Sunday, October 25, 2009

Tough Choices Ahead

Reading the latest from think-tank the National Economic and Social Research Council (NESRC) makes me realise that hardly anyone gets it yet. We are all in denial, of some sort. Kind of believing that what we're doing will, somehow, be spared or beyond the scope of cuts. It's a natural human reaction, to bury one's head and wait for the hammer to fall.

And fall it soon will. When the Government will probably either a) Raise income tax by 7% (not likely) b) Cut all `middle class benefits c) Start to reduce ordinary public spending to pre-1997 levels to bridge a £100m annual deficit. Fewer health service staff and police officers. Crumbling schools again.

Is this inevitable? Yes and no. I am a pessimist when it comes to achieving change in the way the state does its business, so part of me believes that it will be every bit as shit as I imagine.

But a part of me believes that we can waylay the looming cataclysm. Use the coming horror to galvanise a response that takes public services - and people themselves - to a better place.

The most important thing is to change the state. Locally and nationally, the era of diktat is now viewed mostly as a failure. Robbing all involved of energy and costing a fortune. Creating a litany of complexity, a destruction of trust and a system that, in the end, grew its impact far slower than its expenditure.

But we must also change people. For we have become consumers alone, when it comes to public services. I pay, you do. I see this all the time in my work as a Councillor. People won't brush leaves from their path. They would rather spend the time complaining to me to get the Council to do it.

This `entitlement' attitude is particularly prevalent among many (but not all!!) of the 50-65 year olds I encounter. The Baby Boomers. Very different to the wartime generation who, I find, just get on with it. And the young, who seem more willing to get stuck in and sort things out.

Lots of questions but do I have any answers? I am beginning to feel that the ship of my life is beginning to steam in these directions. For all I rail against the state and call for its reduction I am not doing this from a Sarah Palin small-government place. Pro-state and anti-state in this country have meant Left and Right respectively.

Now that the state, in its current form, has been discredited, we need a new place for those who see themselves as `progressive' (and I number myself thus) to gather, exchange views and engage - without being branded as right-wing wolves in sheep's clothing (a view recently expressed far more eloquently by Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA on his blog)

For what is it worth, this is what, of all the ideas I have seen put forward by others, what we most need to do on both sides of the equation:

The State
1. Reduce the number of civil servants across all Government Departments by 25% over the next five years and freeze most public sector pay for three years.

2. Break-up the NHS into smaller, free-standing institutions (like Universities)and integrate PCTs into local authorities. Sign over the asset base to these new institutions. Allow private operators and social business to challenge the NHS for all contracts.

3. Allow all schools to opt out of local authority control and move to a voucher system.

4. Promote the Easy Council concept - and out-source as many services as possible.

5. Move all social care users to personal budgets by 2015.

6. Abolish most regulatory quangos and hand their responsibilities to central government or local authorities.

7. Keep all public sector pay under £200k pa - this may encourage the concept of public service among public servants.

8. Move all care-management services into existing or new community-based organisations that were mostly run by non-specialist, non-professionals.

9. Raise the retirement age to 70 by 2020.

10. Restore the 10p tax and reduce corporation tax to 10% on small businesses of up to £100k turnover.

The People.
1. Issue a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities to all users of Government services.

2. Expect some form or voluntary or community service from all people - and use the organs of the state - and local budgets - to encourage this.

3. Offer seed funding for a Development Trust for every locality.

4. Allow people to set up schools which can obtain state funding if demand is there.

5. Put information online as to spending priorities and trade offs (again Matthew Taylor's idea, not mine).

6. Use PR to choose all elected officers and run regular ballots on contentious issues.

7. Reduce the number of tiers of Local Government from up to three to one for all areas.

8. Offer start-up capital of 5k for any unemployed person to start their own business.

9. Accept that you will need to either pay for your own care in old age or pay for the insurance required to cover that eventuality from your own resources.

10. Redefine yourself from `Consumer' to `Citizen'. Ask not what your country etc...

1 comment:

Andy Hickey said...

Where to start? For me so much comes down to your final point - if we all considered ourselves as citizens we'd find it easier to take responsibility for our own actions in this society and take responsibility for the overall outcomes of decision-making by those we elect.
As consumers our views are merely dictated by the immediate impact of such decisions.

This is why, for example, so many people won't care about social care users and personal budgets (as they see no impact on themselves, despite this being the way a developed society should 'engage' with those in need). I have to say, however, that I agree with most of your manifesto (will you be standing as an independent?) although do disagree with the 10% tax rate (we need to simplify and having three bands isn't simplifying - just increase the lower threshold).

I believe that ultimately the way to get consumers transformed into citizens is through your People/Point 2 (voluntary/community service) - this would give more people more of an idea of what makes the world go round (rather than just the bits they interact with as a consumer) and would get more people more engaged. This has to be wider than just the big volunteering programmes - every business, society, organisation etc, from all of the private/public/social sectors need to think "how could I provide opportunities to interact, to support, to understand what we do".

Now private sector organisations might have to think a little harder about what those individuals do (e.g. they could join their own CSR programmes) but this would even give businesses more opportunities to interact with citizens, who in turn would understand more about that 'sector'; the more we understand the more we can make better informed decisions about society as a whole (i.e. as citizens) rather than based on our own small slice. Before someone says what rubbish this is, how would it be, for example, if a corporate bodies volunteering programme was supplemented by some of their customers - organisational strength (and so efficent for everyone), good for the customer (easier to pick up and engage, and with being a customer of different organisations, plenty of choices), good for the business (opportunity to interact on a different level with consumers), good for the social sector organisation (more interaction with more parts of society).
This could be happening somewhere but, having been on both sides of that equation, I've not come across it yet - it remains a closed relationship - "what can we get out of that business" and "what can we get out of/put into that charity".
Just a thought.