what you get here

This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

We're here to serve you

Our worship of progress and the “new” leads us to imagine that “performance management” is a modern discovery – and one that will set things aright in the world. It’s therefore marvellous to read this exasperated quotation from none less than the Duke of Wellington in 1812 -
Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French Forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests, which have been sent by H.M Ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch rider to our headquarters. We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence. Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstances since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.
This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty's Government, so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with my best ability, but I cannot do both.
1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London, or perchance
2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain
I owe the quotation to a brilliant website set up by a senior civil servant (Martin Stanley) which contains the clearest and best analysis I have ever read of British Civil Service Reform.
Most of the stuff written about this subject is by social science academics – who lack the historical perspective and seem to have bought into the rationalistic belief system. This guy first sets the political/sociological context for the breathless British changes of the past 40 years.
It is ironic that many of the problems facing today's politicians stem from the successes of their predecessors. Indeed most of them have their roots in our ever increasing wealth and ever improving health.For a start, UK society is now vastly more wealthy than 50 years ago. A typical post-war household literally had nothing worth stealing:- No car, no TV, no phone, nothing! No wonder it was safe to leave doors open along most British streets. But GDP has risen four-fold since then. Most homes nowadays have a wide range of marketable goods, and huge amounts of money to spend on non-essentials, including on drink and drugs. The crime rate has therefore soared, as drug addicts seek to get their hands on others' wealth, and drunks cause various sorts of mayhem. Our wealth causes other problems:
• We can afford to eat much more, and travel everwhere by car, and so get fat and unhealthy, with consequences for the health service.
• There are now 10 times as many cars on the roads as in the 1950s, with obvious implications for transport and environmental policies.
• Much the same applies to the growth in cheap air travel.

Other problems are caused by the fact that the distribution of the new wealth is uneven. And many of us seek to catch up by borrowing as if there is no tomorrow. Credit card debt, for instance, increased from Ł34m in 1971 to Ł54,000m in 2005.
The other big success is our health, and not least the fact that we are all living so much longer than before. Life expectancy at birth is currently increasing at an astonishing 0.25 years per year. Healthy life expectancy is also increasing - but only at around 0.1 years per year. In 1981, the expected time that a typical man would live in poor health was 6.5 years. By 2001 this had risen to 8.7 years. Just imagine what pressure this is putting on the health and social services ... ... not to mention on pension schemes. The average age of men retiring in 1950 was 67. They had by then typically worked for 53 years and would live for another 11 years. By 2004, the average of men retiring was 64. They had by then typically worked for 48 years and would live for a further 20 years. As a result, the work/retired ratio had halved from about 5 to about 2.4. These are huge (and welcome) changes, but with equally huge - and politically unwelcome - implications for tax, pensions and benefits policies.
It is also noticeable that voters nowadays want to spend more and more money on holidays, clothes, durables, etc. whilst few seriously try to promote the benefits that result from the public provision of services. Voters therefore resent paying taxes, and the Government is under constant pressure to spend less, despite the problems summarised above.
In parallel with all this, society has become more complex and less deferential:
• Voters are much more likely to have been to university, to have travelled abroad, and to complain.
• The family is less important.
• Adult children are much more likely to live some distance from their parents
• 42% of children are now born outside marriage.
• The media are much more varied and much more influential, whilst the public are much more inclined to celebrate celebrity.
• Voters expect the quality of public services to improve and refuse to accept inadequate provision.
• They also turn more readily to litigation.
• The Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act add to these pressures.
• There have been other more subtle, but perhaps more profound, changes.
• The original welfare state was a system of mutual insurance - hence "National Insurance". It has slowly changed into a system of rights and entitlements based on need. This is morally attractive - but it is also open to abuse, which breeds resentment.
• The post-war generation believed in self-help. Much post-school education was through unions or organisations such as the Workers Educational Association. We now expect the state to provide, and 50% of our children go to university.
• Our increasing wealth and improving health - let alone the absence of major conflict - means that we really do have very little to worry about compared with our predecessors. But of course we still worry, and demand that the Government "does something about" all sorts of lesser risks, from dangerous dogs through to passive smoking.
• Another interesting change has been the introduction of choice into health and education policies. This is in part because modern voters want to be able to choose between different approaches to medicine and education. But choice is also a very effective substitute for regulation in that it forces the vested interests in those sectors to take more notice of what their customers actually want. There are, however, some unwelcome consequences arising from the introduction of choice into public services:
• The availability of choice inevitably gives a relative advantage to the sharp elbows of the middle classes. They can, for instance, move into the right catchment areas, and are better at demanding access to the right doctors.
• Choice also requires there to be spare capacity, which has to be paid for. Less popular schools and hospital have to be kept open - often at significant cost - so that they can improve and offer choice when their busy competitors become complacent and less attractive.
• Ultimately, however, persistently unpopular and/or expensive schools and hospitals have to be allowed to close, or else they have no incentive to improve. But such closures always provoke various forms of protest
What sort of people, faced with all this, would aspire to be politicians? No wonder we get "the leaders we deserve" (title of a marvellous book in the 1980s by Alaister Mant). This extended quotation from the website is just setting the scene for the wry descriptions of the numerous initiaives taken by British Governments since 1968 to get a civil service system "fit for purpose". For more read here
Last night saw torrential rain here in Sofia - and today is like a typical dreich day in Scotland. The fig tree has become enormous - and is bending in the wind. Great after the heat of the past few days. I cycled before 09.00 to the great butcher's shop (diagonally from the Art Nouveau Agriculture Ministry building) and up a short drive which supplies pork, chicken and sausages sublimely marinated in honey and spices. There is a buzz about the place - these people know they are providing heavenly products!!!

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