The Big Society needs failure

In his recent book ‘Adapt’ Tim Harford takes a Darwinian view of ideas and organisations arguing that failure is essential to future success. It’s quite easy to see how this approach may appeal to the swashbuckling entrepreneur and find support in the cut and thrust of the market. However, what does it mean for public sector managers?

Councils are famously risk averse – forthcoming LGiU research finds that over half of all UK councils agreeing that they’re either risk averse, or very risk averse. The dominant culture in local government then has a low tolerance threshold for failure. Harford himself concedes that electorates reward politicians who don’t admit to failure but insist that ‘they are not for turning’, ‘have no reverse gear’ or ‘there is no plan B’.

Does this mean that local democracy is doomed to remain fixed, immobile and irrelevant?

Well not quite. Harford cites the 10% failure rate of business in the US as a sign of robust good health. For politicians swings to the left and the right produce similar ‘failure’ rates. Of the councils that existed 20 years ago many have changed, gone unitary or disappeared altogether. The services local authorities’ offer has also undergone near constant change and in the case of some outsourcing models there has been outright failure as contractors have gone bust or walked away. So as with business failure is a combination of the predictable, the internally generated and the random.

Harford argues that the way to remain strong and useful is to innovate and that requires experimentation which in turn inevitably results in some failures. A similar conclusion was reached by Nicholas Taleb author of Black Swan. Taleb argues that unpredictable events, so called Black Swans, are a part of life and the only sensible response is to build resilience or remove fragility. Taleb argues that we can learn from nature whose systems have built in redundancy, duplication, blind alleys and high failure rates.

It is hard to imagine the Treasury meeting where one successfully sold duplication and blind alleys as a good thing for the public sector. In fact efficiency drives and initiatives like community budgeting usually result in the identification of the one ‘best practice’ single contract solution. Harford an

d Taleb seem to suggest that is in turn results in the most fragile way of running local government. The policy counterweight to community budgeting is the Big Society. It is in the Big Society that the experiments are ran, failures excused, blind alleys explored and duplication tolerated. Sounds like fun, except that this is precisely the part of localism that is least well understood or thought through.

The LGiU has been conducting research on the Big Society and our primary concern has been the continuance of service provision in the event of a failure.

The lessons from outsourcing are of limited value here because they tend to start with a lengthy procurement process and  a complex contract – neither of which can be fixtures of the Big Society if we seriously want ordinary people to get involved.Councils want and need to build sustainable models of service provision yet are constrained by the tools and models available.

One approach could be for the council to take a view on the importance of the service and state in advance whether it will step in to save it, prop it up for a bit, ask another organisation to step in or simply allow it to end. Of course for this to work the council and society need to confront and accept failure. In life and politics it’s usually a good idea to have a Plan B.

Only that most small c conservative of instititions, Parliament, could see John Bercow's proposals for 'reform' as radical.    I am writing to Speaker Bercow to suggest that one key way of increasing participation in Parliament is to engage more with local government.  Councillors should be invited and/or be able to request opportunities to make brief contributions in debates about very local issues, as many of the adjournment debates are.  Councillors should be invited to participate as ex officio members of select committees from time to time.  Councillors should certainly have been involved in the new regional select committees.  Councillors could help form a new revised second chamber if it is not to be fully elected.  On a wider level, and beyond the role of Speaker, but certainly something he could help push, we want to see a new constitutional settlement between central and local government.  As part of that, there would be a 'subsidiarity safeguard', to check that decisions are being made closest to communities.  This would be monitored by a joint committee of parliamentarians and councillors who would consider legislation and report on implications of legislation on local government, commenting on issues such as new burdens, but also fundamentally questioning the necessity of parliamentary legislation, as opposed to local discretion.    Real localism, with a rebalancing of power, should lead to a reduction in the extent to which Parliament seeks to legislate for matters that should be left to local councils.  This would greatly assist Bercow's pledge to free up more time for topical debates and more time for backbench initiated legislation, which I fully support.   On a related point, all this playground style nonsense about who likes who and who voted for who has to stop.  It does MPs no credit at a time when there is an urgent need to restore credibility and trust in Parliament.

    1. Really good points made here; as we said on our own blog recently, the more you fail the better you’ll succeed.

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