Friday, 11 April 2008

What I said to Number 10

OK, in the last post I said I would let you know my response to the big fat strategy document issued by No 10's Strategy Unit. Well, I told them what I thought, and here it is. It's a little long, and I know the rules for blogs include the proposition that you should keep things short otherwise people won't read them, but frankly if you've got the attention span of a goldfish then this isn't for you anyway.

No pictures, either.

The Good

I think it important to acknowledge the very considerable strengths of the report. I would highlight four:

First and foremost, it is extremely encouraging to see that a document of this kind exists at all. I think it is entirely healthy that government should from time to time produce overarching strategy, and share it with the rest of us. All too often policies and initiatives appear to be produced in isolation: “Realising Britain’s Potential” affords the opportunity to position any given policy proposition within a wider frame. This can only be good both for the wider body politic, and policy makers within individual departments.

Second, the breadth of coverage is extremely impressive. It is rare to see so many disparate issues brought together in coherent fashion.

Third, the presentation is excellent. Having myself grappled with multi-faceted projects – developing a food strategy for the Mayor, for example, involved covering economic, social, cultural, environmental, security and political considerations; while developing ‘lifestyle scenarios’ for Defra’s waste R&D and strategy teams involved a similarly broad range of inputs – I greatly appreciated the layout, the concision, the quality of the graphics and the quality of the text.

Fourthly, there is no doubt that some of the content is very strong. The section on “Personalised Public Services”, in particular, presented an excellent and coherent analysis of the past, present and prospective future of this vital area.

The Bad

A number of issues, however, have me cause for concern. Again, I would highlight four:

The first I would characterise as a kind of ahistorical perspective. This is not to say that historical data is not presented in the report; quite the reverse, there are innumerable (well presented) charts and tables containing historical data and evidence.

Rather, I am referring to the document’s sense of itself as existing ‘outside time’. This is a not uncommon problem, I have discovered, among big picture strategy documents and ‘horizon scanning’ reports (in both the public and the private sector).

Had such a document been prepared and published in 1998, or even 1988, what would it have looked like? And how have things turned out compared to what was expected? Surely it is only if we consider how previous strategies got it wrong (or right) can we evaluate the likely strengths and weaknesses of our latest strategy. It is a well-known problem in scenario-planning, for example, that this year’s topical issues tend to be presumed as having long run strategic significance; it is only years later that we discover it was a short-run blip, not a new trend.

This critique is not merely a methodological one; it has the more practical implication that particular issues are treated without proper historical strategic perspective. Take productivity, for example, mentioned yet again in this report as of great importance to the future economic prosperity of the UK. This has been a mantra of this government (and, indeed, previous administrations) for many years: yet the productivity ‘problem’ remains a ‘problem’, even though “the British economy is fundamentally strong”.

Does this mean that productivity doesn’t matter? Or that a strong economy and productivity are not, in fact, connected? In my view, a discussion of productivity with the kind of historical strategic perspective I am suggesting would have been more responsible and more convincing. If we faced up more directly to the things that we got wrong, we would be better positioned to get it right in the future.

Secondly, the document elides ‘positive’ and ‘normative’ in a disquieting manner. I have to confess that this is a habit for which I myself have been criticised, but in a world of ‘evidence-based policy’ I think it is incumbent on documents such as this to be especially careful. Granted, the overwhelming majority of the document comprises the presentation of factual material, and this is certainly a creditable achievement. There are, however, occasions when value-based statements are made that serve to disturb the confidence one can place in the whole. If this statement is clearly a value-judgment, does that mean I have to be on the look-out elsewhere?

This second concern would perhaps not be so unsettling were it not for a third concern, namely the weakness of the policy implications derived from the analysis. At the end of each chapter, we are presented with a high-level summary of the preceding pages, then a little box containing what are clearly the current government policies associated with the issue at hand. It is odd that they are not titled ‘Policy Implications’, or even ‘Current Policies’, but that can be left to one side. The problem, from my perspective, is the extraordinary weakness of most of these sections. As I said at the beginning, this is in many respects an impressive document, and I often found myself working through the pages of data and evidence thinking “Gosh, this is big stuff, I wonder what they’ll say about it” only to encounter a limp list of initiatives that are already up and running.

I understand why this has happened; but it does not excuse it. You had the opportunity to challenge yourselves with these strategic challenges; instead you’ve tried to imply that government is already completely on top of things, because in each and every area of discussion you can show that there are policies already in place. Really? All the policies we’ll need for all this have already been developed, and have taken account of all the data and evidence and argument you’ve mustered in the report?

Obviously not. Obviously when we ask the question: “How can we better prepare for the consequences of demographic change in British society?” the second most important answer is not “Refreshing the carers’ strategy, and considering how better to offer information, support and care to carers in the community”. Obviously on page 55 when you ask “How do we prosper in this new global economy where skills and talent are at a premium?” you should do better than produce a simulacrum of those indistinguishable RDA missions statements in which everywhere will become a “knowledge economy”. We know – you know – that saying “Ensure the UK is equipped with a skilled and flexible workforce” is to say nothing at all.

Finally, and on a smaller note, I was struck by some omissions, issues that were either underplayed in the analysis or (perhaps because policies have not yet caught up with the thinking) in the little boxes at the end of each section. Two examples: when talking about the role of new technology in terms of security (page 123), I could find no mention of the possible implications for personal liberties. An oversight? Not enough room? Too sensitive? Not important? Certainly odd.

A second example: the role of technology in education. There is no apparent consideration of the possibility that the kind of one-to-one education mentioned (and which I vigorously support) could be dramatically facilitated through the use of new technologies; and no consideration that the delivery of small group teaching at a level that could genuinely compete with the private sector could be dramatically accelerated through the use of such technologies. Too innovative? Not yet worked through at the Department? Again, odd.

The Ugly

I’ve left until the end the issue that concerns me most, and that is the treatment of and status given to economic issues.

There are two main problems: the failure to acknowledge that the economy we presently have may have some downsides; and the failure to consider the kind of economy we mind need, or want, in the future.

By the first of these, I mean to say that there is no discussion of the possibility that any of the features of the current economic structure and situation of the UK has any negative consequences whatsoever. Take the financial sector, for example, the increased size of which is reported as an entirely positive phenomenon. Are you sure? Have increased income (and, more especially, wealth) inequalities as a result of the growth of this sector had any negative consequences for the health of low income groups? Has the growth of this sector squeezed out investment that might otherwise have taken place in sectors with preferable social or environmental benefits? Has the dominance of the financial services sector distorted the UK labour market such that best minds leave our best universities to enter the City, thus starving science, manufacturing, even the Civil Service? Might it be that the short term investment priorities of the lauded City institutions are simultaneously inflating ‘growth’ whilst limiting ‘productivity’?

Or take physical infrastructure, introduced on page 50 as being “crucial to enabling continued high levels of growth”. Presumably, therefore, we could deduce that physical infrastructure developments over the past 10 years have been instrumental in bringing about the economic growth of the past decade? (Is there evidence for that?) But what about the negative environmental consequences? Or the fact that children are now so car-bound and car-borne they are becoming obese and de-socialised? Is it incontrovertibly the case, for example, that ceaseless growth in airport capacity will be ‘good for the economy’?

And how do you square the economic story with the story on page 85 that “people…generally identify a happy family and nice life as their priority for the future (rather than fame, celebrity and wealth)”. Is it possible that the turbo-economy of the present and recent past is actually undermining family life and community, the very things that seem to make people happy? This may or may not be true – I am watching the Layard vs Ormerod debate with interest – but is not worth a discussion when considering “future strategic challenges facing Britain”?

Moving to consider the future, the problem is even more acute. When will it be appropriate to consider the possibility that unending ‘strong economic growth’ might not be compatible with the climate change challenge? When might it be possible to wonder whether the desire for “happiness” (or some other metaphysical objective, howsoever labelled) might mean we should pursue an economy that is not simply bigger, but, instead, better? What if all this competitiveness is actually the cause of the ever rising levels of mental ill-health, alcohol abuse and religiosity?

I acknowledge that these kinds of questions are still considered ‘fringe’ in many quarters; but they will have to be faced at some point, even if only to reject them. The impression given by “Strategic Challenges” is that untrammelled global economic growth will pour over our shores like a tsunami and our only option is to skill up as best we can to make sure we get the biggest possible share of the excitement. Even the idea of mild demand management – by no means a radical idea, moirĂ© than 70 years after Keynes’ General Theory – gets not a look in.

Perhaps I am being unreasonable to expect this particular document to address such issues. But I cannot help but think that the time is going to come when the prevailing economic orthodoxy is going to have to justify itself. Your document does not do that; it doesn’t even acknowledge the question.




I shall stop there: I’ve already gone on for longer than I intended. I very much hope that this has been of interest and/or use. I would be more than happy, if you were interested, to expand on any of these remarks, or to provide references (either to Brook Lyndhurst’s work or the work of others) than might also be useful. It would in any case be interesting to know what you intend doing with the responses you garner.

As I said at the beginning, and to repeat, I think that this was a strong and important piece of work, and my critical remarks are delivered very much in the spirit of having had high hopes, and of expecting more good things in the future. Frankly, if the whole thing had been truly terrible, I wouldn’t have bothered getting this far.

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