Mar 072013

Rick has a lovely piece on defending bureaucracy as a Good Thing.  It starts off like this:

Gus O’Donnell presented a thought-provoking programme on Radio 4 this morning, In Defence of Bureaucracy. He presented two arguments. Firstly, you can’t get much done without basic organisation. Secondly, bureaucracy, with its formal rules, offers protection from the arbitrary whims and prejudices of those in power.

I suggest you read it in its entirety.  It’s not just a piece about bureaucracy in government.  It’s also a piece about bureaucracy in the private sector.  This paragraph, for example:

Bureaucracy is the corporate equivalent of the rule of law. It protects people from arbitrary decisions inside the organisation. Rules and procedures give people clarity about their roles, their scope for decision making and their boundaries. Like the rule of law, they protect employees from random and vindictive treatment by their bosses. It has become very fashionable to deride bureaucracy but working in organisations with fewer rules and procedures can be just as unpleasant. Trying to second guess the whims of a maverick autocratic boss can be every bit as energy draining and innovation stifling as working in a bureaucracy.

In essence, as a set of democratic societies, we could not have arrived at where we are if it hadn’t been for the law-engendering instincts of overarching rules, processes and procedures.

It’s clear, therefore, that our impulsive perceptions of bureaucracy need a makeover.  We need to perceive it with a greater sense of its complex contribution to latterday civilisation.  Therein the rub, of course.  There’s plenty of evidence that bureaucracy – and its fairly widely independent relationship to political masters – makes it a perfect vehicle for doing ill too.  Just because a bureaucracy religiously ensures that rules, processes and procedures are followed to the letter doesn’t mean that only good may necessarily spring forth: if the rules, processes and procedures in question are malignant in nature, the result will be unkind.  What’s more, pretty consistently – even remorselessly – unkind.

The most obvious example is how the Nazis appropriated the Weimar Republic’s institutions.  But we also have an example much closer to home:

Patient interests were neglected for years by NHS mangers as hospitals concentrated on cutting waiting times at the expense of good care, the head of the service admitted today.

Sir David Nicholson accepted that he was “part” of an environment where the leadership of the NHS “lost its focus” and which indirectly led to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of patients at Stafford Hospital.

Now it still seems the latter case is being the subject of much political football – the Tories have recently blamed the previous Labour government for, I assume, its attachment to targets (perhaps, in this case, the wrong ones – that is to say, the easiest ones to measure); meanwhile, the Labour opposition is calling for Nicholson to resign his current responsibility as driver of highly unpopular government-organised change at the NHS.

As I’ve said on a previous occasion:

If you think about it, the pyramid which reaches pointy-headed to the sky is actually totally absurd.  As the work gets more complex and challenging, we use fewer heads to decide what needs to be done.  The chances of committing errors, of stressing oneself into illness, of failing to achieve one’s targets … these are all bound to increase with the traditional pyramid we are all used to.

Surely this is madness.

Surely we need if not a cylinder, at the very least a pyramid without a considerable part of its upper superstructure.

And as Shuggy concisely points out:

From the Hootsmon:

“Excessive hierarchy must become a thing of the past. Upward communication must be encouraged and constructive criticism should be positively received.”

The remedy for this is, apparently, to give those at the top of the hierarchy more power:

“Headteachers should be seen as the chief executives of largely autonomous organisations…”

Kier Bloomer being desperately stupid in a way that only intelligent people can be. I’ll make this my last post on education for some time because this stuff makes me so depressed I can’t stand it.

Again as I’ve said on other occasions, where we currently find ourselves is here:

Where managerialism takes over, and where hierarchies reduce the number of people involved as the tasks get more complex, we get the big-hitter striker syndrome: a man or woman at the top on whom everyone is focussed. A man or woman on whom everything depends. A man or woman who will one day fail; or perhaps, over time, frequently fails – but has the physical presence to convince us they are, even so, actually succeeding; and so deserve the massive salaries they command. […]

Bureaucracies and top executives – or corporate law and CEOs, if you wish – are complicated relationships, after all.  It’s true, of course, that bureaucracies can act as a dead hand on individually dangerous and maverick leaders.  But as the Nazis showed us, and as the concept of charismatic leadership more widely demonstrates, a stratospheric leadership structure can just as easily use a bureaucracy to escape conviction and control as that very same bureaucracy can serve to ameliorate the former’s wilder instincts.

If we want to continue to believe we can use bureaucracy as a force for good, we need – first and foremost – to sort out the ever-growing dysfunctionality of pyramidal structures, as well as the inefficient concentrations of wealth that accompany it.

Mar 032013

This post is about two tweets which came my way yesterday.  Both speak of the importance of personal responsibility.  The first describes its reach in private industry (in this case, I believe in relation to a recent story on the freemium app industry):

Companies are made of people, and people have a responsibility for their actions, inc. developing (potentially) exploitative freemium games

The second, which came my way hot on the heels of the first, said much the same thing – only, this time, in the context of the NHS (the Mid-Staffordshire scandal comes immediately to mind):

The best managers help clinical staff treat according to need and make patients healthier, not enforce NHS policy whatever the consequences

Meanwhile, in an oxymoron-like diatribe of the weakest kind against everything and anything New Labour ever did, David Cameron has this to say in today’s Sunday Telegraph:

That is what everything this Government does comes back to: the future. We are looking at the horizon, not tomorrow’s headlines; doing what’s right for the long-term. Thirty years ago, Margaret Thatcher said that we should be “in the business of planting trees, for our children and grandchildren, or we have no business to be in politics at all”.

I couldn’t agree more. In 30 years’ time, I want people to be able to look back at this government and see that we paid down our debts, helped create millions of jobs, sorted out welfare, made our schools world-beating and built homes for a generation.

Doing this kind of work might not earn you popularity points in by-elections, but it’s what I’m in politics for: making the country we love as great as it can be.

I haven’t heard that “planting trees” metaphor for really quite a while.  I suppose we’ll have Michael Gove telling us next that we should all write a novel before we die.

I’m also just a little puzzled – maybe out of technical ignorance – as to why he says “paid down our debts” instead of “paid off“.  Unless, of course, he means that it’s going to be the little people at the bottom of the pile who’ll always end up saving the Tories from their economic selves.

But perhaps this is all just a little too nitpicking on my part.

In truth, it’s always going to be the people who make a difference to any society.  Politicians of the kind who tend to rule us prefer to ignore this.  If they didn’t, they’d have to engage us in their processes – they’d have to get us involved and actively participating.  Far easier to blame an anonymous public-sector bureaucracy – and shift the responsibility stealthily onto equally anonymous private-sector equivalents – than to admit that the root of all our problems lies not in our systems but their application.

It’s not so much a new education system we need – it’s more a system teachers and students know how to work with.

It’s not so much a new legal system we need – it’s more a system whose costs victims and other participants don’t have to fear.

It’s not so much a new health system we need – it’s more a system which provides support as and when a person becomes a patient in need.

The Welfare State is the way to make our society less inhumane.  It’s in our grasp – but it is a choice.  We can spend considerable resource on allowing the fortunate to further concentrate their good fortune – or we can deliberately decide to give the less fortunate the consideration, charity and kindness most belief systems have tended to argue should be made forthcoming.

But what we have to accept is that, either way, it’s a choice.  If we choose to fashion a world where we must walk on the other side of the road from that homeless man who dies at the doorstep of a bungalow, we can.  We will do so, I am sure, in order that ambitious alpha men and women can – amongst the disasters they also commit – achieve what they undoubtedly do.  And this is clearly an act of socioeconomic decision-making at the highest level, committed by coherent men and women.  It is a freely-taken decision. It is an unforced decision to let some people live better at the expense of others.  It is a statistical calculation of risks that approves of achievement at the very top, even as it judges society will not rise up in arms and disintegrate as a result of the anonymous homeless dying distastefully in the streets.

If, on the other hand, we opt to help such homeless people – if our goal is to create a socioeconomic environment where this kind of action is prioritised over other, more aggressively innovative, behaviours – we may create, again entirely consciously and deliberately, a society where survival is ameliorated for a far greater number of our souls here on earth, even as achievement measured objectively loses its bleeding edges.

And either way, to come back to the original set of choices, and whether politicians like it or not, if anything turns out right, it’ll come down not to systems they proudly and powerfully announce but, rather, to their humane application – or otherwise – by people who look and act and feel like you and me.

That personal responsibility.

That core humanity.

That attachment to caring at an individual level for each and every relationship.

That love, even.

That kindness, generously imparted.

Far more important for a classroom than this textbook or that is the mind that plans the lesson around a book and the hands that clutch its spine.

For the funny thing about Cameron’s oxymoron of a weak diatribe is that there was very little in it I found myself fiercely disagreeing with.  Oh, yes.  Those silly sentences on immigration.  The daftness around welfare.  But in reality, the poor man knows exactly what we need to do.  Like when he says, almost pleadingly (the bold is mine):

These are not claims or promises: they are facts. We are turning the tide on years of decline — and building a Britain for those who work hard and want to get on. And we need to go further. We need to get more houses built. We need to build new roads and railways and energy connections. Some reading this may not like that; but as I have made clear, this is not a popularity contest but a battle for Britain’s future.

The problem isn’t the words, David.  The problem is the people.

In fact, the problem – more widely expressed – is your, and your professional class’s, attitude to people in general.  The fact is that systems, for high-flying politicians, are like electromagnets of recent generation: when you have the opportunity to choose between getting people voluntarily onside or creating a foolproof system designed to cage them into a certain set of behaviours, you can guarantee any minister worth their caviar will be pulled inexorably in the direction of implementing a brand-new system over convincing ordinary people to work better with an existing one.

I really do sometimes get the feeling that Cameron and some of his cohort are locked painfully into the wrong party of UKIP-incubating MPs and hangers-on.  If only he, and perhaps they, had chosen Labour, we could right now be facing another decade of government.

Maybe I should now spoil this post for you (or, alternatively, not) by saying how very much that idea makes me shudder.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t.


They say familiarity may breed contempt.

I’m inclined, however, to believe that being a politician (of empire-building instincts, at least) makes one contemptuous of the familiar.

In this, both One Nation Labour and the more traditional Conservative impulses, which Cameron has appealed to in his text today, have aimed to reassure potential voters in a time of utter uncertainty that being British, in itself, is quite enough to be getting on with.

But in the end, they are all just words – both Cameron’s and Miliband’s, I’m afraid.

In a sense, I get the feeling that our politicians are likely to be as lost here as the rest of us.  And in this realisation (as Poirot might suggest!), I find the future most terrifying.

Where ordinary people would be the real solution, our leaders are now only able to work with systems.

The systems have taken over to such an extent that these ordinary people I mention truly have no impact whatsoever on the results – even as they end up shouldering all the blood-spattered blame.

The personal responsibility which I started this post with is impossible to properly engineer or encourage.  We spend our time terrified of the juggernaut-like mechanisms that threaten to bury our professional futures in a careering disgrace.  We hide, like frightened rabbits, from the oncoming lights which should illuminate – but which, in the end, serve only to make the shadows evermore powerful.

Yes.  It’s the people, stupid.

And our leaders are too stupid to realise it.

Mar 282012

I’m going to play Devil’s Advocate here.  Let’s assume the battle for privatisation is lost.  Let’s assume it’s a done-and-dusted deal we can no longer usefully impact.  The  NHS, Legal Aid, education, the police and a whole raft of other public-sector services will sooner or later enter the private domain – whatever we do or say.

Nothing to be done about it.  The financialisation and commercialisation of all relationships will soon become complete.

Perhaps, as some have been saying in relation to other areas (I have seen tweeted today the importance of picking one’s battles in the context of the European Union; last Saturday, Lawrence Lessig argued that we should focus copyright efforts on science rather than cinema), we should begin to be a little more discretionary about what to date has been our wholesale opposition to anything and everything the right is proposing out of manifest self-interest.

Accept what’s happened and gather our forces with a different aim in mind.  If we continue to act as Tory analysis of the last ten years would assume we will, we are simply playing to their strengths.  In my slowly forming opinion, I think we need to start learning how to act differently.  Unpredictably.

So let us transfer our war from the killing-fields of preventing privatisation to the playing-fields of making it fit for purpose.  The advantage for all our futures?  We can focus on the cronyism, the corruption, the revolving doors of ministers who leave government to become company directors and CEOs who absent themselves from failed business models to become ministers – we can focus on all of that as we strive to make whatever system we are obliged to work with a system with proper oversight and protections.

We need a vigorous Legal Aid system – they are taking that away from us.  Let us make legal defence for all a priority in the next manifesto, whoever administers its ways of working.

We need the safety nets of proper welfare and NHS services, free in moment of need – they are taking that away from us.  Let us make safety nets for all a priority in the next manifesto, whoever administers its ways of working.

We need a competent system of inspection, target-setting and oversight – they are taking that away from us.  Let us make such oversight on behalf of all our citizens a priority in the next manifesto, whoever administers its ways of working.

We need, in fact, to ensure that – whoever is in charge – we the people remain firmly in charge of them.

Our overarching narrative must become this: we the people are sovereign.

Whilst business and politicians are not.

And, in the meantime, manage our battles with great care: it is time to be selective, wise and judicious if we truly want to influence as wide a public as possible.  It is time to play according to different rules.

It is time to surprise our enemies.

Jul 142011

It’s like a “Dear John” letter – but to an employer.  Or not exactly to an employer – just once removed, the job itself.  Not the cause of our misery exactly; rather, its manifestation.  A sad piece of lovely writing on the subject of slowly disengaging with the environment that has been public service (and thanks to Paul for the tweet which brought it to my attention).

Only thing is that I also felt, working in the private not the public sector, every word of this post in the months leading up to my own redundancy.  After almost seven years working for a bank, a bank which was lately in the eye of a financial storm, I was reduced to feeling such sentiments.  I’d realised I was no longer needed.  I’d realised even the public didn’t respect what I did any longer.  Entirely without blame, it was entirely my responsibility to shoulder its awful consequences.

To understand one is surplus to requirements in such a total sense is quite a terrible thing.  It’s a trauma of the lowest order.  As the original poster points out:

But recently you’ve changed. I no longer feel cared for, appreciated or listened to. You seem to be demanding more and more from me whilst giving me less and less back. The days feel so long and troubled, and sometimes I find it difficult to sleep at night. There are even others being brought into the relationship to do things that I used to do with you, slowly making me seem no longer needed. Our dreams are moving apart, our shared goals a distant memory.

And as the piece continues to indicate:

I won’t let myself stay downtrodden and unhappy, I can sense that I’m not really wanted and that you have been looking for an opportunity to end things for a while. Well, I’m going to be the bigger person and take action, make a clean break and move on. I deserve happiness and appreciation, and I’m going to make it happen rather than wait around for an indeterminate amount of time waiting for a potential opportunity which may never come along.

How many of us now must be feeling this every day as councils fire entire workforces and take them on again with compulsory pay cuts; as private companies “let go” good employees only to contract temporary workers to do the same roles; as those who do remain in jobs feel the evermore incessant pressures to hit impossible productivity targets – targets which not only impact on their ability to be accurate and useful but also on their ability to maintain a sustainable balance between work and life …

Better out than in?  In is a morass of spun expectations where their reality barely coincides with what we perceive when we are away from their intranets.  So yes, I would say.

Far worse in than out.  Far better out than in.

At least for the moment.

Jun 252011

Those demanding that we have a referendum on the European Union are playing the shock-and-awe card once again.  This from the Sun today:

All the PM has to do now is give us that referendum on Europe he promised and we can all tell Brussels where to get off.

They seriously forget the lessons of the 19th and 20th centuries, where Europe was a battlefield of envy and hubris.  They think, as many of us did in Iraq, that anything has to be better than the situation as it stands.  But you can’t dismantle successfully without having a plan for reconstruction in place before you start.  If we have learnt anything from recent history, this is surely the lesson which stands out the most.

And if those who propose dismantling without prevision believe – for whatever reason – that international commerce and private bureaucracies, all of a self-interested kind, can automagically bind together nation states in a way that they might argue state bureaucracies have not, they really should think again.  I suspect that there is as much waste in the private sector as in the public: the only real difference being that it doesn’t see the public light of day – not only because workforces are bound by confidentiality agreements not to reveal it but also because the principles of democracy are generally reserved only for the poor.

Just remember the trillions of pounds which the public sector has had to pump into the private financial services industry – and you’ll remember exactly what I mean.

Self-interest leads to war, sooner or later.

Which is why I fear a shock-and-awe request for an EU referendum of the type we have seen today will, some day, in some way, not far down the line, lead to the kind of conflicts we really thought Europe had managed to learn how to avoid.

If we don’t want real war on the battlefields, with all its tragic spilling of blood, we must acquire the ability to accept and tolerate its figurative equivalent in the debating chambers across the Continent – as well as understand why we need to pay for it to the extent that we are being asked.

Jun 212011

I love the Kindle, as you might have gathered.  Stan’s not so sure.  First, he points out how people are carving up bits of Internet real estate – and making it all their very own.  Then, in response to my light-hearted accusation of technophobe, he carries out the following most salient thought experiment:

I’m a technophobe? I don’t think so. If I’m a ‘phobe’ of some sort then ‘commercephobe’ would be a better term. People confuse a phobia of restricted commercial practices with luddite-ism.

Ads everywhere, mobile devices tethered to the company that sold them to consume products sold by the same company.

That, is essentially what I am against.

After all, you wouldn’t think of buying a car from Shell, locked into a contract with Shell for fuel, locked into buying your car accessories from the ‘ShellStoreTM‘, with ads, sponsored by Shell, flashing across your speedometer as you drove, would you now?

If you next car was a BP car, you’d discover that none of the cool Shell accessories you’d installed on your Shell car would work on your BP car.

Yet people accept such things when it comes to mobile devices, like phones, e-book readers and tablets. Car manufacturers must look in envy at Apple, Google et al and wonder how they get away with it.

We could, of course, equally say the same not only of the above-mentioned companies but also of government, public services and a raft of other support systems European welfare has cared to provide over the years.

So if it’s OK for big business to integrate vertically, why should it be so wrong for institutions such as the NHS in its current manifestation to do similarly?

Unless, of course, it’s one rule for the rich and another for the rest.

For it’s either bad for competition and market transparency the world over – or it’s not.  But it can’t be bad only for the public sector.

Jun 102011

Yesterday, on the subject of Richard Branson’s involvement with some of the most fundamental changes being drawn up for the NHS for a long time, I sadly concluded:

[…] I, for one, am sad to discover that Mr Richard Branson is looking to benefit from the carving up of the NHS – not because I feel he doesn’t have the right to look to make money where he sees the opportunity but, rather, that he is prepared to form part of a system whereby bureaucracy will manifestly increase: all that form-filling the GPs and hospitals will always have to carry out will now be multiplied by those patients who have the nous to complete their insurance claims.  Whilst those who don’t will simply be allowed to rot by the roadside in a ballooning private maze of paperwork.

This of course was my emotional reaction to a disappointing set of behaviours and circumstances I found most resistible.  That an entrepreneur of Mr Branson’s calibre should either ignore in the sense of not know or ignore in the sense of not care that a business venture of his was going to apparently help increase the net bureaucracy the subjects of this kingdom should have to suffer from is surely an intellectual hypocrisy of the highest order.  The rhetoric, in fact, of small government and private collaboration used purely and simply to lever greater concentrations of personal and corporate wealth. 

Oh dear.  You know what?  The privatisation of rail-service provision is actually coming to mind right now.  Does this all form part, then, of a much longer-term pattern and tapestry of actions?  Is this not-so-stealthy privatisation of the NHS just one more example of something which Thatcher initiated from a psychological point of view, Blair put in place from a legislative point of view and Cameron is now reaping from a most impractical point of view?

And what is our model?  As always, the USA.

So over at John Naughton’s always eagle-eyed Memex 1.1 blog, the same day, and to far more effect, we find the following quote pulled from a piece by Ezra Klein, writing in the Washington Post on the subject of state-run American healthcare provision (the bold is mine):

Everyone knows — or should know — that the United States spends much more than any other country on health care. But the Kaiser Family Foundation broke that spending down into two parts: the government’s share and the private sector’s share (both measured as a percentage of total gross domestic product), then compared the results to figures from 12 other countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And here’s the shocker: Our government spends more on health care than the governments of Japan, Australia, Norway, the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Canada or Switzerland.

Think about that for a minute. Canada has a single-payer health-care system. The government is the only insurer of any note. The United Kingdom has a socialized system, in which the government is not only the sole insurer of note but also employs most of the doctors and nurses and runs most of the hospitals. And yet, measured as a share of the economy, our government health-care system is the largest of the bunch.

And it’s worse than that: Atop our giant government health-care sector, we have an even more giant private health-care sector. Altogether, we’re spending about 16 percent of the GDP on health care. No other country even tops 12 percent. Which means we’ve got the worst of both worlds: huge government and high costs.

Now whether you admirably homegrown entrepreneurs meant it or not, and I’m sure you actually didn’t, your actions truly run the risk of bringing about precisely the opposite of everything you stand for.  And if you think this model of the US is a viable future we need to implement over here, I can understand why people like Lawrence Lessig are seen by some in Britain as gently wayward libertarians.  For how can anyone ever honestly choose to be anything else in a country where more is so much less and technological innovation at the highest level sits foolishly alongside such an unwieldy instinct for bureaucracy?

Oh, and when I say “unwieldy instinct for bureaucracy”, please understand me: I do of course mean both the private bureaucracy we are so used to underestimating as well as the public one we are so accustomed to berating. 

In fact, I would probably tend to argue that most of the ills in this 21st century world originate these days in those massive command-and-control economies that are the multinationals, where strategic reviews, helicopter analyses and avoidable waste of a massive nature take place on a frighteningly regular and bizarrely undidactic basis.  At least there exist mechanisms for mistakes in government to see the light of day.  These mechanisms form part of that imperfect beast we call democracy.  But what about the navel-gazing mentalities of boardrooms where information is held close to the chest and insiders trade on highly pertinent knowledge – not to cash in their shares but, rather, far more importantly to lever their turf wars?

We should no longer be afraid of government waste.  Far more wearisome and dangerous is the waste generated by the public-private nexus of modern political thinkers and their corresponding back-scratchers.

As well as those honourable businesspeople who, naively, want to help us all out – but just end up making things far far worse.

Jan 302011

I’ve had plenty of experience of both state and private bureaucracies but still fail to understand how – in all intellectual honesty – anyone on the libertarian side of politics can hope to reasonably argue that, for example, private medical bureaucracies work more simply for say the dispossessed – or, indeed, anyone – than their state equivalents.  All that form-filling which needs to be carried out, possibly just when you are least able to understand or track its implications, doesn’t half exist just as much in the context of private medical insurance as it does in the public sphere.

Bureaucracy everywhere needs to be kept under control – mainly because it generally becomes self-serving, and self-serving organisations become both wasteful and, for their workforces, mind-numbing places to be.  Just because it’s privately sourced doesn’t make it essentially more acceptable.  The argument shouldn’t be whether we should have public or private bureaucracies – as it would appear to be at the moment.  Rather, it should be whether we have self-serving or customer-oriented bureaucracies – whether they be private or public.

I had some unhappy things to say about the student finance process the other day.  In the end, it looks like the Student Loans Company is perhaps the most efficient leg of the three bureaucracies involved, and the Student Finance organisation and – initially – the university in question itself the least efficient.  (It would appear now, by the way, for those of you interested in knowing the outcome, that Kafka, although not entirely banished from student finance land, is being kept at bay for the moment, at least in my son’s case.  Fulsome apologies have been received from the university for the error committed, processes we are assured will be reviewed, a hardship loan has been promised in the meantime and my son is beginning to learn a little more about the complexities of personal finance.)  But the reality of the matter is that in order to get the money to go to university these days, you have to deal with at least four organisations on a terribly frustrating and rolling basis (UCAS, Student Finance, the Student Loans Company and the university you wish to go to) – as well as their very different web pages and procedures and their often indifferent support staff.

Are you telling me that this is seamless customer-oriented 21st century bureaucracy in action?  I think not.

So let’s change the focus please from public versus private to that of identifying and changing the cultures of the self-serving to customer-serving – wherever they may find themselves.

And let’s do it now – before we fall into the grave and awful error of believing that a change of ownership and a move from the state to the corporate will automatically bring about an improvement in service levels.

For it simply won’t.