Friday 30 May 2014

We need to involve people in a whole new way

While the rather depressing election results of the last week poured in, I was having a report published that is intended partly as a contribution to the debate about the Lib Dems missing message about public services – something I hope that the party’s public services commission will also address later in the summer.

My report was published by the thinktank CentreForum – it is called Turbo-charging Volunteering – and it envisages a rather different approach to public service reform and to volunteering: that public services become hubs around which we can build the local networks of mutual support that can reduce demand on hardpressed professionals. I hope they can also provide some services that professionals never can – befriending, home visits, lifts and so on.

Yes, this does sound dangerously like the Big Society, but it has a difference – it has depth, is based on a recognisable tradition of volunteering and public involvement, and it has very specific policy proposals that go with it. It isn’t just a Liberal idea, but my argument is that it is in the mainstream tradition that Beveridge represented – rather than the over-professionalised, over-centralised, under-effective service systems ushered in by the Attlee government.

But what has really surprised me about this has been the response. The article I wrote on the Guardian website generated a long list of replies, some of them – unusually for the Guardian – were constructive and interesting.

Both the blog I wrote on Lib Dem Voice and the one I wrote on Conservative Home generated constructive responses.

Give that is the case, I’m hoping that the basic message got through – that this is about tackling the knotty question of how you make public services effective, which is I believe what the ‘co-production’ agenda is all about.

Because the over professionalisation which Beveridge warned against seems to have widened the basic divide in all public services – between an exhausted, remote professional class and their clients, who are expected to remain passive and easy to process. This is not just disempowering, it can also be corrosive.

The co-production critique follows Beveridge’s third report. It suggests that the reason our current services are so badly equipped to respond to a changing society is that they have largely overlooked the underlying operating system they depend on: the social economy of family and neighbourhood.

Co-production is not a new term – the NHS is formally committed to it – but it is a new idea (the conventional interpretation is an anodyne mix of vague consultation).

The mechanism that can unleash people’s willingness to play an active role in the services they use is beginning to emerge, whether it is in community justice panels or time banks in health services or co-operative nurseries. Or in a slightly different way of approaching professional support, based on coaching and informal solutions, like those used so successfully the Local Area Co-ordination.

But those are happening on a tiny scale compared to what is necessary if we are going to humanise services and make them work more effectively. So here is the question: how can we roll out this kind of infrastructure in every public service on a huge scale?

Where do you start? My report suggests that all service contractors, public and private, need to be asked the following questions:
  • How do you plan to rebuild social networks
  • How do you plan to encourage mutual support among users
  • How do you plan to reduce the level of need for your service year by year? 

Thursday 29 May 2014

It's not what you say, it's where you say it

I had just arrived at my office this morning when I ran into one of my colleagues.  “Hello, David,” she said.   “I’ve just been reading about you in the Daily Mail.”

My heart stopped for a moment.  I may not have that much to be ashamed of, but still – you never quite know.

What I had failed to expect was the way that speaking in public at the Hay Festival can make what you say unexpectedly interesting to the newspapers.

I had, after all, been plugging away at my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis for some time, certainly since the publication of a cheaper edition in January.  There was quite a lot of coverage at the time.  The Mail even reviewed it twice.

So I was unprepared for the interest this morning, and not just in the Mail – which published the usual rather windswept picture of me – but also in the Telegraph and the Independent.  It was gratifying to see them taking my argument seriously, but mildly annoying that they didn't mention that there is a book, or that the book is not as bleak as their headlines imply.  There is a way out, and I've suggested that there may be more than one...

Since getting home this evening, I see that the Huffington Post has also covered the story, and in a little more breadth.

I've also had a chance to look at some of the comments below the Telegraph article, many of which are supportive - I'm not the only one to see the trends - but one of which says that, because I used the term'proletariat', I must be a Marxist, and therefore... etc etc.

The whole experience is a little strange - nice that my thesis is getting some coverage, but strange that something I said on the BBC originally back in March last year, and which passed most of the media by in January when the new edition came out, should get such wide coverage now just because I said it at the Hay Festival.

Strange, but perhaps less of a surprise, that it is the frightening aspect of the message of the book - and not the hopeful, hopefully exhilarating bit - that gets all the attention.

Because there is hope.  That's why I wrote the book.

Monday 26 May 2014

We still need Clegg - but we need to release him from Prison Whitehall

"We're British people, with all their qualities and faults, with feelings and emotions, and not denationalised, impersonal polyglot cynics with the generous emotions of a fish, intimidated by fears that what we feel like saying will be 'bad propaganda'..."

That was what the BBC European Service daily directive said in February 1942 when Singapore fell. It seems to me an appropriate thought for today, not just because of the Lib Dem results but because a party which forces Moslem schoolchildren to eat pork has won the support of a quarter of all French voters.

But, as the directive said, we have to be authentic at times like this. The excision of emotions by spin and bureaucracy is partly responsible for our plight.

The BBC European Service at the time was actually independent of the BBC and run by a maverick propagandist, and Liberal, called Noel Newsome. He was kicked out by the BBC at the end of the war, which has lived off his reputation for telling the truth ever since. Newsome stood for the Liberal Party in 1945 in Cockermouth and very narrowly lost.

He also believed that his wartime wireless service, operating across three networks, for 36 hours a day and in 20 languages – still the biggest broadcasting operation of its kind – would be the foundation stone of a new Europe. The British government vetoed the idea. Needless to say.

It is worth, today of all days, taking that story a little further, because it provides another background to today. Newsome was involved in the reorganisation of the Liberal Party in 1946, and ten years later that party had become a force capable of building up slowly – and these things have to build slowly, as Nigel Farage will discover – to turn the UK government upside down.

Jo Grimond’s Liberal Party provided an intellectual critique of technocracy. That was what gave the Liberal Revival electoral power. It is what enabled it to turn local government inside out in the 1980s and 90s. And, speaking personally, it absolutely captured my imagination.

As a new graduate in 1980, I remember having a wager with my grandparents that the Liberals would get 50 seats at the next election. In the event, the rise and fall of the SDP put paid to that, but we achieved it in 2001, long after my grandparents had died.

What kept me going during those years as an activist, and kept the electorate committed, was the continuing relevance of the Liberal critique. It was populist, but not by pandering to temporary emotions, but because it was based on an intellectual critique and an intellectual tradition. It had real ideas at its heart,

As I trudged the pavements, and canvassed myself hoarse in my twenties, during the early Thatcher years – I canvassed the night the Sheffield sank, and everything changed – it was a set of ideas I believed I was representing: that people had needs and capabilities that the technocratic systems were ignoring. That people mattered.

What I feel most strongly today is that this will have to remain true. The Lib Dems will not survive unless they develop these ideas and that critique – unless there is a depth and a purpose behind their existence that answers people’s needs, fears and aspirations.

If the ideas are allowed to corrode, we will go back to what we were in the 1930s, desperately seeking a compass, committed to the worn-out compromises of a generation before.

It also matters very much whose side we are on – and Ukip have portrayed themselves as being on people’s side, the ‘peasant’s revolt’, as Boris Johnson put it.

My reading of the tea leaves, for what it is worth, is that the Lib Dems will win 46 seats at the general election and Ukip will win no more than three. But for that to happen, the Lib Dems will need to have a reasonable claim to be a peasant’s revolt too. Because, if the only political force declared against technocracy – as Jean-Marie le Pen used to put it – is the far right, then they will garner the votes.

In that respect, the disaster of 2014 is partly the political fall-out from the banking collapse of 2008, delayed, potent and ferocious. In the UK, it is partly also about the failure of the Lib Dems to demonstrate unambiguously that their ultimate purpose is to represent the peasants, so to speak. Not to look after their interests, in a distant, paternalist way. Not to support the unsupportable because it will be good for them in the end. But to give them power and trust them with it.

Given that, the great failure of the party has been partly to trust to positioning rather than passion, and partly their failure during the decade before going into government to develop that intellectual critique.

In other words, the decline in support for the Lib Dems began in 2001, not 2010, and has been primarily an intellectual failure, not a failure in marketing.

Yes, we were right to go into government, but we were foolhardy to do so without having hammered out an agenda for the economy and public services beforehand. Of course we lacked enough of a recognisably distinctive agenda once the doors of Whitehall had closed behind us, at least on those to crucial policy areas.

There lie the seeds of the party’s difficulties today, and they are the fault of ten wasted years and not the fault of the leader. Neither on the right nor on the left of the party were the years of preparation spent developing our intellectual critique – and especially not in economics.

Everyone appears to be searching for someone to blame. Personally, I blame the euro: I always said it would risk fascism in Europe and so it has proved. I blame the failure to tackle the banks. But I blame the Lib Dem result on ten fallow years when the party seemed to believe that everything could be achieved through an ecstasy of clever positioning.

So, no, I don’t share the opinion that the Lib Dems need a new leader, and not just because dropping the pilot at this stage throws out the party’s best hope of a convincing narrative – that we acted to save the nation, and suffered for it.

Nor because my admiration for Nick Clegg has grown steadily over the years, as he has dealt with skill and humour with the vilification thrown and him, and the exhausting effort to force anything through a complex, constipated system of government. 

Nor because I believe history will vindicate his difficult decisions, if not every decision - by any means - taken by the coalition.

It is because the party’s losses have been the result of a collective intellectual failure by the party, lulling itself into an intellectual cul-de-sac where they believed they were some kind of giant Royal Commission, weighing up evidence, and where they lost the passion for that intellectual crusade which had begun to gather steam back in 1946, out of the seeds of defeat.

It is because Nick Clegg is the only potential leader who seems to me to be able to provide that edge we need – a crusading idea, to claw back the tentacles of technocracy, to break those tired old compromises – that will allow us to claw back, at the same time, the dozing liberalism of the nation.

He can do it. If he has channelled the disapproval of the left, he has done so on behalf of the party and the mistakes and omissions we all made – and it can only dig us deeper in the hole to drop him now.

I’m a bit wary of offering him advice, partly because he won’t see it, partly because he gets too much of it already. But it is this: get out of the Whitehall prison, and grasp your destiny – which is to articulate the new intellectual crusade to put people first.

It sounds portentous to say so, but I have come to believe that the future of Europe now depends on him doing so.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Imagine the poorest areas could survive using their own resources

Imagine.  Imagine it might be possible to set aside the great lie of economic strategy (trickle down patently doesn’t trickle; it hoovers up).  Imagine the poorest areas could ride out a world recession.  Imagine they were not forced to go cap in hand to big business or big bureaucracy to survive.

It is hard to over-estimate the impact on the world, and certainly on the UK, if we could find the techniques we need – to help neighbourhoods survive using their own resources.

It will clearly not make them rich, but it may keep them from being poor – and the difference that will make, if it works, in regional power dynamics would be profound

But is it possible?  It would mean using the money better which is already flowing through the community.  It would mean using the wasted people, land and buildings, the waste material – putting them altogether and - well, not wealth exactly, but enough economic activity to claw back some of their economic destinies.

The difficulty is that these economic techniques exist but, in the UK at least, they are in their earliest stages – usually based on community banking or community energy generation.

We can catch glimpses of what is possible in the efforts of local authorities like Enfield or Preston, looking at different ways of doing procurement.  We can see it in the development of linked local food businesses in Vermont, or the community currencies for women entrepreneurs being rolled out by the Brazilian central bank

We need to develop these ideas, and I set out how in my report Ultra-Micro Economics, published today by Co-operatives UK.  But there are three important blockages.

First, our institutions of regeneration, from the energy intermediaries to the high street banks, are designed for big institutions and find it hard to connect with small players. Try helping your village generate its own energy and things get difficult.

Second, there is a blind spot about economic regeneration in most local authorities.  They don’t see it as their business, and this kind of learned helplessness – passive in the face of whatever disasters the global economy might throw at them – has been carefully nurtured by the Treasury for a generation, terrified of the spectre of the Bank-of-Our-Friends-in-the-North.

Third, there is a kind of snobbery among economic policy-makers about it, as if ultra-micro was all a bit too small to matter. Economic strategy has kudos and status; looking at money flows on the ground and how to make money connect more locally isn’t what they imagined doing.  Money flows? It’s too much like plumbing for comfort.

But the real lesson is that small-scale matters.  The ultra-micro approach transcends conventional right and left, just as it goes beyond the conventional distinction between free and controlled markets. But the real argument is about scale, if enough people and places are doing this, then - as they say in America - small plus small plus small plus small equals big.

It is up to our political thinkers (you know who you are!) to name this and run with it...

Monday 5 May 2014

Why time banks imply a different kind of public service

Ever since I invited the time banks pioneer Edgar Cahn over to the UK in 1997, I have been fascinated by the growth of the idea across Europe.

Then, last year, I had the huge opportunity of writing a report about their growth and potential for the European Commission, which has just been published.

What I found was a hugely diverse movement, from the Scandinavian time banks (more about local barter, which is why it is being taxed) to the Spanish banca del tiempo (an offshoot of the feminist movement, developed increasingly by local government).

The Italian banca de tempo claim descent from the UK ones, but actually predate them by at least five years, modelled more closely on LETS currencies.

The UK movement is probably closest to the time banks in the USA, and are increasingly about reforming public services by encouraging people who are usually volunteered unto to find ways of supporting each other.

The basic effectiveness of time banks in building supportive neighbourhoods, especially for older people, people with health difficulties and in poorer or immigrant communities, seems to be confirmed in a range of different projects.  So is their ability to save money, both for their members and for their partners in the public services, by increasing the effectiveness of services (though not necessarily by allowing them to cut services). 

Their big challenge is how to use these successes for time banks to build a sustainable future for themselves, perhaps partly inside a range of different host organisations – which require mutual social networks around them if they are going to be more effective.  The future of time banks may be as a technique for institutions, more than as standalone projects, though this debate continues across Europe and the outcome is not yet clear.

In any case, to achieve that, public service professionals need to understand more about the potential of time banking.  There also needs to be more understanding of how best to balance the technological needs and the need for a human being at the heart of time banks if they are to reach their target markets.  Those issues remain unresolved. 

What I said in the report is that these key ideas also stand out: 
  • Time banks and complementary currencies are a growing phenomenon, not only in number of experiences but also in their variety. The diversity of welfare system not only implies different welfare rules but also different social needs as well as work and time use patterns that influence the objectives,  membership and use of time banks.
  • Time bank and complementary currencies have potential to improve well-being and mental health, to enhance the effectiveness of public services, and to promote entrepreneurship and self-employed business ventures.
  • The high rate of women promoting and participating in these initiatives is an opportunity, but also a question: do they really make the most of this participation?

This reflects the Radio 4 discussion I took part in last month.  But the report also talks about the fascinating border area between social exchange (time banks) and new kinds of money (local currencies), and both ends of this innovation are powering ahead.  There’s still a long way to go, but – if you want to see how time banking can take a major role in social care in the UK – just have a look at the time bank that’s now at the heart of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, probably the biggest social care organisation of its kind.

What makes this revolutionary is not just that it is cost effective, and begins to put right one of the major flaws in the Beveridge welfare state – the gulf between exhausted professionals and the service users who are supposed to stay passive to make them easier to process.  It is also about making the most vulnerable services users more powerful and effective in the system.

This isn’t about empowerment – a weasel word if ever there was one – but it can have the effect of giving people more confidence in the system.