Saturday, 31 July 2010

A bad day with Eurostar

I had a nightmare journey back from Paris with the family on the Eurostar yesterday. Actually, to be precise, the journey was fine, it was the bizarrely disorganised queuing system – overwhelmed check-ins and long queues snaking around the station’s mezzanine at the Gare du Nord.

Our train was delayed for 20 minutes while they desperately tried to get their booked passengers on board. The Eurostar staff blamed the UK immigration desks for the chaos, and I’m sure they were at least partly right – this is obviously an ongoing argument.

On the other hand, what Eurostar revealed was a completely inflexible system. It could deal with no variation, either in the number or the kind of passengers (the mix of nationalities was bound to have an impact on immigration). The result was a kind of rigid hopelessness which I don’t want to experience again.

I mention this here because this same kind of inflexibility is now such a feature of UK public services, thanks to ten years of Gordon Brown at the Treasury. It is the result of a muddle by the government and its advisors (mainly IT consultancies) about what constitutes efficiency – and whether industrial processes can achieve it.

It is time we formulated a Liberal critique of the staggering inefficiency of systems that are supposed to be dealing with people, otherwise I’m afraid – thanks to other strange industrial fantasies like ‘Lean’ – that we’ll be getting more of them.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Why we need a Big Society guarantee

The problem is very simple and rather stark. The kind of public spending cuts coming down the line are unprecedented, with many government departments reducing their spending by a quarter. Many of the services that we have come to assume are necessary to civilised life will disappear.

The rhetoric of the Big Society assumes, correctly in many ways, that there may be other, community-driven alternatives. But we also know that, in many of the places that need it most, these will probably not emerge.

Why? Because people assume that the existing way of providing services – heavily over-stretched and over-professional, ministering to passive, grateful recipients – is the only way of doing it.

Because a decade of No Ball Games culture (at least the culture of No Ball Games without an all-weather court and a health and safety inspector on standby) has corroded the vitality and entrepreneurialism of many public employees.

And because the regime of targets, auditing, standards and best practice is still alive and well, and ready to pounce on anything that is non-standard. But there is something to be done, and it is included in my new co-production report Right Here, Right Now (

It suggests that there should be a Big Society or Co-production Guarantee which enshrines the coalition’s Big Society rhetoric in a promise to people who want to make a difference. It would allow services or users to appeal over the heads of regulators, to use co-production – delivering services alongside professionals – and embed it in their own operations if they want.

Its purpose would be to encourage people, their families and communities to get involved in day to day public services – anything from co-operative nurseries to time banks in surgeries – and would force regulators and local authorities to allow co-production to take place on a much wider scale.

It would provide an official stamp of approval, with reasonable safeguards, and help to establish co-production as the standard way of doing things - a get-out-of-jail-free card for any reasonable and exciting scheme stymied by regulations.

The Big Society Guarantee would back innovators against bureaucracies, and would back local against the centre. But it would also back local people against streamlined corporate power.

I hope the coalition has the nerve to do it – it would show they mean business about unleashing local energy.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

The nationalisation of schools

What is to become of me - I am agreeing with Simon Jenkins nearly every time I open the Evening Standard (though not, for some reason, when I open the Guardian). He was spot on today about the gap between localism and the Big Society.

Don't get me wrong. The Big Society is an important initiative, and will be more so if it can grow into a truly cross-governmental project to devolve power. Nor am I against the idea of Free Schools. We urgently need more schools, preferably small ones where parents play a key role, though they need to be under the auspices of local authorities.

But Michael Gove seems to be confusing de-regulation with localism. They are not the same, and when you muddle them up, both objectives get compromised. In fact, a gap in understanding seems to be opening up between Conservatives (who see localism as about de-regulation) and Liberals (who see localism as the devolution of control).

Consequently, on the very day of the Big Society launch, we have Michael Gove pushing through plans to nationalise all the schools in the country.

Dependence on a Whitehall department is not the same as localism, and will alienate parents still further from the business of choosing schools. The word 'choice' has in fact become a bitter joke; instead of choice, the parents get an exhausting and stressful runaround. A genuinely localist policy would begin to redress the balance, and that can only be done under the auspices of local government.

Yes, give schools more freedom. But not by nationalising them, because that will not mean either freedom or flexibility in the end.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Where Richard Grayson is right - and where he's not

Lib Dem policy committee chair Richard Grayson has written a long article in today’s New Statesman, which has allowed them to put a picture of Nick Clegg on the cover apparently cracking like an egg:

It isn’t exactly good publicity for the party, but I completely agreed with Richard about the future direction of the social liberal wing of the party – “arguing for a new political economy that puts issues of power in the workplace and the ownership of assets back onto the political agenda as the old Liberal Party once did.”

That is absolutely bang on. So why didn’t I quite buy the narrative he presented: a slightly sinister drift to the right going back to the Orange Book and accelerating with the Clegg leadership? That isn’t what happened.

I am not saying that there is no threat to Liberal values in the coalition with the Conservatives. Of course there is, but we knew that when we agreed to it. But Richard seems to me to misread the symbolic issues, especially when he claims that “the Orange Book tendency has whittled away at broadly centre-left policies on, for example, public spending, income-tax rates and the role of local government in education”.

I don’t regard myself as being on the right of the party, but – on all three of these – it seems to me that the left of the party is not being radical enough.

Public spending: yes, but a decade of centralised control, and a fierce regime of targets, auditing, standards and sclerotic ‘best practice’ has made public services much more expensive, and less effective than they need to be.

Income tax rates: yes, but we need to face the fact that income tax is also part of the problem. It is increasingly a voluntary tax for those wealthy enough to avoid it, and if we rely on it to tackle inequality, it is hardly surprising we are disappointed.

The role of local government in education: yes, but if this is a coded critique of free schools, I don’t share it. Of course new schools should be part of the local authority umbrella, but don’t let’s pretend there isn’t a problem which free schools are designed to tackle. Especially in London, there are far too few schools, and the rhetoric of choice obscures the fact that it is the schools that do the choosing – and this is increasingly stressful and worrying for parents.

But Richard is right that there are signs of serious contradictions within the coalition about localism, and these need to be hammered out. I’m not pretending the problems don’t exist – but the sooner the social liberals in the party move away from the old exhausted and symbolic shibboleths and towards Richard’s new issues, the better it will be for all of us.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Why school reports are so bland

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know that the combination of old-fashioned and radically modern is, in my opinion, often a sign of institutions that are going in the right direction. Slow Food, for example. And it seems to me that the UK's primary schools are often in the same category.

In fact, our primary schools are in many ways the jewel in the crown of British public services in this country, despite more than a decade of Ofsted's less than tender ministrations. They are humane places, with committed and professional staff, who have largely managed to resist the kind of 'modernisation' that has so hollowed out other services.

My son's school is absolutely brilliant. I won't say which it is, for reasons that will become clear. Because one area of primary school practice which does seem to have suffered is report-writing.

It wasn't ever that informative, let's face it. And the report I hold in my hand is actually very thoughtful and effective, but it still betrays some of the bizarre meaninglessness that have crept in to everyone's reports.

"He is developing his understanding of the numbers to 20" (well, it is maths). "He has required support to understand that labels carry key pieces of information" (what on earth does that mean?).

The real problem, at least in the most bland reports, is that these phrases in school reports are often not actually written by the teacher. They create their reports using software like ReportAssist or Teachers Report Assistant where they tick the boxes related to attainments and pre-set phrases pop up.

This also explains, if you have wondered – as I have – about the banality of so many Ofsted reports about schools. The answer is that the human element has been removed. The inspectors tick the boxes for specific standards, and the phrases go straight into the report. That is the problem: we are not interacting with a human being, but with a computer programme, and are therefore not getting the insights we should, at least in such a way that we can act on them.

Of course report-writing software saves time, but it also makes the exercise all but pointless. It is a small example of the way that IT has been used - at vast public expense - to hollow out our institutions, rather than to support professionals to do their job more effectively. It has been used to standardise and control, not to empower.

That is the New Labour stamp. It can be unravelled, and unravelling it all will save money from one side of government to the other. But only with the aid of a big, bold idea - that face to face interaction between frontline professionals and the public is the key to success.

That means smaller institutions, more local, with IT used to empower not disempower. It means an end to the huge targets, measurement, specification and auditing regime. It also means investing in what is local. But will they have the nerve?

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Let's remember whose side we're on, in the end

There seems to be a growing sense, which I’ve only noticed in the past week – and partly, I think, because of The Independent’s cheer-leading for a property crash – that we are all buggered, not to put too fine a point on it.

Like most panics which start in the press, this is almost certainly not true. But there is no doubt that cutting public spending by 10-20 per cent will have a huge impact on the economy.

I’m not a deficit hawk, but I do believe that the government is vastly inefficient, and largely because it is so centralised. On the other hand, it seems to me that there was a tacit – if not an explicit – commitment made by the Lib Dems to the electorate, and it is this: if the economy takes a nosedive, or the banks crash again, we will not stand idly by and let civilisation unravel.

That is the implication of everything the party said before and after the general election.

My feeling is that there is a growing sense in the nation that they can no longer rely on that promise. They can see the need for cuts, even maybe welcome them, but they need to know that the government – at least the Lib Dem government – remains on their side and not, in the end, on the side of the bond market speculators.

All of which is a way to say that something reassuring wouldn’t come amiss. Something that you might expect the party of Keynes and Beveridge to say, even in a crisis – especially in a crisis – about whose side they are ultimately on.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

In praise of Liberal populism

Life being what it is, I've only just read Timothy Garton Ash's very welcome article on the urgent need for Liberals in British politics:

But it made me think. He portrays Liberals (as he wants Lib Dems to be called) as a bastion against right wing populism and left wing populism. As if somehow Liberalism was just a quiet, intelligent ideology of the BBC and the EU, and other technocratic institutions that sometimes seem to have outlived their original idealistic fire. But where's the excitement? Where is the demand?

What about Liberal populism? Is there such a thing? And if there isn't, can any ideology claw its way to political power without some popular or emotional charge behind it?

Is not the main drag on the Liberal Democrats this strange blindness to their own potential populism, as they instinctively react against anything which the tabloid press could conceivably promote?

I think it is. We need our own populist, maybe even dangerous strand, if we are going to inspire people. Politics with no trace of populism is a dull business of details, balance, committees, good sense and indefensible institutions. Worse than that, it is an invitation to populists of the worst kind in response.

Jean-Marie le Pen used to boast that he led Europe's only non-technocratic party. He might have been right, and that gives him and his kind a huge political advantage - if we give it to them.