Getting the politics right for reform

Matthew Taylor, former No 10 policy wonk, has an interesting article on his blog about public service reform. He rightly says that finances over the next few years are both a huge challenge to public services, but also an opportunity to make real change happen. That won’t come about, he says, without a change in the national political culture, starting from the top:

There are far too many ministers, all of whom think it is their job to generate initiatives; ideas are allowed to be developed and launched without any reference to those at the front line; change management and the time it takes is not treated seriously; there is complete lack of realism about how far the centre’s intended messages actually reach; civil servants fail to see or warn (or be allowed to warn) their masters that every new target or piece of guidance had an adverse impact on all these existing targets and instructions (not to mention local morale).

No disrespect to Matthew, but this is a very technocratic argument. The idea that there should be fewer ministers is perhaps not a bad one – though it needs to happen alongside a more powerful and independent Commons and a reformed Lords. No matter how many Ministers there are, however, they will still be put on a spot on the Today programme and asked to make a commitment that “[bad thing] will never be allowed to happen again.”

There are certainly real opportunities for reform in the fiscal squeeze that’s ahead. The barrier to transformation, though, is not hyperactive Ministers who don’t let technocrats manage, it’s an immature political dialogue in which the media and the public create and feed off outrage and disgust, while politicians sit on top of the bureaucracy and try to placate the beast.

This is a local government problem as much as a national government one. Anyone who has seen parents protesting about school places or attended a controversial meeting of the planning committee will understand that.

If the spending cuts to come are not to create more disaffection and anger, they can’t be done behind closed doors. They need to be discussed openly, in public, and real choices have to be set out clearly, not decided and then ‘consulted upon’.

People should have the chance to see the books, and have intermediaries more trusted than journalists to explain to them what the choices are. They then need to be able to express an opinion more nuanced than ‘I want everything for free’.

Creating the circumstances in which this can happen is part of a widening and deepening of active citizenship that is essential if the political world is to catch up with what today’s citizens expect.

I’m not so naive as to think that this level of openness will appear in the twelve months before a general election, although it would be nice to think that it could. Afterwards, though, if Labour or the Conservatives are really serious about localism and democratic reform, a big conversation, not a Big Conversation, needs to be created.


Digital Britain – unconferences

For anyone interested in social inclusion and online participation, this is an exciting initiative. Go and have a look!

Let me take this opportunity to tell my friends in Northern Ireland that I didn’t design the site though….

“It’s only the older people who think of communities now”

Abandoned High Steet (pic: Gwidion Williams)

Abandoned High Steet (pic: Gwidion Williams)

There’s a really good, detailed bit of reporting here from Friday’s Guardian about the near-collapse of local newspapers in some areas.

The starting point that Stephen Moss chose was my old local paper when I was young – The Long Eaton Advertiser. 

This bit stood out for me:

“For the older generation, these things matter. “They want to know who’s passed away,” says the barman at the Corner Pin down the road, “and to check it’s not them.” But the younger generation don’t much care. Carl and Katrina Smith, a married couple in their mid-30s, not only didn’t know the paper had closed; they didn’t even know its name – and they were born nearby and have lived in the town most of their lives. They did, though, occasionally buy the Nottingham Evening Post – mainly for the jobs. For this generation, Long Eaton as a place has almost ceased to exist, lost in a more amorphous Nottingham-Derby conurbation.

“It’s only the older people who think of communities now,” says Carl. “For us it’s more a place to live than a community.” He was an electrician’s mate and worked all over the country (until he was laid off two months ago – people are as vulnerable as papers in the slump); Katrina works in Leicester. Long Eaton is a dormitory for them; they rent a house and say they have no idea who their neighbours are.

It used to be a proper community, with the railway, the canals and the upholstery industry,” says Carl, “but look round at the shops now. You’ve got Tesco and Asda, and everything else is in decline.” There is one new shop in Long Eaton – selling Polish, Russian and Lithuanian food, to cater for migrants from eastern Europe. The shop even has free papers in those three languages, as well as Ukrainian. But they are UK-wide and won’t record deaths in Long Eaton, in any language.”

Is it the local newspaper industry that is in crisis? Or is it the very concept of ‘local’? Everyone seems to be agreed that there’s no way back for the printed local rag – is this true for the idea of locality as well?

Peter Levine – a US blogger who has a blog that should be on everyone’s RSS feed – have picked up on the Conservative Party’s expressed interest in addressing this crisis.

Levine is sceptical of the Tories ability to convert their sentiments into effective action, and is somewhat critical of the communitarian spirit that it springs from, but it’s not an unduly critical post….. why am I explaining this here? Go and read it for yourselves.

Populism. And local newspapers.

Two very interesting posts – one via Chris Dillow, and one directly from his site. Firstly, Chris signposts this:

“….perhaps it’s “populist” to think political elites always end up in bed with economic elites, but it seems, as a matter of fact, they often do. My opinion is that a certain “populist” enthusiasm for democracy, in the absence of strong legal and cultural constraints on government action, almost inevitably delivers a great deal of regulatory capture–that is, tucks political elites snugly in bed with corporate elites. Isn’t that a cynical vision? Moreover, when the incentives of insufficiently-limited democracies lead to this kind of result, supra-national technocratic institutions can in fact act as a salutary check on governments precisely because they are undemocratic.”

There we have it again: “…insufficiently-limited democracies.” What does this mean? Does it mean the populist mode of democracy as opposed to the model with strong political parties, shortish manifestos and un-mandated politicians? Surely the latter option is really the unlimited democracy?

Secondly, Chris has some evidence – nothing conclusive mind….

Reprising the question of a bail-out for journalism, here’s Martin Bright’s original New Deal of the Mind article from the New Statesman – it’s an idea that seems to be going places.

Councils v local newspapers?

A few weeks ago, Roy Greenslade picked up on a growing opposition to Council-run free newspapers.

As he notes, the opposition comes both from smaller political parties locally, and from commercial rivals that are being edged out – as they see it.

Elsewhere, we are seeing growing demands for a journalistic ‘bail-out’ – and not just from bug-eyed Marxist fanatics either. Certainly, a lot of the clearly drawn ethical lines that have protected the near-monopolies of some local newspapers are being challenged from many quarters.

On the one hand, a strong local democracy requires a powerful independent journalistic voice, and if the Council does anything to damage this ecology, then it would be difficult to defend.

However, I think that there is an opportunity here. The National Union of Journalists are firmly of the view that some local newspapers are cutting back on journalists – not because they can’t afford them, but because their current business model allows them to make sufficient advertising revenues without much investment in original content. Continue reading

Who cares about the local paper?

Interesting report just published by the Pew Research Center, showing that:

Fewer than half of Americans (43%) say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community “a lot.” Even fewer (33%) say they would personally miss reading the local newspaper a lot if it were no longer available.

These stats refer to both online and print availability. This is presumably the flip side of lack of trust in the media. If you don’t think they’re doing a valuable and useful job, why would you be bothered if they stopped – at least until all the unreported corruption and scandals happened.

Counterproductive demands for transparency?

Do we understand or respect Parliament more now it is broadcasted?

Do we understand or respect Parliament more now it is televised?

About a year ago, I heard snippets of a radio programme that really stuck with me.

I didn’t make a note of the name of the programme at the time (I was driving), and it has taken me best part of the last year plugging away at the few contacts I have in the BEEB’s political journalism department to track down a recording (thanks Alan!).

A transcript would have been very handy a few times recently when I’ve found myself discussing the pros and cons of political transparency, and the implications for both local and national government.

It was, it turned out, it wasn’t one of Radio 4’s political staples, but The Archive Hour marking the 30th anniversary of the broadcasting of Parliament (the first routine broadcast took place on 3rd April 1978, though there was a four-week trial a few years earlier, and the leap from radio to TV coverage didn’t take place until 1985). Continue reading