headline or one soundbite. However, they are about the things that are fundamentally important to every voter when deciding how well the country is run. To discuss increases in the National Debt as if they are unambiguously an evil is to engage in one-hand clapping – lots of gesturing, no results.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Strategic commissioning: reframing or just relabelling public decision-making?

I had the chance to make a presentation this morning to the PAC conference at University of Glamorgan - topic: "Strategic commissioning for services - or for citizens and places?". Lots of useful comments to take on board for the next draft of the paper (let me know if you'd like me to email you a copy).

One line of discussion was especially interesting. How new, really, is 'strategic commissioning'?

Seen as 'the whole set of activities which enable the needs of citizens and service users to be met' (essentially the CLG approach, and the DH approach in the 2006 Health Service Reform report), is it anything more than a relabelling of the old 'rational management cycle'?

On the other hand, if it is meant to distinguish planning/design/procurement/review stages of decision-making from the 'delivery' stages (an approach adopted in some other initiatives of DH), then we may be revisiting a very longstanding argument. In its last guise, this argument turned up as the debate on whether we can divide 'policy' from 'implementation' - either in theory (one set of critics disputes this vigorously) or in practice (and many have argued that this has turned out to be a wrong turning in public management in the last 25 years).

So, what do you think? Is strategic commissioning just a relabelling of an old set of concepts? Or a new way of making a useful distinction between the 'delivery' and the policy' areas of public decision making?

Tony Bovaird

Welcome to Public Service Matters

Welcome to my blog site. I intend to use it for posting ideas and arguments arising from research and training programmes that I'm involved in. And to start, pursue and nail arguments. That means arguments with you, of course!

So I'm hoping that a lot of the blog entries will stimulate you to provide your views in return. And that some of the ideas we co-create together, through this discussion, will feed back into research and training programmes - mine, yours and those of other readers, too.

So, welcome - and please help me to develop some new, rigorous and practical demonstrations that Public Service Matters!

Tony Bovaird