Friday, 2 October 2020

Robots in care homes? No thanks!


This post first apppeared on the Radix UK blog...

I am one of the few people in theUK to have written at any length about the need for authenticity. As such, it ought perhaps to be me who points out what a thoroughly bad idea it is to use robots in care homes to counteract loneliness.

That was the story on the front page of a recent Guardian, and it seems to me to suffer from the whole corrosive technocratic worldview which brought us exam grades by algorithm and government by tickbox.

It reminds me horribly of the ideas put about by Americans in the early 2000s about the non-existent difference between real and virtual. Why is it that Americans are so susceptible to this kind of nonsense?

“Once your house can talk to you, you may never feel alone again,” said The Futurist magazine.  I’m not so sure.  Nor was I convinced by Machines That Think author Pamela McCorduck about the geriatric minder robot that looks after people by saying “tell me again” to their stories – “and means it”.

Those interviewed in the Guardian article were at pains to point out that they were not suggesting that robots take over from human beings entirely. But that really isn't the point. The idea is that care home staff, run off their feet, might get a bit of a break by plugging their charges into one of these. As if there was any chance of going back to the human beings if that was ever to happen.

So, no doubt you are wondering why the older people in the experiment had 'improved mental health' as a result. That is simple for anyone who knows about the famous Hawthorne experiments in the 1920s and 30s.

It is because of all the attention paid to them by the researchers, not the ersatz attention paid to them by the machines.

It is an elementary mistake, and one that those schooled in the delusions of tickbox should be able to recognise.

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Friday, 25 September 2020

Once more, the rise of local money...


This post first appeared on the Radix blog...

Charles Zylstra was the man who first introduced Stamp Scrip – the negative interest local currency – to the USA around 1932/3. He used to tell this story:

“A travelling salesman stopped at a hotel and handed the clerk a hundred dollar bill to be put in the safe, saying he would call for it in twenty-four hours. The clerk, whose name was A, owed $100 to B and clandestinely he used this bill for the liquidation of his debt, thinking that before the expiration of 24 hours he could collect $100 from his own debtor, whose name was Z. So this 100 dollar bill went to B, who, greatly surprised, used it to pay his own 100 dollar debt to one C, who (equally surprised) . . . and so on, and so on, all the way down to Z, who, with much pleasure, returned the bill to A, the clerk, who, in the morning, restored it to the salesman. And then did A, the clerk, stand petrified with horror to see the salesman light a cigar with it. ‘Counterfeit,’ said the salesman, ‘a fake gift from a crazy friend, Abner; but he didn't put it over, did he?’”

“Let us now look at the collective result,” wrote the economist Irving Fisher, whose book this story was in. “At the end of the year, the town has a new street, paid for with scrip which (through the stamps) was paid for by the citizens who used the scrip - and will use the street too.

“The scrip cost the citizens perhaps one third of 1 per cent on mostly new business, while the street cost the city (in the sense of the city treasury) nothing at all. But, of course, the city is the citizens; so that these various statements boil down to this: The citizens have bought a new street out of a self imposed tax on mostly new business, and it was a tax less heavy and more spread out than any other tax they ever paid.

“The chief objection to Stamp Scrip which I have thus far encountered is that it will not work because people will refuse it - it will not catch hold. But the man who said this, said later, ‘I guess I must be like the Englishman a hundred years ago, who said that the steam-locomotive couldn't work because smooth wheels could not catch on to smooth rails. While he was saying this in London, Stephenson was successfully running his locomotive in Scotland’.”

The fact that an economist of the calibre and reputation of Fisher could intervene with a book called Stamp Scrip was partly a measure of the depth of the Great Depression and partly related to the importance of the great alternative to Roosevelt’s new deal.

Stamp Scrip was an idea that began in Austria, and reached the USA at the moment when so many communities were running out of cash. So many places were issuing their own notes, which required you to buy a stamp representing one per cent of its value every month – if you failed to spend it on. This was negative interest money, after all.

Senator Bankhead, the uncle of Tallulah, managed to get a bill drafted in Congress which would have authorised $1 billion of stamp scrip to be issued the following year. The Bankhead-Pettengill bill was introduced in February 1933.

But when Roosevelt was unaugurated as president in March 1933, a month later, a quarter of US banks had shut their doors, and he believed that stamp scrip was undermining belief in the banks and were therefore part of the problem.

When I used to kcture on these two decades ago, having written Funny Money about their experimental successors, I used to emphasise the wooden currency of Tenino in Washington state as particularly unusual.

Every time, we have run short of money again, experimental DIY currencies come back, from Ithaca hours in 1992 to the Bristol pound in 2012. But we have experienced nothing on the same scale as stamp scrip.

But amazingly, Tenino’s wooden currency is back. It convinces me that – this time – as the money begins to dwindle around the world, we will know how to create the money we need to live.

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Saturday, 29 August 2020

My mission to slay tickbox to save the NHS









The tickbox phenomenon, which I have been writing about for most of this year, seems finally to have reached its apotheosis with the appointment of the queen of tickbox, Dido Harding, to run the government’s test and trace service.

Now I have never met her, I’m afraid – I’m sure she is delightful -  but as a former chief executive of one of the most useless phone companies known to mankind, she personifies tickbox: the fantasy, shared mainly by the richest and most powerful people in the world, that data and algorithms can describe the world accurately.

Because of this mistaken idea – that we can hand over human decisions to machines, programmed by our philosopher-kings – explains why, at the heart of so many centralised and technocratic organisations, you have this remarkably widespread fantasy that the data and the ticked boxes that pour in from the front lines represent exactly what they purport to.

That is a working definition of tickbox – the gap between official rhetoric and numbers and the reality.

If you want to know why our test and trace system has failed to work, it is this – over-centralised privatised outsource contractors, whose only skill is providing the ticked box figures that ministers crave, have been put in charge of an enterprise that simple must be made to work and they just can’t do it.

Other examples of tickbox may vary. You might for example find tickbox demanding impossible information, impossible in the real world. As it did via Home Office computer system to Anthony Bryan, caught in a kafka-esque world, managed by immigration software and deaf algorithms. The Windrush generation former painter and decorator (whose story was recently dramatised) provided huge amounts of evidence to the Home Office, as they prepared to deport him from the UK, which the system studiously ignored.

Second, tickbox works because the centre really wants to wash their hands by automating decisions, for example over the cladding used on Grenfell Tower and other blocks.

Third, it tries to automate tough decisions to insulate the handful of people in charge, as it did with the recent exams fiasco – damaging lives which failed to fit into its neat formulae.

That is why I have helped start a petition to lift the tickbox curse from one of the most centralised organisations in the UK, the NHS – where so many resources get eaten up ticking boxes which don’t really relate to reality, for all those three reasons (and others too). All of them because the centre believes they can control everything on the front line, and has faith that the numbers they receive from there are real.

I don’t mean checklists here: they provide a means to save lives – as long as they are controlled by individual surgeons and their teams. Tickbox seems to provide an answer to the problem of accountability in huge, centralised organisations. Sir Keith Joseph, once Health Secretary, used to complain that he had struggled his whole life to get his hands on the levers of power, only to find they weren’t attached to anything.

But tickbox and the automation of accountability only works if the flow of information is at all accurate, and tickbox information rarely is – because of Goodhart’s Law (any numbers used to control people will always be inaccurate).

When the chips were down to fight covid, NHS managers lifted the tickbox yoke because – as they told staff in one north east trust – because “we are all grown-ups”.

Of course that was right, but they were before and they still are. It is time to lift that tickbox burden and restore the trust in the UK between top and bottom, so that – once more – the only thing that matters is what individual patients need…

So go on, please sign!

This post first appeared on the New Weather blog.

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Thursday, 6 August 2020

How to untickbox the NHS

It is a strange divide in society. Some people furrowed their brows when I told them I was publishing a book called Tickbox, and really seemed to struggle to understand what I was on about – while some people grasped it immediately. Among those who got it, I couldn’t help noticing that many of them worked in the NHS.
It maybe that the NHS is not the most boneheaded user of tickboxes but – as a huge over-centralised operation, managing people looking after people’s very individual needs, somehow the gap between appearance and reality (which is for me the heart of tickbox) – the NHS has seemed to involve more tickbox-inspired sclerosis than most.
Yet, what did they do when the NHS was absolutely the front line? They rolled it back, the whole amalgam of online tickboxes, KPIs, targets and centralised controls that NHS managers rely on to monitor performance.

“Decisions that used to take months or even years because of endless, pointless form-filling and meetings are now made in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.” This is the new NHS under COVID-19 according to Dr Max Pemberton. One doctor we know was told by managers that sudden freedom was because NHS staff are “adults” and can be trusted to make the right decisions on the spot.

And of course that was right. They were adults yet they still are as the whole tickbox thing wafts back across the NHS. That is why we started our Radix petition to stop it in its tracks.

And what their managers want is often to make the best impact on the company hierarchy. Which in the NHS means saving money – or appearing to. Then the argument shifts, almost imperceptibly, away from ‘Is this the best thing for this patient?’ – to ‘Are we meeting our KPIs?’

It provides a fake, simplified and mechanistic view of what is undoubtedly a complex system – but complex in a different way. Anyone who thinks differently looks as if they are missing the point, but it is actually the system that misses the point.

My Tickbox book argued that this is part of what might be described as the simplification – not to say vulgarisation – of the official mind. And it is already having serious consequences. We have already witnessed during the current crisis how inaccurate the figures will be for Covid-19 deaths or tests or people affected – and how officials intervene in the definitions (for example on safe protective equipment) the whole time.

I am also hoping the NHS increasingly understands that tickboxing may simply achieve the opposite of what was intended. It can be a real hindrance, not the great time saver it purports to be. Mere tickboxing enables a lack of accountability.

All the systemic failures enabled by tickbox – from Mid Staffs Hospital onwards – have to be measured against the extreme pressure on services brought about by the austerity policies of successive governments, which is why NHS managers are trying to tickbox compassion into the mix, fearful perhaps that the real thing is unaffordable.

That is what happens in large centralised organisations when tickbox takes control.

Part of the costs fall directly on NHS staff. “The Berkeley University psychologist Christina Maslach defined ‘burn-out’ as a combination of three feelings: ‘emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation (a cynical, instrumental attitude toward others), and a sense of personal ineffectiveness’, wrote Atul Gawande, the doctor and author of The Checklist Manifesto. These were his conclusions:

“Many fear that the advance of technology will replace us all with robots. Yet in fields like healthcare, the more imminent prospect is that it will make us all behave like robots. And the people we serve need something more than either robots or robot-like people can provide. They need human enterprises that can adapt to change.”

I am quite hopeful here because of Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s campaign against bureaucracy. He can see ow much it gets in the way. There are some self-help ideas we might encourage as a stopgap in the NHS. We could, for example, learn from the Dutch health service and their schrapsessies.

That is the name the new movement in the healthcare sector in the Netherlands has given to the ‘scrap sessions’ they hold at work to identify regulations, targets, tickbox rules it would be possible to get rid of completely. The idea emerged in 2018 from the Dutch thinktank (Ont) Regel de Zorg, but the movement now has a head of steam behind it, and the backing of ministers.

It is high time we spread it more enthusiastically over here. Hence our petition to demand the government to permanently remove their tickbox regulations on the NHS, partly to thank staff, partly to recognise their adulthood and partly to save money – which should be reinvested in the frontline.

We hope in the end that covid-19 could mark the moment we stop infantalising NHS staff, and also the moment we lift the threat of tickbox over all public service staff.

Because, decentralising the management of the NHS is the key to its survival and the most urgent element here is to stop the centre from their disastrous habit of micromanagement. So please sign the petition and pass it on if you feel as strongly as we do about this.


Thursday, 23 July 2020

'Good Germans' and the danger of othering

This post was first published on the New Weather blog...

Rupprecht Gerngross is not a household name, even among historians of World War II, though he led what may have been the only successful internal coup against Hitler's regime.

In the final weeks of the war, he led his small band of military translators to take control of Munich, the revered birthplace of Nazism. By doing so, he seems to have prevented the destruction of the city, and saved thousands of lives, including many thousands of Dachau prisoners who were to be killed by their Nazi captors.

He was an unlikely hero, a London-educated solicitor, brought up in China. But it was important to him that Germans should build the new Europe themselves by doing their part to liberate their own city.

Why isn't he well-known? Because after the war ended, few people believed or remembered what had happened there - and the story remains controversial in some circles. The BBC man sent to interview him was sacked shortly afterwards and his story was spiked by The Times on the advice of the Foreign Office that it would not be 'helpful' to circulate stories about 'good Germans'.

The amazing story is finally published in a new book, compellingly researched and thrillingly written by my friend Lesley Yarranton (Saving Munich 1945 - fuller transparency: my name is also on the cover urging people to read it!).

But it has made me think about how simple it is to 'other' your political opponents, and how unfair. How easy it would be if every wartime German had been a Nazi, if every demonstrator was a revolutionary (as Trump suggests) or every Briton born before 1830 had been an irresponsible slave-owner. But life is never quite as simple as that - nor is it possible to see the world accurately through those kind of paint-by-numbers, cliche eyeglasses.


We seem to be moving into a new world, which is a good deal more sensitive to people's needs and feelings. That has to be a good thing, as long as we remember that very few people will fit neatly into the new categories of good and evil - and not many more than they ever have.

Let me give the final thought to the Rev Eli Jenkins from Under Milk Wood:

"We are not wholly bad nor good,
We who live beneath Milk Wood..."

If we can remember that, it might steer us away from the puritanism that so often afflicts new elements of morality.

You can also find Saving Munich 1945 in paperback from Amazon and on kindle.

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Saturday, 4 July 2020

Hate versus rage and the problem of history

This post - or a version of it - was first published on the Radix UK blog...

In the week that the banks failed – that strange week in October 2008, where everything seemed to be unravelling – I ventured into the City Business Library, in its familiar, slightly unkempt building off London Wall.

I used to spend quite some time there, when I was writing about the history of money. I remembered it – perhaps wrongly – as a font of hidden knowledge. By 2008, it certainly wasn’t that.

Where were those decades of back issues of obscure American business magazines? Where were those strange 1960s books of business predictions? I asked at the desk and was informed that it was the library’s policy to dispose of most material after three years, and all of it after five years.

It was rather a strange discovery. Wall Street and the City of London had allowed the banking system to collapse because their risk software had little or no memory beyond ten years – barely longer than the business cycle.

Most of those taking day to day decisions about risk in the City were in their twenties and had little memory of the great rises and falls of the market. Their lack of history had hampered their ability to see events for what they really were. Which is why Andrew Simms and I wrote Eminent Corporations, to try and inject a little light history into the corporate world.

I don’t suppose the City Business Library’s decision to bin anything dog-eared contributed to this historical vacuum – it was symptom not cause. Nor was the Blair-Brown government’s strange blindness to history (heritage was one of the only areas of government funding to go down under New Labour), but neither of these can have helped.

Yet the excision of history from business commentary and corporate life – and its replacement by marketing mush – was definitely one of the major causes of the 2008 crash. But I hadn't expected that the political left would also reject history, as they have been doing recently in their war against statues, using Black Lives Matter as their excuse.

I feel myself on the side of the BLM campaigners. But I am disturbed by the assumption that all history - and specifically English history - can be reduced to a one-dimensional parade of cruelties. Including individuals like Nelson, Gladstone and Peel who - though imperfect - have been treated as heroes, and for good reasons, for generations.

Even the Archbishop of Canterbury appears to have been caught up in the puritan enthusiasm for removing memorials.

Two things worry me about this particularly. First, because history is what holds us together and makes us who we are: people cling to their pride in it - not because the English were perfect (quite the reverse), but because that whole contradictory complexity is there to help us understand ourselves.

Without a history, people have no rudder. That anyway, according to Hannah Arendt - is one of the roots of fascism.

Second, while you can understand the fury of black people about their past and present in the Americas, I find I am repulsed by the generalised rage released by the so-called 'culture wars'.

It is rage which appears to me to be wholly negative - it is just against things, and simply pro one of those generalised strings of initials. It is the mirror image of Donald Trump's equally projected hate, part of his desperate attempt to win a second term as president (though not of course its moral equivalent).

Where is liberalism in all this one-dimensional tickbox politics? All over the place it seems to me. There is no way the left can win votes while they dismiss our whole history. Or when politically correct language stays what it is now - a way for the articulate middle classes to prevent the working classes from speaking out; they dare not use the wrong language, which constantly changes.

The radical centre seems to me to reject either hate or rage, aware that human life is mainly joyful and loving, though not of course exclusively so. Where it isn't, the solutions are likely to be economic not cultural. We believe in people and their extraordinary abilities. We can't dismiss them as Trump does (as the poor) or as the British establishment does (as the Mob), or as the left does - as potential child molesters, wife-beaters and racists.

This is more urgent an issue than it might seem. Because the culture wars look increasingly like a creation of Trump's. Every southern statue that gets lynched, every new expression of enraged cultural cleansing, and Trump believes he is closer to home.

The danger is that he may be right.

A very good friend has remonstrated with me about this post, and personally I found the opportunity to talk to someone on the other side of the argument about it - without either of us falling back on the usual insults - a massive relief.


He argues that someone could have thrown the epithet 'politically correct' at any new idea - from anti-slavery to CND. He may be right, but then there is something vacuously modern about the idea that all you need to do is to change the language. That would have been pretty incoherent to everyone until about 1972.

Ad there the rgument rests - he is persuading me that PC language is primarily a kind of politeness. I am trying to get him to recognise the underlying snobbery at its heart. 

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Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Goodhart's Law and the multiple covid cock-ups

This post was first published on the Radix UK site...

The speech which gave rise to the law that now bears Professor Charles Goodhart's name was actually called ‘Problems of Monetary Management’. It was a comparatively dry piece of econometrics at a conference called by the Reserve Bank of Australia in 1975, the participants mainly being eminent monetary economists.

In his discussion of the new-fangled doctrine of monetary targeting, Goodhart suggested that ‘Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.’

It seems extraordinary that his self-styled ‘throwaway remark’ on monetary targets should now be in the social theory textbooks as ‘Goodhart’s Law’, and yet it is. But more than that, it has developed into one of those priceless pieces of theory that might be the antidote to the phenomenon I have dubbed 'tickbox'.

The monetary issue seemed a simple one to solve. Everyone seemed to agree that it was. They would focus on measures of monetary growth, and when the money supply began to grow too much, interest rates would rise and gently ease it back down again. The trouble was that it didn’t work.

As he was going through the figures that came across his desk from most countries every month, Goodhart began to notice something peculiar. It didn’t matter which country it was, or which target they chose – the act of establishing a target seemed to change it. Whatever monetary target was chosen, because of its relationship to incomes or inflation, would lose that relationship pretty quickly. It was certainly not what was supposed to happen.

These were the bones of Goodhart’s Law. It was clear that the very act of making one figure a target and paying attention to it changed the behaviour of bankers. They would put in extra effort, or interpret their work in slightly different ways, to please their superiors and to meet the target. It was this quirk of monetary theory that Goodhart pointed out in Sydney in 1975.

If you use a piece of data as a target or as a box that must be ticked, then the data will become inaccurate. That's Goodhart's Law.

Take for example the idea set out in cartoon form by the American cartoonist Zack Weinersmith, which imagines that – through some hideous policy brainwave – all children have to stop studying poetry or the arts and start practising clock-mending, and the number of hours spent mending clocks becomes the target for success among schools. It all seems logical, given that so many top engineers are known to have been keen on taking clocks apart when they were children. But the policy has the reverse effect, as one might expect. ‘Science is dead, engineering is static, humanities are unknown,’ says the penultimate picture. ‘All is clock.’

The final comic picture shows the policy-makers congratulating each other, because ‘according to our clock-based metric, everything is great!’

This little story has not actually come to pass – yet – but it does demonstrate the issue that Goodhart’s Law poses to organisations, especially large or centralised ones. Not only does the target skew everything, so that the original relationship – in this case, the link between great engineers and clock-mending – is no more, but the target then blinds the distant policy-makers to the truth because they have over-simplified the world and perhaps even lost a way to describe what is now missing.

Inspired by the system thinker John Seddon, whose new book Beyond Command and Control was published recently - more on that soon - I have begun to realise just how much of an effect Goodhart's Law has.

It happens subtley as the definitions are tweaked and the top managers delude themselves. It is also becoming clear that the government's copious mistakes with covid may have been largely the result of their ignorance of Goodhart's Law. The latest thoughtful FT piece by Andrew Hill suggests something along these lines.


Perhaps most deressingly, it transpires that ministers fell back on scientists at SAGE who, according to the BBC programme More or Less, were arguing among themselves how fast the virus was doubling the infection rate. So, Goodhart's law being what it is, they chose the most optimistic conclusions - that the UK were four weeks behind Italy when it now seems clear that we were only one week behind.

That is why we failed in the UK to lockdown sooner. Other nations did the semsible thing - Greece and the Indian state of Kerala , without the benefit of advice from the top epidemiologists in the world - and simply shut their borders, and save thousands of lives as a result.


I never criticised the use of data in itself in my book Tickbox, but it looks worryingly as if the people who surround themselves with data and try to use it to take political decisions are likely to be a great deal more deluded than those who don't. If so, we should blame the effects of Goodhart's Law.

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