Up Close and Personal

Published in “Towards the Local”  Scottish Fabians  March 2014

Britain sometimes feels like a failed state.  It’s a feeling which, for many, gives impetus and credence to SNP demands to separate Scotland from it all. Just as it does to UKIP’s ‘back to basics’ call to walk away from Europe.

Look at the scandals that have rocked our institutions. “The banks have forfeited public trust as a result of corruption and incompetence…… The reputation of Parliament was gravely damaged by the expenses scandal that came to light in 2009 and has been rumbling on through the courts and the media ever since. The press saw what remained of its reputation for probity shredded by the phone-hacking scandal.” We’ve had revelations about the police over cover-ups of the Hillsborough disaster and now allegations about the Met, the Police Federation and ‘plebgate’.  “The BBC is still reeling from the scandal …. of Jimmy Savile and the exposure of ludicrously generous payoffs to executives caught up in it. This summer we discovered that the British secret services have been routinely eavesdropping on the everyday activities of ordinary British citizens” and even the armed forces “have been tarnished by revelations about past brutalities in Northern Ireland and Iraq.” (1) The whole edifice of public life appears to be crumbling.

What these shocks have in common is the now-exposed culture of entitlement, backscratching and “a growing sense of impunity among small networks of elites. As British society has become more unequal it has created pockets of privilege whose inhabitants are tempted to think that the normal rules don’t apply to them.” (2) The public’s tolerance for those elites, and the managerial politics that go with it, depends on the ability of the managers to keep delivering. Once that stops, they are exposed.

And it has stopped. Right up against the wall of management failure built from targets, incentives and payment by results. A study of three NHS hospitals in England discovered that the nearer people got to the four-hour wait limit in A&E, the more likely they were to be admitted to hospital until at 3 hours 59 minutes everyone was admitted, irrespective of clinical need. Beyond 4 hours and people were left to wait much longer still as those within target range got priority. (3)  That’s the system – not ‘bad apples’; the system of central government trying to control and improve in detail what happens on the ‘front-line’. Unfortunately, if targets, or their Scottish variant ‘outcomes’, are the measures of success and the parameters for accountability, then managers organise services to meet targets not the needs of their clients. They create “poorer services for those most in need. It is the vulnerable, the marginalised, the disadvantaged who suffer most from payment by results.” (4)  We get Mid-Staffs hospital and the three-star Haringey Council which met its targets and failed Baby P.

So ministers push for better.  Michael Russell puts heavy pressure on Scottish Colleges as only he knows how and Jeremy Hunt regularly phones up English hospital bosses. MSPs and MPs put pressure on Michael Russell and Jeremy Hunt. The word goes out – central government has these requirements of you, so shape up: these are the necessary “outcomes” for “success”- deliver them. Unfortunately if you are doing the wrong thing, then doing it better makes you wronger, not righter. And it seems we are getting ‘wronger‘ in many areas of life.

Like the UK as a whole, Scotland is sharply divided by inequality and this division has increased over three decades. Our economy today fails to provide adequate work or income to a large minority – 20% of workers are paid less than that it’s possible to live on (up from 18% in 2012) (5).  Considerable spending on Scottish public services over the years has failed to correct the impact of that inequality. The negative outcomes of failure drive current public spending. Local housing policy must deal with failures in the housing market; health policy struggles against our failure to maintain the health of families, many sick with the diseases of poverty – obesity, alcoholism, drug dependence, disability;  schools, with too many children disadvantaged by family “failures” again associated with poverty, fail to keep up with standards in the rest of the world. John Seddon reckons up to 80% of what is done in local authorities today is driven by what he calls ‘failure demand’ (6).

Money is poured in. Scottish public spending rose from about £8200 per head in 1997/8 to over £12,000 per head in 2011/12 (7). Benefit from that spending has not increased in the same way.  We still have some of the worst health in Europe and our education results do little to impress. Even the places we build are rarely better than mediocre says the Scottish Government’s own Council of Economic Advisers. Increased public spending accompanied by lower levels of ‘output’ suggests that the ‘productivity’ of UK public services has declined significantly: the average “bang for each buck”  is estimated to have fallen by 13.4% between 1997 and 2007 (8).

Then, when public services no longer operate as they should, the elite networks allow markets in where they shouldn’t, despite having just experienced the worst market failure in a century. We place public security and safety in the hands of private firms, disastrously as we saw with G4S and the Olympics. We pay people to look after their health and shed weight. We even pay school children to read books. Much of the essential state role of protecting its citizens is transferred into corporate hands – prisons, hospitals, intelligence.  The marketisation of what were previously public services (what George Lakoff (9) calls ‘privateering’) removes democratic accountability under the guise of ‘commercial confidentiality’ and converts the public’s money into private profit. That all changes our social morality (10).

Does it therefore surprise us – under the weight of institutional scandal and the failure with impunity of the managerial elites –  that trust in British institutions, British politicians and the democratic process itself is all but destroyed?  Does it surprise us that when the British state, much of it now in private hands, seems to act largely in its own interests not in those of the public, that the public walk away in disgust or boredom?

Democratic renewal is now urgent – changing how things are done, changing the relationships of power that now characterise who we have become.

Many on the left cite income inequality as the cause of the disconnected society we now inhabit. Professor Danielle Allen says (11) the reverse is true: social disconnection is the cause of inequality. “To achieve connectedness you have to have an egalitarian ethos, but if you don’t start to build institutional channels for connection, it doesn’t matter what type of egalitarian ethos you have, you won’t be able to make use of it…..Building a connected society is about empowering the disempowered”.

Professor Elizabeth Anderson similarly contends (12) that equality does not consist in an equal distribution of a particular good, whether income, capabilities or welfare, but in egalitarian social relations: relationships of equal power, esteem and standing between citizens in a society where there is a wide dispersion of social and economic power and a vibrant, alert and widely-engaged democracy.

Roberto Unger talks (13) of the goal of the left being ‘deep freedom’ – a devotion to the empowerment of the ordinary person, a raising up of ordinary life to a higher plane of intensity, scope and capability. He says it can only be grasped and realised through change of our institutions and practices – not just through a one-time change either, but through a democratic practice that can generate ongoing renewal of the institutional order of society.

For these thinkers the pursuit of personal freedom and equality of voice go hand in hand; democratic and institutional reform are the partners of social and economic equality.  As Unger also says “Constitutional arrangements should hasten the pace of politics, the facility for structural change, as well as raising its temperature, the level of popular engagement in public life.”

This reform is not simply a plaything of political ‘techies’.  It is democratic renewal from the ground up, constitutional and institutional reform as if people mattered.  It is participative and deliberative. It cannot be other than founded in subsidiarity.  It is necessary to any attempt to organise and manage governmental services based on productive, co-operative, learning relationships between receiver and provider (14).

Of course, there’s no one magic bullet. We need economic reform to found the ‘new economy’ of which Labour now speaks.  We probably need a new Act of Union to re-balance and make transparent the connections between all parts of the United Kingdom.  But I cannot see any realistic place to start the process of institutional, democratic and service reform of the kind we want to see other than where people are, at the level of place and community. In the local. Up close and personal.

Even so – it’s a big task. Everything pushes the other way – towards the centre, towards the big, towards the private, towards the elite.  To succeed, and to continue to succeed with renewal on the scale we need will require action that is both fast and slow, big and small. One big step and many small ones.

The big step is this: by act of the Scottish Parliament to devolve all public service provision to the local, except those which by their nature should be specifically reserved to Scottish government.   It’s familiar territory. The same ‘reserved powers’ principle is embedded in the Act which set up our Scottish Parliament and itself reflects the principle of subsidiarity upon which governance in most of the rest of Europe is based.

Steady change will follow thereafter only if local democracies are free to develop as suits their local circumstance.  Free to merge or divide as works best, to adopt different voting systems, free to delegate budgets to lower levels, to manage services as works best locally. It means an almighty democratic reform of the way in which we do local politics and local government: making it participative, pluralist and deliberative.  With Unger’s increased pace and increased temperature in local institutions our larger democracies will change in consequence;  local democracy, close to home, is after all where people learn first how to walk. And with public services placed at local levels, where the paths of information and control are shorter and where productive alliances between users and suppliers can govern their provision,  purpose will replace targets as the management principle (15), making money better spent. Intimate local connections, not top-down targets, will manage complexity and variance.

There are many tools then that local democracies can use – the skills of designers in re-shaping service provision, new institutions like municipal banks, new service co-operatives, local audit systems, community enterprise and new instruments by which land values from development can accrue to communities.  Of course, the Council Tax will be an early casualty to be replaced by taxation that is more local, flexible and fair.

If the Scottish Parliament is to grasp this next stage of devolution its role will change. It will leave behind the detailed management of public services and reach up to grasp fully its ambition as a legislature: setting standards, enhancing our rights and freedoms, taking on vested interests. It might, for instance, extend the Freedom of Information Act to companies delivering public services, create basic guarantees in health, stop the exploitation of charities law by private schools, outlaw secret societies in the police and justiciary, pass development land through public ownership, establish gender balance wherever public money is spent, and so much more. The Scottish government will run those services and institutions which are necessarily national and otherwise concentrate activities which provoke change: on learning, on sharing, on guidance, on improvement – government as a university of democracy and public well-being. And crucially it will ensure, through re-allocation of resources under its control, that justice and equality between poor communities and richer communities, is sustained and strengthened.

Done for the right reasons, and given time, by using roughly the powers the Scottish Parliament already has, we may well be able in this way to re-formulate the boundaries between private and public, re-balance that divide in favour of the common good and the public realm, control the excesses of elites and question the morality of markets.  Untidy, diverse and uncontrolled it will certainly be, and to accept that is hard for those currently in power, but I believe it to be the right and adventurous path.


(1) David Runciman  “The Crisis of British Democracy” Juncture IPPR December 2013

(2) ibid

(3) Simon Caulkin  “Kittens are evil: heresies in public policy” 2013  http://www.simoncaulkin.com/article/406

(4) Toby Lowe   “Payment by results – a ‘dangerous idiocy’ that makes staff tell lies” Guardian Professional  February 2013

(5) KPMG   http://www.kpmg.com/UK/en/IssuesAndInsights/ArticlesPublications/Documents/PDF/Latest News/living-wage-research-october-2013-1.pdf

(6) Ibid  Simon Caulkin

(7) http://www.scottisheconomywatch.com/brian-ashcrofts-scottish/public-spending/ using figures from GERS.  Figures are total managed expenditure in 2011/12 prices

(8) Institute of Fiscal Studies   http://www.ifs.org.uk/bns/bn92.pdf

(9) George Lakoff  “The Political Mind”  Viking Penguin 2008

(10) See Michael Sandel “What Money Can’t Buy” 2012

(11) http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/politics/2012/12/danielle-allen-labour’s-new-heavyweight  December 2012

(12) quoted in Nick Pearce “The Future of Equality: What should social democrats believe?”  IPPR  September 2013

(13) Roberto Unger “Why the left should abandon equality” Juncture IPPR October 2013.  This essay represents an excerpt from Roberto Unger’s forthcoming book, “The Religion of the Future,” to be published by Harvard University Press in the spring of 2014

(14) see Graeme Cook and Rick Muir “The Relational State” IPPR  November 2012  and Rick Muir and Imogen Parker “Many to Many”  IPPR  February 2014   www.ippr.org/images/media/files/publication/2014/02/Many-to-many_Feb2014_11865.pdf

(15) https://www.vanguard-method.com

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