Monday, 7 July 2014

The arrogance of monopoly power

As I whizzed back down the A303 last weekend, there was a great roar behind me and I was passed by the most enormous articulated lorry, bearing the logo of Riverford Organics, a great monster in the world of organic food.

Let's leave on one side the issue of organic lorries - a peculiar concept - because the encounter reminded me of an interview I heard some years ago with Riverford's founder Guy Watson.  This is what he said:

"We'd just started building a small packhouse to Safeway's standards so we could supply them with lettuce, and their buyer wanted me to come up to see the technical department on the Thursday. I asked if Friday would be OK since I had to come up to London for the weekend anyway and the phone went dead. I rang back and said we must have been cut off. 'No sonny,' he said, 'when we whistle, you jump'."

It was an important piece of the jigsaw for me when I was writing The Human Element and trying to work out the implications for effectiveness when organisations have too much power, when they assume that kind of wasteful arrogance that goes with it.

Then, this morning, the NHS blogger Roy Lilley was writing about Monitor, the peculiar NHS regulator whose job it is to watch over the foundation trusts.

Now when I was doing my review into Barriers to Choice, Monitor was a good deal nicer to me, more helpful and more patient with me than NHS England, which was infuriated that someone like me should come along and stomp on their patch.  But it is hard to justify the existence of another hands-off regulator, paying more than 30 of its staff more than £100,000 a year.  This is what Roy said:

"A week or two ago, at a railway station, I happened upon a group of familiar faces. A Trust Chief Executive and his top team were on their way to a meeting with Monitor. Six rail fares, six top people way from their desks, six people on their way down to London to do something that at best could have been done on a conference-call, Skype or Face Time and at worse Monitor could have got off their backside and gone to the Trust. Institutional arrogance says; 'I'm the Regulator, you come to me'..."

Familiar, isn't it.  Now I'm not saying that Monitor behaves like Safeway did, but there is a parallel here.  It is the arrogance of the all-powerful facilitator confronted with the people actually doing the work.

It isn't about public or private.  Monitor is a public body and Safeway is a (sort of defunct) private body.  It is about scale and about power, the two key elements of the Liberal understanding of monopoly.

Neither of the other alternative ideologies seem to understand this.  They are either wholly uninterested in monopoly (socialists) or they turn a blind eye to it (Conservatives).   The articulation of this core issue needs to be made in every generation by Liberals, and it hasn't been recently, thought here are signs perhaps that the Lib Dems are beginning to remember their genetic heritage at last. 

These issues are the core of the business debate and the public services debate.  Public versus private, or vice versa, entirely miss the point.

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