High street remodelling, a planning decision, hospital closure and a flood defence scheme are typical examples where the responsible organization looks at options, may do some consultation, reaches a decision, announces it publicly and holds its breath. Often, the stakeholders of various shapes react, and the management go into defence mode. Sometimes, the decision is forced through, sometimes dropped and sometimes the battle wages for years. Defending is a high cost and time-consuming process
Why do we keep on doing it? Habit, ego, and skills. In many organizations, the incentives are for the status quo; DAD has been the norm; and in the absence of significant stimuli to change, the norm prevails. Our egos say we know best, be it the chief engineer choosing between traffic lights and a mini-roundabout or the policy analyst proposing new regulations. The available skills trap us by what they can do: pylons are the deep expertise of electricity transmission companies and they know little of the alternative-underground cabling. Hence we get pylons far more than the economics would dictate.
EDD is the emerging alternative. The problem is not taken away from the public for analysis and decision by managements and politicians, but left with them. After all, it is they who will live with the trade-offs between service and tax, they who will live with the solution, and they who will make it work by being committed to it. The final decision may remain with the responsible body, but now informed and shaped.
The 2004 Tomlinson report on the replacement of ‘A’ levels was a classic where being right cut no ice with teachers and much of the public. Dropped like a hot brick by the politicians before the last general election, DAD chalks up another failure and a vital educational reform for the benefit of pupils and society is left for another five or ten years.
And don’t blame the public or the John Humphrey’s school of dumb journalism. We all react the same way to proposals put to us and decisions taken for us, affecting our lives, presented suddenly.
The chairman of the Pensions Commission, Adair Turner, has been more subtle with pension reforms, offering several options and painstakingly working through the facts and figures at a digestible pace. National representative samples of the population are spent a day deliberating his findings. I hope he succeeds.
EDD takes a fundamental shift in attitude by public sector management. The public is not stupid. The public comes in many forms. Different interests and needs underpin the stated position. But, once properly engaged and informed, the public will identify responsible, workable solutions, which reflect the whole system the experience in a way the remote police maker or manager has neither the time now the knowledge to replicate.
Once stakeholder groups become aware of the needs and interests of others, they become more balanced in their preferred solutions recognizing that a decision will require consensus and trade-offs.
Do we face any bigger challenge than climate change? Thus far, most politicians have run a mile sheltering behind the notion that any change affecting (economic) quality of life is not a runner. In essence, we are the next dinosaurs. We look back and wonder why and how did these wonderful creatures become extinct.
On the current trajectory we are heading the same way. How on earth did those humans living on such a wonderful planet become extinct? Which new species will pose that question? Were their collective brains too small? Or was it their method of dealing with complex problems that failed them? Had their institutions become so sclerotic they were unable to adapt from within? And no-one had the power or courage to replace the failing institutions with new? Where had the power gone?
The Evolving Public Service
The brief history of public services is one of first providing much needed services to communities and individuals, with ambition, drive and passion. Second, enormous growth. Third, stability and institutionalization. Fourth, the switch from service to doing things to the public. The with and for disappeared. The barriers went up. Only the prescribed institution was allowed to deliver. Communities were actively discouraged or prevented from doing things for themselves. Not surprising that social capital took a dive.
All the while, the theory was that communities and individuals exercised power through representative democracy and thus controlled their services. By and large, this does not happen. Of course there are exceptions, but councillors with the time and patience are far from representative, and the unelected hold at least 80% of the power. Many services have ‘maze accountability’, where any real connection between a community and its service gets lost – health and the police for example. Nationally, we run a two-party state intermediated with its services by a civil service which regards itself as independent as the judiciary. With a semi-totalitarian news media running riot in the name of a free press. So much for the theory. It is a rational decision not to vote.
Hence the move from representative democracy to decisionspecific democracy.
The mature conifer forest behind a small north Wales village was due to be felled. Individuals in the community feared a steady flow of heavy logging trucks and organized to stop the Forestry Commission. The village was having done to it tourism, a nature reserve and public art too. Battle lines were drawn until an enlightened manager in the Countryside Council for Wales thought ‘there must be a better way’ and called in a professional facilitator to run an engagement process. A facilitated public meeting (unlike most public meetings ever experienced) started the process alongside many one-to-one sessions to convince individuals that the several public sector organizations involved were committed to working with the community. The village had no centre and the sense of community was limited.
The partnership of concerned individuals, four public sector bodies and local businesses formed from the public meeting set about a vision for the whole community with the forestry extraction as part. ‘Task and finish’ groups examined transport and signage, a new community and local history/conservation interpretation centre, and walks among others. A local leader emerged who embraced engagement. An exchange with a similar village in Ireland helped bond the group and share the vision as well as learning from others’ experience, including a shocked understanding of their focus on the established interests of the resident old to the exclusion of the potential young incomers.
Five years on, the community centre, café and snooker hall are up and running, providing a place to meet and to share with visitors the local history. The renowned waterfall has car parking relocated to encourage visitors to walk through the village, past the new centre. The trees are being carried by small lorries through the village to a transfer compound by the dual carriageway. Most importantly, the community feels empowered and energized to solve its problems and create its future. Social capital has risen. All of this has stemmed from two or three creative, lateral thinking, rule-bending public service managers.
In a different way, a different public service manager is engaging with a community to transform the ‘criminal justice’ system in north Liverpool. Judges are rarely perceived as managers, but at their best they are and they need to be. The North Liverpool Community Justice Centre deals with quality-of-life crime – everything other than serious offences – focusing on the offender not the offence with the aims of reducing reoffending and diverting individuals from a career in crime and/or living on benefits, to the mainstream. The centre largely replaced the traditional magistrates court: a sausage machine for the administration of justice. In setting it up among much local hostility, the judge engaged the community to understand their objections and needs. The single judge gets to know the offenders, deals with them with respect, and says plainly he does not want them to have a criminal record. He encourages them down the problemsolving route, itself an engagement process, into restorative justice, community reparation, drugs rehabilitation, and so on. He is strong on compliance with the sentence, and reviews this monthly with each offender. He is becoming a local authority.
It is too early for any significant evidence on the impact on reoffending, but community hostility has become community appreciation, other cities with equivalent circumstances want one, and evidence from other countries suggests the centre will perform far better than the traditional system.
EDD is an attitude needed at the heart of public service management. It is not some nice to have optional extra, handy to wheel out when the public throws a wobbly. I also believe it is a right to be written into our constitution.