Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Radical inefficiency and my local woods

Sarah called Croydon Council yesterday to report fly-tipping in the local woods. Their response goes to the heart of the problem of public services over the past decade – and David Laws might do worse than looking here for a more radical and effective way of saving money.

The lady at the call centre replied: “I don’t think we can do this.”

What she meant was that our local park, and the woods attached, don’t have a street address, which means the fly-tipping incident couldn’t be entered on the council’s database. And if it couldn’t be entered, it couldn’t be communicated to those who might do something about it.

The IT problem was solved in the end – though not the fly-tipping – but that sentence is telling. “I don’t think we can do this.” As if somehow the failure of the council IT system is the definitive problem. Nothing can happen without it, but they are notvery interested in any problem which can't go into the system either.

Let’s just go to the heart of this. The first issue is the disastrous front office/back office split, which the Labour government set such store by. The staggering inefficiencies of this idea have been set out clearly by John Seddon ( so I won’t repeat them now.

The second, related problem is inappropriate IT systems.

These two issues are related. They mean that inadequate procedures have been set in concrete by IT systems which don’t work very well anyway, and which excise the crucial human element. They have been put there at enormous expense and they are steadily removing the ability to act from the public sector.

They also shift costs elsewhere in the economy. This is the real narrative of public service efficiency which we badly need to get to grips with before the cuts take place.

What’s the solution? End the front office/back office split, put members of the public back in touch with people who can help them directly, train professionals accordingly. It’s about trusting people, an eminently Liberal ideal – but also, in the medium-term, a cost saving one. Because, in the end, imaginative and committed people are more effective than systems.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A peculiar moment of radical opportunity

It is a bizarre feeling. I haven’t heard all the details of the coalition deal. But I have just watched a government take office involving the party I’ve been working for over three decades. It feels good. I keep poking myself to see if I really feel that, but I do.

As a Liberal Democrat, I am of course a manic optimist – but I wasn’t sure I would ever see the day.

There is another paradox I am aware of. I regard myself as a Lib Dem radical (not that I always find myself agreeing with other self-proclaimed radicals) but I find I am a good deal more excited about this coalition than I would have been about a link with Labour, with or without Gordon Brown.

Partly that is, of course, ignorance about what is going to happen – compared with the thought of grappling with what we know only too well: the dreadful stodgy blancmange that New Labour had become.

There are going to be seriously uncomfortable issues – immigration and the way we cut spending seem to be the sharpest. But I do have the sense of possibility, and three of those possibilities in particular. They may not be the issues that the press talk about tomorrow, but they are hugely important:

1. Tackling the banks: I hope Vince will do more than just put in place the banking levy, but will fulfil our commitment to break them up. We might even get the local banking infrastructure that France, Germany and the USA enjoy.

2. Localism: it wasn’t clear whether there was anything behind the Conservative commitment to localism. Now there is. If this can be done imaginatively, we may now get a real revolution in the way we are administered.

3. Low carbon economy: did Cameron know what this was when he used the phrase? That isn’t clear. But, at long last, we may now be able to push this forward in an accelerated way.

These may all be hugely disappointing, when it comes to it. Government tends to be. And yes, there are things I’m seriously worried about – of course there are. But what we have now is a radical opportunity, and I hope very much that we seize it. In practice, that is going to mean a great deal of effort to put policy flesh on the bones of the rhetoric. But we can do that...

Friday, 7 May 2010

Risking a little optimism

I listened to Nick Clegg talking about understanding people’s fears of change. I suppose he’s right, though I haven’t quite reached that point in the recovery process myself.

But I suppose – like so many of us (at least us Lib Dems) – I have been struggling today to understand why the excitement of the polls didn’t last the full campaign, and disappeared once people were actually in polling booths.

There are a whole lot of reflections about our campaign and its authenticity that I keep being tempted to blog about, but I don’t think they go to the heart of the matter. The truth is that people seemed, in the end, unwilling to entrust the nation to Clegg on so short an acquaintance. They want to rub along with their politicians, to get to know them, before giving them a go.

Thinking back over Liberal history, it occurs to me that this is born out by previous experience. Most Liberal or Lib Dem leaders since the Second World War had to deal with huge disappointment in their first general election campaigns, but went onto their breakthroughs – which seemed so important at the time – in their second.

It was true of Grimond and Thorpe. It was true of Steel in the disappointment of 1979 and Ashdown in 1992 (Kennedy is a more complicated case). But it is almost certainly true of Clegg in 2010.

What happens next depends on the next few days. But, if we Lib Dems conduct ourselves with openness and authenticity now and in the months to come, it seems to me that – as the Labour Party fragments for want of a uniting ideology – the most exciting period of change lies just ahead.