Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Detroit, change and the shift to bikes

One of the main purposes of writing blogs, it often seems to me, is to prove yourself right. Preferably so many times that you even come to believe it yourself.

I try not to do too much of this, in case it becomes embarrassing, but I noticed today some evidence of one of my repeated theses: in this case, that – despite all the rhetoric about technology – change is actually slowing down and has been for some time.

After all, I have been driving in Minis and flying in Jumbo Jets my entire life (I’m 56), and – although I know their internal machinery is very different – that is only what you would expect.

The first submarine entered service in the Royal Navy back in 1901, and half the period since has seen the rapid development of submarine technology, culminating in 1960 with the launch of the nuclear powered Dreadnought.  The second half has just been rapidly slowing variations on that theme.

See my book Unheard, Unseen for details (at least about early submariners).

In the past generation, we have seen the return of real shops, real food, bricks, trams, and the delivery of food to the door rather as our grandparents experienced it.  I know we also have mobile phones and Facebook, and I suppose that does change the way people live, but not in comparison to the vast changes going on a century ago.

So what are we to make of the reinvention of the failing city of Detroit as a centre of bicycle manufacturing?  Like Oxford, Detroit began as a bike manufacturing centre, and became as a result a twentieth-century car manufacturer.  Detroit seems to be edging back, according to an article in the latest edition of Fortune.

Seven bike manufacturers have set up there in the last few years.  Detroit Bikes even invested 2.5m for a 50,000 sq ft factory.

What is interesting about the article in Fortune is their misunderstanding of the way Europeans think.  They assume that it is the collapsing population of Detroit, which means less traffic, which is encouraging people to move around by bike instead.  In Europe, I think we see it the other way round: it is the complete impossibility of navigating across London by car that is leading so many people to take up cycling.

It isn’t exactly plus ca change, but it is an example of technological history coming full circle.  And this time, history seems to be saying: do it right.

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Monday, 20 October 2014

IT + big organisations = stupider people = stupider IT

I'm having trouble with my car (a Citroen C3).  The engine keeps cutting out at the most awkward moments, even going along the motorway.  I've searched the internet and find that this is actually surprisingly common, and nobody knows what causes it (yes, I've changed the crankshaft sensor, in case anyone asks).

It is pretty extraordinary that this kind of thing should stymie a otherwise perfectly effective car.  It is, of course, to do with the sheer complexity of the electrical and IT system that now inhabit every bonnet, and especially perhaps Citroen bonnets.

Once the garage has run a scan on the engine, and found nothing wrong, there seems little more they can do.

But there also seems to be a lesson here for the administration of public services.  Even perhaps a clue to the conundrum I was talking about so bitterly earlier in the month - the bizarre failure of every utility to manage the simple business of me and my family moving addresses.

I know the problem of complexity is hugely interesting and debated when it comes to biology and maths, and natural systems.  But it is remarkably little discussed in relation to the business of government - and the other knotty question of why it is so difficult to make anything happen in government without an endless stream of unpredicted, unpredictable unintended consequences.  Complexity again.

The classic story was the, probably mythical, one about the man in Alaska whose windows wound down automatically in a blizzard and who died of exposure.  The previous model would have allowed him to wind them down manually.

In fact, I have a feeling there is some new law that lies behind all this, and I'll come to Boyle's Next Law in a moment.

I am a huge admirer of Bryan Appleyard and his thesis, in his book The Brain is Wider Than the Sky.  He argues that we have deliberately shrunk our idea of what human beings can achieve just to fit into our narrow ambitions about what machines can do.

There is something similar going on here.  The sheer complexity of cars, and the sheer complexity of administrative systems, disempower their keepers and make them stupid.

Because it isn't actually complex when you're operating the system.  It is ridiculously, stupidly, naively simple.  Try talking to a call centre about anything slightly out of the ordinary and you find that they can't deal with it, because their software system hasn't got anywhere to click for it.

They can't get into the main system and tweak anything, any more than the mechanics can mend my car.

For the last two decades, after the so-called 'Corporate Re-engineering' revolution, our businesses have been rendering themselves more stupid with CRM and ERM software which turns flexible human systems into concrete, inflexible, stupid systems, minded by disempowered humans.  See more in my book The Human Element.

That's the first part of Boyle's Next Law: IT in big organisations tends to make people stupid.

But it gets worse, because these nearly constrained, newly blinkered employees, who do everything by numbers, are then involved in writing more software.  Of course it makes things worse.  Here's the formula:

IT + big organisations = Stupider Humans = Stupider IT.

Simple, isn't it.  Not actually very complex at all.   But don't please assume that I am some kind of neanderthal who doesn't like computers.  It is the combination of big organisation thinking and IT, and the complexity involved - the the boneheaded complexity of my car - that makes me cross.  Because that is seriously neanderthal.

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Thursday, 16 October 2014

The coming revolt of upper middle England

I have always understood that the last recorded words of Roy Jenkins were: "Oh, upper middle, if you don't mind."  He was in hospital and being offered some middle-brow biographies...

That is a way of introducing the revolt of middle England.  There is certainly something about the rage of Nigel Farage, reproduced in so many public meetings around the regions, that is frightening, something of the fierce contempt of the sidelined for sophisticated capital cities everywhere.

But it raises the question: what about upper middle England?  Because I have a feeling that their revolt will follow later next year.

I was reminded of that reading the reports today that the French fracking company are appealing against West Sussex County Council's refusal of planning permission to drill in Wisborough Green.

I have been reminded of it also in the last few days by the news that Ecotricity, the green energy company, was considering joining the group legal action against the vast government subsidies for a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point.

This may seem like a small squall in comparison to the Ukip revolt, but I suspect it may be very much more than that.  Because if there is one form of energy which is even more unpopular with wind farms, it is fracking - with the fear of polluted ground water and the environmental destruction that has followed in some parts of the world.

And the next most unpopular energy source is nuclear, not just for the sheer expense, but the fears of radiation and plutonium theft.

Whatever you might say about windmills, they do not carry the perceived risks of either of those and, in particular, the threat to the health of our children.  This is what will drive the revolt of upper middle England, and despite Owen Paterson, who prefers to subsidise nuclear than windmills, and whose views were given an outing this morning on the Today programme.

There might have been a time when we trusted our leaders enough to take their reassurances about nuclear and fracking safeguards at face value, but not now.  It spells trouble.

Not at first, but once there is a scare - the first fracking mistake, the next nuclear leak, the first poisoning of cattle, the first lost plutonium.

And let me make one other prediction while I'm about it.  Ukip will find itself divided over renewable energy, just as the Tea Party movement has been in the USA: not because some people love wind farms after all, but because - as it turns out - solar energy offers a measure of energy independence to people which they crave.

So, yes, if I was either a Conservative or a Labour candidate now, I might worry about the impact of Ukip on the coming election, and on the traditionally tolerant stance of the English.  But I would be even more worried about the rage that will be unleashed on them a year from now if fracking and nuclear expands.

There is nothing so frightening as lawyers on picket lines, and middle class mothers chaining themselves to diggers on a major scale.  That will be seriously scary for the establishment.  Quite what it will mean politically, I don't know - but hold onto your hard hats.

And make absolutely sure you don't accept the post of Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the next administration.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Towards a fiercer liberalism

There are sharks who live below the line at the Guardian.  It is a frightening place.  I know this.

I wrote a comment article for the Guardian yesterday about the sign at Beddau RFC urging over-enthusiastic parents to calm down a little.  I found myself defending serious parents against the idea that somehow nothing really matters.

In the circumstances, I escaped pretty much unscathed - but then it would have been very silly of me to read absolutely all the comments.

What does seem to have irritated people was this section:

"It’s tough out there. So tough that I’m not planning to compete by the usual rules. But I’m aware that I do have to buck up a bit. I’m tired of the old maxims: letting children decide on religion or politics or careers when they are older. I’m finished with the I-don’t-want-to-foist-my-ideas-on-them style of parenting.

The truth is, I do want to foist my ideas on them. In fact, I’m wondering whether my failure to do so risks letting them grow up like Bertrand Russell, of whom it was said that he had lived with an open mind for so long that he couldn’t get the damn thing shut.

The psychologist James Hillman suggested that failing to give your children a steer may not give them anything to react against, and they may need that to find their own way. I insist that my children go to church – I even manage to get them to do so occasionally. I insist that they should also be Liberal Democrats. This policy is working: my 10-year-old realises that he can irritate me by praising the Labour party."

Now you can see why this might have irritated the more sanctimonious atheists, but I also seem to have annoyed people I very much respect.  It has forced me to think about this a little.

I suppose it is inevitable that I might have given the impression that I am enforcing these beliefs with a rigid disciplinarian approach.  Of course I'm not.  And just because I am partisan, that doesn't seem to me to absolve me from the duty of explaining to my children what all the different sides of these political and religious issues are - but also explaining to them, because they ask, what I think and why.

I'm aware that I have a duty to do this in an open-minded way, and not to disparage the motives of people who think differently.

But I don't want to leave my children rootless.  I don't believe political or religious convictions are consumer choices, something you put off - like dating - until you are old enough to see the smorgasbord of choice.  I don't want them growing up without structure, without convictions, without depth.

No, I won't ban them from the house when they disagree with me - as they inevitably do - but if liberalism means that everything is relative, and there is no content, no culture to grapple with, then I want none of it.

Fortunately, Liberalism is not the same as post-modernism.  It isn't the same as moral relativism.  Nor is it the same as the apparently contradictory post-modern ideas that nobody can understand anyone else's culture but nonetheless, we enlightened ones must shun content, culture and roots altogether.

I'm not one of those people who believe that somehow it is possible for me to convert to a range of different global faiths without years of study, because these are cultures with extraordinarily deep and complex ways of looking at the world.

I believe that the post-moderns are wrong on both counts.  People need cultural roots, but they can transcend them.  We are not consumers, looking for the best deal from our political and religious convictions.

As a parent, I want to show - if at all possible by example (difficult at the best of times) - that I can be understanding about people's point of view but to have convictions, live by them, and expect my children to as well.  There may come a time when they see things differently for themselves, and then I will not have a meltdown - but until then, I don't believe they should be keeping their powder dry for religion or politics or morality.

I may not always keep to it.  But that seems to me to be a genuine Liberalism, and a fiercer version than wishy-washy post-modernism.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The peculiar changing purposes of privatisation

I had such an interesting response yesterday about dysfunctional customer service systems fuelling widespread, and rather unfocussed rage.  It may also have been significant that more people read what I wrote than any one day hit-rate I've had this year.

It also focused my own attention on the huge change in the stated purposes of privatisation. Not that I have difficulties with the idea in theory – there is bound to be private investment in services and there should be.  It is the practice that has changed so much, and apparently without anyone noticing.

First let's go back a bit.

It wasn’t until after the Falklands war and her 1983 election victory that Margaret Thatcher’s ministers grasped the sheer power of the privatisation idea. It was obvious to anyone who tried to use them that the nation’s telephone boxes were largely out of order, and so the privatisation of British Telecom in 1984 was a popular move. As many as 2.3m people brought shares.

Three years later, the Treasury had earned £24 billion from privatisation, and the sale of British Gas provided four per cent of public spending for 1986/7. The idea of privatising state industries had spread to France and the USA and Canada. Even Cuba and China were testing it out.

The merchant bank Rothschilds set up a special unit to organise privatisations, under the future Conservative frontbencher John Redwood, and Conservative theorists were muttering darkly about selling off the Atomic Energy Authority and the BBC. In fact, selling nuclear power stations was the thin end of the wedge. No amount of spin could disguise the fact that they weren’t economic.

A pity that knowledge has not survived the decades since.

The original impetus to sell BT was partly to find private investment for telecoms and partly because of Peter Drucker’s original idea that private companies were more efficient than public ones.

By 1985, efficiency was just one of the benefits – it was also supposed to help employees get a stake in the business, provide wider share ownership and reduce the role of the public sector.

All those happened, though one of Redwood’s team – another future Conservative star Oliver Letwin – said that actually there was very little evidence for the idea that privatised companies were more efficient.

Even so, there was a logic about the idea that added up. Privatising public services would break those bureaucratic straitjackets, and get a new entrepreneurial energy about the place. They would focus on customers. Things would happen. There would be enterprise and imagination. The human element would weave its magic.

But that didn’t happen. The early privatisations led to dramatic increases in effectiveness but, after that, things slowed down. Private corporate giants turned out to be as inflexible and hopelessly unproductive (at least as far as the customers were concerned) as the public giants: they just provided considerably fewer jobs.

Here is the point. Most privatised services are now as sclerotic, inhuman and monstrous as their public sector predecessors were.

The Conservative theorist Ferdinand Mount realised this as early as 1987. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the regulators have no teeth and the operators no conscience,” he wrote, and so it proved.

See more about this in my book The Human Element.

The real problem is that the purpose of privatisation has changed. Now it is about paying down the national debt, and perhaps more broadly about competition. Not even the greatest advocates of privatisation seem to believe that private services will be more effective. Quite the reverse.

This is made worse by the effects of central targets and contract culture. In fact, the main advantage that private contractors now enjoy over their public sector counterparts is not effectiveness - not all the time but enough times - is their facility at delivering the right target numbers, to increase the illusions of the ministerial offices that services are being delivered better, when they are simply spraying costs around the system.

This delusory element to contracted out services is the main obstacle to reducing costs in public services. It is just very hard to persuade managers of this, because it would mean persuading them that the figures being delivered to them only tell part of the story.

That is precisely the point. The numbers are believed to be useful because they are simplified. Therein also lies their danger: a simplified, one-dimensional and – as a result – expensive public service system.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Why everyone is so angry these days

I have moved house, as I have probably mentioned before.  This has taught me a great deal, but I also think I've learned something about the national mood.

Let me explain.  Without a telephone, I spent the first three weeks after moving in call centre hell, on a mobile phone.  Not one of the utility services have been able to handle the simple matter of somebody moving in or moving out.

Let's start with the phones.  BT (my new supplier) have been fine.  Reliable even, when they eventually acted.  But I am still wrestling with my previous phone company, ACN, which seems unable to accept that I wanted to end the contract when I moved house.  They sent me the wrong form to fill in back in August - unable to take any instructions over the phone - and are still refusing to cut off the phone at my old address.

Internet.  I've long regarded AOL as the most useless company I've ever dealt with.  They refused to shift my account to a new address unless I also bought phone services from them, which - having experienced their completely dysfunctional call centre - I was never going to do.

Water.  Southern Water sent me three identical letters in different envelopes informing me that my address doesn't exist/

Gas.  E.on has proved next to impossible to phone directly.  I've tried many times.  After hanging on for 40 minutes I eventually got through to the complaints department - to explain that they had lost my meter reading and had sent me an estimate so seriously wrong that the meter still hadn't reached the number they estimated for a starting figure.

"I'm so sorry you had to wait so long," said the complaints lady.

"Really?" I said.  "It's always like that, isn't it?"

There was an embarrassed giggle from the other end of the line.  "Well, yes..." she said.

An excellent article about the phenomenon was in the Guardian last week.

The point is that, for most ordinary people, this is what life is increasingly like.  We are constantly treated with contempt by 'rationalised' customer management systems which can't even manage simple shifts like a change of address.

Our public services are beginning to veer in the same direction, partly since the imposition of centralised targets under Blair and Brown, which add to the delusions of the senior managers.  They see the figures going up for those irrelevant aspects of the service they measure, and convince themselves that things are getting better.

Our privatised services have long since adopted the same rationalised systems: it is their justification for reducing costs - though actually I believe that tightly measured systems tend to spray costs onto other parts of the system.

It is one of the bizarre ironies that privatisation was heralded in the 1980s as the way to make systems work effectively - a potent justification for selling BT - but that is no longer the purpose.  Nobody believes privatised public services will work better any more.

My suggestion is that this agglomeration of dysfunctionalities is one of our main experiences of services of all kinds.  It causes a constant sense of betrayal - I don't believe that is putting it too strongly - and then rage.

I'm not suggesting that the rise of Ukip is somehow because their supporters have to hang on to call centres for long periods of time.  I am suggesting that the delusory contempt of the managers for the managed, in so many areas of life, may explain a little why everyone is so angry these days.

And make no mistake.  They are angry, and the failure of mainstream parties to get on people's side, and in a radical way, fuels a somewhat unpleasant mixture of xenophobia and threatens to give it political power.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

The drawbacks of mental health targets

I see the Guardian is impressed with Nick Clegg's speech.  They didn't like everything - how could they? - but they were right that it was a speech of confidence from a leader, as they said, "at ease with himself".

I think this was right.  It was impressively delivered and it was a powerful case, uncompromising in some respects.  Even for someone like me who is instinctively nervous about 'split the difference' messages.  I'm not sure the case for a middle way could have been put better.

But then it was more than that.  The final line of the speech put this most starkly:

"The only party who says no matter who you are, no matter where you are from, we will do everything in our power to help you shine..."

That is the message of Liberalism in all ages and it was good to hear it.  But there was a story at the heart of the speech - the targets for mental health waiting times - and it has got a good deal of publicity.  It certainly is important given the appalling state of mental health services, but I am sceptical about the use of targets and seems worth saying so now.

I fully accept that, when the rest of the NHS has targets for waiting times, then any service which doesn't will get corroded.  It is a kind of beggar-my-neighbour approach.  I'm even prepared to except the idea, from the King of Blairite Targets Michael Barber, that very poor services need a shock dose of targets to start with.

But you only have to see what contractual targets are already doing to talking therapies in the NHS to realise there is a problem.  A recent report by Chester University set out some of the effects of the combination of Any Qualified Provider and Payment By Results (PbR) on psychological therapies.  They found that the combination of tariff structure “produces widespread perverse incentives for providers and perverse outcomes for patients.” 

These were that:
  • The tariff and PbR becomes a factor in the decision to take patients on, and the type of treatment to offer them.
  • There is a destabilisation and some deterioration in service and a destabilisation of provider organisations affecting their viability. 
  • The pressure of mechanistic throughput of patients affects decision-making and quality. 
  • There are financial incentives to misuse measurement scales within therapy to improve measured outcomes and trigger payments, when these measurement scales were not designed or validated as a payment method. 
There was already “severe strain” among providers in the Any Qualified Provider areas for talking therapies, and it meant that they were taking on work against their professional judgement.

One anonymous large provider had been threatened with insolvency because the tariffs had been set too low and commissioners had been forced to recommission the service, at great expense.  It is true that the new arrangements had reduced the waiting list, but that had been a factor in the gaming by providers – with less demand, they were being forced to rely on the throughput of patients who might not really have needed the service.

One provider told the report authors:

“There is a distinct danger that I am aware of. In stepped care, if a client has only one session it is considered as no therapy and no payment. If it is two sessions, the therapy is considered completed and therefore the provider can claim a flat rate. It makes a slightly perverse model where some rogue organisation might be able to get a sizeable fee just by offering two sessions and claiming a flat fee. There’s a bit of a joke in some circles that ‘oh, all I need to do is deliver my two sessions’.”

On the other hand, so many providers were unable to meet the requirements of commissioning or could not afford the tariffs. Patients were also being rejected because they did not fit the ‘recovery model’, the timescale set down before therapies were supposed to be effective.

I understand that announcing waiting time targets for mental health has huge political and symbolic significance.  But it won't solve the basic problem, and we may find it gets in the way - as all these forms of administration-by-numbers tend to do.

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