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Beyond Fragility – Thank You Taleb

26 Nov

I welcome Taleb’s thinking, at last,  someone who policy wonks follow is saying that public leaders need to act less, weave their way through problems by responding flexibly and appropriately, not plan their way out of austerity through ‘one-size-fits-all’ models.  While it heartening to read Taleb  it is hard to fathom why his views are seen as so radical when adaptive leadership and appropriate judgement are hardly news,  this is how good public leaders operate across many partnerships in the country.  Women have been advocating similar views on leadership for many years.

According to the Observer yesterday, those thinkers influencing politicians and policy-wonks at the moment include: David Brooks (The Social Animal); Thaler and Sunstein (Nudge);Kahneman (Thinking:Fast and Slow); Sandel (What money can’t buy); Layard (Happiness);Kate Pockard & Richard Wilkinson (The Spirit Level) as well as Nassan Taleb. The Spirit Level is having an international impact on policy makers who needed  evidence of how inequalities impact not only on individuals but also on society.

Most of the above authors are not saying anything new or wrong – but it is worrying we need telling in 2012 that we are social animals, that money isn’t everything and  doesn’t buy happiness or that inequalities can lead to resentment, violence and despair. Perhaps the reason why policy-makers need reminding of the relationship between well-being, the economy and social cohesion is because the subject of psychology is itself so poor at grappling with the relationship between people’s behaviour and public policy.  I continue to be amazed at how universities attract thousands  to study psychology when the curricula is completely divorced from anthropology, philosophy, political and policy – in reality departments train social engineers rather than conceptual thinkers concerned with  agency and social change.    I should add have a psychology degree.

I like Taleb because he doesn’t seem to be marketing a product but exploring how leaders can better approach complex problems in a turbulent world and concludes responsiveness is better than control.   The problem is that in policy-making circles there is a continuing desire to control and to pick one new idea – for instance Nudge, and promote it as the only solution, when a better reaction would be to question the assumptions underpinning public policy implementation.   For instance, public procurement has become the international lever for achieving public efficiencies, savings and innovation all at the same time while also transferring the risk of delayed results from the tax-payer to large companies, that can carry this risk.  This is delusional there are trade-offs involved in the transfer of risk, efficiency models and services innovation in particular.  See my MBS report on DWP Work Programme Procurement.

It is the continuing lack of respect and contact for practice  within Whitehall which  leads to poor judgement within policy making.  If the Cabinet Office were to reconnect department policy-makers with locality partnerships the latter would learn how difficult implementing policies is, in practice, it would also counter the ‘gadfly’ tendency of politicians and advisors alike. If you find out how specific policies impact on people and their lives  you would be in a better position to anticipate problems and think in terms of ‘trade off’ rather than perfect solutions;  and anticipate what local practitioners already know.

In the pursuit of  improving individual services we have lost the focus on how to support the development of more resilient communities within a world which is currently showing us the power of the weather.  This would  mean trusting people, not always knowing what will happen or where money will be spent, in return policy-makers would engender engagement and a healthier relationship with those who are  doing the work. This was how Sure Start was set up originally – it was the policy wonks who sought short-term results for specific groups. New projects new the space and freedom to develop with the flow of the community not be subject to weekly changes in direction arising from changing political whims.

Public leadership is challenging but it has changed dramatically over the past five years, especially in cities and local government – these changes have not come about because of a new book or theory, although these can help individuals reframe their thinking and judgement – local leadership is ahead of the game and policy-makers should get out more.

A first step would be to find out more about the Local Government Yorkshire and Humber Innovation Awards -in Huddersfieldon the Dec 6th

See recent article – Public Leadership Driven by Values not Bonuses.


The Greek tragedy continues- perhaps locality innovation and sustainable development might work better than ‘austerity and sustructural reform and

14 May

The News continues to be frustrating because so few people appear to have anything to say about how to help the Greek people or anyone suffering from ‘austerity’ – It was interesting that as Michael Portillo treked between Germany and Greece in a TV programme last week he could find hardly anyone in either country who wanted to leave the ‘euro’ –  if he’ d been touring the UK finding UKIP members would not have been difficult.  This is a conundrum for the British who do not have the same commitment to European Project.

The question of how to both stimulate an economy through investment in people and be part of the ‘euro’ determined by the Germany economy is difficult to answer. Most leaders appear to be commentators rather than leaders – good at analysing the state of play rather than coming up with serious alternatives and options for both sides to contemplate.

Will Hutton ( Sunday the Observer) at least outlines the dynamic in a way that acknowledges both the strength of popular anger in Greece, Spain etc and the Germany fear of inflation and frustration with those less able to organise themselves.

The lack of imaginative leadership in this situation appears to come from the fact that perhaps some of the solutions involve changing the way business and international finance works, which only the technocrats have full knowldege of but little interest in changing. Perhaps understanding how Germany itself works could be instructive.

I sense that Will Hutton’s knowledge of Germany underpins the fact that he can see possible alternatives. For instance, Germany values skills as well as HE, has locality investment banks that take a longer term view of investment return and value local SMEs and local governance. I’d like to know more, because in the UK we do not value these things and assume that the social values, local connections and human development are not teh concerns of business or finance, and that social investment comes when individuals want to be philantropists rather than because social values and economic interests are embedded in how business and the banks works.

Perhaps, its time to promote the good sense of Germany’s local goverance and atttitudes to education and training.

I’m trying to make sense of the dynamics at work here and transactional analysis might help.

Austerity is never going to help Greece and the parent (Germany) has to work out whether it wants to ban one of its children or help it grow?. Greece is paying the price for its own poor leadership and governance, especially in the regions where hopeful, young civil servants leave after  six monthes and escape to the States because nepotism rules not good governance. Its not austerity that Greece needs but good leadership, administrative capabilities and a confidence in a more sustainable economy. If couched in this way perhaps the frustrated parent might give way and finance not ‘structural reform’ but locality innovation, SMEs and governance.



Local Government has become innovative and sexy in Yorkshire

20 Nov

Local Govenment Yorkshire and Humber held their annual innovation awards in Wakefield last week, where compere Danni Hewson a BBC North presenter said, “local government had become ‘sexy'”. As a judge of the innovation awards for four years I know the quality of the LGYH ‘Making A Difference’ applications has improved dramatically, the competition is great with each council submitting proposals for outstanding achievements in community cohesion, improving localities and partnership.

Wakefield did particularly well this year but so did Rotherham and some district councils which is not easy for them when competing with so many cities.  Rotherham won joint first prize for  their response to the economic downturn for the most innovative town centre, recently praised by Mary Portas, with Kirklees for their ‘recession board’ .  Sheffield won for outstanding locality transport improvement and Craven DC for innovative partnership working which has generated 85 social housing units in Greenroyd Mill. Wakefield were rewarded with prizes for the Hepworth Gallery’ and Councillor of the Year’. Bradford’s Magic Project, a partnership between the Police, Fire and Rescue and the local authority is combatting extremism, violent crime and dangerous driving through emotional therapies- won the award for strong and harmonious communities.

Local Government Yorkshire and Humber (LGYH) ensured that these awards open to all services and smaller district councils. South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue were rewarded for their exceptional peer mentoring  and the Public Servant of Year Steph Brown is making a huge difference to young people in North Lincs where she herself had been a ‘looked after child’.

LGYH is recognised by local leaders and chief executives in the region to be the agency that has stimulated and sustained collaborative leadership across the region, a fact mentioned at the Awards by the new LGYH Chair Cllr Peter Box (Wakefield ldr) and Cllr R0ger Stone (Rotherham ldr) former LGYH Chair and the Cllr Tom Fox ( Scarborough ldr).  Carole Hassan LGYH chief executive, a champion of place-based innovation presented awards to the chief executives in the region who had most contributed to regional collaboration.

However, in spite of their success, there was a sense in the room that this could be the last LGYH Innovation Awards event  -like all intermediary bodies LGYH is being significantly downsized and by April 2112 will be much smaller and less likely to have the capacity to play a strategic innovation role in the region. This is a shame because as the quality of the awards show – innovation capacity is not developed by more and more isolated and individual pilots and projects, but through year on year development of a confidence and energy for social innovations that are only possible because of a maturing of connectivity and partnership: between business and public services, across localities and between partners in a region. This is particularly the case in the North – where cities cannot beat the economy into revival through competition, no firm is an island but part of a complex set of relationships between education, training, local government and business. The unique role of local government, stimulated by intemediaries like LGLH, is in being the key to collaborative thinking and practice across business and the public sector. LEPs have a long way to go before they have matured enough to usurp LAs in this regard.

Intermediaries such as LGYH do not have to be bureaucratic institutions to broker  the connections and opportunities for creative exchange or provide the challenge for  more creative solutions, but they do need the resources and the recognition of a role in strategic innovation thinking.

There is a real innovative energy in Yorkshire and Humber for partnership across Parties, between business, communities and public services – but it is unlikely this energy can develop into more innovative governance if the innovative leadership and knowledge exchange capacity,  contracts. Some competitive chief officers may think they can do better alone or with long-distance partners, but international links are not a substitute for locality grown relationships, for this is where innovative shared services, financial tools etc can be taken to scale in way that is not about efficiencies alone but adds ‘public value’ and creates  an wider ecosystem for innovation.

I hope common sense prevails, for amidst the gloom of financial crisis, the Far Right, community alienation and riots, there is a growing confidence in local government that stems not from individual council perfection but from a recognition that collaborative leadership underpins new forms of public governance and provide the backclothe for sustaining public sector innovation. 

Well done LGYH and Yorkshire and Humber Local Authorities

See awards

Politicians play – while we burn

15 Oct

The last two weeks have seen Cabinet Ministers demonstrate a total lack of  know-how or seriousness about government – their complacency while ‘Rome Burns’ is amazing,  but perhaps not surprising given that many ministers appear not to care about governance and believe that not caring about how government works  is positively cool.

I cannot believe that Oliver Letwin is so blase about government that he strolls through St James and dumps letters from constituents into a park bin, while Andrew Lansley appears to have not noticed that years of dieting have not reduced obesity,- or that Liam Fox did not think that perhaps having his best friend, with interests in the arms trade, at almost all official meetings with no civil servant present was not good governance. It is not only Boris that is bonkers.

All a time when we have experiencing the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and people ( especially women)  are losing their jobs, pensions and the possibility of work because the country’s debt has soared  largely because of a lack of governance over the finance and banking sector. The attitude to being in government by many ministers seems childish and a bit like they are still playing in the playground.

The country might have rejected Brown for a failure ‘to appeal ‘and to stop micro-management, but there are few people in the regions who gave the Coalition  a mandate for  complacent government and most are desparate for good governance. Unfortunately, in spite of Austerity there is little political leadership, rather the old see-saw politics, that lurchs the country from mild statism to ‘no- government all ‘. Being in Coalition is not initself a new way of governing.

Cameron is totally right not to listen to his own Party – but he seems to be overseeing a group of ministers who perpetuate a rich, public school boy culture who appear to think that ‘being attractive to the public is about being nonchalent,  uninterested in ideas and casual about how to run the country.  It is clear there is an interest in learning from Tony Blair’s diaries about how to remain in office. so lets have an equivalent interest in how to support innovative government.

Innovative government seems to only concern the size of government,   policy-makers have entrenched and are not asking the difficult questions, removing ‘red tape’ is not a bad thing,  but hardly a policy if new forms of more open and inclusive governance are not being developed.  While they continue to be bypassed as dinasaurs some locality leaders ( across Party lines) are exploring how they can better work with business etc – but not at any price, new governance requires mutual adjustement on all sides. I am working with a number of places where creative leaders are attempting to break out of both tribal politics and sector silos, particularly with those in Yorkshire with Local Government Yorkshire and Humber where there is a tradition of leadership innnovation. Their public innovation awards will be announced on the 17th November – and they get better every year.

Innovation is about connections between people, collaborative and exchange in any sector – good governance is about creating the mechanisms whereby creative new firms and public services have access the markets. Government can do something about this – but no-one is talking about it.

On Friday 21st October we are having a Roundtable on Innovation and Public Procurement and will post interesting feedback from the MBS research, public procurers, businesses large and small and the Cabinet-Office.