A radically different approach to the spending cuts: A collaborative approach, a liberal approach

There is a contradiction in the Conservative approach. On one hand we have Dave telling us that it is our country and we need to have more of a say in how it operates. On the other we have George telling us what a mess our finances are in and that he needs to make some difficult decisions on our behalf. Imagine how different things may have looked if the government had taken Dave’s approach to the spending cuts.

In America they did just that and it serves as an example to us as opposed to this tired paternalistic Tory approach. In the USA, 3,500 Americans came together across 57 cities to discuss the nation’s finances in a day long Town Meeting. Liberals and conservatives, young and old, rich and poor, people of all races and ethnicities sat together in authentic conversation.

They used satellite and webcast link-ups connected cities across the country to create a truly nationwide conversation.  Participants were given the opportunity to discuss their greatest hopes for the future and their concerns about the economic recovery process. They were presented with 42 options developed along with the Our Budget, Our Economy National Advisory Committee. In addition to expressing preferences among the options, they were able to suggest new additional options.

The results looked something like this:

  • 85% of participants expressed support for reducing defence spending by at least 5% (which included 51% of participants who expressed support for a 15% cut)
  • 68% of participants expressed support for reducing all other Non-Defense spending by at least 5%
  • 62% of participants expressed support for reducing health care spending by at least 5%.
  • No options for reducing Social Security benefits received a majority of support.
  • 60% of participants expressed support for raising the cap on payroll taxes to 90%
  • 54% of participants expressed support for raising income taxes on those earning more than $1 million by five percent
  • 52% of participants expressed support for raising personal tax rates for the top two income brackets by at least 10%
  • 54% of participants expressed support for establishing a carbon tax
  • 50% of participants supported the establishment of a securities-transaction tax
  • No options for reducing deductions and credits received majority support
  • Participants were evenly divided about options presented to reform the tax code

The results were submitted to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform for its public meeting on Wednesday, June 30, 2010.

This is an excellent model for government collaboration with citizens. Giving power to the people, allowing people to have a real say, influencing the government that they essentially own. It is a world away from the approach taken by George. When it comes to difficult decisions, maybe he needs to think about letting go of the old tory ways and embrace the ‘new politics’?

In Praise of the Daily Mail: Finding strengths in the Lib Dems

The Lib Dems have for a long time fought for a political narrative to be understood by the people. Strangely it seems the Daily Mail understands this narrative and sees a change in conservative ranks – a libdemification of the Tories? I can only assume this is a good thing if this is happening but worth pointing out that the Lib Dems have a chance to spell out a unique message and position in British Politics and now even the Daily Mail are listening:

Are there any ­proper Tories in this Government? Maybe I should be pinning my hopes on Nick Clegg, said by some to be a closet ­Conservative. Quite a few of those who call themselves Tories are beginning to resemble Lib Dems. On Tuesday evening I listened to the universities minister, David ‘Two Brains’ Willetts, on BBC2’s Newsnight sounding blithely unconcerned about the difficulties of middle-income earners, who will spend most of their adult lives paying off their student loans under new Coalition proposals. Mr Willetts used once to be described as a Thatcherite.

Collaboration: The Next Big Step in Government and Public Administration

When politicians say things like ‘government would hand people direct control over how they are governed nationally and locally’ (Conservative)  or that they are making ‘government more accountable to the people and strengthen the hand of citizens against the state’ (Labour). Or even ‘creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens’ (Barack Obama). It sounds great, but what does it mean?

A good place to start is here. Vigoda has written a great piece on where we are at and what we are facing in terms of government and public administration (G&PA) and their relationship with citizens. He argues that government and public administration has evolved from rulers to managers and that there lies a new frontier in government. It is this new frontier that these statements by our new politicians are trying to grasp but are not quiet able to make the transition to this new way of thinking.

This new frontier is from  G&PA as managers and citizens as customers to a collaboration between citizens and other social players and G&PA. He argues that citizens as clients has worked but a new generation of running public administration is needed.

A better definition of the G&PA relationship must rely on the conception of collaboration and partnership. Such reforms will create a different and more flexible model of governing.

government will continue to govern… but the more authentic the encounters with citizens will be, the less will government be ‘they’ and the more it will be ‘we’

(Postmodern Public Administration. Fox & Miller 1995, 128)

It is interesting therefore to read the Liberal Republic by Demos  which says that

Discussions in political circles about ‘devolving’ power approach the question from the wrong direction. The default assumption should be that individuals have power, unless there is a good reason for consolidating power upwards to communities, local agencies, national government, or international bodies.

They go on to suggest that individuals should control their own health or social care through individual budgets, something which is happening and has been written about on this blog.  Importantly, this is a defining aspect of the distinctive Liberal ethos and they state that:

This will be unappealing to conservatives, who prefer people to live tidily, along carefully signposted paths.

And I would add it will be unappealing to Labour due to their desire for authoritarianism which resulted in sites like this.  In Vigoda’s own words

The new generation of public administration will need a different spirit… one that fosters mutual effort. This movement from a ‘they’ spirit’ to a ‘we’ spirit is perhaps the most important mission of public administration in our era.

The issue for the Liberal Democrats is that they begin to grasp this concept, find a way to communicate it effectively and find ways of implementing it. G&PA must take a step forward and while the Conservatives and Labour may have begun to use the language, it remains to be seen if their philosophy and beliefs would allow them to make this big step. The Liberal Democrats are in the best position to be able to do this in the UK.

So why is this on a solution focused politics site? Well, collaboration is a central aspect to the solution focused approach. It is the relationship where the techniques are used and solutions are found. Solution focused politics offers the best possible way of achieving this collaborative government as argued throughout this site. This will be developed on further posts.

Tory Marriage Tax Break: Chronic problem focused thinking leading to chronically inappropriate policy

The Conservative marriage tax proposals have been heavily criticised for being an ideological policy (e.g. here) and the policy has been hotly debated already. However the policy and the process by which it was developed shows classic problem focused thinking and demonstrates the influence of this approach and how it does not work.

The (non-ideological) argument is that there is an abundance of research which states that marriage has many benefits and tangible positive outcomes for children and families and therefore the state should support it. The Centre for Social Justice released its publication as to the reasons behind the need to support marriage and how to with the tag line ‘Family Policy derived from strong evidence would lead to policies which supported Marriage’. The Conservative Party then accepted these findings and produced a policy which would allow 32% of married couples up to £150 tax break. The absurdity of the policy did not go unnoticed by the party resulting in David Cameron having to state “what matters is the message more than the money which means in the practical application of the policy it would not fulfill its purpose i.e. to encourage marriage or discourage divorce.

A policy is defined as a course of action adopted and pursued by a government, yet a policy which fails to achieve its intended outcome has no action and is therefore not a policy. So how can it be that a so-called-policy, based on so-called-research has produced a policy which performs no action or that even those who would benefit from it do not want it? (here & here).

The Centre for Social Justice outlines 5 reasons why marriage ‘matters’:

  1. Marriage brings stability
  2. Marriage is directly linked to better mental and physical health amongst adults
  3. Marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse
  4. Marriage leads to better mental health for children
  5. Marriage leads to better life outcomes for children

Marriage & Stability

While there is much research which outlines the link between marriage and a low level of relationship breakdown as a comparison to other forms of relationship, there seems to be some fundamental aspects of this debate which has been ignored. While I am not going to go into an in depth assessment of the research which has been used it is worth pointing some issues with it. Some research they use states that there is a relationship between marriage and stability but dig a little deeper and you find that this is actually a relationship only for middle class families. The research actually points towards a clear relationship between social class and family stability rather than marriage and family stability. Moving downward through the class structure, we find a pattern of increasing complexity and discontinuity in family structure and household arrangements. Marriage may well mean economic well-being and stability for middle class families but it does not mean that for everyone.

Better mental and physical health amongst adults

The Centre for Social Justice uses research which states that marriage is directly linked to better mental and physical health amongst adults yet equally there is much evidence that this is not the case for married women. Indeed it outlines that for married women versus single women there’s more depression, less career success and less good health in married women and, until recently, a greater chance of dying a violent death – usually at the hands of the men they love.

Reduces the risk of violence and abuse

The Centre for Social Justice states that marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse with the research citing married women suffering from the least abuse. However, The research used by the Centre for Social Justice cites one study which find that “twenty eight per cent of couples said violence had occurred at some time in their marriage” and another which stated that 18% of married women had suffered a physical assault by a partner or ex-partner. Women’s Aid states that 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence over their lifetimes which is not dissimilar to the 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 (nearly) married women. It is therefore dubious to state that marriage reduces the risk of violence and abuse.

Leads to better mental health for children & leads to better life outcomes for children

These are the same point just presented as 2 individual ones as they separate mental health and drug and alcohol use, which are linked and it is not necessarily possible to distinguish between the two adequately enough, therefore they can be different sides of the same coin. They report that “Children of lone parents are more than twice as likely to suffer mental health problems than children of married couples, and those of co-habiting couples are 75 per cent more likely to have mental health problems than their peers with married parents” while they fail to mention that the report also states that children are

  • 4 times more likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) has no qualifications
  • Twice as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is not working
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is on less than £100 a week (compared to over £600)
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is on disability benefit
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if their parent(s) is in a routine occupational group (as compared to higher professional group)
  • Over twice as likely to have mental health problems if they live in social housing (compared to owner occupier)
  • 3 times as likely to have mental health problems if they live in a ‘hard pressed’ area (compared to ‘wealthy achievers’ or urban prosperity’)

(See here for report).

Essentially, it states that children are more likely to suffer mental health problems if they have more stress in their lives than children who do not, whether this be from the community, the home, or their parents’ relationship. This is a statement of the obvious and says absolutely nothing about marriage as an institution as many of these factors are inter-related and the reason why the report categorically states that “causal relationships should not be assumed for any of the results presented in this report”.

I find it amazing that I can find no critique of the Centre for Social Justice’s report or the research used, or more importantly how the research has been used to present a picture that marriage provides benefits for all. Once you dig into the research I find it hard to see what they are actually saying. For example, the average age of marriage is currently 36.5 years for men and 33.8 years for women yet the younger the couple are the more likely they are to break up, which is the same for marriage where the earlier in life a marriage is formed, the more likely it is to breakdown. So are we talking about the stability of relationships within marriage or age? Additionally, the rate of cohabitation is highest amongst the younger age groups, resulting in younger women being more likely to give birth outside marriage. So are we talking about the perceived benefits of children being born within a marriage or the age of their parents? Equally, there has been a trend to postpone having a child as women are able to make more deliberate decisions about when to have children. However, the extent that women are able to make choices varies with socio-economic status. Women in social class I and II on average bear their first child at a later age than those in classes IV and V. So are talking about the perceived benefits of children being born within a marriage or the class of their parents? The debate has been skewed by the misrepresentation or omission of research to make a political point and one which failed to mention that “marriage failed to produce these benefits for many working class and poor families”.

The research is based on the experiences of white, middle class families either directly or indirectly and this has then been translated into a national policy for all. The fact that this occurred is the result of breaking a fundamental principle of solution focused politics, and that is to respect the population as worth doing business with. They did not ask people what the problem was because if they had have gone to any local council estate and asked them about their problems I am pretty sure they wouldn’t have said that marriage was a solution. It shows a lack of understanding of the nation’s problems, a lack of understanding of how to deal with them and a lack of understanding of what politics is for. And to top this off, the result was a policy which is recognised by those who invented it that it would not do what they wanted it to do. This is classic problem focused politics and solves nothing.

Thankfully, this was not in the June 2010 budget; let’s hope they do not bring this in.

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