Compassionate, careless or conniving?

Today I posted over at Dale & Co:

In the run up to the Parliamentary recess the country was transfixed by a scandal involving the Conservative contingent of the Government, the media, powerful private companies and a Select Committee exerting itself. The scandal gained momentum when it was clear that particularly vulnerable people were being affected by unacceptable or underhand practice.

There is another scandal brewing which has the same cocktail of ingredients. I am talking about the changes to Incapacity Benefit and the implementation of Employment Support Allowance. The rhetoric of reform here is positive. Some might even say unexceptional. But the practice is, by comparison, looking decidedly ropey. As so often turns out to be the case.

You can read the full post here.

Is nudging enough?

Rene Kinzett, one of my fellow contributors over at Dale & Co, posted Nudging or Nannying last weekend. The argument was perhaps a little cryptic, but the point was that relying on the subtlety of trying to “nudge” behaviour in the right direction is not an adequate policy response to certain types of problem. His example of treating rickets among young women who for cultural reasons do not have enough exposure to sunlight is an interesting one. He referred to minimum alcohol pricing, a policy being introduced in Scotland, and banning smoking in cars carrying children, a policy being introduced in Wales, as more conventional regulatory policy that will help those on the edges of society, when nudges are judged inadequate.

A couple of comments took Kinzett to task for this argument. One made the point that nudge theory is being preferred for developing policy at the moment because it has been shown to be more effective than traditional regulatory approaches. It was also arguing that no one is suggesting that nudge can be used in isolation and should be combined with other mechanisms to deliver better social outcomes.

It seems to me that these comments miss the mark in at least a couple of ways. Read more of this post

Steve Hilton, blues skies thinking and the resurgent deregulatory impulse

Steve Hilton has attracted flak across the old and new media following the FT’s revelations about his suggestions for stimulating economic growth. The proposals that hit the headlines included the abolition of maternity leave, labour market policies that contravened European law and the suspension of all consumer rights. Many have criticised the proposals for a range of offences including apparently overlooking the rule of law. Others have defended the utility of blue skies thinking when seeking ways to deal with the challenges that face us.

Personally I’m not averse to blue skies thinking. But the idea that off the wall thinking is central to the role of a strategy director is curious. One would have thought strategy should entail something rather more concrete and grounded, at some point in the process at least. And as someone more disposed to bottom up decision making and a Parliamentary party that is charged with representing the collective will of its members, I’m not so keen on the idea that one unelected, unaccountable and largely anonymous individual should have such influence over policy in the first place.

But the main thing that strikes me about these revelations is that they are not very “Blue Skies” at all. Read more of this post

Democratic deficits

Liberal democracy faces profound challenges. Radically different future trajectories present themselves. We are living through momentous times.

In Britain the media has spent the last fortnight preoccupied with the Hackgate scandal. Incremental, and ongoing, revelations have exposed the inner workings of the nexus between Westminster politicians and the tabloid media. What we witness is the political class showing an alarming level of deference to powerful economic interests. The alleged intimate connection between sections of the Metropolitan police and the tabloids raises equally urgent questions about the prevailing culture and ethics at the heart of a core social institution.

The British media has been preoccupied with this evolving soap opera involving many of its own. And the scandal has certainly opened up a welcome window of opportunity to reform relationships vital to a healthy democracy. But events unwinding elsewhere are likely to play a bigger role in shaping economic and political trajectories in the short and medium term. Read more of this post

Open Public Services: market fundamentalism with a thin sugar coating?

We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master and a worse religion.

Amory Lovins, CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute

The Government’s long delayed White Paper on public service reform – Open Public Services – has now been released into the wild. I blogged an early reaction to its rationale over at Dale & Co on Tuesday. I’ve now had a chance to come to grips with the detail, such as it is. My feeling is that this is an intriguing, infuriating and – at times – alarming document.

It is a document that lacks coherence in a way that suggests it is the product of several hands, or a fevered mind. It is a document that lacks detail in its justification and its implications in a way that is troubling. The policies and initiatives it identifies as being in accord with the Open Public Services agenda are a ragbag of largely unrelated actions, some of which are problematic in themselves.

There are some components of the proposals that are welcome and sensible. They point, for example, to greater local government or community control over services delivered in their area. If the White Paper had stopped there then it would be a very different beast. But such moves to enhance local democratic control are the secondary storyline. This is the sugar coating.

The overarching message is the onward march of marketisation. Read more of this post

Doing things by halves

[Originally posted on Bristol Running Resource, 15/07/11]

It’s happened again. After last year’s experience I promised I’d get organised earlier and build up over a longer period. But, exactly like last year, I’ve only managed to enter the Bristol Half in the second week in July. So I’ve got eight weeks to get my long run from 3.5miles to 13.1miles. It can certainly be done (Well, I managed it last year!). But it’s hardly ideal. Read more of this post

Cameron ploughs on with public sector reform

Today I posted my first piece over at Dale & Co.

You can find it here: Cameron ploughs on with public sector reform

Policy and evidence – the homelessness episode part II

Last weekend the Observer ran with the story on welfare reform and homelessness. A senior civil servant at CLG had written to the Prime Minister warning that the Government’s proposed welfare reforms could result in – among other negative consequences – 40,000 additional homeless households (as I discussed here). This raised questions about a Government willing to ignore its own evidence and the accuracy or otherwise of Ministerial statements to Parliament. Subsequently Grant Shapps has dismissed the 40,000 figure because it was based upon “out of date” information and didn’t relate to current government policy. He also announced a £20m fund for integrating homelessness prevention services, rolling out a model that has worked in London to the rest of the country.

A passage in yesterday’s blog by the Guardian HousingNetwork Editor caught my eye: Read more of this post

Dispatching rogue landlords

Tonight’s C4 Dispatches programme provided some very clear evidence regarding poor standards of accommodation and management in the private rented sector. It is linked to the Shelter campaign to Evict Rogue Landlords. While the individual underhand practices deployed by landlords are very unpleasant, the impact of the programme will be mitigated by the problem that all research in this sector faces – that it is hard to quantify the scale of the problem. If one problem is that no one prosecutes rogue landlords, for example, then the statistics appear to show that unlawful behaviour by landlords isn’t a big problem. The logic is faulty – absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence – but convenient for those who have no wish to act. The majority of private tenants are happy with their current landlord. But that tells us nothing about how many tenancies they’ve moved on from because of poor treatment by a landlord.

Grant Shapps was interviewed briefly in the programme. His contribution had two key elements. First, he argued that the national registration scheme for private landlords proposed by the previous Labour government ran the risk of becoming a bureaucratic exercise and so was dropped. In fact, his argument here was a little less than clear. But the net result is that this type of regulatory scheme appears to be off the agenda. Second, he argued that there are lots of local authority powers and regulations already in existence to deal with problem private landlords.

This second point is correct but almost entirely irrelevant. Read more of this post

Distinctive positions on housing

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 04/07/11]

There is no doubt some soul searching going on at the moment, in part as a consequence of the poor result at the Inverclyde by-election. I’m sure the leadership will seek to dismiss poor election results at this stage in the electoral cycle as to be expected when you’re “in government”. But that can hardly carry much weight, given the Tories aren’t doing anywhere near as badly. It seems to me that rather deeper reflection is needed. Is it clear any more what the Liberal Democrats stand for? Why would someone – beyond the most unwaveringly committed – vote for the Party? Read more of this post

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