After greed, is the relentless pursuit of efficiency as damaging?

I’ve been engaged in dialogue with someone on a forum dedicated to helping people find work. In the course of it, I began to expound my own perspective on the current economic, political and social climate and my frustrations at the current political answers. I don’t offer this for comment especially, but as a peg in the ground for my own benefit – somewhere I can return to and review from time-to-time. Of course, if anything pushes a button or sparks an accord, please let me know!

From my perspective, this has been a largely ‘Western’ ‘meltdown’. No national political party could have avoided it; indeed our own government under Gordon Brown was being applauded internationally for the approach they were extolling to try to minimize its impact as it hit. It’s in the recovery process that national differences begin to emerge.

So far, in the UK, it has been the private sector that has been hit in many markets. I don’t believe statistics on unemployment any more – they just can’t take into account the many variables (such as partial employment, reduced utilization, and so on) that really reflect an economic downturn in human terms when a large proportion of the population are self-employed.

For the vast majority of civil servants about to enter the under-employment pool, I feel very sorry – there are some initiatives designed to help pockets of them (such as the recently launched which is focused on the needs of the 10000-plus police officers about to be made redundant) – but overall, I think they are going to find it toughest.

There are so many things that need to be done (and would regardless of the political flavour) that I don’t think it helps claiming political capital from changes that have been in the pipeline for considerable periods of time. Behaviour like this is inauthentic, immature, impresses no-one and in the longer term comes back to haunt.

This week we have had a proclamation about the revamped vetting process – changes that were just about to be put into place, were then put on hold when the new Government arrived, and are now going to be implemented in a watered down fashion. That’s fine – it makes sense – but it’s the political claim with it that is wrong. Now we have a statement that public procurement is going to made more open to SMEs – yet the technical infrastructure on which it is based is already there and has been for a long time. The barrier to SMEs in public procurement was a cultural one within the civil service and nothing is being done to change that.

It seems to me that the two political parties ‘in power’ have forgotten that they are both still minorities. Unless a major scandal was to unfold that disproportionately affected the Labour Party, parties ‘in power’ generally see their powerbase decline over the course of their term. With the current split in the House of Commons, rather than trying to score points, all three main parties really need to be building meaningful collaborative bridges.

The present government is extolling a process by which services formerly provided by the public sector will be progressively absorbed by the private sector. Personally, I am sceptical that the private sector will adapt and grow to redress the loss of services that the public sector were offering. I think we will see an acceleration in the decline and loss of some – such as the libraries. We will also see many optional (and often inspirational) activities being withdrawn and not replaced (and I am thinking especially of the arts and education here).

It is the optional, inspirational, nice-to-have things that make life worth living. These aren’t the kinds of things for which there’s a regular demand that creates a business opportunity and stimulates the kind of employment that we might hope for.

Instead, I think we will see a significant part of the population withdrawing from the occupational pool – those who a few years ago would have chosen to be ‘economically active’ into their late-50s and 60s, who will downsize their expectations of life and effectively retire early.

The bankers took the brunt of the public outrage because of the popular perception that they had fed a culture of greed which led us into the ‘meltdown’. Time will tell whether historians share this analysis.

I think there’s a second culture that is potentially as damaging in this ‘recovery’ phase and that’s the relentless pursuit of efficiency. William Morris and others identified this in the Arts and Crafts era, and I think we have fallen for it again. It is a reductivist mindset that undermines personal confidence, destroys community, and damages quality of life.

Just because a public sector provided service can be run more efficiently in the private sector that doesn’t mean that it should be. If we employ a few more people to run a hospital and a few qualitative aspects are better – even though there are no metrics to show that there’s an improvement in clinical effectiveness – is that wrong? If we keep a few libraries open so that they can offer services a little closer to people (even though those people could travel to a bigger library somewhere else) then there’s a qualitative improvement even though efficiency is reduced – is that wrong? In many European countries, a lot of the public lavatories have an attendant. They aren’t necessary, and they aren’t necessarily as efficient as a private contractor visiting once every so many days, but these people would often not be employable anywhere else and now they have the dignity that goes with knowing that you have earned your income. Would you rather have just enough school teachers to make sure that some arbitrary performance criteria are met – or more teachers so that children can be individually inspired to see beyond their present circumstances to a better world?

When someone feels that they have earned their income, they feel a sense of achievement. With this sense of achievement comes self-confidence. With self-confidence comes the capacity to serve and support others in the community and to create a better world.

I look on at the antics of some of the present generation of politicians from all the major parties, and I begin to wonder if they have lost sight of this ultimate purpose? It was probably this that got them into politics in the first place, and yet, like animals in the Orwellian farmyard, they are soon consumed by the ‘system’.

Best wishes

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