Elections should be about which political party is offering the best plan for Britain. The truth is more complex and less edifying.
A few years ago a detailed historical analysis of the outcome of close elections between right of centre and left of centre parties offered an explanation of why the right tends to win. Surveying swing voters the researchers focussed not on the party’s policies but the voters’ perception of the risks associated with Governments not delivering their promised plan. The risk of right of centre parties failing to deliver was seen as cuts in public services and greater social division while the risk of left of centre parties not delivering was higher taxes and economic frailty. While many voters worry about the former, more worry personally about the latter. Thus the greater perceived risk of a left of centre party failing in office leads key voters to opt for the lesser risk of a right of centre party failing.
This analysis (annoyingly, I can’t find the reference) is highly salient to the coming election. For not only is it looking close and not only is there a substantial difference in fiscal policy, but our disenchanted electorate is inclined to believe that whoever wins will renege on their promises. Which takes us to the paradox that may yet determine the outcome in May.
When George Osborne published his eye watering fiscal plan in the autumn statement I was among many who felt it was not only disingenuous but politically misguided. Few serious economists think Mr Osborne can stick to his plan. Unless there is a serious uptick in the European economy such an intensification of the fiscal squeeze would be likely to reduce growth and thus be counter-productive. Also, as outgoing civil service chief Sir Bob Kerslake among others has argued, the proposed level of cuts is probably undeliverable; essential services would start to collapse. Furthermore polling is beginning to suggest that voters are becoming austerity-weary and don’t see tax cuts as realistic. The proposal that we not only have five more years of deep cuts but an extra dollop in order to fund a tax giveaway is surely electorally unwise.
In contrast Labour’s plan, while tough to deliver, looks more realistic. It is true, as the IFS said this week, that only closing the revenue deficit by 2020 is risky giving the possibility of a downswing in the economic cycle, but we are where we are and there is no realistic policy that would survive such a scenario intact.
In reality, both Balls and Osborne are resting their hopes not on their published forecasts and plans but on long awaited signs that economic growth is generating a fiscal dividend (the most important single data point between now and the election will be the Treasury tax take for January). All other things being equal, the Balls plan looks more growth-friendly than the Osborne plan.
On this basis many analysts assume that a Conservative election victory in 2015 will see a continuation of the last five years in which targets are continually missed and the deficit is cut much more slowly than the plan. In other words, if you vote for Osborne’s plan many experts think you will get something closer to Balls’.
Surely this means Labour’s economic and political strategy is stronger? Here lies the paradox. If the historical analysis is borne out, when the election is close and the voters assume no one will deliver their promises the key question is ‘which party’s risk of failure is more worrying?’. The answer to this favours the Conservatives. For while the likely risk of Osborne failing to meet his targets is that we end up with something like the Balls plan (the voters’ favoured option), the risk of Balls failing could be a fiscal crisis which could only be alleviated by substantial tax increases.
So (and I suggest you read this slowly), voters may end up opting for the party with the plan they least like because they think this party is more likely to end up implementing the plan they most like than the party actually promising the plan they most like.
The only answer for Labour is to double up on its promise of fiscal rectitude. Unfortunately for the opposition the kitbag of devices to do this is already pretty much empty. We have had written pledges, Golden Rules, an independent Bank of England, the OBR and even this week fiscal responsibility legislation, yet still politicians fail to deliver. All Miliband’s team can do is to bang home their commitment day in day out, explicitly saying that if growth goes off track it will be services not taxpayers that will be squeezed. But this would require a conviction and message discipline across the whole Labour frontbench which has thus far been absent.
For a political scientists it is fascinating to see whether the historical tendency for perceived risk to determine outcomes in close contests is borne out. For those of us who wish elections were fought on the basis of rational policies and authentic debate it is all rather depressing.
If we want to survive austerity, let alone improve places and lives, we must attend to the human dimensions of public service leadership.
During 2014 I have attended, chaired, or spoken at, countless meetings on public service reform strategy. Yet two of the most powerful examples of the possibilities of reform were spontaneous and personal.
The first was in a working group on reducing unemployment in an inner London borough. As facilitator of the group, I had insisted at an earlier meeting that the local providers of the Work Programme be invited to join our deliberations. This was rather against the instinct of the local authority whose members had a tendency to see the providers as untrustworthy and unhelpful private sector profiteers.
With the meeting trundling on and the various agencies staying within their comfort zones, out of sheer frustration I tried something new. I invited everyone in the room to speak directly to another person: ‘Tell them’, I suggested, ‘something they could do differently which would help you do your job of tackling unemployment’. After an uncomfortable silence it was one of the Work Programme providers who piped up. She described how several of her customers had received advice from the council’s welfare rights team and, as a consequence, had been able to secure a bit more money or to avoid having to join the Programme. ‘It’s not that I don’t want them to exercise their rights or get their entitlements’, she said ‘it’s just there doesn’t seem to be any message about the value of trying to get a job’.
All eyes turned to the rather fierce senior council officer. Her reply was powerful, something along the lines of ‘You are absolutely right. I am really glad you’ve raised it. I am going to go back and look at how we can change the remit of the team and the job descriptions of staff to put a much stronger emphasis on promoting routes to work’. This brief interaction released the whole room to start being a lot more open about their frustrations and aspirations. At last we started to move beyond the lazy, generic bleating about things ‘not joining up’ or ‘everyone working in silos’ into concrete issues, requests and commitments.
Then earlier this week I was invited to speak to and facilitate a meeting of the Essex Partnership Board (made up of public and voluntary sector agencies from across the county), chaired by the very direct and thoughtful council leader David Finch. In the first part of the meeting I spoke about collective impact methodologies; identifying a shared mission, agreeing key metrics, sharing out clearly differentiated roles and responsibilities, committing to high levels of communication and having a backbone organisation to hold the process together and maintain momentum. Everyone seemed keen, although perhaps more in principle than practice.
Then something startling happened. A leading officer of a local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group premised his/her comments (I have to be careful here as telling the truth about the growing winter crisis can be a career-ending move in the NHS) by describing the week he/she is having. In essence with norovirus on the move and flu figures starting to rise, the NHS is already at breaking point with long and growing waits for ambulances and in A and E, and a chronic shortage of staff and beds. One consequence is frail people being discharged to return to empty homes at midnight.
The officer was about to move on to the presentation when I merely expressed the palpable mood in the room: ‘how can we talk about the ambitious, collaborative principles of collective impact and then not apply them in the face of a challenge like this?’
Within a few minutes the CCG manager was surrounded by a gaggle of fellow leaders discussing what they could all do to help. One promised to co-ordinate a communication to all their staff about getting the flu jab and looking after the health of family and neighbours, while someone from the voluntary sector committed to directing more volunteers to A and E departments to accompany people home when they are discharged at night. The room was full of energy as the managers were powerfully reminded of the very reason they joined the public and voluntary sector in the first place.
Public service reform can often seem like a very dry and technocratic process. Of course, it is important to be systematic, to prioritise, to apply the best evidence of what works etc but, as I argued in a recent post, if our aim really is transformation (anything less will mean a declining public sphere) we will also need a different quality of leadership: seeing the whole system, creating genuine conversation and moving from reaction to co-creation.
Even beyond that there is, it seems, a vital emotional dimension. We live in a world of competition, public relations and 24 hour media; a world where expressing fear or vulnerability as a leader can feel very dangerous. In this world the most powerful way to turn a group of people guarding their organisations into a team passionately committed to shared action isn’t offering help, but asking for it.
George Osborne’s autumn statement appears to be is a sophisticated package; written to maximise advantage to the Conservatives with a strong ideological undertow, but also containing a popular top line policy – on stamp duty – that has already commanded cross-party support.
Although, along with just about every other commentator, I don’t think the Chancellor can actually deliver the targets of spending reduction he published yesterday, the statement confirms what we already knew: unless we start very soon to see a substantial fiscal dividend from economic growth, public services face many more years of trying to meet growing demands and rising expectations with frozen or falling budgets. Indeed the statement adds an extra year to the austerity horizon meaning major cuts will still be being implemented in the immediate run up to the election after next. Bu already, for local services in particular, the fat has long gone, the flesh has been sliced and the vital organs are starting to fail.
Mr Osborne’s unwillingness to recognise this or to accept any responsibility for how his strategy will impact on public servants and citizens is an abnegation of his responsibility as a public servant, albeit one that will be echoed by other political leaders with no desire to disturb voters with difficult truths. The survival of the public domain relies on a further significant shift of responsibility from the state to the citizen. Political expediency and the failure of the Big Society means no national leader will be inclined to ‘fess up to that before next May. If we need a different order of public leadership in these challenging times we will have to focus elsewhere.
Over recent days I have looked at public service reform from a bewildering number of angles. I attended the first national conference for the Government-funded ‘What works centres‘. I chaired a Parliamentary roundtable event on design for policy. I also chaired the launch of the Public Service Transformation Challenge Panel report, sponsored by DCLG.
On top of this I was MC of an event to publish the final report of Islington Employment Commission and the keynote speaker at the launch of the Croydon Fairness Commission. Finally, I chaired the second in our series of seminars held in conjunction with the global education services provider Pearson to discuss the idea of efficacy, this time in the context of school improvement.
Normally this would provide material for several blog posts. For while there was value in all these initiatives I have misgivings about each. The general approach of the What Works centres is overly technocratic (which is perhaps inevitable) and lacking a convincing model of change (which is less excusable).
The design for policy approach is fascinating and progressive but can feel overblown given the paucity of powerful examples of impact at scale and that, on closer inspection, design for policy isn’t all that different from the best examples of traditional policy making.
The recommendations of the Public Service Transformation Panel were hard to dispute but the report didn’t really get to grips with why implementing them seems so hard and, anyway, the idea of ‘transformation’ is surely a misnomer for a set of practices – a focus on citizens and more effective inter agency collaboration, for example – which need to be seen not as one-off changes but as a continuous discipline.
It is heartening that local authorities like Islington and Croydon are looking to provide a broader convening role focussed around the needs of citizens. However, in practice (and it is too early to speak for Croydon) I find that councils have rarely thought deeply enough about how to provide a qualitatively different kind of leadership, one that is based on influence and generosity, not control.
And while I continue to be impressed by Pearson’s commitment to ensuring that their products and services improve people’s lives through learning, it is clear that efficacy is a more powerful tool for asking questions than providing definitive answers. (Indeed, Pearson’s growing awareness that efficacy is not about imposing a single ‘one best way’ perspective on complex challenges contrasts with the rather reductive world view of the What Works initiatives.)
As I rushed from initiative to initiative the sense that something fundamental is lacking in them all grew and grew. The length of time since my last post is witness to my inability to put my finger on what that something is. Now I think I may have found it. My colleague Anthony Painter (who leads the RSA’s growing portfolio of work on institutional reform) directed me to a new paper published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. ‘The Dawn of System Leadership’ is by the impressive team of Peter Senge (recently interviewed in the RSA Journal), Hal Hamilton and John Kania.
The article helped me identify that missing ingredient. In short, the need for a different order of leadership, something to which reformers often pay lip service but which I see little sign of being fully appreciated. There are two contrasting problems with a focus on leadership: first is that it reinforces a hierarchical model of change, second that ‘leadership’ is a proxy for an ill-defined bundle of virtues – commitment, wisdom, authority. The value of the Stanford Review paper is that it provides a compelling and concrete account of the components of the kind of leadership needed to solve tough problems; problems like reforming public services in a context of shrinking budgets and rising demands.
Senge et al identify three core capabilities:
• The ability to see the larger system
• An ability to foster reflection and more generative conversation
• A capacity to shift the conversation from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.
Exhorting a new paradigm is all very well but why might we hope for new leadership? Through their own experience and the many case studies they cite the Stanford authors argue that the hunger for system leadership and the human capacity to provide such leadership is growing. This perspective chimes with the progressive human development theories of figures like Robert Kegan and Ken Wilbur.
The problem is not our receptivity or capacity: it is the organisational forms and norms that put huge barriers in the way of system leadership and, more profoundly, blind us even to its possibility.
Senge et al summarise their argument in one sentence:
The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader – the system leader, a person who catalyses collective leadership.
Although this insight is negatively articulated in the ever growing disdain of citizens towards the political establishment I don’t expect it to be acknowledged anytime soon in the actions and rhetoric of national politics. Yet, without system leadership in our services and localities the next few years will see the public domain hollowed out ever further.
Of the many unflattering comments I received on school reports one of the most memorable was: ‘O Levels are for the mediocre and accordingly he passed’. An echoing phrase came to mind when listening to the coverage of yesterday’s by-election: ‘politics is for those seeking to recreate the past, accordingly UKIP won’.
As regular readers will know, the RSA has a new worldview (if you like pictures here’s the animated version). We call it the Power to Create and it is necessary for my argument to recap its main points.
…..Today we have unprecedented opportunity to fulfil the ideal of every citizen living a creative life. This is possible because citizens are becoming better educated and more cosmopolitan and because they increasingly aspire to greater autonomy and self- expression. It is possible also because public, private and civic organisations are beginning to understand that their survival and success depends on tapping into the creativity of citizens, clients and customers. Both of these processes are hugely facilitated by technology, particularly the social web; the greatest accelerator of mass human creativity in world history.
But there are barriers too: Inequality and elitism which deny people the tools of autonomy, meaning and creativity – basic financial assets, data and intellectual property, social networks; the logic of educational institutions and hierarchical organisations which too often treat creativity as the exclusive domain of the few; and a politico-technocratic model which sees citizens as the objects not the subjects of social change.
I try to talk about the Power to Create in any speech I give. While I find it goes down pretty well with young people and the open minded, progressive folk who make up the RSA Fellowship I observe another response when I am speaking to politicians or those who work for them in local or national government.
Whether or not they agree they don’t see the RSA’s analysis as relevant. This may be partly because the critique of hierarchical organisations and traditional policy making is too radical, but there is a stronger source of resistance: Our political class and those who serve them have largely given up talking about the future.
As a former Labour representative and official I find this particularly depressing. Whenever Labour wins power – 1945, 1964, 1997 – it is in part because it has articulated a story of the possibilities ahead. It has described an exciting future and has successfully argued that social democratic values and methods are best placed to seize the opportunities (and address the threats) of that future. Yet today’s Labour Party seems remarkably incurious and unenthusiastic about the 21st century and the deep trends in technology and in human capability and aspiration that could define that century. Tellingly, the most developed critique of Miliband’s direction comes not from future gazers but in the nostalgic nostrums of ‘blue Labour’. (The craven abandonment of progressivism by mainstream and reforming Conservatives is powerfully condemned by Philip Collins in today’s Times).
This is not an argument for blind optimism. From Vladimir Putin to antibiotic resistance, from climate change to the polarising tendencies of financial capitalism, there are many things to worry about, many things we need strong leadership to help us tackle. But you don’t inspire a team only by talking about the fear of defeat. It is through painting a vivid picture of possibility that we gird people’s loins for the hard choices necessary to make that future possible.
As any strategist worth her salt knows, the most important skill in politics is defining the battleground. Most people are uninterested and unaware of policy – except when it goes badly wrong. What matters much more is who defines the problem and thus steals a march in claiming to have the solution. But if the problem is defined as the modern world the winners are those who seem most determined to abandon it.
While politicians are often rather vague about technology and out of touch with the young, I have never known a political class so uninterested in the medium term future as the current crop. Sure, politicians occasionally visit silicon roundabout and genuflect to the billionaire internet whizz kids, but this is tourism not proper exploration or analysis.
And so politics, rather than a fight for that future, is fought on a different terrain – a battle to recreate the past, a past moreover that never really existed.
Who knows how successful UKIP will be in the next election, but if politics continues to descend into a nostalgia competition all bets, indeed, are off.
Better integrating services around citizens needs is a no brainer. So why is it so difficult?
The five year NHS plan, unveiled last week by my former Downing Street colleague Simon Stevens, has been widely and justly praised. The plan is based on robust arguments and contains many good ideas but, for me, its greatest strength lies in method: Rather than proposing a new national structure, or getting too involved in the detail of policy, it advocates a number of ways to achieve better integration of primary, acute and community care. Local health commissioners and providers are encouraged to consider which model best suits their circumstances while NHS England will focus on providing advice, insight and support for local reform. This enabling, decentralising framework is very welcome and one can only hope that other parts of Whitehall will emulate it.
But I have a major reservation. A key theme of the report is care integration; vertical, horizontal or both. This echoes a recurrent theme in debate not just in health reform but across the public sector. In 1997, for example, Labour said its top priority for Whitehall reform was to produce joined up government. Geoff Mulgan who was given the task of promoting more integrated working has described the rapid and profound disillusionment among civil servants as they saw the behaviour of Labour cabinet members continuously undermine the principles of joining up.
When something has been advocated so often and for so long, yet seems so hard to achieve in practice, we need to ask why.
The case for integration sometimes starts on shaky conceptual grounds. A truly comprehensive Whitehall approach to a major policy goal – like child poverty for example – would involve most major domestic policy departments. But while for some, such as DWP or Education, it would be a key priority, for others, such as the Ministry of Justice or DCLG, it would inevitably be more peripheral. In a complex system full integration of all factors affecting an outcome is virtually impossible. The NHS plan makes the case for health and social care services working better together but says relatively little about areas like housing and employment which are arguably just as important to public health and community resilience.
Just as full integration is impossible at a system level, it is also unlikely at an organisational level. Advocates of integrated solutions are often guilty of the merger illusion, namely that putting functions together in the same organisation is sufficient to make sectionalism subside. But as anyone who works in a large organisation will attest, the fact that managers share the same employer and use the same front door is pretty much irrelevant to whether they put corporate, customer-focussed interests above departmental, producerist ones. Team size is more important than organisational label, which is why some organisational theorists argue that the most productive and creative model of organisations is always to devolve to cross cutting units of around ten to twenty people. Strong integrated, outcome-focussed teams are needed to overcome the natural pull of professional loyalty and hierarchical incentives.
Indeed the three powers framework I advocated in my annual lecture two years ago (itself derived from cultural theory) provides a good basic checklist: Individual incentives, team loyalty and values, and hierarchical authority must all reinforce a shift to integrated working. Often the call from integration comes from the top while individual incentives and day to day loyalties continue to be oriented around functional specialisms.
A shared mission, robust systems and aligned incentives are all vital to the success of integrated models but there is also an important psychological and interpersonal dimension.
I have been working recently with a London local authority trying to join up employment services. Facilitating the meetings, I have been struck by the importance to the process of openness and generosity. In the last event I used the simple device of asking people in the room directly to request help from someone else. Eventually a manager from an agency focussed on employment told a local authority officer that the council’s welfare rights team often helped people increase their benefit entitlement while reducing incentives to work; ‘I know this is their job’ she said; ‘but given how bad long term unemployment is for people, shouldn’t they be focussing more on showing clients how they could be better off in work?’. The local authority officer was impressed and promised there and then that the welfare team would be given a much stronger employability mandate. From this point of discussion, it became easier for people to open up, talk about how they needed help and to start to offer help to others. Yet still I had to confront one senior manager who seemed to find it impossible – despite the evidence – to admit her service was anything but perfect.
Ironically, a problem with the call for integration may be precisely that it sounds so much like common sense. This leads decision makers and managers to underestimate the major and inherent barriers. A failure to perceive and act holistically is a very human flaw as is the tendency to act tribally and respond to immediate incentives.
Organisational reform may be a necessary condition for integration but, without attending to the psychological and cultural dimensions of what is an inherently challenging human process, such reform will not succeed in putting the joined up needs of citizens first.