In 2009 the academic Alan Finlayson wrote an article called ‘The broken society versus the social recession’. His purpose was to show how different was the former idea of David Cameron’s and the latter propagated by the left campaign group Compass (in fact, the term ‘social recession’ has long been more widely used to describe a set of social pathologies ranging from criminality to teen pregnancy).
Finlayson’s piece rests on a cast iron assumption that there is a set of social problems which are getting worse, the important question therefore is ‘why?’. He quotes a 2007 Joseph Rowntree Foundation project in which the RSA and I were involved called ‘social evils’ which explored the way society was deteriorating even while the economy was thriving. Finlayson concludes that with the economic collapse the debate over what lies behind social deterioration will intensify.
The posssibility the article didn’t consider, and is rarely discussed, is that in certain important respects the social recession might be coming to an end. In this post I don’t have time to gather all the references but, take my word for it, there is reasonable evidence for significant improvements in all the following areas:
Violent crime rates
Binge drinking and drug consumption among young people
Levels of volunteering and feelings of neighbourliness
Children’s overall wellbeing
Why aren’t we discussing this more? The idea that society is improving because we are choosing to behave more wisely and responsibly is uncomfortable for parts of both the left and the right. For the former it shouldn’t be happening in an unequal society still dominated by individualistic values. For the conservative right it shouldn’t be taking place in a society coarsened by moral relativism and weakened by diversity and multiculturalism.
It is possible to counter the improving data by saying it is short term, inconclusive or outweighed by things going in the wrong direction. But if we were to accept that society is getting less broken, what explanations might be on offer?
There was recently a spate of articles based on epidemiological research speculating that falling levels of lead in the atmosphere are the best explanation for plummeting crime rates. A factor endogenous to social trends may indeed be implicated. But I am more drawn to a more structural explanation.
In policy, economic and social analysis the single ability of greatest value is to be able to distinguish a cycle from a trend. It is hard analytically and challenging psychologically. Not only are human beings inherently short-termist in their outlook but we are drawn to things that are more visible. Cycles are like the second hand on a clock – we can see them moving which gives us a sense of time passing, while trends are like the hour hand.
Here is a bold thesis. Since the dawn of the enlightenment in the late mediaeval period – what Kant described as man entering into adulthood – human progress has accelerated guided by the core principles of that revolution – universalism (justice), autonomy (freedom) and humanism (progress itself). These principles underlie the long trend of human advance which makes citizens in the developed world richer, healthier, more intelligent, more tolerant and more peaceful than ever before. But within that trend the misapplication of those same principles has also led to terrible cycles, most obviously the cycle of colonial exploitation which culminated in the nightmare of the First World War and the cycle of totalitarian ideology which led to the horror of Nazi Germany, Maoist China and Stalinist Soviet Union. At the heart of these terrible events was a hubristic perversion of the idea of progress.
The recent cycle, which began in the sixties and may now be startng to end, also involved a misapplication of an enlightenment principle – this time freedom – and was much milder in comparison. But the idea that society can flourish relying on no more than individuals pursuing a policy of possessive individualism is at last starting to lose favour. Is this what lies behind the evidence of a receding social recession?
If, in the end, society learns and improves should we focus less on cycles of deterioration and more on long trends of progress? If so, it shifts the debate in a subtle but, to my mind, crucial way.
Instead of asking what we have to do to make progress possible we should instead ask what the barriers are to allowing the further natural development of the human spirit into a higher, healthier, more fulfilled and rounded form. The answers might be similar but the framing of the question has the scope to increase significantly our sense of possibility and agency.
The obvious charges against this thesis are that it is determinist and complacent. But I don’t think society improves automatically. It happens through struggle and debate. And the other key domains of our lives – economics and politics – sometimes accelerate social progress and sometimes delay or reverse it. Right now I feel more confident about society than about economics and very worried about politics – for reasons I will explore in a future post if this one doesn’t get ripped to shreds.
There should be no one who knows more about the perils and pitfalls of payment by results (PBR) than Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. After all it was he who as a DWP minister oversaw the implementation of the Work Programme which is as yet failing to demonstrate the step change in efficiency and performance that he is hoping to see from the probation service.
There are several reasons to question whether PBR for probation will deliver:
All PBR systems are subject to the inherent tendency for providers to ‘skim’ and ‘park’. The former process involves identifying those in the client group most likely to achieve an outcome (in this case not reoffending) with very little support. The provider then gets paid for something which would have happened anyway without having to add any value (economists call this ‘rent seeking’) and the taxpayer picks up the dead weight cost.
Parking involves limiting the service provided to people who are highly unlikely to meet the outcome and in whom it is therefore cost inefficient for providers to invest resources. The latter phenomenon leads to one of the classic debates in the design of PBR – one which has been rolling around the probation debate – should payment simply be for the result (not re-offending) or should there also be payments for what is often called ‘direction of travel’ – things like attending life skills courses or entering drug treatment. The case for direction of travel payments is that it incentivises providers to do something for the hardest to help; the case against is that it provides scope for gaming and the proliferation of ineffective interventions, such as payments for members of troubled families to attend parenting classes of questionable efficacy.
A particular risk for probation arises from the private/third sector PBR system running in parallel with the state probation service, which will continue to be responsible for more dangerous ex-offenders. The temptation for new providers to dump harder to help clients back on to the probation service will be strong. And while collaboration between providers is essential ,regulating that boundary is likely to be a continual source of tension on the ground.
Given the weak results so far from the Work Programme it is a bold claim that PBR will deliver better outcomes and provide a wholly new service for short stay ex-offenders all within a declining real terms budget. Some organisations are being very bullish about the possibilities for them to provide great services in the new system, but similar big ambitions articulated by putative Work Programme providers went largely by the board when, under pressure from the Treasury, the contracts were ultimately awarded almost entirely on the basis of price.
Third sector organisations looking to be PBR probation providers should heed the five (yes, five) harsh lessons of the Work Programme.
* Charities, lacking the contract planning and negotiation capacity of the private sector, generally failed to get on the original framework of prime providers. Many wasted tens of thousands of pounds in failed bids.
* Many charities which subsequently entered subcontracting arrangements with primes then felt a lot of pain – in many cases terminal – as the expected and promised client referral rate failed to materialise.
* Relatedly, the PBR mechanism means the contracts have what is sometimes called a ‘smile’ profile. That is, providers get some money up front as an attachment fee but then have to pay for services and make a revenue loss before later in the contract starting to get payments for meeting outcomes. Lacking reserves or access to finance many third sector providers are simply unable to ride out the downswing of the smile.
* The PBR margins on offer to the third sector are anyway very modest on contracts which were already tight even before the prime providers had taken their cut. Many third sector providers are in effect subsidising their provision with charitable income (something which raises difficult issues of propriety and transparency).
* Many third sector providers who thought they were doing a good job found that they were unable to cope with the monitoring and performance requirements of the various PBR employment programmes (indeed across the sector third sector providers are having regularly to hand back contacts). Whether this means the system is badly and unfairly designed or that lots of third sector provision is not actually any good is, of course, bitterly contested.
A third problem with PBR as a mechanism for providing public services is the flip side of a claimed advantage. When advocating the Work Programme PBR ministers were apt to talk positively about the ‘black box’ of service delivery. Rather than the over regulated and over managed state services providers would be free to use whatever mechanism works best to achieve the outcome. As one advisor put it to me ‘if getting people to stand on their head and read poetry gets them back into work then what’s the problem’? Fair enough; but the black box in combination with competitive pressure means there is also little incentive for providers to share information, compare practice and improve. ERSA (the trade body for employment programme providers) has been working with Nesta and the RSA to encourage greater information sharing and innovation in the sector but it is not easy to convince providers they should share trade secrets, or even agree a common framework of professional standards.
Most of these issues are generic to PBR as a mechanism. Indeed I have had some rather worrying conversations with civil servants who seem unaware that issues like this are not random risks but core characteristics of such systems, whatever their other advantages. But in probation there is one other major issue.
If a work programme provider fails, someone continues to be unemployed but if probation supervision fails, an ex offender may commit a serious crime. The Work Programme and other employment programmes such as Mandatory Work Activity have been subject to much critical media scrutiny but this is as nothing to what will happen if a badly supervised private sector probation client murders someone. I simply have no idea how a private provider could factor in such massive reputational risks to the cost benefit equation of bidding.
The basic idea of payment by results whereby taxpayers pay for outcomes rather than processes is powerful, especially in a time of austerity, and for a number of reasons PBR is likely to grow. As the chair of the board of a smallish employment service company, I can see both how good practice can deliver powerful results for disadvantaged people but also how tough it is to make money (something which should reassure the public).
The potential upside of PBR makes it all the more important that we understand its inherent pitfalls.
Here is an extract from a speech given yesterday by Liz Kendall Labour’s shadow spokesperson for care and older people:
Our goal must be to create a new care covenant between citizens and the state, involving all parts of our society and economy. This covenant should be based on the principle that care is a shared responsibility – its risks and benefits are mutual and should not be left to individuals and families to shoulder alone. It must be grounded in values of dignity and respect for those who need and provide care, ensuring older and disabled people and their families have the same choices and chances to live the lives they want as any other section of society.
And it must seek to strengthen mutual care and support within our families and communities, as well as through care services
Fine words, as my grandmother used to say, butter no parsnips. But it is good to see an emphasis being put on values, mutual care and shared responsibility as well as Government policy. As I have argued here before, we need a ‘whole system’ reform of care – something which involves attitudes, behaviours and norms as well as policies.
Yesterday I interviewed the philosopher Michael Sandel for the next edition of the RSA Journal. We discussed his book ‘what money can’t buy’ which has just come out in paperback. In it he bemoans the ‘marketisation’ of more and more areas of life evidenced, for example, in poor children being bribed to study or sports memorabilia being turned from personal objects collected by fans to a billion dollar mass market. His objection to such practices lies in the way they exacerbate inequality.
The more things that are paid for, the more difference having money makes to people’s lives. Take the example of ticketing. If the criterion for access is a willingness to queue early or long, the tickets will tend to go to the most passionate, but if the rich can buy tickets whenever they want from on-line sites, wealth rather than passion becomes crucial.
Sandel also worries about the way financial incentives ‘corrupt’ motives and meanings. If we bribe children to read, do we reinforce the idea that reading is onerous? If we can pay for a footballer’s autograph, it lacks the intrinsic value which we would attach to something we had collected ourselves in a memorable encounter or just standing in the rain for hours.
Bringing together Michael’s analysis and my interests, we had a fascinating conversation about care. This is surely the most important example of the way the value of something changes when it is marketised. The very idea of care contains within it a notion of emotional commitment. Yet, however much we might teach nurses how to be compassionate, we cannot get inside the heart of someone who is paid to care and force them to experience the feelings that we have when we care for a loved one and which we want to believe lead loved ones to care for us.
Michael reminded me of a famous article from 2001 by Arlie Hochschild called ‘The Nanny Chain’ which ponders what we are doing to people and relationships when immigrant carers are paid to look after middle class children and use their remittances to pay a different stranger to look after their own children back home.
In terms of Sandel’s idea of corruption, consider the contrast between the value we place on care in the private and public domain. In the former we say that nothing matters more than the welfare of our loved ones. We give and receive care as part of a web of reciprocity which goes towards defining who we are as social beings. But in the market, care is low status and low paid. Might it be that the low value ascribed to paid care might corrupt the status of voluntary and familial care, adding a loss of self-worth and status (and influence) to the other challenges of being a carer?
To argue that the socialisation and marketisation of care may be problematic is difficult. It might sound like a suggestion that there was a golden past of unlimited compassion, or a failure to appreciate the radically different conditions created by population ageing and female employment, or – worst of all – an attempt to force care back into the home and onto the shoulders of unpaid women.
Politicians are under pressure to come up with solutions. Labour is putting its emphasis on the need to join up social and health care commissioning and perhaps underestimating the reasons why this is very hard to do. But no reconfiguration of spending or services is going to be enough to resolve the care crisis. Liz Kendall is right: we must explore care as part of our lives and our society as well as a particularly intractable set of funding and policy problems.
We had an excellent seminar this morning exploring the idea of ‘community retail’ with a range of experts and also colleagues from ASDA. The supermarket chain tells a powerful story about its intention to make stores community hubs, a story given weight by the employment of part time community life champions in every store and its commitment to open up its property to free community use. ASDA HQ had expected the free space offer to lead to about 7,000 community uses over the first few months. In fact, and perhaps reflecting the closure of many publicly funded facilities, over 21,000 community groups – from bee keepers to the victims of domestic violence -have availed themselves of free spaces.
Also, to ASDA’s credit is their willingness to work with the RSA to undertake a robust evaluation of their work and to identify the challenges involved in taking their approach to the point of redefining the relationship between supermarkets and communities.
In the discussion this morning there was praise for ASDA – including from Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd (who has kindly agreed to be on the advisory group for the project) – but also the Minister and several others weren’t afraid to ask tough questions about the impact of supermarkets on local traders and the distinctiveness of town centres.
ASDA don’t operate neighbourhood supermarkets but the conversation put me in mind of a point I have meaning to make for some time.
In my neighbourhood in Clapham the long running attempt to stop Sainsbury from locating a store in the local shopping parade was recently defeated. Predictably, the new shop is having a demonstrable effect on the competing local businesses including a newsagent, an off licence and a corner shop grocer. The last of these is making a small but unconvincing attempt to diversify by expanding its range of flowers and plants. Judging by their quality and cost, I suspect it will not succeed.
There is no need for local supermarkets to kill off other business. Indeed, the latest data suggests quite a lot of the local trade is redirected from larger supermarkets as people plump for just in time shopping and avoid expensive car use. But for those shops competing directly on basic groceries, the prospects after Tesco or Sainsbury have landed are bleak. Moreover just a couple of empty shop fronts can have a cooling effect on other businesses.
Yet – and this is my point – Sainsbury and Tesco (and other chains that do local supermarkets) must by now have a very good idea of which local businesses suffer, and which thrive, after the nationals have landed. So, why don’t the stores soften the blow and also potentially reduce local opposition by offering a consultancy and investment service to local businesses? In the case of the failing grocer near me, Sainsbury could, as soon as they got planning permission, advises the owner that while no grocer can compete on the basics, they could grow their business by attracting new footfall to a more specialist offer such as a florist, bakery, cake shop or butcher.
I am not suggesting that all grocers would want to adapt or have the capacity to do so, but the national chain could make a very significant offer comprising:
- Advice and training
- An interest free loan or investment
- Some joint local marketing
- A promise not to expand its own local offering in the chosen area of specialism
With all this, surely. from what might have appeared a threat, many new opportunities for retailers and offers for shoppers might emerge?
It is possible that something like this exists already but I have never heard of it and there is no sign of it in my localities. Indeed, I suspect that apart from simple lack of concern and imagination, the stumbling block might be that the nationals don’t want even implicitly to admit that their arrival has a terminal impact on directly competing outlets.
So, tell me, is this a crazy idea? If not, I might just drop Tesco and Sainsbury a line.
Local authorities are forever saying they want more powers and more freedom. They often turn out to be less good at explaining what exciting things they would like to do but which they are unable to pursue at present. In a similar vein, a reason for lack of enthusiasm for Mayors is the absence of a story about the kind of transformational change that only someone with the personal mandate of a Mayor would be able to achieve.
Consider these points:
- Places have different assets and needs and therefore require different policies to thrive
- People are attracted to, and excited by, places which feel like they have a distinctive identity (unless the distinction is obviously negative)
- Diverse practices are good for systems as they foster learning and innovation and also provide signals which direct people with particular strengths and enthusiasms to the right destination
- In many ways, despite social progress, current ways of living are dysfunctional both in terms of social good and individual life satisfaction.
Then add some context
- Public sector austerity
- Continued support for devolving more power from the national centre
- In most areas outside the South East little faith that a rising national economic tide, if and when it comes, will be enough to turn their places around.
Put these together and the case grows for what might be called ‘experiments in living’. The idea is that local leaders float inspired ideas for how their place might choose to be very different from other places, not just in the policies they pursue, but the goals they set.
Two small examples are the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma who decided his city would lead American in losing weight and Transition Town Totnes, which is exploring alternative economic models with widespread community engagement and commitment. In both cases the model of change relies on a high level of public commitment to the goal and its delivery; there is no question of politicians being able to do it on their own.
Writing in the week of local elections I am aware that every Party claims to have a local vision but generally when these are big they are vague and when they are specific, they are small (all three major Party leaders’ speeches at their conference this year will be characterised by this dispiriting big/vague concrete/small dichotomy).
Instead we need local leaders to start to challenge their communities with big, concrete, long term aims. Here is the kind of thing that might cut the mustard:
- This place aims over the next ten years to move to a standard 32 hour week along with a commitment to genuinely full employment.
- This place aims to reduce residential care to a bare minimum and to make caring for our vulnerable neighbours something to which all residents commit and in which all residents play a role.
- This place aims to make art and creativity a specialism for all our public services and the core of our local economy.
- This place will abolish child poverty.
Just imagine how much more interesting and creative England would be if every major town and city had set itself a significant and ambitious goal of this kind.
Actually, I don’t think these are the most exciting of ideas so I challenge my reader to come up with her own.