Wednesday 29 January 2020

The great #Tickbox campaign starts here...

This month, I have published two contributions to what I hope will be a new debate about the insane and unhumane system that is attempting to manage the world on behalf of those who own it. One is my co-written Radix pamphlet Whatever happened to doing? and the other is my book Tickbox.

The great thing about having named a modern phenomenon is that you get sent examples from all sectors. These are now pouring in. Here are three of my favourites from last week…

The first is the most obvious, in some ways. It was the BBC news story about inspectors warning schools against gaming their league tables by making pupils take less prestigious games GCSE exams, rther than giving them a proper rounded education.

The Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman is in fact emerging as one of the scourges of tickbox, but she can’t slay the beast alone.

Then there was the example, which I was forwarded on Twitter (thank you, Naomi and Jon) about going to a school parents evening and seeing even the best teachers starting conversations using tickbox colour-coded exam score predictions:

"Every teacher, even the good ones, began with a colour-coded grid of test results. I don't care. Does he show love for the subject? Does he knuckle down when asked? Has he got ideas? Is he fun? Does he ask questions?"

Quite. In my earlier books The Tyranny of Numbers, I found myself suggesting an Emperor’s New Clothes test which any numerical targets or KPIs should be subject to - yes, the exam results are impressive, but are they educating people; yes, they have a high ‘grit’ score - one of the ways my children’s school asseses pupils - but are they happy?

Finally, and most depressingly, is the letter at the top of this post, sent to looked after children (I don’t know where). Can you imagine a real parent sending anything remotely like that to their own children?

The letter includes the sentence, after apologies for the inconvenience, about how the latest SDQ “requires the completion and return to your allocated worker no later than 10/01/2020 (incidentally, the same date as the letter).

There is little sign of a backlash so far, though the one review I have received so far on Amazon is critical. The reviewer does not understand how identity politics has anything to do with tickbox (“God only knows how,” he says).

Perhaps I might humbly ask him to read my ‘tickbox politics’ chapter again, where I try to explain precisely this…

He also claims that I am “anti-science” for criticising the official cult of ‘evidence-based’. Nothing could be further from the truth, but I also believe science should be about asking difficult questions. That is how knowledge progresses. When and if it became simply about testing concordance with existing knowledge, then it would indeed have succumbed to tickbox. Luckily, I have more faith in scientists than that…

So if you feel differently, do please add a review to Amazon (pretty please!). I would be ever so grateful.

You can buy the Tickbox book from Hive or Amazon.

Monday 27 January 2020

Tickbox and the mystery of the disappearing books

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

Why are there so many blank walls in public libraries these days? Is it because librarians have, despite decades of inculcation, conceived a dislike to the printed form? It seems unlikely.

I first discovered the phenomenon visiting the award-winning Thornton Heath Library in Croydon. The design in concrete and glass certainly looked impressive - but what happened to all the books?

There are people who might have said that was what a library was for - some of us still read after all (especially after the decline in ebook sales) but libraries are still slinging out the legacy of human knowledge, preferring us to dependent on knowledge via Google.

It is unfortunately also the trend for school libraries, blank walls, empty shelves, more iPads, especially those which follow trends most slavishly…

But the we had the good fortune to visit one of the biggest schools in West Sussex, where the school library has built up, among other things, an enviable local history book collection.

We asked the librarian how she had managed to swim against such a tide, and she said it was a matter of keeping your nerve when the library system instructs you to dispose of any books that haven’t been borrowed for six months.

It is precisely this kind of system that face so many people working in the public and private sectors - the mixture of online tickboxes, KPIs, targets and centralised controls that their managers rely on to monitor performance.

This is the ubiquitous system I have called Tickbox in my new book of the same name, and which explains - or so I argue - why we feel so badly let down by governments, services and companies alike.

Most of us know precisely what is wrong with Tickbox - that most of these measures or targets either miss the point or get finessed by managers. Those who can’t see it tend to be the elite forces who run the world - and who believe what they are told by the frontline. And who dream of automated systems that can manage organisations without what they fear are messy human interventions or decisions.

The result is that officials tick boxes to allow them to move on but where nothing has changed (as tey seem to have done at Grenfell Tower), or we get tickbox targets which focus on the wrong things because what we really want - love, care, education - isn’t measurable.

Or we find ourselves in a ridiculous complaints loop where is is impossible to talk to a real person who would understand our problem in seconds (try myHermes if you really want this kind of entertainment).

Or we get irritated by being asked on a five-point Likert scale how we would rate our latest minor interaction with the bank - where the rep ‘suggests’ that you might make it a 5.

Now the example of the school librarian is instructive because she just refused to throw the books away. And because it is all virtual, nobody seems to have complained.

Though, actually, we never asked her about that.

It is an excellent example of how we take back control of the world - though Tickbox has encouraged an administrative culture where nobody takes decisions. We just say no.

There are few enough examples of this in practice, certainly in the public sector. The Local Trust has been charged by the Big Lottery with giving away a million pounds each to 150 impoverished or isolated neighbourhoods, with the single proviso that local people come up with an agreed plan to spend it. That is the opposite of tickbox (tockbox perhaps).

More controversially, the Dutch healthcare system have developed its own method of ‘scrap sessions’, where staff get together to identify targets or tickbox bureaucracy that needs to go. We need something similar in the UK.

But we first need to name the problem - which is why I wrote the book. Tickbox is the machine those who run the world have created to manage things in their absence: we need to call it out and then switch it off.

You can buy the Tickbox book from Hive or Amazon.

Friday 10 January 2020

Optimism, naivety and the counterculture - towards a way forward for a radical centre

This post first appeared on the Radix UK blog...

Long-standing lib Dems, battered by a disappointing general election result – the third in a row – then had to cope with a Guardian column by former Times editor Simon Jenkins, urging the party to wind itself up.

Let’s leave aside some of Jenkins’ arguments about tactical voting – which don’t really stand up – and tackle the central claim that there is no potential role for the Lib Dems to fulfil, even if they do not at the moment.

Because, we have to face it that – if that was true – then all of us who are trying to develop the radical centre ought to pack up and go home. That would leave the field free to two ancient and backward-looking perspectives – perhaps also ideologies – with their negative way of looking at the world.

For me, there are three areas we need to investigate to find ways forward and to show why Jenkins was wrong.

First, and most important, is the vast gap for any kind of political vision that represents the view of families and communities across the UK. Of course, there are families and people who are cruel or exploitative to each other, and worse. But there is no point in building political correctness, let alone an ideology, on the cruelties.

Racism, hate and sexism are neither of them best fought by assuming they are everywhere. Love between people is absolutely ubiquitous, and communities are more usually accepting, supportive and creative places – and, if you think otherwise, then that is liable to re-shape them.

Unfortunately, the culture war that appears to be engulfing us sees hate everywhere, and more and more the angrier both sides get, believing that under every bed and in every closet there is exploitative, dysfunctional rage – or somebody spreading it in the opposite direction.

Yet there is a potential ideology that spreads power downwards, trusting people because people care for each other – not because cruelty is impossible, but because we can confront it better if it isn’t hidden in plain sight by all the rest.

This will be regarded by both sides of the culture war as na├»ve. Which is what I was told when I claimed during my only appearance on a radio phone-in programme – a programme called ‘Honey, I’m home’ in Halifax, Nova Scotia during the G7 summit there in 1995 – when the very few callers who weren’t wrong numbers accused me of exactly that for my point of view that economics could rescue the world if it re-thought itself.

I said then, as I believe now, that all I was saying was that everything wasn’t completely hopeless. If we are to build a way out that can’t be dismissed as politically correct, based on the obvious love between people you see nearly everywhere, that is the attitude we will have to confront.

Second, neither of the two ideologies to which Simon Jenkins wants to hand a monopoly on political debate has much interest in the devolution of power – probably our most urgent missing element in reform (as Jenkins recognised himself in his pamphlet Big Bang Localism). Because without it, the government of the UK is set to become even more sclerotic than before.

The centralisation of power is the main reason we have been so badly governed over the past generation. Not because our politicians are so poor, but because the system they ate operating is failing, The Lib Dems have pushed the cause of devolution since the invention of Liberalism, but they seemed to have partially forgotten this – I would suggest – during the past election.

There always was a tension between the devolution of power and support for the EU. It maybe that the tension is unnecessary, but there does appear to be a kind of erosion between the two of them.

Third, the same applies to economics. If the radical centre will not defend the free market from the monopolies that make such a mockery of it – and increasingly so – then nobody will. The Conservatives believe that the free market is the some kind of Darwinian force, justifying pretty much any abuse, and Labour has little or no interest in free markets.

So who, if we are just left with them, will defend the liberal idea of free markets that allow the weak to challenge the strong and wealthy?

For these reasons and others, the radical centre is not just an obscure and dwindling sub-ideology, but the way out.

The culture war we are now experiencing appears to be the death knell for the emotions so successfully spun by John Lennon in his song ‘Imagine’.

But ‘Imagine’ was simply one expression of the counterculture that emerged out of the 1950s and 60s and provided the fuel for so much people-centred, humane reform – for which the Liberal Party so reluctantly and unconsciously provided a political pathway.

We don’t really understand these roots because, as far as I know, there has been no proper history of the ideas behind the counterculture, or community development, and other elements. In fact, if anyone out there feels the same way and would like to fund me to write one, please do get in touch!

But I believe that somewhere amidst the optimistic roots of the counterculture – optimistic about people and their nature – lies a way forward. Whether the Lib Dems are able to grasp this and to reform accordingly remains to be seen.

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