Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category


May 17th, 2016

As the EU Referendum gets closer  the one point of  contention that is most irritating me is the question of sovereignty. One of the main platforms of the Leave campaign is the insistence that membership of the European Union has meant that the UK has somehow reduced sovereignty and lost the ability to make its own laws. This is just not the case. The fact that the European Union passes laws that we have agreed to be bound by does not diminish our ability to make law or choose which laws are applicable in our country.

To illustrate this I want to use an entirely spurious household analogy. I hate household analogies but they seem to be popular.

In our house, my wife (Emma) and I, have the same conversation on a daily basis. Well really it’s less of a conversation and more of a question, “what are we having for dinner?” In my fantastic analogy, it’s more than possible for me to randomly shout “you sit there, I’ll make dinner”. It could happen.

At  this point I could leap to my feet and cook up a tasty prawn curry. Now I know Emma doesn’t really like prawns which leaves her with a dilemma, she can eat it up, she can tell me she doesn’t like prawns (again) whilst eating it up or just refuse to eat it. In all cases she has maintained her sovereignty to make the final decision whether or not to eat it. In terms of diplomacy it might not be tactful to just refuse to eat it because a consequence might mean I just refuse to ever cook again. That would clearly not be to her long term advantage. On the other hand lodging a protest makes clear she has the option to not eat my lovely prawns and begins the negotiation about eating better food next time

prawnsAs an added complexity if I decided to try out my new method of cooking prawns, warming them on the window sill for a day and then rubbing sauce on them, then it is clearly in her interest to refuse to implement dinner in its present form. In our house we have managed to agree basic common standards in cooking that each of us won’t wilfully poison ourselves or each other. So far it’s worked. Though in the future if I decided to persistently poison my wife she would not be compelled to keep eating dangerous food, her sovereignty means she can decide that the risk of death outweighs the benefits of free dinner.

This is how the European Union works. At any point, as a sovereign nation, we can decide we don’t want to do this any more. In fact the referendum itself is a manifestation of that.

The claim that we have detrimental legislation imposed on us just doesn’t stand up. The majority of legislation that comes from the EU relates to making common standards for trade. For example, in the UK we might hit on an epic ruse to make cheap paint. We could sell loads of it really cheaply if we get kids to make it and pump it full of lead. We know kids like working and poisonous paint isn’t so bad if you hold your breath. This is isn’t a position that the EU agrees with. We decide to go ahead and pass the Kids and Paint Act 2016. Excellent we now have cheap paint and busy kids.

The EU is faced with two options. It can prevent us selling our cheap paint in the rest of the continent. It can also explain to us that the standards of child welfare and not killing decorators is not compatible with EU membership. We then weigh up how much we like cheap paint against the benefits that being a member of the EU brings us. If each time we think being a member of the EU is better than walking off then we stay and we let the EU law take precedence. “We let” is the most important part of that sentence. We as a sovereign state make that decision.

phoneThere are practical reasons why we need standards. Take mobile phones for example. It makes absolute sense for there to be a European wide standard for phones. Even the most ardent Europhobe isn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t be able to talk to our Euro friends. The simplest method to achieving this, is for all European members to agree a standard based on the most benefits and least disbenefits and then pass it into law for all of us, with each having a say in the debate.

The alternative would be for a small group to agree what looks like a good standard and then expect 28 individual parliaments to go away and talk about it and hope we all come back with the same one in a time frame that means we can all start setting up phone masts.

In many cases where trade occurs across borders it makes more sense for us to agree to let another body make decisions for us.

Which raises the issue of laws being imposed on us. As a safeguard to letting the EU pass some laws for us we have put in place a process that they must be passed by elected EU representatives (people we vote for). As an interesting aside the UK actually writes the majority of legislation that passes through the EU parliament, we’re good at it. Equally around 85% of legislation that goes through the EU parliament has historically gone with the UK vote.

PX*2956596That does leave a somewhat smaller percentage where laws we have opposed have been passed. But in reality that is often our own fault. For years now we have made UKIP the largest party that represents the UK in the EU Parliament. They  don’t vote. It’s tricky to get laws passed in your favour if you refuse to take part.

Also the Conservatives some time ago decided to join the far right coalition of parties. It’s difficult to get your view taken seriously in the EU if you’re perceived to be speaking on behalf of the far right.

So to summarise too many words. We choose to let another body pass laws on our behalf  because in the long run it is too our benefit. And we can’t make false claims about legislation being imposed on us just because we decide not to take part in votes.

We are still, and always will be, a sovereign nation.



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Where does our tax come from?

April 6th, 2016

taxAs we, rightly, get vexed about the scale of tax avoidance uncovered by the Panama Papers I think it’s about time we turned our attention to the problem with the tax that is paid. Whilst there is clearly an issue with some people earning income within the UK, and shifting it off shore to avoid tax, this is minuscule to the amount of money that is being removed from the developing world. In the decade between 2002 and 2011 it’s estimated that nearly $6 trillion was extracted from developing countries.

That is a staggering amount of money.

All of that money went somewhere. The simplistic story we have about the use of tax havens is that people take money, they don’t want to pay tax on, and it gets squirrelled away into foreign accounts where it just sits there doing nothing. Money never does nothing. Once that money has been”cleaned” it gets legitimately passed through hedge funds and investments vehicles and finds its way back into our economies.

It buys property in London propping up a housing bubble, it buys our football clubs, it hoovers up businesses and restructures them to become profitable and it becomes intrinsically entwined with our pension funds.

We know, from initial revelations, in the Panama Papers that the secrecy in Panama (and willingness to be complicit) led to the cleaning of the ill-gotten proceeds from the Brinks Matt robbery in 1983. Ethics aren’t playing a significant role in all of this.

The reason the UK needs to be most concerned about this is because we play a significant role in how clean money is moved around the globe because we take a cut. It should come as no surprise that much of the money that moves around the world passes through Crown Dependencies or British Overseas Territories. These tiny population areas account for massive financial transactions purely because we have tolerated a very lax regulation regime. These are all areas that if we don’t have explicit dominion over we do have a lot a of influence.

The City of London is the largest global centre for financial transactions and is closely linked to the operation of these financially ambiguous areas of the world. The financial sector in the UK accounts for around 9% of national output. It’s a greater proportion than manufacturing. Consequently it pays massive amounts of money into the UK as tax revenue. The is is tax revenue that is extremely vulnerable.

This shouldn’t come as a massive surprise. 2008 pointed out to us that a significant amount of our tax take was based on the illegal activities of banks. That’s why we have a deficit.

We don’t seem to have learnt from that and are still massively dependent on the tax income from financial services.

So what do we do if the world does tighten up its act? What if the massive amount of cash stops pouring out of the third world and into international investment vehicles? Simplistically less money gets invested and our tax revenue goes down. The UK has ridden on a wave of asset stripping from the Soviet Union and Africa for many years now and this won’t last forever, hopefully. We need to get ready for that and diversify where we get tax from.

We need to understand that a fairer world is going to cost us.


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Rubbish Savings

March 2nd, 2016

binsYesterday Birmingham City Council passed a budget for 2016/17 intended to take another £90 million worth of cuts. That’s an eye watering number but to be honest it’s so large and has happened every year for over five years now. I can’t really comprehend how such cuts can be made each year without us moving to the point where we just pretend we have public services and hope that nothing ever goes seriously wrong in our lives.

As the Government continues its relentless attack on public services there is still a need for some basic functions to be delivered.


Birmingham City Council needs to meet us half way with this and learn to work a bit better. So here is my micro example of how you can save some money by simply being a bit more competent and working as a joined up organisation.

Sigh, this is about bins again. I hated myself for writing about bins this time last year. As an aside, the Council refused to be flexible about that so we’ve largely given up recycling. Leaving an extra redundant bin outside of our house. Today we got another bin we didn’t ask for. We’ve got a lot of bins.

The opposition in Birmingham to the garden waste charge is legendary. Variously labelled as a tax on owning a garden or simply the last human right the Conservatives would leave us with; there is a belief that all waste from your garden should be taken away within the Council Tax. I’m not really bothered, if we’ve got to make massive cuts to social care then I will stump thirty odd quid a year to have some leaves taken away. In the scheme of things it’s not that important.

That doesn’t mean the whole thing doesn’t infuriate me.

Being a conscientious citizen, and being the proud of owner of ton of leaves from last year, I eagerly went to renew my garden waste subscription. Clicking on the link in the friendly Birmingham City Council email it wasn’t hard to find out how to do it.


Eagerly clicking on the link I knew it was only a matter of time before I could once again get to use my only genuine skill. My ability to remember all of my payment details without once having to look at a card.

That was until I met this form.


What are you supposed to do with this? It knows I have a bin registered at my property but insists I have to pick a number for an additional bin. As it was only days from the next collection I assumed that some step must be in place to filter renewals from additional orders. Be that some sort of psychic check or even someone just ringing me up.

Apparently not. Today I got my new bin to add to my collection of increasingly redundant bins. Not to worry I thought (this is completely untrue I was actually irritated like I haven’t been in years), a quick call and this will all be sorted. Except there isn’t a contact number anywhere. Fifteen minutes on the City Council web chat won me the right to ring waste management. I was told that there is a wait of twenty working days to remove a bin delivered in error. Yes, a full calendar month.

Now this could be a story of amusing incompetence but I think it points to a symptomatic flaw.

That web form was clearly designed for new customers, little thought (or I would maintain no thought) has been given to renewals. In the third year of the garden waste charge renewals are going to be the predominant users of the form. That means my error is going to be repeated.

There is an obvious and simple solution. Just amend the web form so that the drop down has an option of “Just renew”. Or if that is a particular programmatic challenge just add a zero at the top of the list. Maybe half an hours work.

But things aren’t that simple at Birmingham City Council. Because of the separation between the supplier (Service Birmingham) and customer (whatever the waste management directorate is called these days) this simple change is something that is likely to have a significant cost implication to it. I’ve no idea what the cost to get a simple change to a web page might be but I assume it must be greater than the cost of :-

All of this, times the number of people this has happened to. Of course this could be pure hysteria on my part. It’s entirely possible that as the orders come in the waste directorate can instinctively tell a renewal from a new order. But I would suggest the cost purely to deal with my issue has to be greater than paying someone to add a zero to a drop down menu. At least I would hope so.

Interestingly if you look at my bullet point list above you might notice that the webchat and call centre are managed by Service Birmingham. Theoretically that means they will get paid more money because I’m forced to engage through two channels (it’s the jargon) in order to clear up their error.

It’s simple things like this that save money and make the Council less irritating.

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Are you sure you want to bomb Syria?

November 27th, 2015

“At this moment, for example, in 1984 (if it was 1984), Oceania was at war with Eurasia and in alliance with Eastasia. In no public or private utterance was it ever admitted that the three powers had at any time been grouped along different lines. Actually, as Winston well knew, it was only four years since Oceania had been at war with Eastasia and in alliance with Eurasia. But that was merely a piece of furtive knowledge, which he happened to possess because his memory was not satisfactorily under control. Officially the change of partners had never happened. Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia. The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible.” – 1984

It seems bizarre that it is only two years since the Government lost a vote to get permission to drop bombs on Syria and yet it looks like there will be another vote. This time, of course, we’ve decided to bomb the other side. I’m not sure there has ever been an occasion where we’ve quite so explicitly changed sides in a conflict.

My stance on bombing Syria is a bit ambivalent really. In the scheme of things the UK deciding to bomb Syria will have little impact. We have seven Tornado jets that were built in the 80s trying to cover an area of 20,000 square miles. At any time we can only have two of these flying and as you’d expect with old aircraft they’re prone to break down. We do have drones but as we found out recently we’ve already been bombing Syria with drones for the last year.

Coupled with there already being well over a hundred aircraft  in the area we wouldn’t be doing much. We know that after a year of bombing the US have effectively run out of things to blow up so the majority of their missions return without doing anything. Russia are actively bombing things but they seem to be largely destroying the moderate rebels that David Cameron thinks will surge into the centre of Syria to replace ISIS.

My objection to bombing is based on having no clear idea which side we are proposing to be on. Everyone involved in the war in Syria wants something different and I’m far from convinced that ISIS is much of a priority to most of them.


Why on earth would you throw yourself in to the middle of that without any clear idea of what success would look like?

We decided to launch air strikes on Libya and the place is immeasurably worse for it. It is entirely possible we can make a terrible situation much much worse. It isn’t worth the risk of doing that just to make us feel like we’re doing something. Sometimes doing nothing is doing something.

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Birmingham Leadership Race

October 15th, 2015

As Birmingham faces an exciting new leadership campaign I thought I’d write down a list of things I’d like to see a potential new leader commit to. Paradise Circus have made a very good point that the Birmingham Labour Party Leadership race serves to disenfranchise a population of a million people. If you don’t even bother to read any more than this paragraph you should sign their petition.

If the Chamberlain Files are to be believed then it looks like we’re faced with a competition between John Clancy, the annual challenger and Ian Ward, basically Albert Bore’s mate. As was pointed out on the Restirred Forum,  before we get bogged down in picking names we should at least have an idea of what we want from someone that rules over a city of a million people.

So this is where I come in with my unasked for priorities. In no particular order and based on no evidence these are the things I’d like to see a Labour Councillor commit to in order to win my vote (not that I’ve got a vote which is part of the problem):-

Transparency – The Council needs to make a proper commitment to transparency. It needs to make contract details, pay scales and commissioning plans publicly available. It needs to provide us with the evidence base it uses to commission services, it needs to involve us in making that evidence base.

Engagement – The Council needs a fully costed engagement plan. More effort needs to be made to go and talk to, and more importantly listen to, the communities of Birmingham. This will cost money and it will involve paying people.

Partnership – In the future the Council will only be able to deliver services in partnership with other people in the city, be they organisations or communities. To make this work the Council needs to commit to devolve budgets to partnerships and let them spend them. Fine be an accountable body but sometimes you need to let go of the cash.

Finance – Yeah we know about the budget cuts, you’ve mentioned it many many times. The Council still has massively more money than anyone else. Instead of telling us what the Council will pay for, tell us what it wants to achieve with the money it already has. This may mean that we need to lose some services but the Council has always been bad at replacing old services with new ones.

Employment – A clear commitment to increasing employment outside of the City centre. This has been neglected for too long. We need to acknowledge that whilst life might be great for some of us in the Guardian featured areas of Birmingham, for others life is generally shit and we’ve just let that happen.

As an addition to that someone needs to make a commitment to keep staff in the Council. Paying everyone over 50 to go away is a stupid way of trying to maintain continuity.

Culture – If we invest in culture then we will have an exciting place to live and we will attract more people to the City. It isn’t wasted money, people don’t want to live in a soulless metal fronted wasteland with a metric ton of shops. Well it does seem that people do want that but retail won’t last forever.

Locality – Give local communities money for them to spend on things they need. Money spent locally has a much more profound affect than if it is spent City wide or regionally. And proper budgets, not £150k to bribe people with skips before an election.

Contracting – Birmingham needs to stop massive contracting processes. Yes, it might be easier from a contract management point of view but it is killing small enterprises and it is leaving the City really vulnerable when contract inevitably fail.

I’ve deliberately left out children’s and adult social care. This is a mess and requires so much more than a trite two sentence summary.

That’s my list. I’ve no idea whether that means anything to anyone but I’d hope that anyone with a hankering to run the largest metropolitan area in Europe would have some response.

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Do You Know How Trident Works?

September 30th, 2015

tridentOver the next few months there will be a lot of hysteria about renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. One of the things that most annoys me about this hysteria is that people seem to be obsessed that Trident sums up all nuclear weapons and a vote to not renew Trident means unilateral disarmament.

Before this debate gets going it would be really useful if people could take a bit of time to think about what Trident is and what it does.  That’s what I’ve been doing, looking things up on the internet. I found these things out on the internet, off Wikipedia. Are these things you knew?

  1. Trident is designed as a system to simultaneously destroy ten cities at once. Using one missile that disperses a number of warheads. The idea being if a country launches an attack against the UK we can then take out most of their major cities in one go. It’s not designed to launch one single warhead but it is possible to equip it with less. It’s actually quite difficult to use it to destroy anything less than a country.
  2. The Trident system allows a full complement of 192 warheads to be fully operational. Because of nuclear non-proliferation treaties we restrict this to 40 warheads. In the future we will restrict this even further to 25 warheads. There is no point where we will ever be able to equip the system to the full extent of its capability.
  3. We lease the missiles from the US, we make the warheads but not the missiles. The entire programme to renew Trident isn’t about missiles, it’s about the submarines they live in. We will never own the Trident system.
  4. Trident came into operation in 1994. The first time we were fully defended by Trident was 1998, eight years after the cold war finished. We’re now talking about replacing it.
  5. The US also uses Trident but they’re not considering the same renewal programme. They’re considering spending less money to extend the life of their submarines rather than building new ones.
  6. Unlike the US, the UK Trident allows the captains of nuclear submarines to launch missiles if they believe the UK has been destroyed. Weirdly this can happen if Radio 4 stops broadcasting. The US system requires full authorisation from the US, they brought in added security to stop rogue commanders. The UK decided not to bother.

Trident is a very good system if you’re considering fighting a continental nuclear war but it doesn’t reflect the world we live in on any level. I don’t like to advocate for a nuclear weapons system that would be easier to use, I’d rather we did unilaterally disarm, but we should consider alternatives.

There are alternatives to the Trident system. We can attach warheads to cruise missiles, it would take us a while to get that working, but we could do it.

The debate about Trident is not a debate about having or not having nuclear weapons. It’s about building some very expensive submarines. That does have an impact on jobs, but that should be part of the debate and not a simplistic argument on whether the country will be defended or not.

We need to have a proper debate about what the strategic threats are likely to be in 20 years time. We should have a proper debate about how we think nuclear weapons could be used and if we as a country are comfortable about that. We need to have a debate about whether we are working with the rest of the world to disarm.

We shouldn’t blindly carry on fighting the cold war just because nobody can be bothered to find out what it is we’re paying for.


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Labour Party Introspection

August 6th, 2015

LabourWatching the Labour Party tear itself apart is weird. Not because it’s unexpected, after the sort of election defeat that follows on from one of the most incompetent Governments we’ve had it was expected. It’s weird because the analysis of why they lost and the battle for a new leader has come out of nowhere as one of the most engaging things I’ve ever seen. Those of us that have a bit of a soft spot for politics looked at the Scottish referendum with a bit of envy. People coming out on the streets and being passionate about politics is something that we’ve had drummed into us doesn’t happen any more.

It’s weird that the Labour leadership election, albeit on a smaller scale, seems to be having a similar effect. And the Labour Party look terrified.

Possibly it’s the first time in a while that people see politics as something they can influence rather than something that is done to them, who knows? I hold my hand up and admit that I’ve not been much of a Labour supporter for many years but have registered to take part in the leadership election. Not because I have an affinity for the candidates but because it looks like there might be a slim chance that a party develops that speaks on my behalf. I think it was a reckless decision to let anyone take part, but it could be one of the greatest things that has happened to this country in years.

Leaving aside whether the Labour Party stands more chance of being elected with one person or another it does need to take it’s responsibility as an opposition party seriously. It needs to present opposite arguments to the Government rather than try and appear as similar as possible.

Yesterday Jon Cruddas released his review of why Labour failed so badly in the last election. One of his principle conclusions being that the public endorses the economic policy of austerity and feared the Labour Party’s response to the deficit. I’ve seen much comment that the question in research relating to austerity was loaded. I agree it was loaded but don’t think that undermines the finding. The whole discussion about deficit management and austerity has been loaded and that points to the Labour Party’s biggest failing.

The failure of the opposition to make a case against austerity has failed to broaden the discussion and conditioned people into believing in a largely discredited policy. Nobody is making the case that the majority of economists reject austerity as a failed experiment, nobody is acknowledging that most countries reject it as a policy and nobody is pointing out that it was only when the last Government significantly reduced cuts that the economy grew. If this case isn’t being made by the opposition then it is no wonder that this is not becoming an issue accepted by the media nor where the middle ground of public opinion lies.

Most people don’t know anything about economics, most people don’t want to know anything about economics, most people are quite happy to accept simplistic household income analogies as fact. It’s fine that most people don’t want to know about economics but it is not fine to then base economic policy on their refusal to understand how an economy works.

Which comes back to the Labour Leadership election. The arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as a candidate has allowed people to begin the debate that this country needs. Proposing that deficit management isn’t the be all and end all of politics is not controversial. At least it isn’t controversial outside of the UK. We need to be able to have a public debate so that the much sort after “middle ground” of the electorate begin to understand there are other views and that evidence and practical experience doesn’t support current policies.

Without this debate we will be doomed to follow public opinion on whatever crazy ride we collectively decide to go on next.

So, as an outsider, I will support Jeremy Corbyn, not because it will make the Labour Party more or less electable (I dispute that it will have a material impact one way or the other), but because it is in the national interest to challenge policies that are ripping the economy to pieces. Obviously the counter argument to that is the primary purpose of the party is to get elected and then to attempt to redress the damage done by the  current Government. I reject that, if a so called “electable” Labour Party must stand on the failed policy of austerity to conform with public opinion then it would be duplicitous to then reject that when elected.

I hope the Labour  Party will see the groundswell of public support that they are getting at the moment and realise that there is small constituency of people who think differently to the received economic wisdom. It is their job to encourage that through their role as the opposition.

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Devolution Number 9

September 29th, 2014

Since the conclusion of the Scottish referendum I’ve noticed a strange enthusiasm for using the result to provide tenuous validation of every conceivable world view. I didn’t want to be left out, this is my interpretation of what a sudden explosion of interest in democracy means for wider devolution.

The most surreal reaction to a significant proportion of Scotland’s population wanting to leave the UK and an even greater proportion wishing to remain in the Union, is the Conservative view that this legitimises a rush to further marginalise Scottish decision making through the creation of an English parliament. The abject lesson of the Scottish referendum is that you do not rush constitutional change. The rush to force the referendum through meant a stark yes or no choice that very nearly split the Union and only served to emphasise the contempt that all political parties are held in.

One of the enduring recent political narratives has been how we re-engage with people to encourage them to vote with a particular emphasis on how we engage young people. This referendum has hopefully demonstrated that a failure to engage with political process is not, as was assumed, apathy on the part of the electorate. When the right question, with probably more importantly, the right range of possible answers, was asked people came out and made their views clear.
There is an appetite to engage with decision making but clearly not if the only available answers are based on an increasingly homogenous political elite. People are less enthusiastic in engaging with a process that cedes decision making to remote individuals who are presented merely because they were willing to compromise their beliefs to extraordinarily similar political parties.

I think this means that we have to relegate existing political parties to participants in a discussion on constitutional change and devolution instead of letting them define it. Without a clear mandate they will instinctively tinker with constitutional change in order to reinforce their own dominance. This is clearly demonstrated in the half baked notion of an English parliament and the constant moving of electoral boundaries.

The instinct for self interest is not peculiar to Westminster. The recent claim from the English core cities (basically the large cities in the UK that aren’t London) that the rush to constitutional change should confer to them greater decision making, and theoretically more money, is equally flawed. I live in one of the core cities and recent years have seen that characterised by a complete failure in governance. An inability to provide basic child protection, rubbish collection and endemic gender discrimination in its pay structure has left Birmingham floundering. Many of these issues have been compounded by a significant drop in funding but fundamentally this has been caused by political failure by all parties.

So I would suggest that if we are to explore greater devolved decision making then we need to start that with building up units of decision making from the very bottom upwards. This begins with communities and communities of interest. The most basic unit of decision making should come from communities that share an identity. In the main this is likely to be geographical but need not be exclusively.

People with a shared understanding of an area who are provided with real opportunities to influence that area will take part with decision making. In Birmingham we’ve tried to follow a process of devolving local decision making by creating “constituency” structures. The principle reason this has failed has been the bizarre decision that whilst decision making should be devolved it should be devolved to Councillors in a central building overseen by Council officers. This is devolution in the model used by the Soviet Union with its satellite states.

Also through using parliamentary constituency boundaries decision making didn’t automatically relate to the way that communities identify themselves. This is a principle problem in creating devolved decision making structures; they must not be created merely to enable easy management.

This has been a consistent problem with the plethora of changes we’ve seen in recent years to public services. Be it health organisations (Clinical Commissioning Groups) that are shaped by who plays golf with who, or police structures that are based on lines hastily drawn on maps that “sort of look equal”. This is devolution that is intended to confuse and alienate people.

This can also be seen in our regional structures. The drivers behind Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) were Local Authorities that liked each other. Not communities that shared culture, history and aspiration. To use Birmingham as an example, the Greater Birmingham LEP exists because many of the bordering Authorities didn’t like our previous Council Leader. This is ludicrous.

We need to build units of local decision making that are consistent across organisations, which the people who live in them understand and that recognise culture and history.

This is a long process that requires people to talk to communities and not simply make central decisions (looking at a map) or rely on the “local” knowledge of politicians. This is true be it small community units or even regional units. These all need to be reshaped to include the voices of the people that live in them and to give people a sense that they can influence change beyond the irrelevant political pageantry.

Across every community there are groups and individuals that are shaping and influencing their local environment and they’re doing it whilst bypassing political structures and simply not understanding the range of quasi legal public services that pay lip service to engaging with them.
We should harness these people and groups and work with them to formulate devolution. It’s unlikely we’ll get this done by May.

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An Engaging Bureaucracy

June 21st, 2013

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to write anything more interesting than the CDs I like, but I’ve recently managed to extricate myself from the turmoil of NHS reorganisation via the medium of redundancy. It also means I’ve got a fair amount of time on my hands to write things.

The recent widespread news coverage of the latest horror  story to hit the Care Quality Commission (CQC) focussed me to try and sum up what I’ve learnt from the last few years of NHS reform, and even further back over ten years working in patient engagement. The problems being experienced by the CQC are not surprising, in many ways  they are illustrative of problems that  the entire health and social care system has being storing up for many years. I don’t believe it is a failing of individuals, I can see that those directly affected by the decisions of the CQC have a right to expect some justice but the wider problems are  more endemic.

It is obvious that the system of  regulation we have  created  does not have the capacity to do the job that is needed. I say obvious because it seems to be publically failing on a fairly regular basis. Having said that, sizeable sums of public money are supporting this system of regulation and the  public have  a realistic expectation of a return on that money.

I believe the system of regulation is failing in the UK because it has been designed to fail, it is a system that has been created by a bureaucracy to police itself. The failure of design and delivery stems from one common point, a  lack of appreciation of what quality actually means.

The delivery of health and social care in the UK has historically been delivered via a bureaucracy, patients do not choose to take their health needs elsewhere  thus the subjective element of quality analysis has been consistently removed from planning processes. This post isn’t advocating an imposition of market dynamics on health care, it merely points out that, sometimes, the way markets are constructed gives an added level of feedback that is crucial in understanding quality.

The subjective element of quality  is the  part  that all of our systems of regulation fail to appreciate. The resource constraints on the CQC forces it to focus on inspection through objective analysis  of  data  without testing it against real patient experience. This is understandable, there  is a beautiful binary aspect to the delivery of healthcare (people lived or died) that makes a lot of this quite easy to do on a large scale with limited resources, but it doesn’t draw a very good picture of quality.

It’s simplistic philosophy but Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance gives a good overview of the competing elements of quality, though Pirsig’s fascination with calling them “romantic” and “classical” probably won’t find a comfortable home in NHS redesign. I prefer objective quality and subjective quality.

To fully understand the quality of services delivered, in the absence of  people withdrawing their custom, there needs to be a wholesale change in the culture of how health and social care services are delivered.

I’m not advocating a change in structures, structures are easy to change (though the last two years might not substantiate that). Our bureaucracy needs to fully understand that  it will only truly appreciate quality if it can better develop transparency and engagement.

Engagement has been a consistent mantra in public services for many years but has never been properly developed. There are a number of reasons for this, here are a few of them:-

Engaging with people is a slow process, you need to build trust for relationships to work, quite often that makes it look like staff that are very good at engaging are actually just sitting about chatting. The public sector has never been comfortable with staff that can’t maintain the illusion of frenetic (if useless) activity. Because it is slow it is expensive, because it is slow and expensive we often look for short cuts. Those short cuts  lead organisations to institutionalise the very people we need to engage with. Simplistically this means organising meetings that reflect the bureaucratic nature of the organisation itself.

This means we create forums that reduce the potential for staff to be uncomfortable, it reduces  the public willingness to challenge and completely removes any notion of obvious transparency.

One of the worst examples of the institutionalisation of engagement can be seen in the adoption of the notion of the critical friend. This assumes that people in a position to challenge public sector delivery should adopt a position sympathetic to the organisation whilst  providing constructive criticism. This notion fails on two levels, it fails to understand the nature of the power relationship between the individual and organisations and it fails to appreciate what we all think about critical friends, we find them annoying.

This theory seems to stem from the idea that  organisations will not listen to robust challenge but need to know that the issues being raised come from a foundation of sympathy. This is ridiculous, it indicates that public sector management needs to grow up and talk to people like adults. This is a disparity in power between the individual and the organisation, often that disparity will manifest itself in anger and frustration, the organisation needs to both appreciate and accommodate this.

Public services need to open themselves up to challenge in all its forms, this won’t be pleasant but is the only way that they can begin to appreciate  the  subjective element of quality. They need to do this by meeting people where they meet in the community structures that already exist.

Those with responsibility for regulation, should understand that everything they need to know about how services are delivered  is in the communities that they are being delivered to. They have to find a way to get into those communities without subcontracting engagement out.

We are at  a point where the new organisations that have responsibility for health and social care have an opportunity to do things differently. Unfortunately the time to do this is running out and all the signs are that the new is merely replicating the old.

Posted in Politics | Comments (1)

Yes or No?

March 5th, 2012

I’ve got to admit that the debate about whether we should have an elected mayor in Birmingham has left me completely cold. I can’t really motivate myself to have an opinion one way or the other. I’d say that this isn’t a symptom of apathy, I’ve worked in the very bowels of our local government and have an unhealthy interest in governance.

With the referendum in only a few short weeks I’ve decided this is something that I probably need to have an opinion on. You never know, it might ignite public interest and it would be handy to be able to argue one way or the other convincingly.

There seems to be a fairly vociferous campaigns on both sides and I’ve been trying to see if they have any compelling arguments either way. The Yes to a Birmingham Mayor campaign looks fairly slick and purports to have at least some grass roots support. I’m not completely sure how widespread this really is, I don’t meet many people who are that bothered by the efficacy of the Leader/Cabinet model of government.

We do need to remember that when the Birmingham Mail tried get a petition together to trigger a referendum they met a steely disinterest.

Looking at the Yes campaign they make some interesting points which I will go through laboriously :-

1 ) You can directly elect your leader and if they fail, you can get rid of them at the next election.

That seems fair enough, the current system means the council leader is selected by the ruling party. It’s not the most accountable system.

2 ) You will know who your mayor is and the rest of the world will too.

There is nothing to stop the leader of the council being visible. Having the title of mayor does not excuse poor communications. I’m not sure why the rest of the world is relevant, if people in Birmingham understood slightly more about who was in charge then that would be a start.

3 ) Birmingham is struggling and a leader with a genuine mandate can drive positive change.

I don’t buy this. I think change is achieved through consensus and I’d say that the current system, where Councillors select their leader means that they have more of an interest in achieving change. If you consider Birmingham to be struggling then this is a symptom of the policy environment rather than the system that brings it to us.

4 ) You’ll be able to see how decisions are made and who makes them.

The current system is pretty transparent and I can’t see there being much of a change if we have a mayor. In fact all the systems will remain the same.

5) A mayor can make sure decisions are made closer to you and your community.

I would completely dispute this. At the moment local Councillors take local issues and feed them up to their leadership, if you have a Councillor who is in the ruling party then they might have some influence. With a mayor the intelligence from communities will be disconnected from the policy process. If decisions by a  mayor reflect local views then this would happen  despite the system rather than because of it.

6 ) A whole layer of unaccountable government bureaucracy can be removed by combining the Leader of the council and the Chief Executive.

There is nothing to stop us combining the role of leader of the council and chief executive now. It would be a spectacularly stupid thing to do but we could do it. The local authority can influence the spending of around £3 billion, the day to day management of this should not be left with someone who wins a popularity contest.

7 ) The mayor can celebrate our successes and bring people together to solve problems by being a recognisable leader.

Again there is nothing implicit in the mayoral system that means we can’t already do this with better communication.

8 ) A directly elected mayor can help Birmingham fulfil it’s potential. Nearly every major city in the world has a directly elected mayor. Birmingham deserves one too.

Is this even true? I mean the bit about every other City in the world having one? It seems quite a claim. As for Birmingham deserving one, well they do say that people deserve the Government they vote for.

Comparing this with the No campaign becomes a bit more problematic. First off the web site looks like it was made twenty years ago. The aesthetic shouldn’t undermine the central point but the reality is it doesn’t present an image you can engage with. This is emphasised by the No campaigns ability to get into an argument with itself on the front page.

After offering to supply speakers for events it has a little debate with itself on what the optimum number of speakers should be. Glancing at the bottom of the page you will notice that this has been put together by MP John Hemming, the written word is not his natural medium (or seemingly web design).

There is a handy list of reasons for a no vote so let’s go through those as well (I haven’t linked to the individual points as they use frames, yes frames in the 21st Century) :-

1 ) One person cannot listen to a million

This is a fair point and is a good rebuttal made to the yes claim that decisions will be closer to communities. This point does drift off into nonsensical rubbish about how a mayor would hold an advice surgery, as nobody with any sense expects them to do this we’ll just ignore it.

2 ) It will cost more in hard times

Any way you look at it, it will cost more money. If it delivers better governance then it could be a price worth paying.

3 ) It is not within the British tradition

Er, what the hell has that got to do with anything? If the current system doesn’t work then change it.

4 ) It leads to corruption

This is a bold claim. There have been corrupt mayors but I don’t think Birmingham can really claim any sort of anti-corruption moral high ground with the existing system.

5 ) It takes attention off important issues and concentrates on personalities

I suppose the mayor possibly being a more visible presence could be considered to be a focus on personality but I can’t see that this could be represented as a bad thing. You only have to look at the City Council sponsored Forward magazine, and their fascination with current leader Mike Whitby, to realise that we have this already.

6 ) Birmingham’s villages will be ignored with concentration on the City Centre

I haven’t seen a more succint summary of what has been wrong with Birmingham’s governance for the last 20 years. The Bullring and the new Library are shiny testaments to how much Birmingham’s “villages” are currently considered. So no change there then.

7 ) The mayor is likely to spend a lot of time travelling outside Birmingham and less time in Birmingham

This is probably the most amusing claim. So where is Mike Whitby this week? The Carribean? India? Dubai? China? The man’s not short of frequent flyer points.

8 ) The pro campaign cannot explain how it will improve things

I have some sympathy with this. The yes campaign doesn’t make a very compelling argument but simply stating this doesn’t take the debate any further. It actually comes across as a bit childish.

9 ) People normally vote against it and Stoke got rid of one

This is just strange. The argument for not having one is that a number of other referendums have said no in other cities. The whole point of this process is we get a referendum so we can decide. If we don’t want one we don’t have to have one.

10 ) Birmingham’s successes in the past came without a directly elected Mayor

Well this is true. Equally Birmingham’s failures have come without one as well. Reading the text associated with this claim is just confusing. It seems to be alluding to an article that it claims was written in 1890 yet alludes to the 1940s. A remarkably prescient bit of writing.

The no campaign does have some good points, it just makes them in a really ham fisted way.

I was referred to this article written by Cllr James Hutchings that makes a much more coherent case for not having a mayor. It covers many of the same points but is better written and less patronising. I’ve always been a fan of Cllr Hutchings.

The problem with all of this is,  although the no campaign hasn’t made a good argument, they don’t have to. We know how it works now, we need to be persuaded that the system in the future will work better. I can’t see that the yes campaign has come anywhere near doing that.

There are a few things that aren’t addressed by either group. In reality will the new system be any different? Ostensibly, no.

To campaign successfully across a city the size of Birmingham you need infrastructure, you need people putting leaflets through doors, you need money to make leaflets. An independant would need to buy this in or generate a lot of good will really quickly. I don’t believe that examples such as Hartlepool and Middlesborough are relevant to us, both are much smaller in area and both had candidates that had their profile raised through other media.  (there is an excellent assessment of why I’m wrong here)

Would a mayor aligned from one party be that different to the current situation? I don’t think so.

After all this I’m not sure I’m any closer to having an opinion. Hopefully the campaign will galvanise some sort of proper arguments one way or the other, though they better hurry up.

Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (1)