Wednesday 21 October 2009

Beware a world without the post

Since the Royal Mail seems intent on ritual disembowelling before our very eyes, I suppose we are going to have to expect to deal a lot more with the private courier companies.

I had a delivery from one called City Link this morning. I was taking the children to school, and when I got back there was a card with various options, none of them ticked. There was a phone number which took me through to a comouterised system which would only tell me that I had to contact the sender to get permission for another delivery (I didn't know, of course, who that was). There was no human option.

After I pressed 0 and # in no particular order 40 or so times, I got a message giving me a customer service number. They told me they could, after all, try and deliver again, but said they would only say they would come some time the following day. The children will still have to go to school, so it seems unlikely that I'm going to get my parcel - and why should I go all the way to Beckenham to pick it up?

Welcome to the world without Royal Mail.

Monday 19 October 2009

The new frontiers

I went to the annual Schumacher lectures in Bristol on Saturday, and fascinating it was. In fact, so fascinating, that it has led me to try to put into words a bit better why I feel so frustrated with political parties at the moment – even my own.

It wasn’t that I heard anything especially new – though there were some fascinating insights – it was the sheer energy in the room that made me realise how much the world outside politics is shifting.

The Schumacher Lectures have toddled along for decades on the fringes of the mainstream, but something is happening. The huge conference hall next to the Bristol City Council chamber was packed with 400 people who showed up. My own workshop on the future of money attracted 150 people the first time, and another 100 the second time I ran it an hour later. We lefties are not used to workshops on quite that scale.

Those who came were imaginative, intelligent and interesting. I noticed a number of Lib Dems in the audience too, which was reassuring (hello Paul, George, etc!) I would say they were all pretty committed to the idea that serious changes are needed in our economics and politics because of the climate, energy and financial crisis. But they also believed in the future. They know it’s going to be different.

So why do I find myself, in mainstream political policy discussions, slogging through the same old arguments about taxing, spending and the size of the state, which we were doing three decades ago?

It isn’t that the outcomes are unimportant. I’m as committed as the next person to a fairer, more equal society. But I’m also aware of how little has been achieved in the conventional Beveridge consensus, or the privatising Thatcherite one that followed it. And if Liberal Democrats aren’t in the forefront of new thinking, who is? But are we?

Thursday 15 October 2009

We can learn from Elinor Ostrom

Elinor Ostrom’s Nobel prize for economics is good news for Liberals everywhere, but it is also a challenge for Liberal Democrats. Her work on conserving the commons has set out an effective and efficient third way beyond state control and privatisation, and it relies on local networks, local negotiation and local knowledge. And, I may say, also beyond Tony Blair’s fake Third Way too.

Lib Dems have been a little lazy over the past generation about struggling to articulate this inherently Liberal option, taking for granted – for example – that it is their role to defend state solutions, or that somehow the promise of corporate solutions (GM food, for example) have to be taken at face value.

But the real importance of Ostrom’s work isn’t so much the commons, as has been reported in this country. It is her pioneering work on co-production.

It was her team at Indiana University who were called in by the Chicago police in the 1970s to explain why crime went up when the police started using patrol cars, rather than staying in touch with people on the beat. She coined the term ‘co-production’ to mean that crucial element of policing – or any other public service – that has to be provided by the service users or the public.

She explained how centralised, technocratic systems – like so many of our own under Blair and Brown – corrode this co-operation, encouraging a division in public services between exhausted, target-driven professionals and passive recipients, who are supposed to be quiet, grateful and to mould themselves into whatever shape is most efficient for delivery. She explained how this leads to failure and inefficiency.

The co-production idea has been developed since by the civil rights lawyer Edgar Cahn into a major critique of public services, and the beginnings of an explanation for why Beveridge’s giants are still alive and well 67 years after his report.

And all because of Elinor Ostrom. Lib Dems would do well to use her as a model.