Thursday 28 February 2013

Hester, bonuses and the perils of payment by results

I have just listened to Stephen Hester of RBS explaining that salaries must "reflect worth".  He is quite right, he is turning RBS round, he has reduced the absolutely obscene pay and bonuses there to simply obscene.  He is an honourable man who remains unfortunately profoundly wrong - banking salaries are still corroding the economy, creating house price inflation, heaping ridicule on the efforts of the middle classes and cheer-leading the destruction of UK manufacturing.  

He is profoundly wrong because he does not yet see - any more than the political establishment sees - that the financial sector is not dysfunctional because of its operating mistakes.  It is dysfunctional because, even when it has been operating as designed, it has been undermining the economy, corroding our national life.

The central economic task before this government and the next is not to rebuild the financial sector in its current model; it is to create an effective local lending infrastructure.

Does Hester get that?  Obviously not.  Does George Osborne get it?  No.  Do the Lib Dems get it?  They are beginning to (but I may be being hopelessly optimistic).

Which brings is to the UK's backward position on the European Union decision to cap bankers' bonuses.  Bonuses need capping not just because they are a waste of shareholders' and taxpayers' money (though they are), nor because they unfairly privilege the richest (though they certainly do), but because they are actually glorified targets. They have exactly the same perverse effect on companies and organisations that they do on public services.

Just like targets, bonuses persuade staff to focus on reaching simplified numerical targets which can't possibly sum up the complexity of the broad objectives we want them to strive for.  Like targets, bonuses narrow complex objectives down to impoverished output figures. They sacrifice broad objectives for narrow outputs. You might as well replace highly paid human beings with extremely expensive machines.

Whether they are public or private, organisations in which senior staff get major bonuses are therefore organisations dominated by targets, and they resemble the target-driven public sector in many ways. They tend to be characterised by the headlong pursuit of narrow measures, gargling with highly inaccurate figures, and what can sometimes look like the dereliction of duty. Hospitals where older patients were seriously neglected were those that pursued targets hardest.

"As an investor, I have no interest in how much a manager is paid," said the investor Terry Smith, "but I have a great deal of interest in how that pay is calculated" (I do have an interest in how much they are paid, but you get the point).

Anyone who wants to see what bonuses can achieve in financial services should read Michael Lewis's book The Big Short, his brilliant exposé of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.  At every level, in the disaster that destroyed the world's banks, the behaviour of staff was dominated by bonuses related to narrow targets.

The mortgage sales teams were only interested in how many mortgages they could sell, not whether they could ever be repaid. The bond departments were only interested in packaging up new bonds, packed with mortgage debt, rather than whether or not the debts were sound.

Even the ratings agencies were dominated by targets, by how much they could earn from the bond departments, rather than whether they were accurately rated. When a handful of ratings officials finally suggested downgrading some of these toxic CDOs, Lewis described how they were overruled by managers.

The banking system has been hollowed out by these targets, but turbo-charged by obscene bonus amounts – a perverse Payment By Results system.  The interests of our economies, and our banks, are best served – not just by capping bonuses but by taxing them at 90 per cent.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

The truth about negative interest rates

It was strange, and rather thrilling, to hear a radical idea from the deputy governor of the Bank of England.  We have become used to the great tradition of the Bank of England that no no idea should ever emerge from there until it was completely worn out - but then Denmark has already introduced a negative interest rate, so perhaps it wasn't completely radical after all.

But since you won't hear this anywhere else, here is a little potted history of negative interest rates.  The idea goes back to an Argentinian trader called Silvio Gesell.  It was Gesell who pointed out the major flaw in interest rates - they encourage hoarding rather than spending.  It is always going to be easier to make money out of money, rather than using it to do something productive, he said.  Money grows if you invest it – but real commodities tend to rust or go mouldy.  That would mean that the natural interest rate ought to be negative: it should cost you money to hold onto your money.

The answer, he said, is to have money that rusts too. The idea was taken up enthusiastically during the Great Depression, most dramatically in the Austrian ski-ing town of Wörgl. And by catching the eye of the great American economist Irving Fisher, rusting money was adopted all over the world before it was declared illegal by the world’s central banks, fearful of a threat to their own authority.  Gesell put the idea into effect as finance minister of the short-lived revolutionary republic of Bavaria in 1919, but was only in office for seven days.

As a result, only one of the great 1930s money experiments is still running: the Wirtschaftsring system in Switzerland, a mutual-credit currency scheme widely used by the building industry and the restaurant sector. Wir, as it is called, started in 1934, the brainchild of Werner Zimmerman and Paul Enz, two followers of Gesell. By 1993, it had a turnover of £12 billion, using a parallel currency to the Swiss franc.  But they renounced Gesell’s ‘negative interest rate’ in 1952 and now pay and charge low interest on loans and deposits.

Wörgl was in a terrible state in the Great Depression when the burgomaster Michael Unterguggenberger persuaded the town to issue its own currency, to the value of 30,000 Austrian schillings, known as ‘tickets for services rendered’. But unlike ordinary money, these notes lost value by one per cent a month, and to keep value – if you hadn’t spent them – you had to buy their stamps once a month and stick them on the back. The proceeds of the stamps went on poor relief.

The notes circulated incredibly fast. Within 24 hours of being issued, most of them had not only come back, via shops and businesses, to the municipality in the form of tax payments – sometimes months in advance – but had already been passed on their way again. During the first month, the money made the complete circle no fewer than 20 times. After four months, the town had built public works of 100,000 schillings, employing people who were jobless; most of the town’s tax arrears had been paid off too.

Fisher was inspired by what he found in Austria and rushed out his own instruction manuals, called ‘Stamp Scrip’, for the struggling American towns. Within months, about 300 US communities were printing their own negative-interest money.  Roosevelt declared them illegal in one of his first acts as president, afraid that their very existence was undermining faith in the US dollar.

Will the Bank of England do any of this?  Definitely not.  The suggestion is that the Bank of England's own rate ought to be negative, to discouraging banks from simply putting their ill-gotten gains from Quantitative Easing in the bank, rather than lending them out as they are supposed to.  But the Bank of England's interest rate tends to filter down through the economy, and so much of our system is geared to having a positive interest rate that it could be extremely stressful.  Hence the flurry of condemnation from savers' organisations.

But there are two possibilities.  One is that we need a parallel currency or series of currencies which could back regional development, and which could then have negative interest rates - rather as they did in the Middle Ages.  The great Gothic cathedrals were probably built using negative interest money - these things work.  

But the really urgent problem is that Quantitative Easing just doesn't work.  It goes onto the balance sheets of banks and stays there, until it is recycled as bonuses.  What the new governor urgently needs to do is to rethink QE and reinvent it as the direct creation of interest-free loans to build the nation's green infrastructure, and which can be recycled into low-cost loans via the community development finance institutions.  This is the fastest way to get money directly to where it is needed, as Obama has found in the USA.

Here's the key.  Don't let the money go anywhere near the conventional banks.  It isn't that they don't want to use it effectively - this isn't lack of will on their part - but they have abundantly proved over recent years that they are unable to use it.  

More about this, and more, in my book Money Matters.


Tuesday 26 February 2013

Why I wouldn't give a medal to the bombers

How many civilians died in the bombing of German cities during the war?  The answer is about 600,000, including 72,000 children, approximately ten times the number of civilian casualties inflicted in UK cities.

Churchill became ashamed of the scale of the slaughter which, because it was inflicted by the winning side, has never been classed alongside the other monstrosities of war.  Those who inflicted the damage, the young aircrew, did so with great bravery and a huge attrition rate.

So it may be that today's announcement awarding them medals is finally giving them what they deserve.  I'm not so sure it isn't a result of dulled and dumbed down morality.

I have been wondering this since David Cameron popped up in the celebrations remembering the British-led massacre of Amritsar in 1919.  You might argue that the British troops involved in the massacre had carried out their duty courageously, even though the result was a hideous blemish on the national reputation - but would you still give them a medal?

I don't blame the aircrews for what happened, though I know there is usually a doctrine imposed on the losers of war that 'obeying orders' is no excuse - but there are consequences of the mass slaughter of children, and foregoing a medal might be one of them.

Because what is really going on here is an extension of the idea that - because the slaughter is carried out at arms length - it is somehow not barbaric.  The holocaust, the Amritsar Massacre, were carried out face to face.  The fire-bombing of Dresden was not.  Is it really any different?

I remember a cartoon in Punch during the Vietnam War showing a New York Police bomber dropping bombs somewhere in their own city.  The pilot is saying: "Don't worry - we are bound to hit someone who is breaking the law."  This seems to be the morality of Dresden, just as it appears to be the morality of the drone strikes in Pakistan.

What comes up must come down - that is not my department, says Werner von Braun.

So has our moral sense become so blunted that we can no longer see that killing children at a distance, and for strategic reasons, is really no different to doing so face to face?

Moral decline seems often to be accompanied by gross ugliness, and here is the proof right in front of our faces (see picture above): the hideous monstrosity unveiled along the road in Green Park, next to Piccadilly, and monstrously out of proportion: the new memorial for the aircrews of Bomber Command.

They were young men, and their death was part of the general tragedy of war.  They need some memorial, though perhaps something more subtle.  But a medal?  I don't think so.

Monday 25 February 2013

The next economic consensus but one

The Brazilian economist Roberto Unger was so incisive and clear in his radicalism in the Radio 4 programme Analysis tonight, warning the Left in Britain not to be "paladins of nostalgia" but to have some kind of vision of the future.  The bizarre thing is that so few of the interviewees - even the Social Liberal Forum's David Hall-Matthews - really seemed to grasp what he was saying.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is the BBC's obsession with the minutiae of Labour Party policy, which is a side-effect of getting an IPPR apparachik to present the programme.

It is true that the idea of 'pre-distribution' has real intellectual depth, and could provide an antidote to a century's disastrous Fabianism, but will it?  On the evidence of the programme, probably not.  Policy for political parties is a frustrating and deeply conservative compromise, these days, trying to fit new ideas into old frameworks until they are barely new at all.

But the debate which really caught my imagination was the one about banks.  We are moving towards a new debate, which never quite seems to take off in the UK, about their future - but which neither Labour nor Conservative seem quite able to run with.

The question is not how to bend the banks to the will of politicians, which never quite seems to work, versus the idea that they have done their penance and must be left alone.  That is the old debate and it has got us precisely nowhere.

What Unger brings to this is the idea that we need a different kind of economic institution to make the economy work for us.  That implies breaking up the existing banks, which have ceased to function effectively, and to create a whole range of different kinds of banks - with their roots and allegiance locally and regionally - to finance and profit from a new kind of local economy.

Our politicians don't yet see that this isn't some kind of moral argument - a side issue to the main struggle to bring growth the old-fashioned way.  It is the central tenet of a new economic approach that is designed to bring economic well-being, and may be the only way of doing so.

There is lots of money around for lending.  What we so desperately lack is the institutions capable of lending it.

Unfortunately, the UK left seem to be determined to be 'paladins of nostalgia' instead.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Amazon and Big Brother: the evidence mounts

There I was a week ago, drawing parallels between the way Amazon organises its warehouses and Radio 4's dramatisation of Orwell's 1984.  I didn't mean to single out Amazon alone - this is the way modern management is going, and for all of their poor benighted employees.  But I really had no idea.

I wasn't aware at the time of the German TV's investigation of the Amazon warehouse there, where migrant workers are kept in order by a semi-military cadre of guards, some of them with disturbing neo-Nazi links. If you don't understand German (I don't), you can read about it in the report by the Independent.

But even then, I wasn't aware of half of it.  Across the USA, regional newspapers are investigating the way Amazon runs its warehouses.  The Columbia Journalism Review has pulled some of the strands together.

But again, it is one thing to pretend this is a unique phenomenon by a particularly technocratic and monopolistic company.  The truth is that this tyrannical Taylorism is emerging in workplaces all over the world, encouraged by the more vacuous management consultants - and measuring how long employees spend in the lavatory is much more common than it seems.

It is also miserably ineffective in the long-run.  It wastes all the imagination and common sense of their employees.  But that hasn't stopped its onward march.

Nor is this just about intrusive measurement.  It is about the whole gamut of Soviet-style organisation, from the pompous marble porticos and telescreens, the doublethink and the Junior Anti-Sex League, the empty dehumanising maxims and, most of all, the simplified language.  

Strange that Soviet organisation should be alive and well at the heart of the capitalist world, but the truth is that that kind of dehumanising organisation - first for the poor and powerless and then for the rest of us - was always written into the DNA of both sides in the Cold War.  When people struggle with each other, they get like each other - and the worst of our organisations are now horrible like the worst of theirs.

Friday 22 February 2013

Rescuing the Big Society from itself

It has been de rigeur on the left and right to pour scorn on the whole idea of the Big Society.  I felt rather differently.  I was enormously excited by the Big Society rhetoric when David Cameron first gargled with it, irritated that the Lib Dems had not articulated those things first - voluntarism is a core Liberal idea, after all.

The Big Society was lucky enough to have an articulate, thoughtful and imaginative envoy in Nat Wei, but that was the limit of its advantages.  I went to meet some of the people most involved a few weeks into the coalition government, and was so flabbergasted by the lack of depth of the whole thing - the absence of ideological roots - that I found myself almost unable to say anything in reply.

The Big Society had its own roots in the Big Lunch, which was a fantastic project - but it provided very few lessons for public policy except that it would be nice to talk to neighbours now and again.

There seemed to be no understanding, even among the advocates of the Big Society, of the insights since the 1970s of people like Elinor Ostrom, Edgar Cahn, John McKnight and Neva Goodwin - of co-production, asset-based community development and the 'core economy' - and the critique of public services that they represent.

I felt then, and feel even more now, that the Big Society as articulated was far too vague and broad - and it needed to be applied primarily to public services.  Especially working out how public services could be organised as engines that could knit society together around them.

So I was fascinated to read the blog by NESTA's Philip Colligan which sets out precisely this in a series of examples, and which coincides with the announcement of NESTA's joint venture with the Cabinet Office, the Centre for Social Action.

This is important stuff, and for all the reasons that Edgar Cahn set out.  When services are just delivered one-way, by professionals to grateful and passive recipients, it seems to undermine the power and ability of communities to make things happen.  When they allow people to give back, to work alongside professionals delivering services, then the power balance begins to shift.

This seems to me to be a key insight about the future direction of services.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Job description for the new NHS chief?

For various different motives, the campaign to force out the NHS chief Sir David Nicholson seems to be gathering pace.  The NHS blogger Roy Lilley added his advice to the smouldering fire this morning.  But personally, I would be worried about replacing one NHS chief with another in exactly the same mould – unless there was some consensus about what we need instead.

And therein lies the difficulty.  Nicholson is a symbol of the command-and-control NHS system which has been found so wanting, the creation of the Blair Brown years.  But the coalition has not yet grasped the problems with that system, and has not yet fully articulated a different approach.

The NHS itself yearns to be set free from the straightjacket, but nobody has yet articulated the central philosophy around an alternative.

When it comes to the future of public services, the coalition are still half-in half-out of the old world – understanding some of the difficulties, but still clinging manfully to some of its most destructive tenets (see what I wroteabout some of these).

So let’s imagine for a moment if Sir David Nicholson was to go – and I expect he will retire eventually (most people do) – what kind of person should take over?  This is my answer:

  • Someone who recognises the central importance of the human element.  In the end, it isn’t regulations or targets or IT systems which make the difference to healthcare.  It is the ability of frontline staff to make effective relationships with patients and with each other, and to use their skills to make a difference.  Managers forget that at their peril – and the old dispensation forgot it disastrously.  Without those formal levers, the new NHS boss will need to exercise leadership on a whole new scale – but not to claw all the charisma to themselves, but to foster leadership at every level.
  • Someone who understands the importance of flexibility.  Not just because flexible services are more able to meet the needs of patients, but because inflexible services are staggeringly wasteful – those long-term patients who are expected to travel to see their consultant every six months, when they don’t need to, but can’t get an appointment when they do need to.  Re-think some of those systems, use new kinds of communication – I believe there is this new invention called the telephone – and you might just release the resources that the new NHS needs.
  • Someone who understands the importance of human scale.  We need another NHS boss who believes in economies of scale like a hole in the head, when it must be quite obvious that – where economies of scale do exist – they are very rapidly overtaken by the diseconomies of scale.  The evidence is that, the bigger the hospital, the more they cost to run – the era of hospital mergers and bigger and ever bigger systems needs to come to an end.

The old dispensation, shaped by Blair and Brown, led to sclerosis and ever higher costs.  No, that wasn’t their intention, but that is what happened.  It also led to divisions between the frontline and the centre, and continued divisions over disputed words like ‘choice’ – which remain major stumbling blocks even now. 

So if we are going to recruit a new chief, we need someone who fully understands the failures of the past and the possibilities of the future.  Somebody ought to write a job description – let’s debate it in public.  If we do, I'm on the side of these three things: human relationships, flexibility and human scale.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Twelve step programme for speculators

The World Development Movement has just launched a clever campaign called Bankers Anonymous, including a Five Step programme to break their addiction to speculating on food.

The only slight quibble I have with this is that the programme turns out to be for us, and not really for the bankers - beginning with writing letters to our poor exhausted MPs.  The original Twelve Step programme is what we need here, the one that was originally developed with the help of Carl Jung for alcoholics - and it is directly relevant.  It involves recognising the addiction, realising you are powerless to control it, and eventually making amends to the people you have hurt.  That is a programme for bankers, not for campaigners (who have their own addictions, but let's leave that on one side).

There is a depth and a truth about the original Twelve Step programme which makes it relevant here, especially now that Barclays seems to have embarked on the first step - which means they have announced that they are no longer going to be involved in speculation on food.

Goldman Sachs, it hardly needs saying, is still speculating away.  They made over £250 million last year from raising the price of food, and adding to people's hunger around the world.

The truth is that speculation on anything is actually a great evil.  The medieval moralists recognised it, but we have somehow forgotten it.  Speculation on agricultural commodities creates uncertainty - precisely what the speculators want - and pushes up the price of food.  Speculation on property pushes up the price of homes, and is undermining people's lives over here.  It is a rather scary thought but, if property prices in the UK rise in the next 30 years as much as they did in the last 30 years, the price of an average home will stand at £1.2 million.  And I don't believe wages will rise that fast.

That is partly because we are not building enough homes.  But that is only a small part of the story.  It is also because the banks flooded the mortgage market creating house price inflation, because bankers bonuses have ended up largely in property, and because foreign buyers have been speculating in the market.  And up the prices go.

If that isn't an urgent issue for the coalition to tackle, I don't know what is.

Tuesday 19 February 2013

How to get rid of cold callers permanently

For some reason, which I can only guess at, my home telephone has stopped ringing.  Why is it?  Because everyone I know is at the Eastleigh by-election?  Because people only use mobile numbers these days?  Because my friends have finally disowned me?

All these are possible, but what I have noticed more than anything else is that - for the last three or four weeks - I have had no cold callers, no telephone salespeople asking me if I am Mrs Boyle, no strange foreign sounding call centres demanding to know whether I have taken out insurance.

I realise there is a conventional way of getting rid of these, which have been coming at the rate of about one a day since I can remember.  You join the Telephone Preference Service.  That certainly improves matters, but it isn't really enough.  This may be hopelessly optimistic on my part, but I believe my phone has been blacklisted by the cold callers.

Since last Autumn, I have tried to get my own back on them - not by putting the phone down, which assists them after all, by speedily allowing them to move on.  I always say that I am not, in fact, Mrs Boyle (true, in fact) and that I will get her.  I then leave the phone off the hook for an hour or so and listen, with satisfaction, to the call centre struggling to disconnect.

It's a simple process, and quite fun in a mildly cruel way.  But I thoroughly recommend it.  In fact, if we all did this, these infuriating calls - which waste people's time so outrageously - would become quickly impossible.

Go on.... You know it makes sense!

Monday 18 February 2013

Were slaves too good to pick cotton?

I admire Iain Duncan-Smith, both for his determination and his commitment to the central issue - which is how the welfare system can undermine individuals and communities at the same time as rescuing them.

I have no problem with the idea that we should expect people on benefits to do something useful - that is a major improvement on the old idea, which is they should moulder away idle and 'available for work' without actually doing any.

But what was he thinking about in his outburst over the weekend?  When you require somebody to stop working with a museum and work instead stacking shelves at Poundland, of course they are going to complain about it.  They are not "too good to stack shelves".  Did the slaves in the Deep South feel they were too good to pick cotton?  No, they objected to being enslaved.

The issue here is not whether or not people should do something in return for the basic money to support life.  There is a moral obligation that they should, and benefits regulations that prevent them are complicit in undermining their lives.  The real issue is whether the state has the right to move them from useful work to a technocratic system of labour - as if that was the only real work for poor people.

I wrote about the link between Amazon and Big Brother yesterday, and - listening to the dramatisation of 1984 on the radio yesterday - the links between modern workplaces and Orwell's dystopia seem even clearer.  The mindless slogans, the marble porticos, the sudden disappearances, the doublethink, the endless measurement and the telescreens.  Some work is like that - de-humanising, wasteful of the human spirit.

The big problem about work as designed by the time and motion pioneer Frederick Winslow Taylor is that it only uses half the workers - it entirely wastes their imagination, common sense, knowledge and humanity.  So here is the issue: does the state have the right to force you to do de-humanising work when you already have useful work?  Can the DWP only recognise work when it is packaged, measured, monitored and thoughtless, and not when it involves other attributes than mere brawn?

Or are they waiting for their claimants to succumb.  To be able to say, as Orwell did about Winston Smith: "Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Poundland.  Or Tesco.  Or Amazon or any of the others..."

Saturday 16 February 2013

Amazon and Big Brother

It was almost exactly 110 years ago, 23 June 1903, in the United States Hotel in Saratoga, New York, that Frederick Winslow Taylor rose to address a meeting of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers on the subject of 'Shop Management'.

By 'shop', Taylor meant 'shop floor'. As far as he was already known to the meeting, it was as a controversial industrial manager who was supposed to have worked miracles of productivity at the giant Bethlehem Steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, churning out iron plating for the world's battleships, from where he had recently been dismissed.  His ideas were known then as 'scientific management'.

That meant breaking every task down into units, measuring how long they take and setting targets for workers to meet. These techniques have long since broken out of factories, and you can see them working in the new call-centres, and in the NHS targets, school league tables, sustainability indicators and the battery of statistics by which public services are now run all over the Western world.  And in the fearsome warehouses of the new IT world.

Taylorism is the philosophy behind the whiff of slavery described by Zoe Williams in the Guardian last week, when she lifted the lid on the warehouses run by Amazon and Tesco, which time their miserable employees in everything they do, even going to the toilet (though Tesco assures her that they turn off the electronic tags while they are actually in there).

The information was in a fascinating article in the Financial Times about Amazon's new Rugeley warehouse, which describes the tags like this:

"Others found the pressure intense. Several former workers said the handheld computers, which look like clunky scientific calculators with handles and big screens, gave them a real-time indication of whether they were running behind or ahead of their target and by how much. Managers could also send text messages to these devices to tell workers to speed up, they said. “People were constantly warned about talking to one another by the management, who were keen to eliminate any form of time-wasting,” one former worker added."

The vision of these people, jogging between tasks to desperately earn the elusive permanent employee status (which gives them a pension as well as 1p an hour more than the minimum wage), reminds me overwhelmingly of Big Brother.  The tele-screens, the thought crimes, not to mention the blow up doll at the Amazon reception desk with a speech bubble which says 'this is the best job I ever had'.  Meeting the targets set by the machines is a tough and sweaty business.

We haven't quite grasped that, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it still hadn’t come down in our own world.  Even the management pioneer Tom Peters described working in Siemens, which was the inspiration for his first book, as “the closest thing to working for a communist state”.  Those great marble edifices, the corporate fear, the mindless maxims, and the management consultants measuring measuring measuring.  It is more like North Korea than North Europe.

We are minor victims of this Big Brother world, the continuation of Soviet government, nearly every day, when we deal with call centres who can’t grasp what we need because their software doesn’t recognise it.   But there are bigger victims too, whether they are call centre staff measured for the minutes they take going to the lavatory, or the employees of Amazon told by their Big Brother electronic tag to stop talking to each other.

This is one of the tragedies of Taylorism.  When we work for the system, it demands that we re-organise our lives and beliefs around an illusion of efficiency.  When we deal with it, it demands that we reshape ourselves into the rational one-dimension that is easy to process.  That was the insight of the poet David Whyte, who was among the first to make the link between the Soviet system and modern work:

"The old corporate world now passing away had become for us a form of ritual, almost religious life… It asked us to give up our own desires.  To pay no heed to our bodily experience.  To think abstractly, to put organisational goals above home and family, and, like many institutional religions, it asked us not to be too troubled by any questionable activity.”

More about this in my book The Human Element.  But Whyte was wrong about it passing away.  To anyone listening to the Radio 4 dramatisation of Orwell's 1984 this weekend, the parallels with Amazon and Tesco and the future of work for all of us if we're not careful, are too overwhelming to ignore. 

The secret law governing London's traffic

I sometimes wonder why on earth I stay a member of the AA.  Their breakdown service is usually very good, but they take my membership and use it to imply that I agree with their rather dysfunctional views on motoring - which seems to me that there should be no restraints to it.

They claim rather disingenuously that they are not against the London congestion charge, but this is the story they generated yesterday pouring scorn on the whole idea - arguing that it has extracted £2.6 billion from motorists over the past decade without actually reducing congestion.

Well, I have to reveal to them what clearly remains a secret - congestion was always going to stay the same if it means average journey times.  It always has been the same, for the past century - an average of around 12 mph.  Because there is a reason why that should be.  There is another 'hidden hand', but not an economic one, and the man who helped uncover what it was and helped to popularise the answer was one of the most unusual transport planners of the century.  

Martin Mogridge was originally a physicist who wore long hair and leather trousers, with a cultivated air of exoticism.  His interests included science fiction and Victorian eroticism, and just before his untimely death in 1999 at the age of only 59, he began studying Hebrew.  

Over the previous three decades, while the major cities of the world enthusiastically demolished their slums and built massive urban highways, transport experts had been puzzling over the phenomenon of how new roads – even widened roads – seemed to increase traffic.  Economists had noticed that, if there is more road space, then people find it worthwhile to pay to use their cars, if they had one.  Then public transport attracts fewer paying passengers and the fares go up or services reduce, and even more people go by car.  Even in the 1930s, they had noticed that new roads released what they called ‘suppressed demand’.  Worse, then the traffic goes faster and the buses find it more difficult to negotiate traffic streams or cross big highways.  

That was a vital clue: the speed of road transport and public transport are linked, and the journey times door to door for both are often very similar.  Mogridge realised that, in London, everything depended on the speed of the underground system.  If you build more roads, people go back to their cars because it is then quicker than going by underground – until the point when the speed is so slow that underground travel is faster.  Then they leave their cars behind and go by tube.  

The solution to speeding up the traffic is therefore to speed up the main public transport infrastructure.  What’s more, said Mogridge, this works even if you take space away from cars to make room for public transport.  It was the thinking that led to Zurich’s successful strategy to reduce car use based on better pedestrian access and investment in trams.  By the end of his life, Mogridge reckoned that traffic speed could be doubled just by reducing space for cars, though it remains difficult for public officials – at least in the UK – to act on this new law of traffic management.

If Mogridge was right, the likely effect of the congestion charge zone in London would have been to cut traffic a little, but leave journey times exactly the same - and so it proved.  Now we can move onto the next conundrum: why do these bone-headed types at the AA think that my only interests are those of a motorist - and not as a father, a citizen and an asthmatic?

Find out more in my book The New Economics.

Friday 15 February 2013

My lamp-posts and the graph of doom

I happened to hear various interviews yesterday on the BBC about the local government settlement, and you have to agonize about it.  The so-called Graph of Doom, which I have written about before, is pretty graphic (as they say).

I find myself wondering whether the real story of these years, the one told by historians, will be about the way public services struggle to adapt to the financial holocaust - not about austerity (though that doesn't help) but because of the staggering inflation of public service costs.  They will do so using the new localism powers given to local government, but the jury remains out about whether they will succeed or not.

Then I drove back down my own unadopted road, with its muddy potholes, and there was a big lorry from Croydon Council putting in tall new lamp-posts.  They have not torn out the beautiful old silver painted, ornate ones from 1937, but they will.

This staggering waste of money will, I am sure, provide us with better light - which we don't need.  It is also, I am sure, replacing the old adapted lamps with more energy efficient ones (though who knows).

But one quick glance at the top of the big black lamps shows the real waste.  No solar cells.  These staggeringly wasteful lamps will not generate their own electricity, and will soon have to be replaced all over again by lamps which do.

It is moments like these when I wonder how much local government is the agent of its own destruction.  But then, maybe it is just Croydon.  They are withdrawing funding from my much-loved local library but, at the same time, they are putting in expensive new lamps which we don't need, don't want and which will be obsolete before the tarmac dries around them.

Thursday 14 February 2013

Asking the little boy's question

The little boy in the Emperor's New Clothes, the Hans Christian Anderson story, was the best kind of consultant - outside the structures of imperial management enough to be able to see the truth.  When I wrote my book The Tyranny of Numbers, more than a decade ago now, I suggested we use the little boy's question - actually it was a statement, not a question - as the antidote to fatuous or dubious data and the tickbox systems that spread from it, especially in the public sector.

I was reminded of that this morning by the NHS blogger Roy Lilley, who describes how hospital managers have turned David Cameron's narrow objective of speaking to patients every hour into a particularly meaningless process, quoting a nursing sister:

"Since Cameron decided every patient has to be spoken to every hour (like we don't) the managers have gone barmy. I'm usually responsible for eight patients in a bay. I have to tick and sign a box that I have spoken to each one of them every hour. That's 64 ticks I MUST sign for. Managers are terrified that the CQC will turn up and want us to prove we're doing it. I work six days a week, so I tick nearly 400 boxes a week." 

Here in a nutshell is what has gone wrong with public services over the past decade and a half.  There is so little understanding about how irrelevant this kind of process is.  Anyone who travelled in the USA in the 1980s will remember all those boasts in diners that you will be 'served within one minute' - which meant in practice that you got bunged an iced water while you waited.  And how targets for answering the phone within three rings just then gets you put on hold elsewhere in the system.

Not only is it ineffective, it is hugely expensive - and dangerous too, because there are more important things that nurses need to do to tick boxes.

Roy is kinder to the importance of data than I am.  The problem with data, as far as I'm concerned, is that it is collected for the good of managers not patients.  Hence the IT system brought in at A&E at King's College Hospital some years ago now, which forced nurses to go through 22 pages of questions before they could actually deal with each patient in front of them.

Which brings us to the little boy again, because for every fatuous piece of data, there is a devastating question which needs to be asked.  Yes, the school is top of the league tables, but does it educate?  Yes, the processes have been complied with in the production of this meatball, but will be do you any good to eat it?  And in this case: yes, we speak to the patients once an hour, but are we treating them humanely?

The challenge is to find the combination of leadership and the human scale that genuinely makes these things happen, and knows when it doesn't, without needing to pay a cadre of expensive auditors to crawl all over every objective and approved process (what does it cost? More of that later).

Wednesday 13 February 2013

How to provide humane homecare

One of the most amazing people I met during the Barriers to Choice Review, which is where I have been for the past seven months, was an extraordinary and articulate lady in Dorset - who deserves to be listened to for her stories about Atos assessments and other inhuman treatment by the social care system.

She is an a wheelchair, and I especially remember her description of her morning visit by a care worker arriving to get her out of bed and into the shower.  It is nearly always somebody new as she buzzes them in through the front door.  “I say hello to my carer when they put their head round the door and introduce themselves," she says. "Within seven minutes, I am naked with them in the shower. It’s a strange relationship.”

That really brought it home to me the poverty of so much home care, and it was confirmed by the reports this morning that a quarter of social care organisations are failing at least one of the Care Quality Commission's standards.

The CQC's scrutiny is pretty inadequate, and still based on the discredited tickbox system of regulation, so we won't really learn much from that.  Many local authorities are reducing the number of care contracts they have dramatically, so that they can monitor them better.

This makes a lot of sense, but in the short term it certainly reduces choice and diversity - and also probably encourages the kind of pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap style of homecare that we all know about: never seeing the same person twice, rushed care, being put to bed at teatime and all the other indignities of care without any kind of relationship.

Conventional wisdom suggests that this is the only way that the burgeoning costs of social care can be controlled - and social care and children's services alone are due to take up the whole of our local government budgets by the early 2020s (see the famous Graph of Doom).  But I am not so sure that the economics of scale apply here (I'm not sure they apply anywhere much).

The trouble with economies of scale is that, usually, the diseconomies of scale rapidly overwhelm them - and poor, relationship-less care, by massive agencies which would prefer their clients to be more dependent than less, is almost certainly no exception.

I was enormously impressed by some of the micro-providers I met, and by the work Nottinghamshire County Council has led to encourage their emergence (nearly 50 new micro-providers over two years).   They are able to provide proper homecare, by familiar people, with attention to detail and relationship, in a cost effective way.  Yes, it is small scale - that is why it works - but, as they say in the USA: small + small + small = big.  Choice in homecare, via personal budgets, really matters.

Humane homecare doesn't have to be provided by micro-providers.  The big agency Home Instead is one of the more enlightened providers here and manages the same thing.  In both cases, though, there is a minimum price below which it is impossible to go.  The big issue is now how to provide effective care, at scale - but without pretending there are economies in scale - at an affordable price.

I believe it can be done, but not without unleashing the huge resources of neighbours and community at the same time - and this is only in its infancy.  Once again, I am indebted to the systems thinker John Seddon for the basic rule - if you try and control costs directly, they tend to rise; if you look at where the demand is and provide a flexible system to meet it, then costs will fall.

This matters very much indeed, and for selfish reasons - it is our own futures we are planning for.

Monday 11 February 2013

Beyond the stale Euro-debate

Some way underneath the debate about Britain's place in Europe - which we may be pretty sick of by the time we come to the referendum - is another, far more interesting, debate.  But it hardly sticks its head above the parapet.  Certainly not long enough to ask it any questions.

It is about Britain's role in the world.  Where will we trade?  Where will we earn our foreign exchange?  Where will we export to?  Can we afford to be ourselves?

The pro-European argument is pretty clear about that one.  We will trade with Europe.  The Euro-sceptic argument is a bit more confused.  Sometimes they say we will carry on trading with Europe.  Sometimes there is a sort of implication that we will be closer to the United States (there is a geographical problem about that: my Latin master wrote a book of poetry years ago called Atlantic River, but it isn't actually even a Channel).  Sometimes there is the germ of an idea that we will trade instead with the emerging markets, India, Brazil and all the rest.

These are very important issues, because all four options need thinking about and planning for - and there is precious little debate about Britain's economic future over the next generation, and rather a lot of assumptions that the money is just going to flow in to run our services and schools.

Personally, I'm coming round to the idea that we need a different way of creating money altogether - but that is another issue.

For the time being, who is going to have this debate?  Are we just going to be battered by the Daily Express for the next four years, while we cower in the trenches?  Or watch miserably as Newsnight pits a rabid pro-European against a rabid Euro-sceptic and the argument doesn't even inch forward a few inches?  The trench warfare metaphor keeps popping up unbidden - I can't help it....

How do we really engage people, and help them think about our national future, broadly and intelligently?

Well, my friend Titus Alexander has been thinking about this and has proposed a Citizen's Forum for Britain in the World, designed to spread the discussion in radical new ways - paid for by replacing the current costs of consultation, by out-sourcing and crowd-sourcing some of the costs of policy development, and by strengthening the British case in EU negotiations.

This is how he sets out the case.  See what you think.

The fantasy at the heart of so much regulation

You have to listen through three hours if you missed it on the Today programme this morning, but Christopher Haskins hit the nail on the head about the growing horsemeat scandal.  I sat up on my seat when I heard him talk about regulation, because I think this gets to the core of it.

We have to fill in all this paperwork, he said.  "Everyone fills in forms to say they are doing the right thing but they don't actually look at the factory to see whats going in on the factory."

So this is my excuse for writing about the regulators for the third blog post running, because hidden away here is the clue we are looking for to what has gone wrong - not just with food regulation, but hospital regulation (think Mid Staffs) and banking regulation (think Libor) too.

Because the regulators were re-organised in the Blair and Brown years to make their main focus the auditing of process.

We need to look a little more closely at why this was a problem, because it isn't immediately obvious why intelligent people should think that checking procedures should have automatically meant that regulation had been satisfied.  The was the utilitarian fantasy of the New Labour years, that process was all that counted - worse, that if you got the procedures right, then the outcome was inevitable.

Hence Michael Barber's Deliverology team hunched over traffic lights targets that bore little relation to what was happening in the real world.

Hence the Department for Education's room where all the targets converged, a kind of fantastical dashboard which gave officials the illusion that they were at the controls of a vast education machine.

Hence the bizarre reliance on the auditing of target figures instead of actual leadership in our public services.

It was a capitulation to the discredited ideas of Frederick Winslow Taylor, that there was "one best way" to do any job.  If the procedures were there, then the outcome must follow, or so they believed - encouraged by the Taylorist cheerleaders in the IT and management consultancies.  It was also a system designed to undermine professional judgement: judgement was not required - the numbers and processes were designed centrally.

So there are two problems here, and we need to talk about them.

First: our regulators are designed and structured for that kind of vacuous regulation - a kind of virtual regulation that assumes the real world is like the virtual world, when it isn't.  Simply calling for professional standards is not enough.  The regulators have to be re-organised.

Second: the coalition has still not really understood the mistakes of the public service and regulation system they inherited.  There is still no narrative to explain what went wrong - and explain it to the public or grasp the nettle to do something about it.  Because they haven't grasped it and, in some ways, are still making the same mistakes (shared back offices, digital by default, payment by results).

If we don't do anything about this, the following will happen:

1.  There will be more scandals in every area of public life, wherever the approved procedures were organised before anyone could imagine what else might go wrong.

2.  The sheer expense of regulation will rise exponentially.  In social care, for example, local authorities already have their own regulation structures because they know the Care Quality Commission isn't up to the job.  If you have inadequate regulators, you get over-regulation.

3.  Professionals will not recover their room for manoeuvre or their sense of responsibility, because the regulators are still trying to measure their compliance with processes and procedures - rather than the effectiveness of their judgement.

So now you know!  I've written more about Taylor in my book The Human Element.

Friday 8 February 2013

Horse meat and Mid Staffs

The news that rather more frozen lasagne are 100 per cent horse than we realised is really no big surprise, is it.  The story will run and run (as they say in horse racing circles).  But it does shine a light at the problems with regulators - and it reveals exactly the same problem that the Mid Staffordshire Hospital scandal does.

Does anyone really believe that the horse meat adulteration would have been brought to light by the Food Standards Agency if the Irish regulator had not stumbled upon the problem?  Regulators don't take a punt on these things normally because they are not set up to do so.

Here is the problem.  Our regulators were designed and structured in the age of targets.  They are designed for a world of tick-box regulation, the inspection of procedures, and the collection (though not distribution) of large amounts of data.  The Care Quality Commission still gets its figures from care homes around the country once a month by fax.

They were constructed in the New Labour period when regulation was all about targets, procedures and tick box auditing.  It was the height of the great fantasy that the screeds of figures that poured out of the new IT systems bore some relation to reality.

If we are going back to the basic idea of inspecting professionalism, rather than figures, as David Cameron implied, it means we are going to need professional inspectors, not automatons operating software.  We are a long way from there at the moment.  So pause a moment and think about these scandals - and the banking scandals too - not as isolated tragedies, but as the unravelling of the regulatory system.

In all these cases, the scandals were about abuses that were widely known about by managers.  In all these cases, these were ways of doing things that had become accepted, if not publicly known.

That is why public debate has not quite caught up with the problem, as I said yesterday.  When the Francis Report has nearly 300 recommendations, it is too much for any administrative machinery to swallow, too much for any one minister to lead.  We needed a big idea - professionalism rather begs the question: this needs to be a policy idea.  An proposal about where the big levers are.

Why is why I also agree with the indefatigable NHS blogger Roy Lilley when he says: "Francis is complicated when the NHS needs simple. Francis is a jungle and the NHS has a reputation for hiding in the undergrowth."

It is time we looked at solutions to the basic problem: the regulatory system inherited from the last government was precisely what undermines professionalism.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Why the Francis Report doesn't cut the mustard

Julia Neuberger has had a varied career, as a rabbi, as a Lib Dem peer, in the health service and as Gordon Brown’s volunteering tsar.  But she provided a fascinating insight into why some institutions feel human and some don’t, and it could do with revisiting in the light of yesterday’s Francis Report on the Mid Staffs Hospital scandal.

In her book about older people, Not Dead Yet  she described how her uncle was neglected in three of the four hospitals in which he lived his final weeks.  She explained that the one exception was also the hospital which was most cash-strapped:

"When my uncle eventually died, in the hospital which really understood and respected his needs and treated him like a human being, there were volunteers everywhere.  In contrast, there was barely a volunteer to be seen in the hospital which treated him like an object, although it was very well staffed.  At a time when public services are becoming more technocratic, where the crucial relationships at the heart of their objective are increasingly discounted, volunteers can and do make all the difference.”

She was writing shortly after the Mid Staffs deaths first came to light, and suggested that volunteers might be an antidote.  In wards where older patients might otherwise be mistreated or ignored, she said: “the mere presence of older volunteers are the eyes and ears that we need.”  Human beings provide that kind of alchemy, however target-driven the institution is around them.

It isn’t quite clear why this is.  Is it because the presence of outsiders is a reminder to staff of what is important and how to behave?  Is it because it stops them getting too inward-looking, or prevents that brutal contempt for customers that – as we have seen – can emerge in target-driven organisations, public and private?  I don’t know.  

So I thought about Julia's uncle again when the Francis Report came out yesterday, because the question of how to humanise some hospitals – those which have had aspects of their professionalism and humanity surgically extracted – is at the heart of the problem he is trying to solve.

Having volunteers on the wards, working side by side with NHS staff is a critical part of the solution.  Having patients and relatives there isn’t enough – that remains an 'us and them' relationship.  So does having volunteer regulators or patients sitting on boards.  Same problem.  But patients working alongside staff to deliver the services does seem to humanise.  That is why the co-production agenda is absolutely critical.

But I am still sceptical about the Francis Report, and for the same reason it is hard not to be sceptical about Sir David Nicholson’s media performance yesterday – the list of solutions is too long, the list of measures the NHS is already taking is just too labyrinthine.  They are both too ambitious and not nearly ambitious enough.

None of them quite seem to nail the real issue at the heart of this, which is a big one.  It is this: over the past generation, we have systematically taken the soul out of the organisations we depend on, with targets and tickbox systems and procedures, encouraged by the big consultancies - and McKinsey particularly - that organisations are great big humming machines which can be managed by numbers (McKinsey's slogan: everything can be measured and what can be measured can be managed (it is nonsense)).  That is a far bigger problem than whatever happened at Mid Staffs, though up to 1,200 dead is a big enough reason to take this seriously.  That is why Mid Staffs may actually be the tip of the iceberg.

Cameron was right that we need to bring back a sense of responsible professionalism.  Of course we need to put patients first (strange that it has to be spelled out).  Francis recommended a range of important measures; changing the shape of hospital boards, making one senior manager responsible for patient care.  But we also need to recognise that all our public services have been hollowed out in the same way.  So have the regulators: they date back to the New Labour era, where McKinsey's slogan ruled - they are structured for tick-box inspections.

So the Francis Report may have added a nail to the coffin of targets and tick box procedures, but it has not yet slain the monster.  The government is cutting back on targets, but the regulators are not – and we are also introducing a new generation of targets in the form of  payment by results contracts (basically numerical targets with rewards attached).  They all undermine professionalism and effectiveness because they reduce success to one-dimensional measures.  They spread inhumanity.  They also spread failure.

So when Nicholson talks about the two million people who are members of foundation trusts, you have to ask if this membership has any depth.  What do they do?  How exactly do they hold professionals or boards to account?  None of this was included in the original legislation and it remains unfinished business.  Julia Neuberger's story, and my experience too, suggests that their influence will be felt with patients 'doing' stuff not 'saying' stuff.

What the Francis Report does do is to put effectiveness on the agenda.  Because, in the end, this is about whether or not our organisations have become too stupid to make a difference.  It isn't just about deaths, though that is the core issue.  It is about making things happen, and how the ability to do this slipped through our fingers with vastly expensive reforms which were supposed to bring accountability – but have actually torn the heart out of our organisations, in more ways than one.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Health IT and the coalition's great systems failure

Th systems thinker John Seddon has a talent for confronting ministers with unpalatable truths.  His latest newsletter describes how he confronted Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he announced that all patients records would have to be digitised.  Has anyone met a doctor or ambulance man who actually faced a problem that digital records would have solved, he asks?  He suggests not.

But the confrontation with Hunt ended with Seddon pointing him in the direction of an American report which explained that computerised records were intended to save the US health industry $81 billion, but now turn out not to have done so.  Worse, the hospitals which digitised the fastest have cost more.

I hope Hunt really considers this report because there is here a fundamental truth, which Seddon has been pedalling but successive governments have been deaf to.  Expensive IT solutions that prevent systems from dealing effectively with diversity - the range of human requirements that different people come up with - will end up locking in costs.  Customers who don't fit start bouncing around the system and creating costs with each bounce, what Seddon calls 'failure demand'.

What is infuriating about all this, from a UK point of view, is that the coalition understood that the New Labour regime had introduced inflexibilities into the way public services ran.  They realised they made services more expensive, and they began to remove the targets which were at the heart of the inflexibility.

But there was a big BUT.  They failed to construct a narrative which explained what had gone wrong with services in the Labour years - and why they were so expensive and ineffective.  And worst of all, they swallowed whole the Labour caboodle of massive IT solutions and merged back office services which were the source of so much trouble.

So the inflexibilities continue, and they harden and the costs rise - and, just when services most need to be able to deal effectively with diversity (delivering the Universal Credit, for example), the disastrous old solutions are trundled out again.  Often what deals with diversity most effectively, and cheaply, is a human being with the responsibility to act as they see fit.

IT has a critical role to play, but not everywhere. In the wrong place it builds in organisational stupidity.

Monday 4 February 2013

Over-optimism and the Huhne legacy

Years ago, sitting over lunch while Iain King sketched out my horoscope in return for an omelette, I watched him peer suspiciously at some marks on the paper.  "Yes," he said.  "I see this in a lot of Liberal Democrat charts.  I think it means unreasonable optimism."

How right he was.  It is a defining feature.  That is what keeps the Lib Dems pushing when all about them are losing theirs, and so on and so on.  It keeps them cheerful in the most depressing circumstances.  It isn't necessarily a useful attribute, but it is better having it than not...

I thought of that conversation today when I heard the news about Chris Huhne.  It explains why I was told, on the highest authority, that he would not be charged.  It also explains why I was told, on equally good authority, why he would be acquitted.  The downside of having unreasonable optimism is that you believe the good news and ignore the possibilities of bad.

I have to say I felt terribly sad when I heard that Chris was stepping down from politics.  I will miss his sharp intelligence and tiggerish manner.  He brought a huge amount to the Lib Dems and, since they are in government right now, to the nation.  I may never have known him terribly well, but I feel like I've known him for ever - certainly back to the strange days when I was trying to make sense of running New Democrat.

It would be possible now to be hypocritical about guilt and otherwise, and I suppose one should be - since goodness knows who will read this blog.  But my main feeling is a sense of tragedy.  What must have seemed at the time like a simple error, compounded by a relationship breakdown badly handled, ends in - well, we don't really know the end yet.

So, since I am an unreasonable optimist, here are my three top things from the Huhne Legacy:

1.  The Green Deal, for all its short-comings, which is an ambitious programme to bring energy-saving at scale to every street in the nation.

2.  Mutual public services, the main recommendation of his ground-breaking 2002 report to the Lib Dems on the future of public services (which could do with re-visiting).

3.  An ambitious vision of renewable energy for the UK: perhaps in practice still not ambitious enough, but a good deal more ambitious than if there had been no Huhne.

I hope that I will continue to know him and work with him for many years to come.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Why girls do better

It is a strange reversal of fate that makes you worry a little about your son, at the hands of an educational system that is more geared up to deal with girls.  Until 1990, it used to be the other way around.

An important new piece of research in the USA by Christopher Cornwall shines some light on the problem, and finds that - if boys were not marked down for poor behaviour - then they would achieve similar results to girls.  That is where the roots of poorer performance seem to begin.

There was a fascinating article about this in the New York Times today by one of the first academics to warn about the problem, Christina Hoff Sommers.  She says that the first developed nation that can solve the problem about the under-achievement of boys will reap huge economic benefits.

This is a somewhat American point of view, but there is no doubt that there will be economic benefits bringing in more wasted knowhow and imagination.  Even more so for the nation that first solves the even bigger problem of male delinquance.  But I was struck by the end of the article where she points to the UK as the example to be followed.  Is it?

It is true that the problem that the educational system doesn't really suit boys is recognised here.  Boys are nudged towards reading things online, as if that will really help the basic problem.  The basic problem still seems to be unaddressed, which is that a great deal of education at primary school level is not designed to capture the imagination of boys - by which I don't just mean that it isn't full of technological gizmos.  That a great deal is staggeringly dull, and that crucial parts of the educational establishment seem to believe dullness is a sign of high standards.  That the sins of boys - restlessness, frustration at being cooped up indoors - are frowned on more severely than the sins of girls.

It is true that we have not yet succumbed, as the Americans have, to the drugs industry - pumping inattentive boys full Ritalin.  But that does not yet mean we have taken the intellectual leap necessary to tackle the problem.  I only repeat what Christina Hoff Sommers says, quoting Richard Whitmire and William Brozo:  “The global economic race we read so much about — the marathon to produce the most educated work force, and therefore the most prosperous nation — really comes down to a calculation: whichever nation solves these ‘boy troubles’ wins the race.”