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The insights we get by looking holistically at human activity, evolution and using systems thinking suggest that if we organise things in such a way as to reinforce success and encourage the best in people we would see the improvement both in outcomes and behaviour (because it is an emergent property of the whole system).

Our culture, including the norms and beliefs that are part of it, are not static but fluid. They have changed enormously in the last 30 years. We know that this includes changes in behaviour.

To develop these characteristics and obtain a good process that gives a better strike rate (more good outcomes, and success more often) it is politics and economics that has to change. Why? Because politics and economics (the political economy) are the ways we use to make decisions and enact changes to the way we live. We can either leave it to chance (or to the rich and powerful) and hope for the best or we can try to develop a better political economy. What have we got to lose?

We can use the work that has gone on looking at collaboration, team work and commitment and list the characteristics that good has. We can start to say what good looks like.(Anthony op. cit.)

Here is a starter list of these characteristics:

  • Good Process
  • Learning system
  • Wide Engagement
  • No one has a monopoly of good ideas
  • Cooperation to find solutions
  • Measurement
  • Evidence based policy
  • Open (inclusive) policy making

Let’s be clear, there are places within government and businesses that adopt some of these. One of my contention is that, by being hidden inside silos and surrounded by a hostile competitive ideology, they don’t spread or have the expected efficacy.

Good Process

The first characteristic of something better is to have a good process, you cannot guarantee that a good process will produce a good result but if you have a bad process you will reduce your chance of success considerably. The reasons are not hard to find, you are likely to be dependent on individuals (survival studies in particular graphicly show that groups make better decisions) and people will not easily commit to proposals (because they haven’t been involved)

World Class business spends a lot of time on process improvement, designing structures and looking for best practice. According to the Boston Consulting Group, 79% of executives say process excellence and optimisation will be “very or extremely important in the future.”

What is a good process then? It is one that:

  • Defines the problem to be solved
  • Involves the right people in the discovery of the solution,
  • Gets agreement to the implementation of the solution
  • Measures progress and
  • Learns from mistakes and reinforces success.

The bottom line here is that a good process increases the likelihood of a good outcome.  I look at who the right people are in the next chapter Vision - Fleshing it Out

So, what do we do in politics? As a broad generalisation - we argue about the solution and hold a competition to form a government to implement it for us. We rarely discuss the process itself nor do we assume that we may need to be involved. We (most of us who are not political activists or party members) put little political capital into getting a good processes in our public services and suffer as a result.

Learning system

This means that the processes themselves constantly change and evolve based on results. Learning systems are not new and neither are they (on their own a panacea), the German Army in World War 1 had a formal process for recording front line experience, collecting it and dispersing lessons learned, however it was not the German Army that invented the tank to solve identical problems to that faced by its main enemy on the western front who did (Note: Defence in Depth). The need for learning is clear, but the point of this illustration is that it needs to be supported by other traits as well. When a contract is outsourced learning is not possible because the contract is the basis on which work is carried out – to change it is to change the specification and so to incur additional costs. As Polly Toynbee notes “after so many years of outsourcing, managers had long lost the knowledge of how many hours each ward or clinic needed for cleaning.” (Note: An Experience of Outsourcing)

As already noted, the 5 year election cycle and the use of Public Enquiries are feedback mechanisms that are just too slow and ineffectual for the speed of change that the world is now experiencing.

Wide Engagement

Governments that are elected with 30-40% of the vote (and with a low turnout even less as a % of the population) but achieve majorities cannot wonder that their legitimacy is challenged. At the moment we seem to accept low turnouts, lack of engagement and cynicism (Timeline - Current - Political Participation and Disengagement)This is the opposite of what change management tells us works – people need to be engaged, go on the journey, commit to the solution. Political institutions therefore need re-thinking in order to bring more people into the process.

The necessary bureaucracies that run the country (the civil service, local government and a whole raft of agencies, arms-length organisations, trusts – renamed but still in effect quangos) are not, as we idealise, accountable to our elected politicians. They are very often the subject of patronage and then left (at arms-length) to get on with it. If not secretive in their proceedings, they don’t exactly court publicity.

All ideas welcome

In brainstorming it is common practice as step one to go round the table and capture all ideas, there is no judgement about whether the idea is any good or not until all ideas have been captured. Once all ideas have been collected they are considered and a shortlist can be created. Then harder work starts exploring the runners in more detail. Consensus is developed gradually first everyone has their say, then the shortlist is agreed and then the harder work starts, exploring the runners in more detail.

Crafting a political process that encourages ideas is a challenge. petitions is a very small start and is reactive, perhaps it’s appropriate for subjects to petition but it should not be the preferred way for citizens to interact. 

As we have seen, with narrow involvement we only get a narrow set of ideas which are not subject to scrutiny and, if they change as a result of elections, how this occurs is quite obscure. In the case of the Leaseholders Advisory Service people with difficult or contrary views have been barred from meetings (Timeline - Present - Poor Governance - Leaseholders Association).

Cooperation to find solutions

The adversarial nature of politics turns many people off. Almost anyone in Westminster will say that the place runs on cross party talks: collaboration because otherwise nothing would get done. The public face of Westminster is opposite to this - why? The parliamentary process is not static but the changes identified (Democratic Audit) are in the nature of fine tuning  when what is needed is to think through ways in which co-operation can be built into the system so that it becomes a fundamental part of the process, and fundamental to the methods of working.

Measurement - How will we know we are making progress?

How we measure if we are progressing towards a good society. For many people this will come down to things like, the size of inequality between the top and bottom, or the number of children in poverty. These are perfectly valid but since we are taking a holistic view a very wide range of measures is needed. The Office For National Statists (ONS) produces lots of statistics but it is surprising how much we do not measure or have any good information about.

Again by looking at what business does we can envisage the following

  • The use of a balanced scorecard for a nation state. Such a balanced scorecard would operate across all areas so the behaviour of the system could be assessed and hopefully tuned. Having the debate about what to measure would of itself raise important questions about what good looks like (Part 2 Assess - Examples of What Good Looks Like).
  • Tests to be applied to policy. We can develop a set of questions that need to be answered before any policy is adopted. What is the problem, how can it be solved, who needs to be involved, how can it be implemented and improved, and how will we know it is working?

The balanced scorecard concept

It is interesting that politicians seem to have latched on to targets just at the time when business was realising that a set of indicators (performance measures) we needed. In business there was widespread knowledge that targets are problematic and a more systemic way of looking at things was needed. (Note: Targets Don't Work). Labour won the UK general election on 1997 and immediately set about introducing targets

In essence the balanced scorecard, in its later evolution tries to take a series of measures across 4 different perspectives; finance, customer, internal process and learning/growth. The balanced scorecard is a tool that can be used alongside business strategy formulation. The vision and business strategy are used to derive, through sets of objectives appropriate actions in all the 4 perspectives, these are then set used to generate many targets and measures so trade-offs are built in.

Clearly this cannot just be picked up and used, however it can be adapted;

  • Finance – we need to have 2 stands here, financing government activity and secondly financial (fiscal) strategy – that is the degree to which government spending influences the economy
  • Citizens replace customers – and I am in no way suggesting a citizen should be seen as a customer.
  • Government processes (central, regional, local) replace internal business processes, this needs to include all government agencies and public bodies
  • Learning and growth, we can keep the idea of learning, the business assumption of growth needs to be dropped. This is much, much bigger than education, here I am thinking about institutional learning woven into the fabric of our entire culture.

Since we have insisted on a definition of What Good Looks Like we can drive the objectives and measures for each of these areas from the alternative manifesto.

Lastly, we need to duplicate the whole set of perspectives to represent the interaction of our system (nation) with other systems (other nations). We spend money on defence, aid, we have relationships that impact citizens of other countries. International organisations are organised and have processes we need to work with. We can apply a blanked scorecard to this as well.

Conceptually we may reconfigure the balanced scorecard for a nation state as follows

The important thing to grasp here is that, in a holistic political economy, the state is a human activity system which operates for the benefit of all its citizens.

Therefore it is valid to take a balanced view and include measurements of how citizens feel, how the system learns and develops and whether or not the processes of government are working.

Tests to be applied to policy

How does policy get made? In the current systems parties undertake or commission research, they may take work from think-tanks and lobbyists. Some have policy forums. Given that a large part of state activity is boring, mundane stuff about how things run this is telling. It points to a mindset about the way change will happen: let’s command these actions top down and things will be better, so vote for us. As a result of this 

  • Few people are involved in the policy development process, those that do are often referred to as “policy wonks”. This has the subliminal effect of saying that they are nerds, let them get on with it
  • Politics is about doing stuff to people after the decision is made

Instead I suggest that the political process should be turned round so that it is as much about policy development as it is about delivery. For policy to be consensual it must be able to show that it has addressed a problem that needs to be solved and comes with a consensus around the solution. For example consider the debate about nationalisation vs privatisation – two ideological positions battling out over a terrain where the framing is about ownership. I believe there was a problem and that problem was management, there still is a problem and the problem is still management. Ownership matters to the extent that we have world class businesses based I the UK, but ownership does not matter if we are simply debating the best way to run a hospital or empty the dustbins. In making this statement so explicit because if we try to buy a service on the cheap we'll get what we pay for. We will be complicit in poor service deliver, the exploitation of service workers and the toleration of profiteering. 

Moreover, the problem of management is directly related to size and power.

The bigger an organisation the more difficult it is to cater for exceptions, remain flexible and learn. The more centralised the power the more decisions can be made which are arbitrary and carried by dictate. In public ownership the problem was scale and lack of democracy; sometimes this was moderated by a public service ethos. In private ownership the problem is power with lack of democracy often exacerbated by the absence of real competition, regulatory weakness and the expectation of high returns. Our debate is stuck in a dialogue of the deaf – Labour is accused of returning to the large state and the Conservatives stick doggedly to reducing the state at all costs. With only light touch regulation public service suffers whist a fortunate group of executives fill their boots.(Note: Milking it)

Change the problem definition to how do we get good governance? In a holistic political economy the starting point is that policy formulation belongs to everyone – and we can therefore devise a set of tests for good policy formulation. (Note: Inspired by the Five Tests for Democracy)

  1. What is the problem and what are the characteristics of a good solution? This brings in systems thinking, and must look at potential knock-on effects and unintended consequences as well as opportunities for setting up virtuous circles
  2. Who needs to be involved? All stakeholders (and some representation for citizens by right)
  3. How will it be implemented? Including trials and fine tuning, where is it on the scale of urgency vs. importance?
  4. How will we measure its success? What are the success factors, how will we know its working?
  5. How can we modify it? We may aspire to right first time but will not achieve it, we need to build in incremental improvement from the start

The definition of the problem is important because it is about framing. The systems view must be applied else we end up with ameliorative measures that do not make the necessary changes.

Sure-start is a good example. In its original form it put additional resources into poorer area and deliberately allowed access to everyone in the area. This avoided the issue of stigmatising by making the provision something that everyone would want. However without the robust articulation of the problem and why the approach was taken the results have been undermined first by putting sure-start into all areas, and then responding to the impossibility of funding by means testing.

Getting the characteristics of the solution right means thinking it through properly

Policy seems to be based on research carried out by the parties, commission ed by them or conducted by interest groups and think tanks. In systems terms and teasing out the effects will a virtuous circle be created or will unintended consequences undermine.(Note: Taking Evidence). I’d expect this to lead to more structural changes and less sticking plaster.

Working tax credits are an example. If the problem is defined as poor wages and the minimum wage is defined too low then the taxpayer ends up subsidising the wages of thousands of people. Unviable businesses are getting a free ride at the taxpayers’ expense and we now have a working poor set of people who are on welfare.(Note: Diluted to Death?)

Who needs to be involved?

We rarely ask this question. So far as I can see this is a major flaw of all reform thinking since its culturally accepted that governments bring in change. That means it is top down so it is done to us not with us. I see no reason why many services should not be run, administered or overseen by their users.

There are a few examples of tenants being involved in housing associations and since the push to academy schools has been slowed down we still have quite a lot of parent governors.

Self-build housing is an area where the person in need can help himself or herself – in an empowering way. We are massively behind other countries in self build housing. In the Netherlands the government would buy the land, provide the services (roads, sewers), zone it for self-build, and ensure the self-builders could get finance. It’s hard to imagine that a residential area developed like this would lack community spirit or have a large vandalism problem.

How will it be implemented, and how will we know if it’s a success?

Typically we don’t provide the ways and means and apply an idea country wide without trialling and learning.

Care provision; We take care away from the NHS but don’t provide for joined up administration so end up with bed blocking. We then allow the private sector to provide the bulk of care but allow the social funding to fall so that homes will not take residents who cannot pay. Where care is outsourced we allow companies to use bad employment practices (not paying for travel between appointment, very short visiting times – we measure throughput not quality). In the process we all become complicit in the results by insisting the councils accept the lowest tender. We then define the problem as quality of care and set up the care quality commission but don’t provide anything like the infrastructure that exists for inspecting schools.

How can we modify it?

Nothing is going to be right first time. OK I am aware of some businesses that try to establish quality control processes in such as way as to deliver right first time but this is in the context of a repeatable process or specified product. When it comes to innovative solutions the usual approach it to prototype, implement on a small scale and then scale up with any necessary changes. I am not aware of government doing this. I am acutely aware that even small government services are massively bigger in scale than anything the private sector deals with which may point why outsourcing and commissioning by government is so often subject to overspend and delays. One thing for certain is that a 5 year election cycle in inimical to gradual improvement through organisational learning.