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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Consensus and Sensibility

By Henry Kippin

I read an interesting paper this morning from the journal Nature – a bit leftfield of my usual reading, but totally relevant to mainstream politics and public services. It made me think.  Yesterday I wrote (well, I copied Martin Wolf anyway) about the challenges of consensus building, and the implications for long term economic policymaking.  The suggestion was that, now that party politicking is back in full swing in the run-up to the election, generating necessary consensus on some serious big issues will be nigh on impossible.

At the same time, we are gasping for such a consensus on some of them – as recent debates over the future funding of social care and our strategic defence planning have shown. 

At the 2020 Commission, we have talked about the need to generate a new consensus on the need for a 21st century blueprint for public services.  The hope of consensus lies behind the very idea of a cross-party commission, and, whilst the development is difficult, the impact is hopefully broader, more powerful and more coherent…. 

Anyway, this article – by Dan Kahan – offers some reasons why consensus is difficult to find.  Cultural cognition – which is the ‘influence of group values…on risk perception and related beliefs’ skew our perceptions of policy, meaning that we ‘endorse whichever position reinforces (our) connection to others with whom (we) share important commitments’.  Bluntly, we have pack mentalities, which magnifies difference and ‘polarises’ debate in artificial ways.   

This might seem obvious to anyone who follows a sports team, but the author also reflects on how these polarised mentalities can often push at the same outcomes (though maybe not in sport):

“citizens who hold opposing cultural outlooks are in fact rooting for the same outcome: the health, safety and economic well-being of their society.”

And he concludes that:

“We need to learn more about how to present information in forms that are agreeable to culturally diverse groups, and how to structure debate so that it avoids cultural polarization.

If we want democratic policy-making to be backed by the best available science, we need a theory of risk communication that takes full account of the effects of culture on our decision-making.”

Easier said than done for sure, especially when the means to achieve outcomes can be as contested as the outcomes themselves.  For instance, all parties responded to the Hills review of inequality with similar horror, but the strategies they use to address the problems it highlights will certainly differ.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Personalisation: From remediation to enrichment…

By Lauren Cumming

I went to a seminar this morning co-hosted by 2020 Public Services Trust and ACEVO called “Personalisation in education and welfare – next steps”. The point that particularly struck me was one raised by Matthew Pike about using personalisation not only for remediation but also for extension and enrichment.

I think most people agree that tailoring services to meet individual need is a good idea. But there is a problem in the way personalisation is currently conceived. Alison Wolf made the point that the state’s default position is generally a top-down approach to service delivery. Only when this doesn’t achieve the outcomes sought is the question of personalisation explored. So people who have been unemployed for less than 12 months receive a standardised service from a monopoly provider, and children who are getting average or good grades at school are left in the standard classroom.

Unfortunately, this use of personalisation simply to remediate a problem that cannot be solved through the uniform delivery of a service drastically reduces its scope for improving outcomes across the spectrum. Matthew brought some statistics to the table which really hammered this home to me: while 20% of children are not attaining acceptable standards at school, and many of them do receive some sort of additional service to try to raise their level of achievement, 40% of children are considered gifted in one subject, the majority of which do not receive any encouragement to go further.

In fact, speaking from personal experience, many of these “gifted” children are actually discouraged from advancing beyond their year level. I spent one year of primary school in Britain at an age when most of the children in my class were still learning the alphabet. Having previously been educated in Canada where reading is taught at an earlier age, I was already reading short novels. I remember being taken as a class to the school library to pick out a book and perusing the shelves containing longer story books and being told off by the teacher that “Those shelves are not for Year 2 pupils!”

I do believe that personalising services is one way of avoiding situations like that. I also recognise the issues surrounding personalisation, one of which is that it may potentially increase pre-existing inequalities. Personalisation, which is fundamentally about people receiving different services according to what they think they need, entails people making decisions and pursuing what they think is best for them, and some groups are more motivated or better equipped to do this than others. But rather than limiting the use of personalisation to remediation and lifting up the tail of the bell curve, why not use it to enrich and shift the whole curve to the right?

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Posted by Lauren Cumming at 11:37 am
Monday, August 10, 2009

Inequality, aspiration, stabilisation…and tax

By Henry Kippin

Ashley Seager writes a good review article in today’s Guardian, based on two recently published studies on the housing market, property tax and inequality. The first, from Compass, proposes an annual land value tax, which would be levied on the basis of ‘unimproved site value’, as set by local councils. According to report author Toby Lloyd, the plan would ‘gradually replace the regressive council tax and business rates…(which) would help stabilise the market and could remove the final vestiges of the poll tax.’ He proposes ‘allowances at the lower end’ as a means of making sure the scheme would be progressive, aiming principally at unearned ‘windfall gains’.

A quick glance at the media reaction reveals concern (from the Daily Express, anyway) at the possibility this would be seen as a tax on aspiration – ‘penalising hard-working middle class families’. And they are presumably right in thinking that it would act as a disincentive to home ownership. I suspect, though, that the middle classes they cite would be fine – it would be those accumulating multiple properties, and those at the top end of the market that would be worst hit.

But the basis premise is about inequality – and, according to Seager, the inequality gap in property wealth is larger than that in income. Which is pretty big as it is. As the authors of the Spirit Level might argue, attacking inequality is not about dampening aspiration, but rather boosting opportunity, happiness and wellbeing for a whole society. And on that basis, the proposal should be worth a closer look.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 8:14 pm
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Is fairness back in fashion?

By Ben Lucas

No one knows what the long term effect of this recession will be but there is an interesting debate to be had about whether one consequence could be a change in society’s values. Mark Easton had a good piece about this on the Today programme this morning, prompted by a call from Oxfam for the Budget to prioritise tackling inequality.

The conventional assumption is that recession will worsen poverty and inequality. This view comes out strongly in John Hill’s magisterial study of poverty, inequality and policy since 1997 (Towards a more equal society?). He concludes that whilst modest gains have been made in reducing inequality over the last 12 years, these may well be undone by a combination of recession and a very tight fiscal squeeze on public spending. The fear is that child poverty targets will be missed by an even bigger margin, as they recede into political impossibility, and that a new wave of mass unemployment will simply add to the long tail of intergenerational disadvantage which was already there at the outset of this recession.

But there is an alternative and more hopeful reading of the situation, which Oxfam, and the JRF, through its social evils project, are encouraging us to adopt. This is that the crash was caused by greed and the worst excesses of an irresponsible form of capitalism and that now is an era in which people will want to see much greater social responsibility and fairness. In support of this view it is interesting to note that whereas Margaret Thatcher was happy to talk about the ‘tough medicine’ that Britain had to swallow in the recession of the early 1980s, no party this time round wants to suggest anything as socially divisive.

Whilst the Conservatives are taking an increasingly financially orthodox position about debt, David Cameron has been at pains to say that they will not cut public spending like ‘robotic accountants’. And today, speaking at the RSA, George Osborne, once again underlined his party’s commitment to tackling inequality. Of course, the real test for both parties will be what they say in their manifestos and what they would do, faced with debt at 10% of GDP, after the next election. Maybe a public mood for fairness and greater social responsibility will force a new approach to spending which prioritises tackling inequality and which shares the post recession pain more equally across society. In that context Liam Byrne’s new fund to empower charities to campaign more effectively (also announced today) could help anti-poverty organisations make it very hard for any government to preside over rising inequality.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Options for a New Britain?

By Charlotte Alldritt

As Polly Toynbee notes in her recent article for The Guardian, this Thursday marks the anniversary of Tony Blair’s child poverty target: “Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty. It will take a generation. It is a 20-year mission, but I believe it can be done.” Ten years on, the Labour Government is set to miss its interim target of halving the number of children in poverty by 2010, and, if the IFS Green Budget is to be believed, the predicted fiscal squeeze imposed by the credit crunch puts the ambitious 2020 target further out of reach.

Last week’s launch of ‘Options for a New Britain’ offers a comprehensive assessment of the Labour Government since 1997. This book is a follow-up to the editors’ influential 1996 publication, which consisted of a strategic policy analysis for a Britain thirsty for a change of government. Then, a third of children lived in poverty. By 2009, major inroads have been made and “perhaps the government’s biggest success in this area was to achieve income growth that was more evenly spread…particularly in the face of global forces that have been sharpening the tendency for ‘winner takes all’.” However, despite recent data suggesting social mobility is finally improving, inequality has not been reduced.

Overall, Labour receives a B- for its achievements in poverty, mobility and inequality policy. This matters, not least because, as John Hills’ recent review has shown, deep-seated economic and social pressures “may make it even more difficult to achieve egalitarian objectives over the next decade.” Research by Wilkinson and Pickett (’The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better,’ 2009) also confirms the multiplying, detrimental effects of inequality which entrench social and economic stratification.

Public services and the welfare state are designed to alleviate the causes and effects of inequalities, whether in terms of income, health, education or aspiration. The 2020 Public Services Trust picks up where ‘Options for a New Britain’ leaves off, exploring further the issues and ideas facing policy makers and public service reform. The fiscal constraints and increasingly complex challenges expected to face the UK over the next decade (including energy and the environment, chronic health problems and demographic change) are coming to a head; squaring the circle will require a fundamental re-think of many of the ways and means that the state has traditionally depended upon. Arguably, therefore, the launch of the Trust’s Commission on 2020 Public Services could not be timelier.

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Posted by Charlotte Alldritt at 1:13 pm

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