Monday 31 March 2014

The vital importance of thinking in politics

Like everybody else, I have no idea what will happen at the next general election.  As a Lib Dem, and therefore congenitally optimistic, I believe the party will do a great deal better than most commentators expect.

I realise this is wishful thinking, but it is at least what usually happens.

Looking back on these peculiar years when the Lib Dems were so unexpectedly in government, three things occur to me.  One is that it has been a traumatic experience for the party as a whole, managing to hold together in the face of intense pressure, and doing so rather better than our coalition partners.

Two, it has also been staggeringly frustrating.  But that is the prevailing experience of government these days - things are unexpectedly difficult to achieve.

Three, I have personally learned an enormous amount. I've only been on the very fringes of government, apart from the half year I spent in the Cabinet Office doing an independent review on choice, but - perhaps even despite myself - I have found myself looking very intensely at a handful of policy areas.

I have felt myself shifting from a broad wishlist of progressive ideas, all somewhat vague, to a much deeper knowledge about what might be possible and how.

This is rather a smug thing to say, I'm afraid.  But it was a discipline I badly needed.

It has also made me think about the absolutely critical role played by thinking about policy, in detail and in depth, over a long period of time.

Lib Dem policy-makers had barely thought at all about the two most contentious areas in the coalition government's programme in its first year - the economy and the NHS.  As a result, they found themselves largely powerless in the face of detailed policy positions, well-rehearsed and well-considered.

Because there were effective Lib Dem ministers at the Treasury and Department of Health, they have clawed themselves back to a position where there could be a genuinely shared policy - quite different, for example, to what the Conservatives would do governing alone.

The Green Investment Bank has been a Lib Dem achievement, but it was also an extraordinary struggle.  And for the same reason: the details had not been worked out and the policy was vulnerable to obstruction from Treasury insiders.

But there are counter-examples too.  Steve Webb is a kind of walking think-tank, and you can see exactly what can be achieved when you have really considered an issue by the transformation he has wrought to a pensions industry which has kept their customers lazily captive for decades.

It also helped perhaps that he was happy not too take the personal credit for it.

So here is the problem.  One place it is almost impossible to think is in government.  It is particularly hard to see outside the Whitehall tramlines when you are in an office in Whitehall.

The Liberal Democrat party barely has any resources for detailed thinking, though the Liberal Voices project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd has certainly provided some.  I've found myself working in detail about how a local banking infrastructure might be created quickly to rebalance the UK economy.

But there is a great deal more thinking to do.  Including by me.  

The Cabinet Office is trying to revolutionise policy-making with their Open Policymaking project.  I have been wondering whether the Lib Dems ought to attempt something along similar lines - experimenting with much more open policy-making processes, on very narrow issues, bringing in the wealth of experience from the frontline and doing it as transparently as possible.

I have a feeling you could do more in-depth thinking in a a two-hour round table than you can in months of struggle by party insiders.  But it has to be an intense and practical focus on a very narrow area.

But the party ought to do it soon, before they are flung unprepared into another five years in coalition government.

Friday 28 March 2014

The real fault line in the Lib Dems

Well, people say to me with conviction: the Liberal Democrats are hopelessly split – between libertarian free marketeers and socialists.

I protest in vain that I've never met either in the party, and I've been a member since 1979.

I tell them, that rather against everyone's expectations, the party has been staggeringly united through the trauma of coalition.

But it is too late to complain.  The Great Division is now part of political mythology. It is said that a group of 'economic liberals’ – not a term I recognise – gathered around The Orange Book to wrest the party away from the wispy idealists.

It is all so terribly reminiscent of the early 1980s, when a group of worldly and sophisticated social democrats were supposed to have stolen the centre ground of politics from the wispy-bearded idealists in the Liberal Party.

These were both supposed to be victories by the realists over the idealists.  But it didn't happen then and it hasn't happened since, and there is nothing I can do to prevent people from believing it.

Yet there is a division, and it isn't a very comfortable one, so we should be honest about it.

It is between the Whigs and the Technocrats.

The Whigs are the radical constitutionalists, but they are not free marketeers - at least not in the sense that they are free market fundamentalists.  They just have such a conservative idea about economics that they have become blind to it. Human rights, new settlements with local government, yes, bring it on - but economics?  Well, perhaps it is terribly important but ... what was it again?

The great disadvantage of having Whigs at one end of the party is that they are not actually interested in economics at all and are blind to the tyrannical effects when our economic institutions are faulty.

Then there are the Technocrats, drawing as much from the social democratic tradition as they do from the liberal one, but a social democratic tradition that seems terribly old-fashioned – and which leads them to identify uncritically with the great welfare institutions, and the frontline professionals, the teachers and doctors, who serve in them, believing that it is the workforce which needs defending more than the punters who use them.

The great disadvantage of having Technocrats at the other end of the party is that they are strangely stuck in the 1970s, and desperately need releasing from their exhausted Fabian dream.

Of course, most party members are somewhere in the middle.  Nor is this somehow the result of the 1988 merger between the Liberals and SDP - these have been fault lines inside the old Liberal Party since its founders met in an upper room in St James' to launch it in 1859.

The old Liberals were an alliance between the old Whigs and the Utilitarians or Radicals, who were Technocrats each and every one of then (except John Stuart Mill, who I hereby forgive).

But there was a third element in the old mix that seems now to be missing: the old non-conformists who brought the radical traditions, drawn from the English Civil War, and added the reforming zeal to Liberalism.  They also brought it a fierce spiritual edge too.

Where are they now? Are they the greens, the community politicians, the community activists?  I'm inclined to think so, because I feel instinctively that I'm on their side.  I don't think I'm a Whig - I'm too interested in economic change - and, heavens, I'm certainly not a Technocrat.

So there is my solution to healing the rift.  Forget about the division, both the real one and the imaginary one, and re-discover the fierce Liberalism that still aches to give real power to people - and does so without ignoring the need to shift economics, and without ignoring people either.

There we are.  You read it here first.  But the new Green Manifesto, which I am proud to have my name attached to rather more prominently than I expected (that's what happens when your name begins with a B), is a good place to start.

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Thursday 27 March 2014

Why I don't think Farage won

The history of England over the past thousand years can be divided neatly in two, it seems to me.  For the first five centuries, there was a lurking sense that we were being pushed around by the bureaucrats in Rome.

For most of the next five centuries, England was pretty much alone, living by her wits - sometimes winning, sometimes not, always haunted by the ghost of continental authority.

Then the place of Rome in the national psyche was neatly swapped with Brussels.

And there we are today: UKIP is a form of extreme protestantism, in revolt against the authority of the Pope and his successors.  You can't vanquish that kind of thing in debate.

This is a way of saying that Nigel Farage's brand of nationalism has a long tradition.  It isn't really a Little Englander mentality - it is far more gradiose than that - but it certainly isn't new.

Scratch most of us English types and, somewhere inside, there is an irritable Saxon, raging on about foreign busy-bodies.

So when Nick Clegg challenged Farage last night, it seemed to me to be not just a courageous political risk, but one that he was never likely to actually win.  Sure enough, the polls showed the two debaters scoring in line with most polls about whether Britain should leave the EU.  In that respect, 36 per cent is a result.

On the other hand, I gather that those watching it on TV felt - rather like Kennedy and Nixon in 1960 - that Clegg won after all, mainly I believe because of the changing colour of Farage's face.

I listened to the debate - which was never less than compelling - from the point of view of someone who is certainly not an enthusiastic Europhile.  It seemed to me that Clegg won the exchange on crime but didn't quite overcome his opponent on the key message: jobs.

I've been wondering why.  Perhaps it is because politicians always talk about jobs, so much so that it grates - as any appeal to self-interest tends to grate against appeals to principle, which is what UKIP claims to be.

Perhaps also because of the constant repeat of the second person plural - 'your jobs' - which can feel direct, but can also sound patronising (that was the traditional critique of the 1939 war poster about 'your fortitude' bringing 'us victory').

But the main problem with Farage's message is that all these bilateral trade negotiations he wants, instead of the EU ones, will bring about exactly the same range of bureaucratic hocus-pocus that we have from the EU.

Because the great irony of the European debate, in the UK, is that what irritates the English most - the pettyfogging regulations deriving from the Single Market and opening EU membership to Eastern Europe - were both initiatives of successive British governments.  The most infuriating elements of EU membership for UKIP were both UK inventions.

National self-determination in a world of global trade, and global regulation, is a peculiar, amorphous business.  It is very far from being cut-and-dried.  It can be uncomfortable.  That is the heart of the UKIP revolt, and it's at that level that their appeal makes no sense.

There is no such thing as independence these days, and certainly not if you have to go cap in hand to the Chinese - as everybody seems to do these days.

Worse, UKIP's failure to recognise this element of the modern world may plunge us into a more powerless relationship with the USA, where we have no democratic room for manoeuvre at all.

For all the failures of the EU, which are legion, we do at least have constitutional means of getting our own way.  The alternative is a world where trade deals are settled between the technocratic elite with no veto or right of appeal.

There is the irony of Farage's message.  It looks like independence, smells like independence, but in fact it leads to a kind of powerlessness - of exactly the kind he claims to fear.

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Wednesday 26 March 2014

The problem with the banks is often the politicians

Over the past six months, and thanks to Baroness Kramer, the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, and some others, I’ve immersed myself in the issue of local banks.

I’ve always been interested in why, almost uniquely, the UK has such an over-centralised banking system.

The answer is largely Barclays, because they led the extraordinary process of consolidation between 1870 and 1920. Only in 1919 did the government step in and say the last big five banks standing must stay.

We still have a Big Five, and they have 85 per cent of the current account market, but they are a different Big Five to the one that Montagu Norman kept in place in the 1920s and 30s.

But then, Norman’s therapist – the great Carl Jung – said later that he was insane. We shall never know...

The real question is whether this over-concentration serves the UK economy or not, and here there is a new factor.

The politicians and banks have been squabbling since 2008 about whether or not there are enough opportunities to lend to small business.

Recent figures confirm there has actually been a change. The total stock of money lent to SMEs – over 99 per cent of the businesses in the economy – is still falling.

In every other nation in Europe, small business lending has returned to pre-2008 levels. Here the rate of the reduction has slowed down, but it is still going down.

This isn’t the fault of the banks. It is a logical response to the new Basel regulations and to global competition.

The real change is required, not from the banks, but from the politicians. They need to stop beating up the big banks but to accept that small business lending is difficult yet critical to the economy. It must be done by someone.

That is the first shift that is required, and nothing else will happen until it does.  It is too convenient for politicians to keep the banks to blame, without actually realising the basic problem.

The second is this. The big bankers get very considerable privileges for their role in the economy, personally and professionally. If their banks are no longer able to lend in that market, then they must create an infrastructure that can.

Why has small business lending recovered in other European countries? Because they have a local banking infrastructure, and an infrastructure that takes deposits rather than just lending other people’s money.

It isn’t just going to appear magically, via the hidden hand. Of the 30 new banks now awaiting approval from the regulator, only one plans to provide current accounts.

There is no way we can rebalance the economy without these in the UK. That is the big shift that is required – but the politicians have to move first.

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Tuesday 25 March 2014

Services which try to go beyond caring

I had the great pleasure listening yesterday to the NHS blogger Roy Lilley demolishing the vacuous research by Portsmouth University for Panorama on the PM programme yesterday (40 mins in).

The research suggests that there is around £5bn a year lost to fraud in the NHS every year, and another £2bn lost to financial errors.  But there is a irritating circularity about the argument that appears to have gone over the heads of BBC producers.

It suggests that we don't know how much fraud there is in the NHS, but can perhaps estimate it by looking at fraud in other health systems in other countries.  The result is that, for an organisation the size of the NHS, it would be around £5bn.

That is potentially interesting.  But then to be shocked at the high figure is really taking the story round full circle, since it is only an estimate based on other countries.  Quite how they manage to weave a Panorama report around this is beyond me.

And so the redoubtable Lilley explained on PM, much the irritation of the man behind the study.

From my point of view, the real losses we need to worry about in the NHS are those that fall into the nether world between fraud and financial errors - the manipulation of definitions used in gaming payment targets and treatment categories.  The amount of energy that goes into this in the border between providers and commissioners make my hair stand on end.

I mention this really because I wanted to write about Roy Lilley, who is a phenomenon, so well-read in NHS circles that he is now almost a national treasure, like Alan Bennett.

Not everyone agrees with him and he certainly flusters people in and around the many conflicting top posts and overlapping agencies in the NHS.  But he manages both to be trenchant and thoughtful at the same time.  A rare thing.

This morning he wrote about the word 'compassion' and the real meaning of the word, before it became an NHS management slogan, and how it is, strictly speaking, too much to expect compassion from ordinary mortals.  This is what he said:

"Can we cultivate compassion? Probably not. You can create an atmosphere of calm, you can encourage people who love their job to do their job. You can create the time and space for good people doing good things, to do even better things. Change, instability, unpredictability and volatility are the enemies of calm and constancy. Both of which are the foundation of a good workplace."

Quite right.  But there is another problem here that Roy only hints at.  Care and compassion may be the right stance for someone taken into hospital, but the vast majority of the money spent by the NHS goes on continuing chronic conditions - eczema, back paid, depression, diabetes - for which compassion is not really appropriate.

I know charities which have also realised that, if they really want to help support people to turn their lives around, they don't want to employ compassionate people - or, if they are compassionate, they will have to leave their compassion with their coats at work.

They need something far more hard-headed than that.  In the early days of time banks, many of the people we employed to run them were so compassionate they ended up trying to do all the mutual support themselves - when the whole purpose was to find ways of encouraging people who are always volunteered to that they can find a new role in life.

It is worse than this.  For too long, our public services have been supposed to be about oozing care, wearing down the staff, until care got abolished in favour of targets.  

When all the time, it might have been more effective for them to use their position as frontline public service staff, not to be more compassionate, but to provide an equal relationship that can challenge and support people to live their own lives.

Relationships, yes: people need those.  But it isn't the need that's important - the relationships are potentially a means to an end, so that frontline staff are no longer just wallowing in what people need - they are also asking them what they can do, and to challenge them to be the heroes of their own life.

The emphasis on compassion has led to public services that emphasise a corrosive dependence.  We need a more equal relationship with people.  That may require compassion in its broadest sense, but it requires something quite different which services are only now beginning to think about.

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Monday 24 March 2014

The great fantasy of defunct economics

"Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences," said the great economist John Maynard Keynes, "are usually the slaves of some defunct economist."

He meant, of course, the English who are about as bone-headed when it comes to economics as it is possible to be.  And sometimes, I must admit, the blindest of the blind when it comes to economics can often be Keynes' fellow party members, the Liberals.

I've been wondering about this in parallel to another problem.  Because I believe it may also be an explanation for the peculiar parallel between the business of how to feed the planet, and the business of how to put roofs over our heads in the UK?

In both cases, the chattering classes and the BBC - often one and the same - believe the only possible answer worth discussing is to produce more food and build more homes.

The idea that there might be other forces at work than simple scarcity seems not to occur to them, and - if it does occur - it is very rapidly dismissed as a rather over-intellectual, over-complicated explanation.  The English are clearly, as Keynes saw, practical men one and all.

This is not to suggest that more houses and more food would have no impact on the situation.  Of course they would.

The question here is whether they would tackle the causes of the problem, whether they might solve looming shortages of food or homes, because they very definitely wouldn't.

In both cases, something else is going on.

In the case of food, the reason we appear not to have enough food in the right places is not that we don't produce enough.  It is because of the way we allow speculators on the global markets to push up the prices, and because we allow just three companies (DuPont, Syngenta and Monsanto) to control half the world's seeds - and just five companies to control 95 per cent of the seeds sold in the EU.

We also allow ourselves to be deluded by measuring systems that count only the predominant crop in any area in developing countries, deliberately blinding ourselves to the power of diverse local production.

The answer in this case is not to produce more on the failed model; it is to break up the oligopoly and to stop the speculative money flowing in.

In the case of homes, the reason we appear not to have enough houses in the right places is not that we don't build enough (though we don't).  It is because we sell the homes we do build to speculators in the Far East and we allow too much money to flood into the mortgage market - the classic recipe for inflation.

The answer in this case is not to build more on the failed model; it is to reduce the money flooding into the mortgage market and stop the speculative money flowing in.

Building more, producing more, is the practical man solution.  It isn't that it would have no effect on the basic problem, but it provides us with no long-term solution.

Anyone who has read my book Broke will know that I think ratcheting property prices down slowly in the UK is the way to save civilisation, so for goodness sake don't let me spell that out again.

In any case, behind both mistakes lies one big error.  It is the idea that global prices somehow represent one eternal, God-given standard of objective truth.

As if somehow the price of tulip bulbs at the height of the great Dutch tulip bubble represented something real and meaningful.

That was the terrible, destructive fantasy of the years of the Howe and Lawson chancellorship (far more influential than the hazy phantasm called 'Thatcherism').

I am as convinced about the critical importance of free and open markets, and the creative power of enterprise, as anyone else.  But if you really think that prices will always be real, then you are a fundamentalist, and fundamentalism and civilisation can't live happily side by side.

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Friday 21 March 2014

Why Grant Shapps is laughing all the way to the bingo

How do you get your adverts talked about when you have little or no budget for actually posting them on billboards?

I was asked a similar question some years ago by a friend of mine at a development charity, who had been given the money to make a short TV advert about development aid, but no money to buy the  space to show it.

I suggested he try to get it censored.

This turned out to be quite simple.  The TV companies refused to show it on the grounds that it was 'political' (these were the days before YouTube).  As a result, people queued up to watch it in special showings in cinemas, thrilled at the idea that merely watching the thing was flying in the face of an uncaring establishment.

Now, when Grant Shapps published his notorious and much maligned poster about beer and bingo, he couldn't really get it banned.  Nor could he reasonably get it reviled by fundamentalists or puritans.  So he did the next best thing - he got it reviled by the Labour Party.

This has got it noticed and talked about and, while people are talking about it, they are internalising exactly the message Shapps wanted: that the costs of wasting money have been going down.

I know he has also been ridiculed for using the word 'they', and maybe it is revealing, but it is also hard to see how any other word would have worked with the grammar.

Still, I share the exasperation with the beer-and-bingo aspect of the budget.  It is one thing to cut the costs of people playing bingo if they want to, but quite another to reduce the costs of air travel so that people can flood Somerset again.

I'm not defending the poster, which has spawned some brilliant spoofs.  But somehow it does demonstrate that the Labour Party is far from the sophisticated campaigning machine it takes itself for.

Thursday 20 March 2014

Why 2014 was a historic budget (it isn't what you think)

In my rapidly receding youth, Budget Day was a bit like the Grand National or the FA Cup Final.  You half expected the Chancellor to be led from his paddock while Jimmy Savile was being dragged out to lead everyone singing 'Abide With Me'.

These days, most of the budget is leaked in advance and doesn't amount to more than a few tweaks here and there, and then there is the Autumn Statement and the Mansion House Speech and all the rest.

The Budget is important, but somehow not the spectator sport it once was.  I remember people crowding round the windows of the TV shops to watch.  We have Blackberrys and iPads these days, but I'm not sure we are glued to them for the Budget as we used to be.

Part of this is that, actually, it isn't very disputed.  Despite the sound and fury from Balls and his colleagues, Labour is not committed to doing much different.  There is no great divide in Westminster these days.  The divide is between Westminster and the rest (exemplified in the strange Conservative bingo poster yesterday).

But actually I think the 2014 Budget will be recognised as a key turning point.  George Osborne may have chosen the words "makers, doers and savers" because they sound conservative in the best sense (and they do) - but the very idea that budgets are supposed to support makers and doers is mildly revolutionary.

This particular budget may not actually have helped them that much.  That's not the point I'm making.  The point is that it has been accepted wisdom since Geoffrey Howe's first budget in 1980 that budgets are supposed to support speculators, wealth-creators and lenders.  That was the logic of trickle down.

Osborne's support for makers and doers is an explicit new direction for conservatism, away from the idea that financial services was the key to the economy, the great mistake at the heart of the Lawson and Brown years.

In fact, I am comforting myself that Osborne has in fact been reading my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis, where you will find a pre-emptive defence of the budget.  Especially its support, against the imprisonment of the middle classes by the big insurance companies, for the changes to annuity regulations (Steve Webb's important contribution).

It is still the beginning.  There is still so much, nearly everything, to do to make the economy effective, balanced and humane.  But in the great 30-year stand-off between the forces of Trickle Up and the forces of humanity, the other guy just blinked.

The other element of the budget to help people with families, the £2,000 for childcare, I'm not so excited about.

The money is just as likely to push up the cost of childcare and the Budget fails to do what is urgently needed - a major roll-out of self-financing co-operative nurseries, on the North American and Scandinavian model.  That has the potential to halve the cost of childcare, so why are we not doing it? (more on this later).

As I say, there is still nearly everything to be done.  But the rhetorical support for makers and doers, after three decades of support for those who toil not and neither do they spin (but they do speculate) is absolutely critical and potentially historic.

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Wednesday 19 March 2014

Could austerity save public services?

In those heady days immediately after the 2010 general election, I used to argue that 'austerity' might play an urgent and vital role in rescuing public services.

I doubt whether anyone paid much attention.  They looked at me as they often did, as if they found it hard to place me exactly.  But I argued this on the Lib Dem federal policy committee, so - who knows - it could have strengthened the ambition for austerity in small ways.

I thought that austerity might be the only way to shock services, which had been hollowed out by New Labour's targets regime and a decade or so of wrong-headed care by McKinsey and PA Consulting, into being humane and effective again.

I believed it may be the only way to force them to re-organise in innovative ways to meet people's needs.  At the time, I also believed that iron central control was costing at least £48 billion just in accountability and auditing.

There have been many times since then that I have wondered whether I was right after all.  I watched the best innovative ideas being cut and the most intractable, sclerotic companies taking over services by pushing the costs elsewhere in the public sector.

Yet there were also signs of hope.  In the north west, particularly, there was the iNetwork of local authorities dedicated to thinking afresh.  There was co-production popping up everywhere and Nesta's People-Powered Health project.

Now, for the first time, it seems to me, there is a genuine challenge emerging to the old way of doing things, and it is published this week in a Locality report called Saving Money by Doing the Right Thing - and it merges John Seddon's system thinking approach with what I would call co-production (but they call 'helping people to help themselves').

There are ambitious claims being made for th

is approach.  The report claims that £16 billion can be saved delivering services on this model.

An even more ambitious way of looking at it is set out in the blog Freedom from Command and Control, which tries to turn the famous Graph of Doom on its head - explaining that, if you take Seddon's 'failure demand' into account (the excess demand on services caused by doing them badly in the first place), then the Graph of Doom goes backwards.

This is a big claim, but it is no less than what Beveridge originally claimed for his Welfare State - that it would get cheaper over time.

The question of why that hasn't happened is one of the most important unasked condundrums about public services now.

I'm not saying that austerity is right in every circumstance.  Just because a little austerity kickstarts innovation, it certainly doesn't mean that the same would apply to a lot of austerity.  Moderation in all things, and especially when it comes to austerity.

But our inflexible sclerotic services needed an injection of life, and the debate about how to achieve that is now joined.  This blog post is my modest attempt to help it along.

More on these issues in my book The Human Element.

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Tuesday 18 March 2014

Lego and the unlamented end of evidence-based policy

Like many people of my age, I must be an absolute expert in all things Lego.  I have played with it, tidied it away, trodden on it in the middle of the night, and am doing so all over again with my own children.

There is a sense also that Lego is almost the last game standing.  Go to the great empty echoing chamber of Toys R Us (my youngest believes it is called Toys Are Rust, and there is some truth in this), and you will see the swathes of Lego driving out the rest.

The rest is nearly all TV or movie tie-in stuff, with a very short half-life, destined for the skip.  There are some plastic kits for older children, there is sports gear and there is Lego.

It is worth asking why.  The answer, I think, is that - unlike all the expensive TV tie-in tat - Lego releases the imagination.  The rest tries to constrain it.

But the reason I have been thinking about Lego is because there is a fascinating article in the latest Fortune magazine about how the Danish company managed to claw itself back from the brink a decade ago, when it was losing about £1m a day.

There are various versions of this in circulation.  One is the precise opposite of what I'm saying here, I have to admit: it was the adoption of Star Wars tie-in Lego, with weapons - flying in the face of the company's pacifist tradition.

But here is another one, and I was interested because it seemed to me to me a little more evidence that the data glacier is finally melting, the old nonsense about evidence-based policy (actually nothing of the sort) is slowly beginning to crumble.

It describes how Lego tried focus groups to help them out of their hole, only to find that the children were just telling them what they thought they wanted to be told.  They then took on a Danish consultancy called ReD, which helped them observe how children play in their own homes.

There was a lightbulb moment when they asked an 11-year-old German boy to show them his favourite toy and he came out with a battered old sneaker, where every mark showed where he had mastered a new trick on the skateboard.

It led to an important insight: children had not changed.  They didn't necessarily want toys that were glitzy, shiny, hi-tech and new.  They wanted to be able to experiment on their own.  This is the strategy that Lego has pursued since - punters certainly relish the movie tie-ins, but they can take them apart, remould them, add in their ow stuff, mix Harry Potter and the Hobbit if they want.

But this isn't one of my homilies about authenticity.  You can read one of those here if you want.  It is about the collapse of the idea that you can measure your way to business and political solutions.

Of course the data helps, but it isn't enough.  This is how Fortune put it:

"It was a rebuke of sorts to the traditional business consulting firms - and to the very notion that a company can understand its customers simply by crunching numbers."

Quite right, and ironically ReD's chairman Bill Hoover is a former senior director of the source of this wrong-headedness, the consultants McKinsey, authors of the famous McKinsey Fallacy ('everything can be measured and what can be measured can be managed').

If only Whitehall could grasp the idea that the data isn't enough, but they are now drowning in graphs - paralysed because they don't realise they some imagination and intuition is also required.  The world and the people who live on it are much too complicated for policy to be a humming logical machine that can just manage the world by itself.

If you want to know what happens when you try that - the fearful legacy of New Labour - just look around you.  

Find out more in my book The Tyranny of Numbers.

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Monday 17 March 2014

Back to the Edwardians

In a number of disturbing ways, the news has been worryingly reminiscent of a century ago.  If it isn't the tussles over the meaning of free trade inside the Conservative Party in the UK - the Euro-sceptic debate is an echo of the painful divisions over 'imperial preference' - it is the clash between rival networks of alliances in Crimea and Serbia.

Now there are also garden cities.  There is a grumbling disagreement between the coalition partners about the thoroughly Edwardian idea of 'garden cities'.  Lib Dem president Tim Farron just criticised the Conservatives for suppressing a report recommending two of them.  Now there has been a new garden city announced for Ebbsfleet.

What really exercised the minds of our Edwardian forebears was the argument between garden cities and garden suburbs.  Lo and behold, I found myself arguing exactly that debate again at the party conference in York.

I've often wondered whether I was an Edwardian born out of time (48 years too late, in fact).  It begins to look as if I was born at the right time after all.

George Osborne announced that the new garden city will be organised by an urban development corporation.  This was the idea, modelled on the BBC, that was conjured out of the Attlee government to build new towns in 1946.  It makes sense, but there is something missing nonetheless.

Ebenezer Howard's original scheme for Letchworth Garden City was for the people who lived there to have an ownership stake in the land, and to use the rise in land values to pay for the quality of life in the new garden city - as it still does, just about, in Letchworth.

This is now, once again, as important a consideration as it was a century ago.  Unless some mechanism is put in place, then the development corporation will use the rise in land values to pay for the infrastructure, but will then wind itself up - or sell itself off - and leave everything as it was before.

If it is a success, Ebbsfleet will then be owned in the normal way by landowners and developers, with no stake for the people who live there - whose children will be priced out by the ridiculous property value inflation that we allow in this country by failing to control the amount of money pouring into the housing market.

Will George Osborne have thought through any of this before making the announcement?  Almost certainly not, which is a pity given that it isn't exactly new thinking.  There is nothing new about the idea of separating the ownership of the land and the ownership of the buildings on it.

But if you want to see how these things might be done, you need look no further than the emerging community land trust movement in the UK.

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Friday 14 March 2014

Don't you know there's a war on?

It's a funny thing, but travelling by rail is a much easier experience in the UK these days.  It is one of those areas of public life that have improved dramatically - especially on the London underground.  I belong in the generation when we would stand for hours, peering hopelessly up a tunnel, waiting for the old newspapers to swirl around to show there was a train on the way.

I even went on Virgin Trains to Lancashire on Monday and was bang on time, there and back.  There are other reasons I don't enjoy Virgin Trains - the peculiar smell of urine in their coaches for example, and the way their staff seem disempowered and disinclined to help when things go wrong - but I'd never associated them with punctuality before.

The only place, in my direct experience, where this improvement has failed to take place is on Southern, which operates my regular commute from Norbury to Victoria.

Trains regularly disappear and I haven't caught one that was on time for weeks, since before the storms.  What is most irritating is that, if you catch the 0926 you have to pay £3 more than if you catch one after 0930 - but the 0926 it hasn't arrived before 0930 for weeks.

I had a fascinating conversation recently (thanks, Paul) about the effect of the storms and floods on the rail services. Broadly, there seem to be two possible impacts on staff:

1.  They are motivated to make huge efforts, beyond the call of duty, to get their passengers home.

2.  The opposite happens, because the storms provide them with an excuse for poor service.

This latter effect can be summed up in the old 1940s excuse for not trying very hard: "Don't you know there's a war on?".

I've no idea if this is the reason why Southern seems unable to operate to their own timetable, but it occurs to me that the "Don't you know there's a storm on?" attitude can be a direct result of a corporate culture too dependent on targets.

We know from research into volunteering and behavioural economics that, if you offer to reward people for things they were doing before for altruistic or idealistic reasons then, after a while, the altruism disappears.

It is the same with targets.  If you treat your staff like automatons, and are continually using carrots and sticks, then in the end that takes over the corporate culture.  When you treat people like amoral automatons, that is what they become.

In those circumstances, storms and floods become - not so much a challenge to overcome - but an excuse not to meet targets.  It is another way that McKinsey-style corporate culture has hollowed out our institutions.

Whether that explains yet another delay this morning, I have no idea.  But they do have an excuse: there was a storm last month.

Thursday 13 March 2014

The peculiar bias against 'knowledge'

I found myself delving deeper into Croydon’s peculiar library service yesterday, and I have to say I'm even more confused than I was before.

The service is flexible and human and able to order me books from anywhere and send them anywhere. Their people in libraries are brilliant and helpful. But there remains a mystery.

I was reminded of it when I was searching for a copy of Gulliver's Travels in Croydon's central Library.  There wasn't one in any of the branch libraries (except one) and I had to order a battered old copy of Swift's collected works from the reserve, a dusty room evidently a long way away.

Swift has long since made way for the latest autobiography by Cheryl Cole's ghostwriter.

I ventured into Thornton Heath Library, recently revamped so that it won an architectural award.  I ventured into Norbury Library only last week and the mystery is the same: where on earth are all the books?

Last time I blogged about this, I discovered that there was a whole website dedicated to solving the mystery: what has Croydon done with the books, let alone the shelves (I can't find it now)?

But, more recently, I have realised that this is actually a symptom of a deeper problem. You might call it the Flight from Facts, or perhaps an extreme scepticism about content and knowledge.

Most educationalists agree these days that the point is not to fill children’s minds with facts, but to light a fire to encourage learning. It is not to mould them into encyclopaedias but to give them the tools to find out what they need.

But you don't really have to throw out these truisms to be a little worried about where it is taking us.  Because it can and does go too far – especially when the internet gurus, and corporate interests behind them, get hold of the idea and boil it down to the point of dangerous incoherence.

Why, they say, do children need to know anything very much, apart from how to use a search engine?  Why not just obsess about the pathways in our brains where we connect knowledge, and forget about the knowledge itself?

It is all a bit like encouraging children to be healthy by obsessing about their intestines, but never feeding them.  The two actually belong together, and if you stop giving people food their intestines shrivel up.

The result has been an undebated bias among librarians and educationalists against the basic knowledge that our children might once have learned, about history, geography, science and much else.  The result is empty shelves in the libraries, while people who can't afford their own screens stare hopelessly at YouTube - and hardly anyone you meet seems to know anything much.

I'm not saying the ideology is wrong.  I met a Polish historian recently who was shocked that her UK lecturers knew so few dates – Polish historians can still reel them all off.  Maybe we don't need to obsess about dates.

But there is a deeper problem here, because you can't draw an absolute line between the means to get knowledge and the knowledge itself, between knowing how and knowing what. Without any knowledge, people lose the ability to tell sense from nonsense. They fall prey to any kind of rubbish.

As Chesterton once said about Christianity.  When people stop believing in orthodox religion, they don't believe nothing; they start believing in anything.  The same kind of thing is true of knowledge: if people don't have any, they are not free-thinkers - they become no-thinkers.

Michael Gove isn't right about everything, God knows, but he is right about this. And I'm afraid those empty bookshelves in our libraries is becoming a metaphor for our empty minds.

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Now I know the age of 'prevention' has begun

Harry Hopkins, the close adviser to Franklin Roosevelt as president, ran some of the key agencies of the New Deal, including the Works Progress Administration.  Roosevelt asked him to run it because of the urgent need for unemployment relief during the winter, then just weeks away, and because he was capable of getting money and jobs where it was needed within a matter of weeks.

In fact, as head of the new Civil Works Administration, Hopkins summoned the mayors and governors to see him in Washington on November 15 1933, and asked them for immediate proposals for work projects.  By November 26, nearly 50,000 were in new jobs - and that was just in Indiana.

By Christmas, he was employing 2.6 million impoverished Americans.

These days, when there are still outstanding claims for compensation for damage in the 2011 riots in the UK, we are in need of a British version of Hopkins - by skill, guile and force of personality, able to make things happen.

In my rare glimpses of the coalition in action, it seems to me that the frustration that administration moves so staggeringly slow, and so many hurdles are thrown in the path of almost any measure - whether it is imaginative or hopeless- is shared by Lib Dem and Conservative ministers alike.

It is difficult, and partly - as I've written elsewhere - because of the extreme complexity of modern bureaucracies.

So I was excited by David Laws highly effective and convincing defence on The World at One of the new free school meals policy, which is - like all imaginative policies - difficult to implement.  I was excited partly because he was so confident and partly because, of all the Lib Dem achievements in government, this one thrills me the most.

I mean, how many times do we get a bold and enlightened policy like that through the Whitehall maze?  And now even the Daily Mail has taken umbrage over some bizarre story that one primary school is going to take three hours to serve the meals.

Of course, it isn't going to be easy.  The policy was brought in for three primary school years, in only twelve months, when every effort has been made to close down school kitchens under previous governments, and to truck in meals for two hundred miles or so for re-heating at some depot.

What makes this policy so enlightened is that it marks the start of a new way forward.  A measure that is designed simultaneously to feed children healthy food, help them learn, socialise them and save their parents money, all at the same time.

The age of prevention has clearly begun, and this kind of policy with multiple, overlapping objectives is a feature of the new age.

Of course there will be difficulties in some places.  Headteachers and local education officials will have to be imaginative and innovative, and should be praised for being so.

Of course it will also cost money, and these kind of projects have a habit of bursting their budgets.  But although education budgets have been suffering, along with all the others, the pupil premium has boosted the coffers of some of the poorer schools.  So much so that the CEO of Apple pointed to the mass purchase of iPads by UK schools was a major factor in their profits last year.

This may be old-fashioned of me, but I believe that sitting down to a healthy, hot meal once a day will benefit children a good deal more than a whole truckload dose of iPads.

It isn't just a blow for health and learning.  It is a blow for authenticity too.

Tuesday 11 March 2014

Crimea and its terrifying echoes of Munich

My great-aunt was Observer correspondent in Prague in 1938.  It was said that she wept the whole way home by train after the Munich agreement, as she returned to launch a rather belated Penguin Special called Europe and the Czechs.  By then, Britain and France had agreed to Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland.

I keep thinking of her as the depressing and frightening news from the Ukraine pours in, especially now it seems clear that the Russians seem intent on annexing the Crimea.

It is depressing because of the growing parallels between the two events, just 75 years apart.

The point about Munich was that it was a failure.  It was intended to end Nazi expansion and it only fed the beast, but that only became apparent six months later when they annexed the whole country.  Before that, there was a context of self-determination by the Sudeten Germans which made it seem as if there was a case to answer.

The key question before Chamberlain and Daladier was not whether it was right or wrong to let what seemed to be the majority have its will in the Sudetenland - but: would this be the limit of Nazi territorial ambitions?

That is the great fear about Crimea.  There is clearly a slither of a case for self-determination.  But would taking over the Crimea satisfy Putin, or would it just encourage him to look hungrily at Estonia, Latvia or Georgia?

That is why NATO is now patrolling the airspace in Poland and Romania.  It is why this situation is so dangerous.

It is also why people like Owen Jones, who believe that it would be hypocritical for the West to complain about Russian incursions, are wrong.  It is the most dangerous stand-off since the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 or the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

We all know that European wars begin in Poland.  It is possible to imagine how Poland could be the source of another one.

But Owen Jones is right that self-determination is too simple a yardstick.  He is also right that we cling to it when it suits us, as it does in the Falklands or the Balkans.  Yet we also promote it when it doesn't suit us.  Scotland springs to mind.  Self-determination is important, but it is more than just winning elections - as any observer of Northern Ireland can see over the past generation.

This is why I remember my great-aunt, Shiela Grant Duff, whose book about the period describes vividly the fake self-determination of the Saar Plebiscite, and the terrible consequences after the vote for those who had opposed unification with Germany.

The question is this: will the Crimea vote be another Saar Plebiscite, with its terrible aftermath?  It begins to look like it will.

Monday 10 March 2014

The real evil is power without purpose

I am old enough to have worked in the Liberal assembly press office back in 1986, the year of the ‘ten-fingers-on-the nuclear button’ furore which tore apart the Liberal-SDP Alliance.

I remember the raging arguments in the corridor after David Steel’s furious speech, tearing into his own party:

“I’m not interested in power without principles, but I am only marginally interested in principles without power.”

It will certainly be in Duncan Brack’s excellent new Dictionary of Liberal Quotations.

Looking back, now the party has power of a kind, this opposition of power and principles seems to reek of the peculiar culture of Liberals. I’m not even sure it is the right question.

The real problem in Westminster is that it is packed to the gunwhales with highly skilled professional politicians, who are adept at the techniques of gathering power to themselves. They imbibe it in their mother’s milk, have it in their tea at Eton, learn it in the corridors of power as research assistants and special advisors and finally they do it themselves.

The problem isn’t that they are power-crazed tyrants; it is altogether different. They get the power only to find that they haven’t got the foggiest idea what to do with it.

For the sake of argument, let’s call it the Blair Paradox. You might also call it the Brown Paradox, because the two great rivals shared it.

They tweaked the system so much that they were able to gather the reins of the nation’s horse in their hands.

But by then, they had become so much a part of the complex system of government that they found it next to impossible to imagine anything much outside the status quo.

This is important for the Lib Dems because they have survived the trauma of coalition – and it has been an exciting roller-coaster but deeply traumatic at times – by suffusing themselves in the science of political pragmatism.

The sheer intractability of the system drove them to become experts in the details of making things happen in Whitehall. I am impressed by it but nervous about it too.

The bitterest battle at the Lib Dem conference in York was over regionalism, which seems an appropriately Liberal cause to get cross about.

It wasn’t between the people with principles and the people with power, it was between those who wanted to think through the philosophy from first principles, and those who wanted to put up with an untidy solution because that was the only way anything would happen.

Now, it happens that I believe in untidy solutions. They are consistent with localism and with human beings.

But I felt I detected the revival of the logical thinkers at the conference, re-thinking the way the world is.

Was it that, or was it just the last throw of the old defunct causes which we clung to during the 1970s and 1980s?  I don’t know.

But it is important. Liberalism will survive in the long-term by nurturing both kinds of knowledge – the purity of imagination, to see the world differently, but also the hard-headed business of making it happen.

When St Augustine urged us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, I have a feeling he was talking directly to the Lib Dems.

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Friday 7 March 2014

Four decades on: the besetting sin of Liberals

Exactly forty years ago, the strange final chapter was being played out for the February 1974 general election, which saw Edward Heath holding on in 10 Downing Street while he negotiated with Jeremy Thorpe.

I was preparing for O Levels at the time (a strange prehistoric version of GCSEs, for those who don't remember) and I remember finding myself in instinctive sympathy with the underdog - the Liberals had won six million votes but only 14 seats.  It was a travesty.

Looking back, it was the first time I identified with the Liberal Party, though I didn't actually join for another five years.

It all seems rather a long time ago, over the horizon of history.  So it has been strange reading about the events on the BBC website, and hearing - by sad coincidence - of the death of Marion Thorpe in the last few days.

I was a great admirer of Thorpe's in those days, and have since been lucky enough to meet him and Marion at their home a number of times.

I still think he was, and is, an extraordinary man, despite the events that followed.  But looking back, I wonder if his leadership did not fall into the classic Liberal trap: high intelligence, a compelling presence, but another Liberal ecstacy of positioning rather than anything important to say.

It has been the besetting sin of the party I joined for most of the past century.

I joined in 1979, for two reasons.  One was that I interviewed the Liberal candidate for Oxford for two whole hours at the height of the election campaign, as a student journalist.  By the end of the conversation, I was completely convinced.

But there was another reason.  The stance of the Liberal MPs the previous year, going into the no lobby alone against the reprocessing plant at Windscale, as we called Sellafield on those days.

At least half the reason I joined the party was that it realised, when none of the other Westminster parties did, that nuclear energy would be vastly wasteful and centralising.

Looking back, I couldn't have joined any other party.  I am a Liberal, despite the recent app which allows you to rate your political position, which concluded - despite all evidence to the contrary - that I was a Scottish nationalist (this was not useful advice: it is some years since the SNP fielded candidates in Croydon).

But I've been mulling over my four decades rooting for the Liberals and Lib Dems, since the aftermath of the February 1974 election - almost my entire adult life.  Like most of my friends in the party, we all spend at least as much time frustrated with the party as we do campaigning for it, but usually - being Liberals - for different reasons.

Looking back, I think I came to the conclusion some years ago that - if I was to play any useful role in the party - it would be to try and tackle this besetting sin: the preference for positioning over thought.

Which brings me back to the nuclear issue.  I support the coalition, but no issue has made me more enraged with my own party's besetting sins than the vote in September to back nuclear energy, but without a state subsidy.

Nothing preys on my mind more than that.  The embarrassing self-delusion involved.  The stupid, thoughtless positioning.

As if an industry that produces high level waste without any storage facilities, except its current temporary one on the surface at Sellafield - and without any prospect of storage facilities (three Albert Halls of it so far) - which will stay dangerous for 100,000 years....  As if we can pretend that will involve no subsidy.

So for the sake of Lib Dem positioning, we hand the next 2,000 generations the task of protecting and paying for this stuff - for millennia after the disappearance of any of the companies we are subsidising.

I find it quite staggering that we could have made a decision so transparently delusory, just to help our Secretary of State get over a little political difficulty.

Yet, here I am, four decades after my O Levels, toddling off to the party's conference York.  A strange thought.

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Thursday 6 March 2014

When you measure social issues, they get worse

For reasons some people know locally, I'm only too aware of just how much domestic violence there is, in the UK and beyond.  It is insidious, destructive and much more common than most people think.

But yesterday's mega-survey of the EU, which found that the UK had some of the worst levels of domestic violence (the 5th worst, in fact), has set me thinking about the peculiar effects of counting, and what happens when you take statistics too seriously.

I'm aware that these are not official figures.  They are based on a survey, but the same peculiar effect applies, and I wrote about it in my book The Tyranny of Numbers.

In quantum physics, the mere presence of the observer in sub-atomic particle experiments can change the results. In anthropology, researchers have to report on their own cultural reactions as a way of offsetting the same effect.  Perhaps that is some clue to the peculiar way in which statistics tend to get worse when society is worried about something.

Why, for example, did the illegitimacy figures shoot up only after the war babies panic in 1915? At the time of the panic, the number of illegitimate births was actually astonishingly low – and the number of marriages strangely high. After the panic, the illegitimacy rate suddenly increased.

Why was the number of homes unfit for human habitation in the UK in 1967 (after TV film Cathy Come Home) were almost twice the figures for 1956 – despite over a decade of intensive demolition and rebuilding?

The garrotting scare in the 1860s was the same. The story began during the silly season in August 1862, and public horror got so bad that Punch was advertising a range of fearsome neck-guards with metal spikes to protect your neck. But the increase in the crime statistics came immediately afterwards, once the Garotters Act had brought back flogging for adults.

The tragic death of Stephen Lawrence in a racist attack led to widespread concern about race attacks in London. But after the public inquiry on the subject in 1998, Metropolitan Police figures of race attacks leapt from 1,149 to 7,790 in one year.

It was the same with the sex abuse statistics. They toddled along in the UK at the 1,500-a-year mark until 1984, when an unprecedented wave of publicity on both sides of the Atlantic catapulted the issue to the top of the public agenda. 

Between 1984 and 1985, the NSPCC reported a 90 per cent increase in reported cases, and in the following year they reported a similar rise. 

Child abuse campaigners would say that the actual rate of child abuse is never reflected properly in the statistics. They may well be right – the same would be true of the figures for racist attacks. All I'm saying is that the actual statistics wouldn’t have told you anything, except how strongly the public felt about it at the time. 

So often, the statistics start rising after the panic, rather than the other way round, as an eagle-eyed society tries to stamp out the unforgivable. That’s the Quantum Effect of statistics.

It’s difficult to know quite why the figures go up. Sometimes the definitions change to reflect greater public concern. Sometimes people just report more instances of it because it is in the forefront of their minds. Sometimes, maybe, what we fear the most comes to pass.

You may be seeing something of the same Quantum Effect in the story about domestic violence.  The figures are high, both official figures and survey results, when people notice domestic violence.  It is high when they define incidents as domestic violence.

On the other hand, the figures are low when society is blind to domestic violence, when they turn a blind eye to it, when they define it as just one of those things.  The statistics may tell the absolute reverse of the truth.

This may be an explanation for why the domestic violence figures seem worse in the liberal Scandinavian countries, where people are very aware of domestic violence and worried about it.

None of this suggests that domestic violence isn't an appalling cancer.  But it does suggest that the figures won't give you a very good guide to it - because they tend to get worse the more worried we are about the issues.

It is a strange phenomenon, and it gets stranger the more we trust the data: the truth is that - the more worried we are about something - the worse the figures get.

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Wednesday 5 March 2014

A whole new kind of brevity in publishing

Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma (Kindle Single)Years ago, I went to a palm-reader in Kathmandu - my only visit to anyone remotely like that.  I'm too coy to say here what he told me, except that one of the main elements of my personality was what he called 'brevity'.

This may not be obvious to anyone who has endured one of my lectures.  But it is true that I value brevity as a skill, as one of the only ways of conveying ideas in a sufficiently riveting way.

I was reminded of this today by a very thoughtful review of my ebook Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma by Nick Sidwell of Guardian Shorts, which talks about the advantages and disadvantages of writing complex biographies in less than 20,000 words.  There are, after all, longer biographies of Turing you can get your teeth into. This is what Sidwell says:

"If you don’t have time to read one of those longer books: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” If you want to remind yourself of who Turing was before tackling a longer work: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” If you simply want to discover who this often misunderstood man was: read “Unlocking the Enigma.” You will not regret a minute spent in its company. It’s just that if you truly want to learn about Alan Turing, just don’t expect it to be the only book you read on him."

This is a generous way of putting it.  But the truth is the ebook market has turned out more different from mainstream books than I ever expected.  

They tend to be around 20,000 words and to retail for £1.99 or £2.99, and to give the authors much more generous royalties.  It is in this market, which is growing dramatically, that the action is - not the rather expensive end of ebook publishing, dominated by the much pricier electronic versions of real books, published by the old publishers.

In fact, I have ended up - for the first time in my career - in a Top Ten bestseller chart.  This was the Thin Reads top ten of Kindle Singles.  OK, my Alan Turing book seems to have slipped out again this week, but the damage is done - I am now addicted to the Thin Reads Top Ten and can't stop looking at it.

It occurs to me that the two genres, thin reads and fat reads, may actually go off in different directions - the fat reads beautifully published and designed, the thin reads very basic but expertly brief, enough for a few days commuting and for busy people who want some background reading in more depth than they can ever get in a magazine.

In the meantime, if you wanted to test out Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma, you can download it onto a computer if you don't have a Kindle - and it only costs £1.99.

All I can do is repeat the review. I have, says Sidwell, attempted "to squeeze an elephant into a dog kennel. On the face of it, it shouldn't fit. Yet, for the most part, he is highly successful".

In fact, the process of squeezing elephants into dog kennels is highly instructive.  It isn't really about summarising; it is about finding the underlying narrative and trying to tell it in a compelling way.

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Tuesday 4 March 2014

Why did PIE confuse people?

There is a difference between liberals and socialists.  Tell me something I don't know.

OK, give me a chance.  The thing is that I've found myself falling back on a peculiar definition of my own that sometimes helps me realise why people are disagreeing.

It is based on their blind spots.  Socialists seem to me to have a blind spot about the abuse of power, hence the inevitable way that Labour governments eventually start restricting civil liberties - and how they fall back on centralised control in any given situation.

It isn't that they are convinced tyrants, or anything like that: they just don't see the problem.

Liberals are alive to the abuse of power at the core of their being, but they tend to be blind to the abuse of money.  Hence their failure to come up with much in the way of distinctive economic ideas since Keynes breathed his last in 1946.

Again, it isn't that they are somehow bankers themselves, they're just not very interested in economics.  They don't see it.

This is a rather roundabout way of writing about the strange story about the Paedophile Information Exchange in the late 1970s, and the involvement of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL).

It is strange to grasp this, because of my youthful appearance, but I can remember the late 1970s rather well.  Flared trousers.  Three TV channels.  Grunwick.  Ah yes, it all comes flooding back.

I was a student at the time and into the more libertarian and anarchic causes, like joining the Liberal Party.  They were the only MPs to vote against the nuclear reprocessing plant at Windscale, as we called it then - of course I had to join.

I remember the debate about PIE in student circles.  I remember thinking it seemed very odd at the time, but don't remember much more about it.  The truth is that I find it quite hard to fling myself back into the attitudes of the time.

I'm only writing about this now because Jonathan Calder was brave enough to do so, remembering the different atmosphere on the political left at the time - the psychological attempts to abolish "the very concept of childhood".

But my rule of thumb for distinguishing liberals from socialists is relevant here.

We are a far more liberal society, in many ways - I'll come back to this - now compared to 1979.  As liberals, we have the advantages and disadvantages of that shift in attitudes.  We are more alive to the abuse of power, and more blind to the abuse of money all around us.

We see child abuse now for what it is - the abuse of power.  We have done so pretty much since the explosion of interest in the issue since 1984, or thereabouts.

But I have been wondering if this was relevant to the mistake that NCCL made at the time.  The people in charge in the late 1970s, and now in the gunsights of the Daily Mail, were socialists and socialists have their own blind spots.  The NCCL trio were clearly alive to the abuse of power or they wouldn't have been working for NCCL in the first place, but even so - I wonder...

It is kind of de rigeur at this point for columnists to add in a defensive condemnation of PIE, explaining - as if we needed to know - that they were wrong.  And of course they were wrong, but it is interesting why they confused people at the time.

As Sam Leith pointed out in the Evening Standard yesterday, this isn't really about Messrs Harman, Dromey and Hewitt.  It is about why society as a whole tolerated PIE back then.

So our collective shift from the naivety of socialists (blind to how power can be abused) to the naivety of liberals (blind to how money can be abused) is relevant here.

Jonathan is quite right to imply that this isn't the whole story.  There is another side to this, and although we are a more liberal society than we were in 1979, I'm not sure we are a more tolerant one in every respect.

It isn't just the way in which a child abuse industry has emerged, terrifying parents who are not confident enough to resist, or the bureaucratic processes that get in the way of actually protecting children.  It is the wider attitudes in society that manages to condemn adultery ever more fervently, that increasingly purses their lips at the way other people bring up their children...

I could go on.  We all know society's new hypocrisies and train our mouths accordingly.

Monday 3 March 2014

Why NHS Change Day might save money too

It is more than two decades since Al Gore’s National Performance Review during the Clinton years.  It emerged after the scandal of wasteful Pentagon spending, because the cost of simple items ballooned when they went through armed forces bureaucracy - a serious lesson about centralised procurement.

The $7,622 coffee percolator bought by the air force was the most spectacular, but the one that really caught the public imagination was the $436 hammer bought for the navy, or – as the Pentagon called it – a ‘uni-directional impact generator’.

One of the first schemes the Review launched was an annual Hammer Award for public sector employees who had made huge efforts to work more effectively.

That was the point. The Review set out a series of principles for saving money by scrapping rules and bureaucracy and giving power back to staff. Then they urged them to get on with it and told stories about their progress.

Regular newsletters were packed with suggestions. Abandon sign-in sheets and clocking-in machines. Buy equipment locally if you think you can get a good price. Waive the need for travel expense receipts for sums under $75.

One of their key stories was about the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) office in Maine, the equivalent of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive. It consistently came top of the league for how much they were doing, for the most citations and fines, yet the workplace safety in the state was still the worst anywhere.

When they realised this, the Maine office created a small revolution. They tackled the most difficult factories first, and created employee teams there to solve the problems. If the companies agreed to support them, they would suspend their inspections and punishments.

The result was that the accident injury rate went down by two thirds. It wouldn’t have been possible without inspiring staff to seek out new ways of doing things – and without a big idea that pointed them in the right direction.  More on the NPR in my book The Human Element.

Reform of public services in the UK has gone mainly in the opposite direction.  It has involved less responsibility for frontline staff, less flexibility, less local imagination.  We have had nothing like Gore's NPR, except perhaps NHS Change Day, which is - fanfare - today!

It is a brilliant example of how you can humanise a service by starting with the human energy below.  The influential NHS blogger Roy Lilley has written a hymn of praise.  I agree with him that this kind of thing won't change the realities of budgets, but absolutely agree that:

"It's a mechanism and a route whereby the frontline staff all over the country get THEIR chance and THEIR voice to give THEIR idea for how to make a difference and for that chance and voice to be equally heard, equally respected and given space to be implemented by their managers and leaders..."

Quite right.  But I'm not sure it is irrelevant to budgets either.  It is the inflexibilities in the system that ultimately waste money, and days like this which can begin to iron them out with the power and energy of people on the frontline.

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