Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why Middle Age is Good and Bad for You

I have spent the last couple of days reading 'A Shed Of One's Own' by Marcus Berkmann, a personal meditation on mid-life which, even at 43, I found worryingly resonant.   Chapters such as 'Crumbling', 'Scythe', 'Pedant' and 'Money', in which looming decline is wittily detailed brought to the fore my suppressed awareness that the Only Way is Down.

But is middle-age all bad?   Yes, it is the End of Ambition, in the sense of that rather narcissistic youthful will-to-power which, if you're a normal person, kind of melts away around this time.   You do become a bit more able to deal with curve-balls, set-backs and bollocks from other people.  This is because you know, in your heart, that most of what you do, what anybody does really, doesn't matter all that much.

Well not everybody.  Yesterday I went, with my pal J to Addenbrookes hospital in Cambridge to see a friend of ours , D, who got hit by a car last week.  He smacked his head and spent three days in an induced coma and has been smashed up a bit.  For a few days things looked very dark for D.   Then  he woke up and was OK.   Just after our visit, the consultant who was going to pin his arm back together popped in to give us a two minute warning.   I guess he matters.  I went off to finish my report, following a nice cappucino in the new Costa they have put in down there.

Big hospitals are amazing.  Addenbrookes, my companion J pointed out, is now like a city.  It has shopping malls, car parks, uniformed people regulating the place.  He's right, it's impressive and one bit of the NHS that challenges my belief that nationalised health care should follow cars, steel, gas and telephones into the open market.  There's a feeling of competence, seriousness and, yes, helpfulness.  we was smilingly helped three times to find my way out by medical staff with far better things to do than tell two besuited charity consultants how to get out of a building..

Myself and J have known each other since late 20s and, having left D to his op, we have a good old chat about our early-middle-aged lives, which mirror each other's in so many ways - bar his relative financial success to mine.  I reflect that I am no longer remain the ambition-driven twit as I was,  disguised in my likeable carapace.  You kind of realise, by now that nobody really cares if you're a success of not.   It won't be what people remember you for -  if they do at all.

However the bit of middle-age I cannot yet accept is physical decline. In the way that certain senior leaders we all hear a lot about strut the public stage like alpha-peacocks, I am still hanging on for dear life to my 25 year old physical self:  thin, fast, quite sporty, not bad to look at.   I see the potential middle-age me, bursting to get out, but use prodigious amounts of gym, swim and run to keep him in his box.   Botox awaits come 45.  Perhaps some work on my chicken-neck before 50.

If, of course, I get there.   As the late Philip Gould said, 'assume nothing' about the future.  It could all end tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why Nations Fail...and organisations fail too

If you read one book this year, make it 'Why Nations Fai'l by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Well, that is if you can resist 'The Art of Fielding' by Chad Harbach. And if you can, read both.

Tellingly, both books are written by Americans. Unlike most British and European writers, Americans have no appetite for obscurantism or snobbishness in the way they write. The authors of 'Why Nations Fail' are two of the world's foremost academics on economic history. Put this subject matter in the hands of their Oxbridge equivalents and you'd struggle to get past the introduction. In the hands of these guys, you simply can't put it down.

So what's so special? I guess, it's quite rare, at 43, to be reading stuff about an old question - why do some parts of the world, 'succeed' - politically, economically, socially - when others fail, without quickly running up against the same worn out ideas: imperialism, geography/climate, the Protestant work ethic etc.

This book debunks all of that - very quickly. Very simply, 'Why Nations Fail' says that nations succeed because, over time, they develop inclusive - meaning pluralistic political and economic institutions. They develop these, of course, party by accident and partly by design.

Factors like colonialism, great individuals and major world events (disease, war, famine) have a huge role in shaping whether inclusive or 'extractive' institutions develop, but, when it comes down to it, it is only when a territory can support the rule of law, secure property rights, reasonable public services and open political system that long-term progress can be made. Without all of the above - and the book uses many examples - you end up with a political elite which has an interest in holding back the many.

The opener of the book contrasts two halves of a city, Noglales which straddles the Mexico-US border. One sits in the region on Sonala, Mexico, the other in Arizona, US. Here the people, culture, climate and operating conditions are the same. On one side of the border, incomes are many times higher, there are good public services and crime is uncommon. On the other, people are mostly poor, there are few public services and crime is rampant because the state isn't in real control on the ground.

The history of both countries explains why such a situation has evolved. From colonial times, there has been little development in Mexico of inclusive political and economic institutions. It is hard to stay safe, start a business or progress economically. The Mexican Bill Gates or Steve Jobs does not have a chance to freely develop his ideas without overcoming unreasonably hurdles right from birth. He won't be educated, unless from an elite family. He can't set up a business without paying a lot of bribes. He can't find good people because nobody is educated to the right level. Investment is not there because nobody is sure what's going to happen next in a country like that.

And so on. It's a wonderful book. Perhaps what has capitivated me most, though, is the read-across to why certain types of public services fail, despite wonderful resources and high levels of native talent. Analogous to the extractive and exclusive institutions described at state level in this book could be placed the large public sector monopolies which still dominate much of public service in Europe and certainly in the UK.

Here, power is often monopolised and change, even 'good change' does run against the interests of many of those involved. Initiative is often powerfully suppressed. It is hard, frequently impossible, to set up in business against these monopolies and there are often few political processes which can be used to break these systems down.

What am I thinking of here? Well, if you haven't guessed, I am alluding to many of the organisations from which spin-outs do or don't emerge.

The truth of the matter, and I see this every day, is that setting up a new business to deliver public services feels like it probably does to set up any ordinary business in parts of the developing world. You need the buy-in of a variety of power-brokers, all of whom need to see their interests satisfied. You need to go through all sorts of bureaucratic processes to show you're not a risk and are 'worthy' of delivering services.

From there, you need to make all sorts of promises to the system that its interests will not be threatened and create opportunities for the system to have it's say even when the business is up and running.

All of this, of course, creates a massive disincentive for any sane person in public services who wants to change things. The risks are massive - to career, to sanity, to reputation - that most people, quite understandably either stay put or move out. Those that try to start a public service business have to run a gamut that looks far more like something you'd see in Mexico than in Midshire, UK.

Of course, this is far worse in the non-democratic part of our polity - the NHS, than in local councils where there is always a final court of appeal But you see it all over. The real disease, and it is a disease, is that organisations fail for the same reasons nations fail: if you create what are, in effect, dictatorships, if you sit hard on people, if you keep the power to take away what people have created and if you eliminate any means of influence then you end up with the organisational equivalent of Mexico.

Why the third sector lies about outcomes

I'm slowly taking my leave of the third sector village. Not on a jet plane, but more slowly - by hot air balloon.

As it gains height, I can see our little village in better context. What I notice is just how small it is next to the towns and cities of the public and private sectors.

Also visible from a height are its twisting, chaotic streets and its many, varied neighbourhoods. Compared with the Milton Keynes of the public and private sectors, our village looks, from the balloon, a far more interesting kind of place.

But is our sector any more than a small splash of colour on the landscape? Well, we surely now do better than merely talk a good game. Our finest organisations are taken far more seriously than they were 20 years ago. Furthermore, many of us now deliver public services that merit the term. Time and again, our top performers comfortably outdo the private and public sectors.

However, this is mainly the new part of the village - the extension built after the 1990s. The old parts look mostly the same. There, the conversations haven't changed much down the years. The People's Front of Judea still doesn't speak to the Judean People's Front. That nice old dance about whether we can change our grant-funded schemes into commercial services. The last-minute funding reprieves.

Then there's the much darker side of village life: the massaging of activity to make everything look better. The downright pretence, at times, that something is happening when it isn't.

OK, it's not all our fault. Without the dance of deceit on outcomes, the village starves. On one side, the public sector terrorises with piles of paper. On the other, the private sector demands mighty-sounding results for its droplets of CSR money. Everyone wants more than we can deliver. So people make stuff up.

Do people notice this darker side? Mostly not. But sometimes, they glimpse our other side. Last week, I got an agitated call from a colleague from the public sector in another part of the country who had been out to see a charity in his area that had received public money. He was horrified by the casual attitude to reporting, the lack of preparation, the scruffiness of the director and the sheer nothingness behind what was purportedly going on. He thought he was being lied to. He told me that this would never be allowed in the public sector.

Maybe, maybe not. I don't think our sector is unique in having a dark side. The fact that we can still evoke these reactions in people from other sectors worries me a lot. You imagine, on your brighter days, that the worst of all that is over.

But it isn't, of course. Today's third sector village might be charming and characterful and attractively extended but, from my balloon, its dark alleyways and murky ponds are still visible and obvious. We need to address this, big time, if we're going to make things work in an era when results will be scrutinised far more closely than ever before.