Sunday, 20 November 2011

Referendums and demonstrations: a coda

I mused recently about why I felt increasingly concerned about referendums in contrast to protest activity such as demonstrations and marches. This set of questions continues to rumble around my mind and in particular the relationship with aspects of post-democracy with which I've been concerned for some time. 

One aspect which was crunched very well in this article by Peter Beaumont is the degree to which the e-petition initiative and the referendum are at root a transactional approach to securing change. Not a programme. Not a hard slog through democratic processes and checks and balances. But a way of allowing niche ideas to gain a level of prominence that they would not otherwise have managed and avoiding some of that fuzzy and difficult balancing of differing interests that is the stuff of deliberative democracy. They are an over-ride mechanism to try to secure a quicker answer. 

The fuel tax petition recently is a 'good' example of the way that a single perspective has in practice held representatives hostage, although clearly they have to some extent allowed themselves to be so held. One anticipates that the conclusion of a debate on an e-petition on wholesale further regulation of emissions in the interests of slowing down climate change might have been rather different.

I was very taken with Beaumont's phrase that 'democracy is a conversational process that moves at a human speed'.

That clearly doesn't work for the financial markets. But there is a greater sense of impatience: that representative democracy should not be allowed to obstruct particularly when it hobbles progress on a single issue obsession. Indeed, that Government and discussion are part of the problem.

Transactional democracy has a completely different set of values to those of deliberative democracy. The former simply wants an answer, preferably entirely on the terms of the proposer. The latter may be more cumbersome and it may be messy but it provides a basis on which wider interests are given a proper airing.

Personally, I prefer a conversation to a monologue.

Missing the target and still missing the point

The announcement this week that NHS waiting time targets are to be reintroduced was hardly a surprise. You don't need to be a health economist to have anticipated that the effect of removing the target when budgets were being squeezed harder than at any time in the history of the NHS and when massive change was being unleashed on all parts of the system would be to see greater rationing of the available services. That is a rational response by a system under strain.  

What this does reveal though is that the debate about targets remains frustratingly polarised. At the risk of annoying a number of former colleagues, the truth is that there is a strong case for national targets when there is a need for a general shift in focus or performance and the targets are simple and well designed. The use of targets by the last Government in health and in education on basic issues such as literacy and numeracy was in my view entirely appropriate even if there was some collateral damage at the margin. 

The case against the target culture is also well understood: perverse incentives from badly designed metrics; micro-management when there should be more discretion for managers; poor data quality; gaming by professionals to get management off their backs; adversarial relationships which ruin co-operation. One could go on. 

So the present Government had some good points to make about the way that the McKinsey inspired delivery chain culture instituted under the Labour administration with performance metrics coming out of the ears of everyone involved had gone way too far. That critique was shared by many people working in public services frustrated beyond endurance by the amount of time and effort spent on useless activity and by the immense lack of trust that it implied. 

Badly designed performance metrics were the bane of existence. When I worked for a London borough our frequent refrain was that either we or someone else would be 'hitting the target but missing the point'. 

The removal of a top down bureaucratic performance culture may be something that superficially brings together central and local. But in practice it’s a blunt instrument.

Where we are now is another depressing example of binary views of the world which refuse to accept that neither one nor the other might have all the answers.

The positive aspects of performance measures and targets - such as minimum requirements, making strategic shifts in focus and performance; providing comparability between organisations to allow them to see where improvement is possible - are being under-valued (see the frankly ridiculous decision to remove the Audit Commission at a time when the pressure to improve cost effectiveness is greater than it has ever been).

The negative effects of an obsession with a 'freedom from' culture and a hollowing out of those parts of organisations which had focused on performance because of the demise of LAAs, the NPI set etc. is increasingly clear whilst the single data list reveals very clearly that the Government has no coherent or consistent view about what should be solely local and what is genuinely national; nor any clarity about what the appropriate response will be if the data starts to go in the wrong direction.

So it’s also hardly surprising that we have a purported localism which doesn't feel remotely localist. That's because the Government is still driving the whole thing just on the basis of a different set of ideological parameters.  

What we never manage to have is a more sophisticated discussion about the place of different approaches to performance. That would be greatly aided by some real engagement with the question of what organisations like local authorities are actually ‘for’, a proper examination of the implications of principles such as subsidiarity and a recognition that wholly binary views of the world are not going to take us very far.

In short, it’s hard to have a sensible discussion about targets before having a sensible discussion about roles and responsibilities. As the Government has found, targets do have a role. They need to be well designed, they need to be determined by the relevant body and they need to be backed up by an understanding about their place in the system. There are ways of sensibly approaching these questions such as outcomes based accountability. They don’t have all the answers but they do at least offer an intelligent way of trying to think about the issues.

A couple of years ago we may have been hitting the target but missing the point.

Sadly now, it seems, we can't do either.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Referendums and Demonstrations (and the French Revolution)

The film Bob Roberts - about a right wing protest singer and politician - was such a successful satire because, of course, protest singers are associated with being left wing.

I was reminded of this by a piece in New Statesman by Rafael Behr about the intense anger which is emerging about the current economic climate from which a strong anti-politician culture is developing. Towards the end of the article Behr briefly identifies the degree to which referendums and demonstrations have romantic attachments for right and left respectively as a means of expressing such anger.

That really set me thinking about why that should be and why, as someone who identifies themselves as being of the left, I feel instinctively comfortable about participating in a march or a rally but very uncomfortable about referendums.

I think (although I may well be wrong here) that as with many other things, the French Revolution was pivotal in the relevant developments. The Constitution of the Year One (1793), initiated by Robespierre, established a popular right to optional referendums if 10% of the eligible citizens sought to force a vote on a law within 40 days of its being passed in the Assembly. The Constitution of the Year One is notable for many things (including a right of rebellion) but crucially it marked a shift from national sovereignty to popular sovereignty. That matters because the tradition of national sovereignty is associated with a constitutional system of government in which the nation is superior to the individual. Under popular sovereignty the opposite holds good. 

It is common to right and left that democracy must be about more than just elections, so what are referendums good for? The Council of Europe recommends the use of referendums 'as a means to reinforce the democratic legitimacy of political decisions, enhance the accountability of representative institutions, increase the openness and transparency of decision-making and stimulate the direct involvement of the electorate in the political process'. 

But burrow underneath this and my one liner is that referendums are about populism; demonstrations are about collective action. These are fundamentally different in purpose and in wider constitutional terms.

Referendums are comfortable for right wing populists because they circumvent the brake that the representatives can place on issues such as abortion, the death penalty and immigration. The introduction of a right to initiate through referendums is a crucial development which is being seen across Europe and feels like part of a wider neo-liberal approach not just to demand change but to be able to secure it. 

In contrast, demonstrations are usually a protest about something that is being done by the Government - the invasion of Iraq, nuclear weapons, public expenditure cuts, removing trade union rights. This tradition is one of exhibiting solidarity about a common cause and exerting moral pressure on the Government to change tack. The Occupy protest at St Paul's is a classic example. Its interesting that apart from far right marches which are designed to intimidate the only other right wing mass protest I can recall was on the fox hunting ban and the purported defence of the countryside way of life against the depredations of the Labour  Government.

Recent initiatives by groups such as 38 Degrees use social media and electronic petitioning to show public anger at issues like health reform but to my mind this remains much more akin to the demonstration focused on the sheer weight of numbers involved. 

So what lies underneath these differences which makes me fundamentally suspicious of referendums other than on very rare occasions? Rather snappily, I think its because I have a strong attachment to a strain of civic republicanism which is founded on concern about the arbitrary in political decision making. 

One branch of republican libertarianism sees the priority being non-interference - a very comfortable, negative freedom, doctrine likely to be espoused by neo-liberals. 

However, another branch of republicanism places the emphasis not on non-interference but on freedom from the arbitrary in decision making - in other words freedom from domination without recourse.

In this second conception of civic republicanism the freedom from the arbitrary is provided through properly made and constituted laws, institutions and social norms. 

Clearly that leaves decision making in the hands of those elected to the institutions. There needs to be some enhanced democratic influence over that process. That does not mean a more populist model in which all laws and policies must in some sense express a collective will (which is where referendum based approaches start to go) but instead opportunities to contest decisions in ways which make government answerable.

So in such a schema decision making should be guided by deliberative public reasoning which is open to public debate; with opportunities to contest decisions which are open to all and with institutionalised forums for such debate where objections can be raised*. Translating this into practical propositions is by no means straightforward and I don't entirely rule out referendums as playing some role, but certainly not a dominant one.

Previously, I'd not really associated the modern proponents of referendums with the Jacobin in the French Revolution. But come to think of it .... 

* This is a much condensed description of a very useful discussion of these issues in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Community in Hard Times

I attended the Edith Kahn Memorial Lecture on Monday given by Geoff Mulgan, Chief Executive of NESTA. It was described, rightly, by the chair for the evening as something of a tour de force so it is with some trepidation that one ventures to comment. In fact what follows is less about the lecture itself and rather more about the balance between some of the very positive opportunities it suggested and the effects of the wider socio-economic climate. 

The full text can be read on the following link:

The gist is that, despite the pressures of the current economic and social situation, new social networks can be developed which will increase giving - whether in cash or in kind - to the community and that choice architectures can be developed which will facilitate and reinforce the operation of our innate instinct for reciprocity ('do as you would be done by').

There is a lot to agree with in this and I was particularly struck by the point that simply being asked and being recognised are powerful incentives to do good things. It makes us feel good about ourselves.

Yet there are several things that seemed less certain.

The notion of choice architectures is one that plays out in a good deal of current debate about behaviour (I for one very much welcomed the view in the lecture that in practice we know very little indeed for sure about what actually drives behaviour). The RSA Social Brain project suggested 'steer' as an alternative to the 'nudge' (much beloved by some in the current Government) since context is so important in influencing what might otherwise be seen as automatic behaviour. So the notion behind a steer is that it is possible to provide citizens with insights that allow the individual to be better able to shape their own actions (as opposed to a nudge which purports to press buttons which light up hard wired short cuts). Choice architecture would push that rather further by maintaining pressure over time to respond.

The lecture posited the choice that we each make between the acquisitive and the compassionate aspects of our nature. This is similar to the way that Stephen Pinker has suggested that our 'better angels' have to a considerable extent had success in combating our demons with a significant and ongoing reduction in violence. The Pinker argument reflects a welcome emphasis on the Enlightenment idea that rational agents value their own well being and do not want to be harmed and that logically it is impossible on that basis to see it as acceptable to cause harm to others. This universality is then further supported through laws and institutions. In short, the wider socio-cultural circumstances have both led to and reinforced the change. Pinker identifies a fundamental shift to a less violent world but he accepts, in theory at least, that a socio-cultural crisis could reverse or significantly affect it.

Back to Monday's lecture .... the importance of solidarity came up towards the end of the discussion following several points about altruism (in this context I think it is better to think of universal benevolence which incorporates respect for the self determination of everyone including oneself and the wish to defend the right of others accordingly - a classic Enlightenment idea building on both autonomy and respect for individual dignity). Solidarity is an expression of reciprocity at its best and works in a well functioning society by virtue of a sense of respect for each other's place in the world. The possessive individualism which has been dominant in recent decades is deeply antagonistic to such notions.

This is important because the evidence - cited in the lecture and highly plausible to my mind - is that people who feel useful are more likely to volunteer and otherwise contribute than those who do not. In an economic climate in which many more people are feeling far from useful and indeed unwanted and unrecognised it is less clear that choice architecture rather than more fundamental change in a very unequal society is going to be sufficient to unleash reciprocal behaviour on their part. 

Even so, that does, of course, still leave large numbers of people who feel more valued and more likely to be open to being stimulated to give. One aspect of the lecture which was given more prominence in the delivery than in the written text was about the initiatives launched recently by some of the most wealthy to give away a significant proportion of their wealth. So far, so laudable. But that also rather presupposes that gross inequality now is worth some jam tomorrow. It also points up the fundamental problem with philanthropy: the philanthropist (generally and of course understandably) decides how their money is to be used which may bear little relation to where the real need lies

A very sour interpretation of some of the possibilities here are that we end up with increasingly invasive attempts to secure giving and a greater dependence on it both at the level of large scale philanthropy and small scale activity rather than democratically mediated choice and solidarity with others that comes from a feeling of mutual respect in a society which itself embodies greater reciprocity at a systemic level.

But, as I say, that's a very sour interpretation.

Personalisation - it's not (just) the money

A very enjoyable seminar at OPM last night about the likely success of implementing personalisation on the timetable envisaged by the Government across a range of services (although focusing not surprisingly on social care). The seminar was arranged as a debate between proponents of the view that we are on course and those more sceptical. For the record, I'm largely with the latter but the really interesting points which were clarified for me in the discussion were that focusing on the budget may be to miss the main point.

Personalisation can of course be decoupled from personal budgets and there are a range of problems with passing budget management over to clients, sometimes exacerbated by the way in which information is made available (or not) and from a genuine fear for the individual of being overwhelmed. Indeed, arguably asking individuals to manage the budgets is unnecessary. The main point of personalisation is to give the client greater control over what is done. Provided they can do so, who manages the administration of the budget is a second order question and might often best be left in the bailiwick of professionals.

But it goes further:

- the personal budget is on current plans only ever going to cover a portion of the range of services needed to secure personalisation;
- the trigger for a personal budget is tied to eligibility criteria as care needs are assessed but personalisation is needed well before this point and is also needed by people who may not end up being assessed as eligible, particularly as budget cuts bite ever deeper. 

Focusing only on the part of the package covered by the budget is an error for professionals and a problem for clients.

There were many interesting points about the potential for clients to pool their resources to secure greater leverage but also potentially to have a relationship with providers which may help to assuage some of the concerns of the latter about the implications of personalisation as block purchasing by councils seems likely to disappear over the hill. There remain some big questions about the way that such pooling might be undertaken and with what support - which might come from peer and user led organisations although they could then end up standing in the shoes previously occupied by the local authority. But again, this suggests that  some rethinking on how budgets are held might be beneficial.

The other highly significant point is about what was variously described as the need to bolster 'buyer literacy' or, rather more colloquially, how to give many clients the first clue about what to do with a budget. This is often not being handled well at the moment. I'm currently working with an organisation which has volunteering as its whole raison d'etre and the scope for volunteers - with some training - to provide non-judgemental, one to one support that a family member might otherwise offer to help navigate through some of the more professional forms of advice which are available (although insufficiently) seems strong. 

However it is done, securing what a contributor described as greater equity of support for different types of client seems absolutely essential and should be a pre-requisite for moving to providing a personal budget. 

For me the main lessons from all of this are to focus on securing self-direction first with all of the cultural change that is needed on the part of professionals and providers and to put more emphasis on ensuring that there are proper support arrangements available for clients. 

So maybe its not the money that matter most.