Friday, June 04, 2010

Big is not always beautiful

A friend has emailed me some notes from one of those grim conferences that work decide that people must go to. One presentation was given by a consultant styling himself as a "Public Cost Reduction Specialist". I am quoting from the notes, rather than from any published documentation, with permission from my friend. They provide a glimpse of the workings of Conservative thinking on the Big Society, the idea of a limited state but with an active citizenry.

I suppose the one thing that the seminar showed was just how seriously this was being taken and I doubt whether the new coalition would put much of a brake on any real policies that emerged. There is an ideological preference within both the Tories and the Orange Book Liberals for this approach to the public sector, though it is hard to see where the demand lies outside the political class. A general distrust of politicians has not produced a populist upsurge in this country to match the Tea Party movement, "antipolitical Jacobins" as Mark Lilla describes them in this essay from the New York Review of Books.
The new Jacobins have two classic American traits that have grown much more pronounced in recent decades: blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing—and unwarranted—confidence in the self. They are apocalyptic pessimists about public life and childlike optimists swaddled in self-esteem when it comes to their own powers.
I see no sign of this in the UK (other than from religious fundamentalists and alternative health quacks!). Popular protest is more likely to arise in defence of public services, rather than to ask for them to be dismantled.

So, unsurprisingly, much of the urgency behind the approach seems to come from a desire to cut costs and to reduce deficits, rather than from popular demand for change. Empowerment, individual autonomy and the breaking of dependency are the rhetorical justifications for a policy of reduced central government expenditure. It is a way of making cuts sound nice.

So what does this mean in practice? Firstly, it means marketisation and competition in the public sector to "empower" the consumer through consumer choice, thereby raising productivity and putting downward pressure on "wage inflation" in the public sector. This is all depressingly familiar and not new at all. They are the same assumptions that underpinned New Labour's public service reform agenda. The objections are the same too - public services are not the same as consumer goods, quality often rests on lower productivity (teachers with smaller class sizes, social workers with lower case loads, etc.) and consumer choice is not ownership and control.

You can see the difference between the parties though in health care. Instead of setting targets and performance indicators, marketisation will mean that prices will be set for hospitals to do given procedures, thus incentivising hospital managers to improve productivity and carry out more (just like the US insurance system - and in the same way it can lead to rampant over-medication).

The consultant also seemed taken with behavioural economic notions like the fashionable "nudge", as well as other fads, thinking that economic policy can be used to shape human behaviour - in the direction he wants it to go of course. Apparently, this process of subliminal social control is known as "libertarian paternalism" (an oxymoron if ever I have seen one).

What got to me most was the discussion of public libraries where he suggested a neat and cheap way to meet the demands of those who protest at library closures.
"Well,... if you look at the demographics of people volunteering to work at Oxfam shops, its nearly always the same as the demographic of people who campaign to keep libraries open...

Why not let the volunteers run the libraries! And you could have Libraries open 24 hours with this arrangement! And you could do deals with WH Smith to sell remaindered books!"
Hmm... Leaving aside the fact that going to a library at 3.00 am, staffed by an unpaid, well-meaning insomniac, to access a stock of remaindered books is not the most attractive vision, this is horribly simplistic. People campaign to keep a professional service going, not to make an opportunity for themselves for unpaid work. There is so much more besides ...

As well as cuts, there is a second agenda lurking around. The consultant continued,
"Of course although eventually government will give freedom, in the initial stages government will have to be quite hard, and tough with local authorities in ensuring they become sufficiently liberated and fully utilise their new found freedoms ... we know that ... even if you throw open the doors of an asylum, some people will always just creep off and cower in a corner rather than running away."
I see. The power being given away is not central government's - it is local government's. And to do this, central government will have to increase its power and control. This is a rather old-fashioned political struggle against municipal local authorities who are often the power base of other parties and work, in part, in variance to central government policies.

What this reminded me of was Jacob Levi's demolition of another associated piece of fashionable nonsense, Philip Blond’s Red Toryism. Remember these are Conservative Party ideas and Levi describes the social base of much conservatism in this way:
... conservatism is the party of the traditional elite, drawing on the votes or social support of those they have traditionally dominated. It is the alliance the aristocrat offers the peasant against the tacky, educated, often-Jewish new money city slicker; and the aristocrat sets the terms of the alliance.
This could not be a more fitting description of these proposals. The independent sector is being offered a deal and the terms of that deal, as well as the control of funding, is set by central government.

Thus the big society vision stands in opposition to democratic decentralisation and representative local democracy. It enhances central government control through purse strings rather than targets, though I see that central control of the school curriculum is also being embraced with enthusiasm. It also opens the way for the politics of communalism, funding independent power bases that can be used for advancing of narrow ideological and sectarian aims.

I must make it clear that I have no hostility to the voluntary and community sector. I worked closely with it in running adult education programmes, but it does not match the stereotypical view embraced by this consultant. It works in partnership with local authorities and other public bodies, not against them, and it is professional, most staff are paid for their work. It is a key player in regeneration and community development. However brilliantly it does some things, it is only too aware of the tensions between central funding and autonomy, a factor absent from the consultant's vision.

There is something to be learnt here from adult education too. There has been a hidden privatisation. As classes have closed, students and tutors have set up their own programmes on their own terms. Free from appalling bureaucracy, people can learn together as they want. And most importantly, they have direct ownership, no one can close their courses or take their classes away from them, as has happened in the past. There are problems with comprehensive coverage, access and qualifications for those that want them, but it could be the basis for a renaissance of dedicated adult learning.

This would seem to support the assumptions about the Big Society, as would some of the anarchist ideas of the late Colin Ward, but this is not the case. Autonomy is not something that is granted, and funded, by a central government or an elite. Nor is it about behaving in a socially acceptable way. It is is about self-organisation and self determination; it is taken, not given.

It is early days for the new government so who knows whether any of this will eventually see the light of day. Parties in opposition are very fond of flirting with ideas that they then abandon when faced with the realities of government and the attraction of exercising power. All I know is that if I had responsibility for cutting expenditure, Public Sector Cost Reduction Specialists would be the first for the chop.

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