Tag Archives: policy

That Was The Week That Was

31 Mar

It may be over, but I have no intention of letting it go.  It was far too good a week to forget.  Indeed this week will linger long – not just in my memory but in the renewed public spirit that has been engendered.

I’m not, of course, claiming to have been the first to notice.

To be honest I doubted my sanity in a week when the weirdness of Westminster gripped the nation.  But I wrote my thoughts on Tuesday March 26th and then promptly placed them on ice.  I was more than cautious – this was my first day of release from medical mayhem.  It was highly likely that the new medication was warping my wishful thinking mind.

But the words could not be constrained and I published them the following day.  Even then I hedged my bets for fear of immediate castigation.  But I dared not hesitate – I sensed a great change was underway and, although the body politic, the media, the entrenched combatants, were all running on the same old tracks, I found it undeniable that relief was at hand.

Maybe it was the weather.  Maybe it was the sheer relief from months of pain. Maybe it was a hymn of praise to the brilliant talents of our NHS.  Maybe it was my odd early-morning choice of Leonard Cohen’s “You got me singing’.    Whatever. This spirit of joy was unquenchable. ‘Everyone Suddenly Burst Out Singing’ captured exactly how I felt – and amazingly my little inconsequential networked world agreed!

By the end of the week even dedicated politicians were tentatively, cautiously, quietly suggesting a ‘change of tone’.  They were pushing this forward even in the midst of outraged screams of betrayal by ardent Brexiteers.

But this is no time to stand down – the struggle is not yet done.  In Tolkien’s The Hobbit (There and Back Again) Bilbo Baggins utters what would later became one of his favourite sayings.  Bilbo had narrowly escaped from a very angry encounter with the dragon.  “Never”, he said to himself, “Never poke fun at live dragons – you’re not halfway through this adventure yet.”

And that was a very timely thought.  It would have been too easy to ridicule.  Too easy to pour scorn on those in pain.  Too easy to not understand the deep roots of their desperate delusions. Too easy to crow.  Far too easy to seek vengeance.  Even slightly (or grossly) demented dragons need and deserve our help.

All at sea?

We are, still, only halfway though this adventure.  The tone has changed, the tide is turning but renewed purpose has not yet been confirmed.  I’ve been sailing offshore when a storm has devastated the plan. The ship is damaged, the crew scared witless. There is no going back.  This is the time for renewed purpose – a new destination.  Only a few alternatives come easily to mind – but my crew need, more than anything, clear intent to deliver us safely home.

The hand on the helm may be uncertain but the crew can pull together. Time now to steady the ship and seek that new unifying purpose.  Let the restoration of sanity and purposeful survival now flow through the  life-blood of our nations.

(and here endeth the lesson for Mothering Sunday!)

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Double Positive V Single Negative

12 Jul

The project – the reason I was spending so much time on the Island of Ireland – was extraordinary. Breathing new life into an economy wrecked by decades of disregard and battling legions of diehard naysayers was invigorating and challenging.  But more than the project itself, I found myself immersed in, mesmerised by, the local way of words – not just the accents but word choices and less inhibited conversational patterns.

Beyond marvelling at the quality of conversations – the highly-valued, hugely entertaining, fast-flowing and oft-surreal ‘craic’ – it was the contrast between Irish English and English English that hit hard between the ears.

Nowhere was this contrast more evident than in the matter of post-qualifiers – verbal reinforcements that bolster or modify statements.  To some it was a mild embarrassment but to my ears entirely natural that ‘to be sure’or ‘so it is’ could be twice repeated to hammer home the positive intent.  Not so at home in England where negativity was the norm with a single ‘don’t y’know’,‘innit’or in strangled parliamentary speak, ‘is it not’.

That contrast between the double positive and single negative post-qualifiers seemed to speak volumes of cultural variance and, in the context of the project, was a huge contribution to the success of the project and its call for imaginative/brave/fresh thinking.

I was reminded of this when writing ‘Word of the Week: Sophistry’– letting off steam as Westminster wrestles with the consequences of addiction to right-headed (AKA wrong-headed) ideology. A colleague working on the Irish project often complained that if stated three times, falsehoods became normalised and regarded as truth.

Taking a principled stand against sophistry is always a test of leadership – and in its absence huge damage can be incurred.  We’ve witnessed that in the promotion of Brexit but that is only the tip of the iceberg.  For the moment, in its 70thyear, the NHS has a temporary reprieve but do not doubt that the destroyers have gone away.  Meanwhile the BBC remains a popular target and silence fogs the failures of rail privatisations.  In that era of post-privatisations, it was, apparently, entirely ideologically sound to silence any criticism of the lack of full fibre until now when the consequences of underinvestment are becoming apparent.

The destruction of decades of public investment on the altar of avarice is rooted in the narrow negativity that prevails over the more forward-looking positivity that we all need to make a difference. To be sure.  To be sure.

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One Week Underground in Valencia

18 Feb

Living in a cave – one of many on the edge of Valencia that have been homes for hundreds of years – was not the obvious choice for a visitor to an ultra-high-tech conference.

Then again, something about that enlightened conference was like writing for the samizdat – underground press – digging for stories that must be exposed. And some of those stories, believe me, were about digging.

Gaps in comprehension are a challenge. Even as collective intelligence is facilitated by better digital connectivity the scope for collective ignorance blossoms and curiosity is constrained. The shifting sands of ‘Need to Know’ obscures perception and folks let go of things they’ve not fully grasped.

The cave was, surprisingly, warm and comfortable. Living there was eased by assistance from the owners who lived in the cave next door. It was sufficient. It was a timely reminder that conventional comforts can be recalibrated – and, anyway, the Wi-Fi worked brilliantly!

But I was not in Valencia for historical perspectives. I came to write about business futures. I came to make some small contribution to wider understanding for folks back home blissfully unaware of stuff happening beyond their parish. Stuff that really must be understood – even if it runs counter to their limited experience or unquestioned dogma.

Parochial is a way of describing the silos of specialists. In business and government, as well as in local communities, tribal tendencies need cross-cutting threads to knit together our social and economic fabrics. That need to knock heads together was exposed in my story of the contrast between two technology camps. How is it that experts in telecommunications find it a challenge to talk to each other?

In another way of describing what folks at home are missing, ‘No Valentine from Valencia’ shared what to some in government has long been best left unsaid. But wider comprehension of the real impact of that disregard has still not dawned back home. Where progress is hobbled by lack of vision, only direct experience will lift sights.

The good news for the UK might have been better headlined ‘Digging for Victory’. It wasn’t but, in the heart of the story, the determination to do the job once and to do it properly went a long way to explaining the unexpected accolade.

Three days at an ultra high-tech conference. Four days living in a whitewashed cave. Three stories shining lights on gaps in comprehension. These experiences, and many more, I carry forward to the next great adventure – the influx of folk from around the world to London next June to lift the sights of local leaders from ‘smart cities’ to ‘Intelligent Communities. You may not know it but really, you should hear about this.

Productivity’s New President

2 Feb

Institute for Management Services appoints new president to take fresh approach to UK’s productivity transformation

IMS – the very British Institute for Management Services – seems to have been around forever.   And the terribly British problem with productivity continues to puzzle, despite decades of effort, a long train of government ministers and grand policy initiatives.

The IMS appointment of a presidential successor to Dr. Beeching, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, Monty Finniston and more-recently a couple of Lords, might seem unlikely to make much difference.  Except for one small thing – the least noticed and least understood strand of the UK government’s new Industrial Policy : Place-Making.   Embedded in the latest policy iteration is acknowledgement that local economies are very diverse.  Different places have different needs and priorities.  They are not served well by ‘one size fits all’ policies based on national averages. Bristol is very different to Bolton.

With the legitimization of ‘Place-Making’ – entirely new channels are opened to the incoming productivity president.  Recharged city leaderships are massively motivated energy sources rooted within local economies. Their ‘city sovereignty’ perspectives reflect a new determination to properly manage the shocks and stresses of fast-growing communities.

The energy of new city leaders is undeniable. They wear coats of many party colours. Who better to convene new programmes that could ramp up inward investment, attract talent, grow their local knowledge workforce and get to grips with the chronic mediocrity of digital infrastructure.  In contrast, Whitehall has just celebrated the ‘achievement’ of 95% UK availability of connectivity that is not super, not fast and not broad – and wonder why more people don’t buy it?

Leastways, that’s the story so far. The UK’s productivity wake-up call  could herald a new policy balance – more grass roots than top-down – but much will now depend on finding space in local leaders’ overcrowded place-making agendas and the resources to fuel their empowerment.

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Growth Myth-Takes

16 Jul

Some notions are so firmly embedded in mainstream minds that they seem impossible to debate.  They might once have been classed as ‘truths we hold to be self-evident’, ‘rocks to which we cling’, or ‘life’s firm foundations’.

If not learned at our mothers’ knee, some notions are dinned into us through school, college and both corporate and political manifestos.  These notions are not just deeply embedded but often, it seems, beyond questioning – sacrosanct.

Politics, commonly regarded as the ‘art of the possible’, is more often the graveyard of ‘supposedly impossible’ concepts that may not, should not, WILL not be uttered, or considered.  They are thoroughly ‘beyond the pail’ as might once have been said in ring-fenced Dublin.

In February, college sophomore Trevor Hill stood up during a televised town hall meeting in New York and posed a simple question to Nancy Pelosi, the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives. He cited a study by Harvard University showing that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 no longer support the system of capitalism, and asked whether the Democrats could embrace this fast-changing reality and stake out a clearer contrast to right-wing economics.

Pelosi was visibly taken aback. “I thank you for your question,” she said, “but I’m sorry to say we’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.”

The footage went viral. It was powerful because of the clear contrast it set up. Trevor Hill is no hardened left-winger. He’s just your average millennial—bright, informed, curious about the world, and eager to imagine a better one. But Pelosi, a figurehead of establishment politics, refused to – or was just unable to – entertain his challenge to the status quo.

Sources: Fast Company newsletter – 11th July 2017 and Washington Post

Capitalism aside, the centrality of ‘economic growth’ in most mainstream debate is another sacred cow. It is not just that, in pursuit of growth goals, the way we measure our success is deeply flawed and massively misleading. It’s as if we have collectively forgotten the distance between crude approximations represented by economic models and reality.

GDP, the primary measure of economic activity, “does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play . . . it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” Robert Kennedy

But even if some can acknowledge the definitional downsides, the centrality of the drive for growth is assumed to be one of those tenets that cannot, should not, WILL not, be shaken – or even lightly stirred. Fortunately, despite the suppressive weight of custom and practice, some economic re-thinkers are, very gradually, gaining greater airtime and setting the myth-takes in their original context.

“And so, over half a century, GDP growth shifted from being a policy option to a political necessity and the de facto policy goal. To enquire whether further growth was always desirable, necessary, or indeed possible, became irrelevant or political suicide.”

Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics, Chap.1 p40

But the show rolls on. Rebellious economists may pour scorn on economic myths. Satirists can stretch popular imaginations to sow seeds of doubt. Cartoonists can seize upon contemporary comedic contradictions. Film-makers and writers can expose deficiencies and ‘events’ can throw a spotlight on issues that have escaped serious attention. But despite all these angry shouts from the sidelines, the players on the field carry on within the established rules of the game.

Following years of great effort, two of Kate Raworth’s central themes have shifted towards wider acceptance. Folks may not yet picture a ring doughnut whenever they hear a Treasury Minister, economic correspondent or Bank Governor, speak of economic imperatives, but these speakers do seem (subject to delivery) to have grasped the need for redistributive and regenerative economic policies: Redistributive to tackle gross societal inequalities and Regenerative to avoid trashing the planet.

But the 3rd of Kate’s principles still sticks in the throat and, if uttered at all, is in a thin voice as if from the back of the class, hiding from attention. The idea that infinite growth is not central to survival is, for many, problematic.  Kate’s approach is not, as the alarmist popular press might presume, a denial of the search for economic growth.  Rather, this enlightened economist argues, growth (devoid of objective purpose) should not be central or mandatory.  We can, Kate argues, be Growth Agnostic.

And in that drawing back from directional determination, we have another touching contrast between Economics (as pseudo science) and the reality of everyday life.  For many of us have, sometimes permanently and at other times ephemerally, created our own economic and societal unions – commitments that do not have growth as the central, essential, exclusive objective: ‘for better, for worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health’. Whatever.

Central government will inevitably continue to depend on the economic approximations of models and metrics that are ill-defined and adrift from reality.  That is all they have to go on.  They depend on averages, and, on average, their conclusions are pretty average.

The UK economy is the aggregate of many diverse local economies each with its very own needs and priorities.  If some forms of positive growth occur (whether it’s new ventures or improved citizen wellbeing) they will reflect local activities engendered by investments and creative endeavours within those communities of citizens, businesses and shared services.

This will not happen merely because Growth has been mandated from on high. Nor will it happen if (for the bottom-protecting-avoidance of any risk) it is forbidden to engage in local endeavours for which short-term cast-iron profit-certainty is not assured.   This is something well understood within far less centralised, more federal, more locally empowered, continental communities.

Dogma-driven theorists still know little of locally nuanced needs.  Local leaders, on the other hand, are better placed to understand the complex warp and weft of their economic fabrics and societal priorities. Local leaders should be committed, as in marriage, to ‘honour and comfort’ their communities.

Set aside the myths. Blow away the fog.

Move on from the growth myth-takes of past regimes.

The place-making re-enlightenment of local leadership is underway.

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Community Cohesion

28 May

In the aftermath of Manchester’s terrorist outrage observers the world over have heaped generous praise on the way the community ‘came together’.

Some even went so far as to regard Manchester as exceptional: “a sense of identity that you don’t find elsewherealong with a hint of already being case-hardened – There is a deep resilience in this city and it’s kept people going in the past “.

What has certainly been evident over this last sad week has been excellent leadership – not just from the City Council Leader and the newly elected Greater Manchester Metro Mayor but also across the wider community from leaders in Police, Health, Education, Religion, Business, Sports and (especially in Manchester) Music.

That sense of ‘community cohesion’ should hardly be a surprise given such extreme provocation and intense media scrutiny. Yet in some sense it is instructive that the media should marvel at this combination of grief, steely determination and a proud local identity.

Community cohesion rarely gets the media spotlight and yet it doesn’t suddenly spring into life; the seeds are being constantly sown and nurtured in all communities. Communities – the tribes we work with, the crowds we shop alongside, the after-school clubs the children attend – are all part of a rich fabric that so many economists, policy makers and news reporters fail to notice. These things don’t get routinely measured and, from a distance, are rarely valued in the way that GDP, RPI, employment and consumer borrowing statistics are subject to intense scrutiny.

Why is so much attention paid to dismal national average data when so much of what makes life worth living is all around us in our multiple overlapping communities? Why should the central management prioritise policies that ignore the stuff of life? The answer, of course, is that with their merely average understanding they should not be worrying themselves about matters beyond their comprehension.

If Manchester is different it is because for years, like many other great cities, it has banged the drum for freedom to manage its own affairs. This is the essence of what is now called ‘place-making’ – determined locally directed leaderships that have transformed London, Bristol, Birmingham, Glasgow and umpteen others, often in the face of central governments reluctant to relinquish control.

Many of the levers of community cohesion and wellbeing are well known. If those levers are not being used it is entirely down to local leaderships who feel (rightly or wrongly) that they have not been empowered to take action. All communities are different and have different priorities but there’s a strong body of research that has probed how best to assess their economic and social fabric. And that assessment ultimately measures the quality of local projects that determinedly cut across the silos of top down management.

The great lesson from Manchester is the value of investment in those cross-cutting programmes that may seem insignificant to those focused exclusively on growth in the silos of standard economic sectors.

This is what some call ‘mission economics’ or ‘policy with purpose’ but down in this neck of the woods we just call it Community Cohesion.

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Knowing Your Place – part two

5 May

Knowing Your Place was originally written to support a proposed event in 2018. In that brief note I reflected on the new meaning of the phrase. Once it was just a parental demand for subservience and ‘not speaking out of turn’.   Now it’s a Place-Maker’s celebration of Open Data and a vastly greater understanding of the local economy and community needs.

In Part two my attention turns to the wealth of fresh economic thinking. I say ‘fresh’ but it’s evident that ideas currently regarded as radical or outside of mainstream conventions have been around for decades. The puzzle is to understand why these commonsense ideas have struggled to be accepted.

This resistance to fresh thinking is not uniquely British. Deeply embedded but demonstrably errant economic dogma is a global concern. That in large part reflects an intellectual legacy underpinning the formative education of folk who now govern or influence policy. The re-education process will take a fair few generations to resolve.

In the UK, however, we have a particularly virulent strand of dodgy economic dogma that thrives largely because we have a very very centralised economy. In other countries with a more federal approach there is greater scope for economic diversity and experimentation amongst regions or municipalities. But before that thought distracts you, let’s review a few of these ‘fresh’ thinkers.

Throughout the profession there are economists who understand that things are not quite right. Not surprisingly these thinkers often try to differentiate their ideas. Those alarmed by widening inequalities – for example Stephanie Flanders – would prefer Inclusive Growth.   Similarly we’ve had mechanistic approaches, Economic Sciences, Positive Economics, Humanistic, Social, Monetary and umpteen other variants. All these attest to the diversity of thought and their advocates’ desire to avoid (or downplay) addictions to never-ending growth, over-simplistic price/demand graphs, supposedly free & efficient markets or fully informed rational actors.

Others come to the field with environmental and sustainability perspectives. The Circular Economy notion – regenerative to minimise waste of natural resources – has given rise to ‘systems thinking’ as expressed in Ken Webster’s ‘A Wealth of Flows’. This exposes the complexities of our interconnected world and takes on board the feedback loops that old-school economists might too easily dismiss as irrelevant externalities – leastways until they show up during investigation of ‘unforeseen consequences’.

Yet others take exception to simplistic political notions that government is bad and only private enterprise is to be valued. Leader of that rebel pack is, without doubt, Mariana Mazzucato and her work on The Entrepreneurial State where she lays bare the vital contributions of state-led investments subsequently exploited by the private sector with insufficient returns to the public purse.

And then we come to Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’.   Kate’s economic map is not of the sugar-coated variety with jam in the middle. This doughnut looks to lift folk from social deprivations (visualised in the central hole) whilst curbing the tendencies to reach beyond the outer edge of the ring where collectively we might threaten the ecology. Far from ‘deregulation’, Kate speaks of ‘re-regulation’ to better align policy with purpose and operate within the ring. Here’s an attempt to marry ‘redistributive’ and ‘regenerative’ policies – tackling both inequalities and wasted resources.

Kate’s work is hailed as ‘fresh’ but it takes years to be recognised as an ‘overnight star’.   Her ideas have been articulated for nearly two decades. Much of her research highlights the way that in recent times mainstream economists have been highly selective in their references to early thinkers such as Adam Smith. Understanding those dogmatic distortions is helpful but what is new is the power of visualisation. The ring doughnut provides a handy graphic that helps frame policy debates but is not pretending to be a pseudo-science.

The common theme amongst all these works is that they are directed towards the State – national governments and the establishment. They come across as grand top-down ideas; yet more supermodels. Not surprisingly it is painful to bang heads on brick walls that are reinforced by decades of dogma and where radical change seems unimaginably complex without some miraculously orchestrated global enlightenment.   The exception to that general top-down prescription is, perhaps, amongst advocates of the Circular Economy where some demonstrable progress has been made by careful evangelisation amongst a few global enterprises.

So perhaps an alternative approach to implementing these ideas is to take a leaf out of Ellen MacArthur’s Circular Economy Foundation. They have identified large enterprises (like Phillips or B&Q) as business communities where ideas can be worked out. Why not then start by applying the ideas, not at central state (national) level, but in cities and communities where local needs are diverse and the appetite for fresh thinking is strong? Do not imagine that there is some perfect model – a panacea – but understand that these works provide great scope for stimulating local leaders, communities and citizens to envision a brighter future with all manner of local enhancements to wellbeing – be they economic, social or environmental – in this era of rapid digitalisation.

Which thought brings me back to ‘Knowing Your Place’. Only by understanding the real needs – the locally diverse requirements that fall outside of standard economic models – are we able to address the ‘real’ economy and leave behind the rough average approximations of theoretical economists in high (and often distant) places.

There’s a time (which is now) and a place (near you) for every purpose. Let’s not delay and let’s not direct our efforts towards the centre when all about us can be transformed. These are ideas that need to find their place.

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References:

Inclusive Growth Commission – RSA Report:

https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/final-report-of-the-inclusive-growth-commission

Ken Webster, ‘A Wealth of Flows‘: ISBN 9 78099 27784

Mariana Mazzucato, ‘The Entrepreneurial State‘: ISBN 9 780857 282521

Kate Raworth, ‘Doughnut Economics‘: ISBN 9 781847 941374