Monday 14 October 2013

Targets culture and the spirit of '52

"We're sick and tired of your voice in this country," Stanley Holloway tells the bureau-crat speaking from the loudspeaker in the Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico, released in 1948 in the midst of a Labour government dedicated to the 'spirit of '45'.

Holloway plays a salt-of-the-earth type whose ambition is to build a playground on the local bomb site.  You might have dismissed such an insult from any other character in the film, but it carries weight because it comes from him.

Those who currently wrap themselves in the Spirit of '45 forget how quickly and how resoundingly the public rejected that mixture of suffocating, detailed, bureaucratic control that hung over from the war, but also seemed to go hand in hand with the spirit of the Attlee government.

It is no coincidence that the Ealing comedies often seemed to include Whitehall characters who, though not tyrants, were horribly stuck.

I was thinking of this yesterday afternoon, which - because of the incessant rain - involved watching the 1952 film The Titfield Thunderbolt again.  I can now almost recite it.  It is one of the most underrated of the Ealing films, and there is a sub-plot about the humanising of the town clerk.

But there is also another symbolic Whitehall figure, the railway inspector from the Ministry of Transport (Mr Clegg), and here - although I had watched this many, many times before - my attention perked up.

This was the man who sits measuring things and making his calculations on his forms, while he misses entirely the fact that the train he is inspecting has broken free from its engine, and is being pushed along the track by crowds of local people.

Both films were written by T. E. B. Clarke, one of the only Brits to get a screenwriting Oscar, and you can see the kind of way his mind worked: both films are, in their different ways, hymns to what we once called the Big Society - they are about communities taking local institutions into their own hands.  And in both cases, Whitehall is a major threat.

This was fascinating to me because I realised that the targets debate is not a new one.  Even under Attlee, we had targets in public services, and - just like they did under Blair and Brown - they bore remarkably little resemblance to what was actually happening.

I have a friend who was a teaching assistant some years ago and had to put up with the form teacher (also an Ofsted inspector) hiding in the stationery cupboard for most of the year, while the school rose rapidly in the league tables.

But something has changed since 1952.  We are in much more confusion about how much the numbers relate to reality.  In 1952, it was obvious that they didn't.  Now, after being battered by New Labour and McKinsey and PA Consulting, and all the other apologists for targets, we are less inoculated against it.

There were black holes in public services in 1952, from the geriatric wards and mental health services to the secondary moderns.  But what about the rest?  If people could tell the difference in those days between target statistics and reality, we might imagine that - at their best - 1952 services were more effective than they are now

They certainly relied more on face-to-face dealings with professionals, which are able to deal with variety far better than IT systems.  That is the proposition - how can we tell?

More about incessant and obsessive measurement in my 2001 book The Tyranny of Numbers.

1 comment:

Richard Gadsden said...

It's not computers that are the problem. It's people trying to use computers to force other people into boxes.

One of the best articles I've ever read on the subject is Falsehoods programmers believe about names.

Read the comments - many of them are trying to calculate that pissing off a small number of people is fine, because they won't lose very many customers and putting up with people like that is too much hassle. Which might even be true if (a) it actually was just a few people and (b) they're working in the commercial world.

You can program either way. But it's the human programmers who are trying to force people into boxes; not the poor computers.