Saturday 23 May 2009

The Rot of a Culture of Rules

The Archbishop of Canterbury's commentary on British political culture in The Times is entitled Enough humiliation. We must move on, but this particular point is not pursued, but rather what becomes of motivation and behaviour in a culture of rules. He does not use the phrase, but rules lead to a culture of the Nuremberg Defence, that of only obeying orders. I think it is about more than this. I have some examples.

People who sign on as unemployed ought properly to be looking for work. That's right and reasonable. Each person is different, so personal skills connect to a range of jobs and they are advertised in different places. But imagine a rules based culture where actually "actively looking for work" is not enough, but you must demonstrate different ways of looking for work. The press advertise their vacancies on their websites, indeed that's part of the deal for advertising these days. But for people who sign on, they have to read the same adverts by different means. There should be three different ways of looking for work demonstrated at each signing on. Now you lose benefits if you break the rules, not if you don't look for work. Some people could obey the rules and not really bother too much in looking for work. They cannot be touched. But an agency desperate to show 'success' in getting people off the register can capture people who break the rules yet are looking for work.

Here is a major success of government. There are very few long term unemployed. Well, when one gets to 18 months unemployment, the New Deal kicks in. This forces a set of weeks of going to a centre to look for work (by the way, no reference there about different ways to look for work), and then a set of weeks doing workfare, followed by another set of weeks looking for work again. After this, the unemployed life starts all over again, and suddenly you are newly unemployed. This is something to do with the dole becoming a "training allowance" while the usually pointless workfare takes place (by the way, I helped generate my own provision via creating a new provider, so mine was not meaningless). Thus, because of the New Deal rule, the many long term unemployed suddenly become very few. I have never believed jobless statistics ever since the Tories in power started fiddling the statistics, and this government carried on the practice (and, what makes them worse is the deception of saying that Labour would be honest with the figures). When you look at who is actually economically inactive, the actual numbers and proportions of the adult population are staggering.

Or consider Housing Benefit. Apparently, if you live in a larger house than you need, you get your Housing Benefit cut. This happened to me. The council, after paying me Housing Benefit at a particular rate for as long as I was unemployed and renting, suddenly announced to me that mine was being cut. I had not moved house: it was the same place. So I put in an appeal that failed within the council and then an independent decision was made, which, because my rent is reasonable for a smaller property, resulted in restoration of my benefit and a back payment. During that period of challenge, I of course declared the rent payment, but the council then decided that because it is 24 pence more than the legal agreement (of a few years back) that it is considered a declaration of a change of circumstances. I am having to square this circle now at cost to me and rather greater cost to the council, all for 24 pence a month. I was happily accepting a housing benefit of 24 pence less a month than I paid, but now bureaucratic machinery is in place at huge expense regarding the 24 pence.

In this I showed honesty and transparency, whilst the council is out to impose rules in order to cut its payments, regardless of need, resulting (however) in an increase in costs to do it.

Here is another half con. Housing Benefit is paid every 4 weeks, so it is less than the monthly rents people pay. Clever that: it delays the payment and the councils get interest on the funds they hold for that bit longer. They pay 13 times a year instead of 12, and tenants are forced to struggle with the difference (with restoration after a year) unless landlords go along with 4 weeks at a time, thus taking upon themselves the loss of interest.

MPs wonder why, when we have to obey these rules, that they are being dumped upon by the court of public opinion, for ripping off the system and the public finances to thousands of pounds each using rules that they brought in for themselves. They were only obeying orders (their own).

There is also a question of intent. Imagine an east-west road going westerly into a town, that goes down a long incline. Along that road is a school entrance and the speed limit is 30 mph. There are speed cameras warning signs, meaning mobile cameras used from time to time. Regular users of the road get a feel for cruising down that long incline for a 30 mph speed - it is so easy to go faster and speed can gather. In day time, irregular convoys of cars slow themselves down as traffic negotiates all that happens around, such as pedestrians, road furniture, parked cars. When should cameras be there? School times, surely, and busy times. But they are not because the road tends to regulate itself. So when do police cameras get to work? At 7 pm, with sunlight behind and falling, so cars on the incline are looking into a silhouette, where you have to give extra attention to the road, and a car turning slows others down, but you will touch the accelerator afterwards, peaking the speed above 30... And the camera van is right in that spot, right where the speedometer will go over speed. After all, what is the point of a camera turning up when it can be seen at a point when safety is important, when a van can hide behind the sun and pick up motorists for fines who are trying to drive safely?

There is an annual motorcycle event, and every year the organisers put out notices to "Watch Ya Speed (like the locals do) and that is a harvest time for fines.

Or let's take the fantastic success in education, where target driven school and college sixth forms all now achieve 100% A level passes, and yet many of these students go to university and need remedial action. Everyone is obeying the rules, but the width is measured not the quality. Indeed students do a lot of work in their sixth form courses, much of it entirely pointless. They get processed through exams as before, whilst lacking the literacy to do their own essay craft and the study skills to find out themselves some extra depth for what to write. What did I do at A level? I had a teacher read notes, give tests and hand out essays. Get on with it. Sixth form was a bridge between school and university. You went to university with experience of learning to write an essay yourself, not having the essay plan and content spoonfed, and learning to find books on a subject. Doing tests and putting down the answers yourself was training for exams, not being told to revise to memory short paragraphs of text that become plug-in answers.

Here is an interesting one. The vast funding that goes into literacy and numeracy at the bottom end of education now goes into something called Basic Skills (not Key Skills any more - know your jargon!). Here, badly employed and paid tutors actually travel to workplaces to give very basic tutorial instruction to workers in situ before travelling home again. Because of the contract nature of colleges and education, and this bright idea that all this should take place in workplaces (where learning is 'relevant'), knackered tutors are travelling cross country and being paid for driving cars for hours at a time, and staying in cheap hotels, to give a few hours tuition to bored workers before travelling home again. And the paperwork is the proof of targets being met. Don't expect anything of use to come from this system, other than the 'proof' of paperwork properly filled in and so called recorded achievements, and soon it will be scrapped. I think they might call the next daft idea 'Foundational Skills' or something like that - instead of wondering how on earth so many people can go through years of school and come out with such derisory abilities.

The Archbishop of Canterbury worries for our democracy. I don't, and the bloodletting hasn't gone far enough: I think our democracy is a sham of appearances. The House of Commons is no longer a proper legislature. It is an electoral college for choosing a government, and a rubber stamp for passing legislation into law. We have a rotton parliament, and with career progress limited in that place MPs have just milked the system for personal gain. I would clear them out, and have a programme for the next parliament of major electoral and constitutional reform - a House of Commons of proportional representation, I'd have lifetime-retirement elections for the House of Lords (that gives members there further independence from government arm twisting, it means elections there could focus on personal achievements and qualities) and all election candidates would be chosen via primaries open to signed up party members up to a date of a fixed distance prior to a vote of selection.

There is an interesting parallel between the Speaker, Michael Martin, whose focus was on maintaining MPs privileges rather than being sensitive to voters' views, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, whose focus is on the religious bureaucracy of the Anglican Communion over and above its constituents. Michael Martin last week put in a lamentable performance and worked the procedure to avoid a vote of no confidence in himself, only to realise the obvious and next day resign. The Archbishop of Canterbury, at the Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Jamaica, also put in a lamentable performance that some regarded as rule-playing and dishonest (flip-flopping his position) that ended up damaging the ACC and losing yet more credibility with his damaged Covenant process. His presidential address following the mess was one of his worst, likening the Anglican Communion issue to Israel-Palestine and which speech seemed to drift from one half made point to another, all in the usual double-negative speak that leaves people baffled as to the meaning. The Covenant is itself a production of rules, because there is nothing much else of actual intention behind it, a division for which the rules would be means to paper over actual cracks, though probably lead to endless divisive challenges without resolution. It would be the means by which parties were only obeying its orders. Anglican Churches will just have to be themselves, and tackle themselves in communities of accountability rather than artificial bureaucratic rules supposedly across the world.

Apparently moves to 'measure' clergy performance are creeping in. I bet that will be interesting when fully formed. I could design a form based on activities, with questions like, 'What do you think you achieved in this event/ encounter?' with 'What evidence can you provide?' and clergy could post the results of their latest returns to their bishops for evaluative feedback. It would keep everyone very busy. The police job applications have a section called 'The Vital Evidence' - that is quite clever, isn't it?

The fact is that much of ordinary life in the Blair years was made rotten. The Iraq War's 45 seconds was the classic deception. One longer standing means by which this happened was low taxation and therefore the dishonesty of stealth taxation (including speed vans - the government became forced to paint up fixed speed cameras so that non-locals could see them and slow down, rather than not see them and get caught - but then the cameras failed to pay for themselves and suddenly fewer were installed). Statistics and targets encouraged dishonesty and apparent good performance when actual performance is much worse - another example is how the waiting lists came down in hospitals via a series of transitions of 'being seen' by some consultant (but you were still waiting). Most of all, however, was a credit boom described by government as the end of boom and bust, and of massive fraud and deceptive practices (insuring against risk via derivatives whilst allowing high returns, when the insurance turned out to be impossible and worthless in a chaotic catastrophic system) in the banking system that fuelled the credit.

What we need is a political party or two to give a programme of electoral and constitutional reform, and the collapse of legitimacy in the rotten parliament of now (with ruined reputations: once revered MPs being hissed) leading to an early General Election. That's why Rowan Williams is wrong: we need an election. The government is already clapped out, but too many of its members and far too many MPs are now illegitimate. There is no legislative or governmental authority left, and it is time for the crooks to face the police, the deceptive to be deselected, and all those who stand but were involved in sharp practices to lose their seats at the hands of the voters. It is the election that should be the biggest bloodletting.

And then, for the next regime, with a fully reformed Parliament, where MPs regain authority and indeed professional representative power, can we then move towards professionalism and judgment again in wider society, and not a culture of rules and targets? Lets ensure basic services and have local accountability, and then let's have local institutions making local decisions according to professionals. For example, who will get rid of the National Curriculum in education?


Song in my Heart said...

I'm not convinced that voting is enough to get rid of the rot. It's a good start, but local accountability has to be bottom-up as well as top-down.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Absolutely. The Quango should be a further target of reform, as it denies accountability, but also on MPs we do need means to select openly and check, whilst keeping them as representatives not delegates.