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Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Let's Fix Britain

A friend of mine has just introduced me to Let's Fix Britain

I particulary enjoyed the article entitled 'If I ruled the world...'


I was talking to a friend the other day, doing my Harry Seacombe impression ("If I ruled the world.."), and we decided it would be interesting to write down my vision for how things would be. This is the article which emerged.

Core Values

My view of the world is driven by my internal core values. These are the ideas I hold dear, and try to uphold in my life. Their absence in the outside world is a source of frustration and misery for me, and this is one reason for my persistence in trying to make a difference.

So, what are my core values? Surprisingly, I find only two.

Truth is fundamental. The presence or absence of truth has huge implications, everywhere. Truth has to be central to our agendas. We have to see the truth, and tell the truth, and think the truth. We have to be true to the facts. Truth is so easily abandoned:

1. The facts are not easily found, so we'll do without them or invent some.
2. Some facts don't support our agenda, so we'll ignore them.
3. The truth is, I screwed up, so I want to hide it.
4. The truth is boring, so I'll sass it up. Research suggests that we're all habitual liars in our daily lives. Life is much easier if we don't have to worry about the truth. But if we want to move society to a better place, we need to see things as they are.

If we look around us, we see that politicians are often not honest because they want to hide their mistakes or indiscretions. They want to pursue hidden agendas, and they want to build alliances. The biggest alliance of all, of course, is with their electorate - they want to be appealing to thousands of people.

Similarly, newspapers are motivated to sell newspapers. This means writing interesting copy. That often means exaggerating and departmentalising. The truth suffers. That's important, because we, the electorate, read the bent version of the truth, and form opinions about the world and our politicians which may or may not be true.

There are those that say "truth" is not a fundamental; that one person's truth is not another's, and that each viewpoint is equally valid. There is some ... truth in this. In my view, there is a spectrum of certainty, and in most practical cases, we can discover a truth which will serve us all well enough. But we choose not to, because we're fundamentally self-serving, not society-serving.

Let me illustrate that truth spectrum idea. If we have a conversation about what the "best colour" is, then we're probably not going to reach a definitive conclusion. This is at the fluffy end where personal whim rules. OK - we can't have truth here, but we also don't need it. Vive La Difference.

Now let's look at the other end. How long is that piece of wood? Well, it has a definite length. It's a fact, and there's only one right answer. Truth is absolute here, and absolutely knowable, describable and defendable. Science lives here (for the most part).

Now let's walk towards the middle and into the gray. Were you late to work this morning? Well, you might say that your watch says you weren't, but your boss's watch says that you were. Well, the truth about what time it is, is easy to discover. It's a no-brainer. OK, then you might say "but the traffic was heavy". OK, that's an assertion which we could also discover the truth about, but it doesn't affect the truth about you being late. You either were, or were not, and it's not difficult to find out which.

Moving further into the gray, what about political ideology. "Which one is best"? This is, of course, far more difficult to tackle, and so much is tied up in the definitions; (what does "best" mean? Best for who?). I believe that if you clarify the terms, then a truth can be discovered in theory, though we may not be able to determine it in practice because of complexity.

So, there's my spectrum. My conclusion on truth, is that - in most practical cases, we can define our questions carefully, and derive answers which are un-arguably true. It's at the "were you late for work" place on the spectrum where I feel most of us don't operate as truthfully as we could and should. This is where politicians lie about their huge undeclared loans, where national statistics are manipulated to misrepresent, where supermarkets' food packaging pictures tell lies about their contents, where advertisements' large print giveth, while the small print taketh away, where newspaper liable is dished out daily, and where you and your employer, and you and your family, live out your lives.

If you are truly honest with yourself, you can't help but turn into a more honourable human being. You'll do the right thing more often, and you'll set higher standards for yourself and for those around you. If you demand the truth from others, and if it can become institutionalised, you'll have a sound foundation on which to build great things.

Truth should be our goal. Let's find out the truth - all of it, and tell the truth about it. Let's deal with the world as it really is and make it better.

Sound Motivation is my second core value. A politician's motive should be to work hard to make things better for society. They should be able to conceive of excellence, and to be self-aware and self-honest about their own effectiveness. They should not be lazy, self-absorbed, self-important or arrogant. They have a job to do, not just a position to occupy. They should be open about what they do, accessible and accountable to their constituents. Their honesty and self-awareness should lead them to find high quality solutions, not just to tow a party line or blindly follow an ideology.

So, smoke-filled rooms in which carefully selected members of the old boys network make decisions which suit them and their hidden agendas, perhaps orchestrating dirty tricks, encouraging nepotism, and perpetuating class or racial barriers are diametrically opposite to this.


Layered on top of my two core values are a body of heuristics - rules of thumb - which my experience in life has suggested are generally good things. There are exceptions when they won't completely apply, but in general, they will.

1. Fact-based Decision Making is driven by my truth core value. Collect the relevant data before making a decision.
2. Metrics & Goals are invaluable when you're trying to change the performance of a system. It might be a school, or a local authority, or perhaps you're trying to improve patient waiting lists. So - define sensible measurements ("metrics") for what you're trying to improve. Then collect facts to understand the situation. Then implement changes. Collect more facts to see if you made things better or worse. Act on the basis of this new information. Keep running around the loop, driving change towards the goal states you're looking for. Choose challenging but possible goals to drive improvement.

Of course, this solid concept can be - and has been - misapplied very publicly.

a. It's possible to choose bad metrics which don't accurately or fully represent the system you're working on. School league tables are very crude metrics, for example, and they have some negative consequences.

b. You can choose goals which are entirely unrealistic, and force good, busy people to jump pointlessly through hoops. Well, that's a bad application of a good idea, and it doesn't invalidate the idea.

c. You can choose a metric which is entirely un-representative of the system. A recent example is when the government informed a hospital that they'll be measuring waiting times over a particular week. What happens the rest of the year is not monitored. I would seriously FIRE whoever was responsible for implementing this. It must have gone through many layers of civil servants and politicians, and cost us millions. It is stupidity beyond understanding.

d. You can blatantly manipulate metrics dishonestly. Recent reports of hospital executives cheating to meet government goals illustrate this; (I wonder why these people are still in post).

e. You can meet one metric at the expense of other parts of the system. Again, the hospitals illustrate this when they cancel all other activities to meet a particular goal.

3. Benchmarks are the natural partner to metrics. What if I told you the 5 year survival rate in Britain for a certain kind of cancer was 52%? That's a metric, and you can set a goal of 60% to move things forward, and reward those involved for meeting the goal.

But what if I told you that the same metric for the same cancer in France was 86%?! That tells you straight away - with no expertise on medicine, management, or anything else - that Britain is seriously at fault here.

That's the magic of benchmarks. If someone else on the planet is doing what you're doing, we can see how well they're doing it, and this broader context gives us valuable information. For all our services - from how much it costs us to clean a public toilet, to how much it costs us to run our air traffic control system - we should know, and use, global metrics and benchmarks to drive us towards being the best on the planet.

4. Sound Management is a contentious issue, but I believe that good managers are hugely important. Again, the NHS provides a useful real-world history for us. You can put in place good metrics and goals, and you can contextualise that with global benchmarks. But you haven't changed anything yet. You just collected some numbers.

The most powerful way things change is by people on the ground doing things differently. Nurses, doctors, health care assistants, radiographers, cleaners, and so on. And it's the role of managers to work with these folks to make that change happen. It's a highly skilled and absolutely essential role, that we need to pay good money to get done.

Can't we rely on our consultants to manage their organisations efficiently? Absolutely not. There are many cases which prove this. Management is a profession, distinct from medicine. Organisational skills, people skills, financial skills - are all required but may not be (and probably aren't) present in a gifted surgeon. Good managers grow working environments where decency, internal responsibility, accountability, bi-lateral incentivisation, openness and continuous improvement thrive.

Do we want to give managers lots of NHS money to sit on their arses all day dusting off their swanky suits? No, of course not. Each manager should be gifted, highly motivated, highly effective, and worth every penny. We should be monitoring and measuring their performance. If they're not delivering, we should free up their futures. But I feel we need to acknowledge that the management role is absolutely key to implementing change in any organisation - health authority, rubbish collection service, magistrates court, etc. Perhaps if we paid private sector salaries we'd get some top notch managers back into the public sector.

5. Cost-Benefit Analysis is a sound principle which I think we often lose sight of. Before doing anything - before spending any tax-payers money - we should clearly understand what the cost is, and what the benefit is. When we know those, we can decide how to proceed.

This approach smashes head-on into a common viewpoint, which can be characterised as "benefit at any cost". If doing a thing bestows some benefit, then we should do it. WRONG ANSWER.

I don't know how many people are sufficiently blind in Bedfordshire to receive benefit from the knobbly pavements which lead up to our road crossings. I also don't know how much those cost. But I would be very surprised if the cost justifies the benefit.

6. Equality of Opportunity is, I believe, a fundamental human right. Each of our citizens should be granted the same opportunities to grow wonderful lives. That means they should have the right to first class health care and a first class education, and these should be funded by the state.

However, I do not believe we have a right to equality through re-distribution of wealth. See the next item.

7. Personal Responsibility is, I believe, the sensible way of managing our society. Where possible, each adult should bear the responsibility for their own lives.

Human beings will always cover a wide variety of personality types. Some will want to work hard in conventional ways in the pursuit of monetary wealth. Others will prefer to coast and do as little conventional work as they can to meet their minimum needs. That's a personal choice.

But I think it's fundamentally unfair and counter-productive to take money from those who worked hard for it, and to give it to those who prefer not work hard for it.

What about those who can't support themselves? We should support them, of course. But the current system is wrongly incentivised. It pays people to not go out to work.

I know someone who, at 43, was fired as a fork lift truck driver for violence, and will never work again because any job he can get, will not pay as much as he used to get. WRONG ANSWER! I would not be paying tax payers money to this man. He would need to take a less well-paid job. He needs to make his own way in the world, and bear the consequences of his own actions.

I know someone else with a bad back who has not worked in 15 years. He works 3 days a week doing volunteer work. Noble, I'm sure - but - if he can do clerical work sitting down, then he can and should be earning his own living, not taking it from the tax payer.

I know someone else who used to be a butcher but "did his back in". At 52, he will never work again and we will foot the bill. Yet he is able to walk, talk, abuse his neighbours, goes out every night and argues with his brother into the early hours. WRONG ANSWER! He is an able human being. Perhaps we can support him into finding a new job, but the onus should be on him, and the ultimate incentive for him should be poverty. We should not be financing him until he dies.

8. Education for Life relates to these last cases. Our society is our people. If we want a better society, we should grow better people. The two biggest opportunities are in education and parenting. In the area of school education, I want to see us investing our time and money far more effectively into growing better people. I would teach the following:

o Thinking Skills - maximising use of the brain.

o Social Skills - getting on with people.

o Societal Understanding - what society is, rights & responsibilities.

o Happiness Development - a raft of growth and coping skills.

o Self-esteem - how to remove self-limiting beliefs and maximize potential.

o Natural Role - learning what our life's purpose is.

In other words, we devote large amounts of time to developing our children into happy, responsible, productive members of our society. Perhaps we devote 8 hours a week to this.

Where do we get the time from? Well, I understand the argument for providing a well-rounded education, but I refer you to my cost-benefit heuristic above, and then suggest that we can remove plenty of what currently takes up those 14 years of full time education. Does knowing how to do differential calculus make our society better? What about understanding how Oxbow lakes are formed? Butterfly anatomy? Foreign languages? You get the picture.

Of course, part of what school does is to provide us for our working lives, and we break that at our peril. But there's plenty of content which, though entirely useful, is not essential.

9. An Efficient Legal System is an essential part of making a healthy society. At least until we can bring the benefits of all that new schooling online! We need a situation where:

o All rules are sensible

o All rules are obeyed.

o Justice is swift.

o Penalties are appropriately punitive.

o Rehabilitation is effective.

o Transgressors fully compensate society for "Zero-sum justice" - i.e. the guilty party contributes whatever it takes to restore the status quo - and all this in addition to whatever punishment is assigned for the crime.

o Justice is open and accountable.

10. The Big Picture should be understood and used to make changes in the "society machine". I think this is what Blair meant by "joined up government", but there is little sign of it.

11. Market Forces provide a mechanism for consumer-related elements of society to self-organise in a way which encourages efficiency and value for money, so I support them in general. There are some instances where their free-reign does not serve us, and in these cases, we should apply appropriate controls.

12. Smaller Government goes hand-in-hand with personal responsibility. I believe that the actual rate of taxation in the UK exceeds 50%, and I think that's too much. It's also not being spent very carefully, and the organisations into which it disappears don't seem to be providing significant benefits.

Well, there's a dozen ideas to be going on with. I welcome your views on any of them! And if you'd like to write your own Harry Seacombe article, send it along to Let's Fix Britain


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