Saturday, 17 March 2012

Rethinking Public Services

The current economic difficulty started with a crisis in banking and is ending with a crisis in public services as nations grapple with the fallout out of their intervention with the banking crisis. The public services in the form of health, education, welfare, law enforcement, street lighting, public housing, planning, waste management, transport, utilities management and broadcasting are relatively recent in historical terms, and many of them have undergone radical reform, deregulation and privatisation which has blurred the boundary between public and private industry. But despite this, there remain clear distinctions between public service and private industry in terms of accountability (shareholders or voters?), motivation (profit or social good?) and coordination (corporate strategy or community strategy?).

Politicians of the left and right argue about the benefits of central planning vs the free market (and how that dynamic has been changed by the crisis!), but clearly there are benefits and disadvantages on both sides of the equation. Often it depends on who you would prefer to hold you to ransom: banking giants or union barons? (not that there are any of the latter left). Either way, being held to ransom isn't nice, but it now appears that the problem lies with over-powerful global corporations, not just in banking (for which, for the majority of the population equals housing), but IT, telecommunications, utilities management, insurance and media.

The latest candidate for deregulation and possible privatisation (if not of existing institutions, then encouragement of new private ventures) is higher education. But education is a strange one because its benefits are less tangible than keeping warm, seeing where you are going at night or being able to turn on the tap. Yet, we regard it as a civil right.

As has been the pattern with other deregulations and privatisations, a pattern of institutional takeovers and the emergence of global brands in education is probable within the next 10 years or so. This is why I believe 2012 is such an important year in the history of education (and probably not just in the UK). But on the back of that, the strength of global corporations, and their ability to hold individuals to ransom (like the banks, the utility companies, the insurance companies) will only increase and invade the realm of certified academic achievement and individual merit.

I have argued previously that this corporatisation of education, and the exploitation of individual anxiety about future career prospects may be economically necessary in the current climate. Global education organisations will, after all, create employment (although with vastly inferior terms and conditions to the present!). But necessary or not, it is also potentially horrible. It's emergence we can do little about. But its reality should at the very least challenge us to think very deeply about what we really want education to do beyond the shallow aims of the new global education industry who will only really care about their shareholders.

But more than that, I believe the education problem is the opportunity to think more broadly about what 'public service' really means.

Here I can only offer some early thoughts (I may change my mind on this). But I would echo Geoff Mulgan here:

and say that capitalism has been very good at some things (compare Western Europe and the US with the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s), and very bad at other things. Why?

I think the people who benefited most from capitalism were people who wanted to become very rich. If you didn't want to become rich then often 'quieter' jobs related to government were the route that you took. Teachers, nurses, social workers, community group leaders and many others fall into this category. The reward for these people (at least the reward that they hoped for) was to do something meaningful in society which benefited others. Often this work involved 'care' in some form or another. It is interesting that it is precisely these people who have borne the brunt of government cuts in the last year or so, and even before that, for many years, workers in public services felt under-valued, always the object of politicians' ire as they sought to show their metal in trying to deliver 'public services' which would (in the end) result in votes.

It would be useful to know what proportion of the population want to become rich. My guess is that it isn't the majority. Most people know that wealth brings misery with its power. But capitalism, the system for rewarding material innovation and exploitation, is the only show in town. And it creates its pathologies which impact on those other fundamental aspects of human experience which directly involve care and communities. Amongst those pathologies is the deep-seated alienation experienced by those who are simply not wired-up for capitalist gain. Even the kick-back from the alienation in the form of crazy ill-thought-through radical pseudo-Marxist revolutionary dreams feeds the dynamic of capitalism (Marx wouldn't have approved of any of that!).

I have argued before that I think the driver behind this mono-culture of capitalist innovation is the atomisation of the individual, and that technology has played an important role in this. The net profits of the giant tech companies who sold us Walkmans, iPods, Personal computers, laptops all the way through to Facebook and Twitter have all depended on complicity in the atomisation process. Nobody has created technology for communities. Only technology for individual users... and worse... the virtualisation of 'communities' which aren't communities! ....

I think we need to understand the relationship between public services and real communities. We need to re-balance the relationship between communities and global services. And we need new technologies to help us which will cut against the atomisation process.

Those technologies, the practices around them and the theories that underpin them are all the products of social innovation. But social innovation is not like the material innovation of Apple or Microsoft. Those who engage in social innovation are not out to get rich. They want to do something meaningful.

The problems of education are an ideal breeding ground for this kind of work, because education is fundamentally about community. Classrooms are communities. Successful innovations in classrooms should translate to the outside world. Technologies of the classroom are the technologies of social innovation.

But most fundamentally, the public services need to be recast. In a world dominated by global corporations, the role of government should be to strengthen communities which have suffered in the alienating march of capitalism and the atomisation of the individual. The best way government can do this is to supplement the rewards of capitalism (which are governed by the market) with new mechanisms for rewarding social innovation. Those must be mechanisms which measure success by looking at the deep impact on the lives of others. Of course, there lies a whole new set of problems: how do you measure deep impact? How do you make a decision as to what sort of innovation to support? Will the voters see the link between supporting innovation and voting for a government?

But these questions are the nub of the issue. One final thought...a crisis in public services is better than a crisis in world peace - but their inter-connection is rather more substantive that governments might imagine.

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