I was talking to a friend the other day, doing my Harry Seacombe
impression ("If I ruled the world.."), and we decided
it would be interesting to write down my vision for how things
be. This is the article which emerged.
My view of the world is driven by my internal core values. These
are the ideas I hold dear, and try to uphold in my life. Their absence
in the outside world is a source of frustration and misery for me,
and this is one reason for my persistence in trying to make a difference.
So, what are my core values? Surprisingly, I find only two.
Truth is fundamental. The presence or absence
of truth has huge implications, everywhere. Truth has to be central
to our agendas. We have to see the truth, and tell the truth, and
think the truth. We have to be true to the facts.
Truth is so easily abandoned:
- The facts are not easily found, so we'll
do without them or invent some.
- Some facts don't support our
agenda, so we'll ignore them.
- The truth is, I screwed up, so
I want to hide it.
- The truth is boring, so I'll sass it up. Research
suggests that we're all habitual liars in our daily lives. Life
is much easier if we don't have
to worry about the truth.
But if we want to move society to a better place, we need to see
things as they are.
If we look around us, we see that politicians
are often not honest because they want to hide their mistakes
or indiscretions. They want
to pursue hidden agendas, and they want to build alliances. The
biggest alliance of all, of course, is with their electorate -
to be appealing to thousands of people.
Similarly, newspapers are motivated to sell newspapers.
This means writing interesting copy. That often means
exaggerating and departmentalising. The truth suffers. That's
we, the electorate, read the bent version of the truth, and form
opinions about the world and our politicians which may or may
There are those that say "truth" is not a fundamental;
that one person's truth is not another's, and that each viewpoint
is equally valid. There is some ... truth in this. In my view, there
is a spectrum of certainty, and in most practical cases, we can
discover a truth which will serve us all well enough. But we choose
not to, because we're fundamentally self-serving, not society-serving.
Let me illustrate that truth spectrum idea. If we have a conversation
about what the "best colour" is, then we're probably not
going to reach a definitive conclusion. This is at the fluffy end
where personal whim rules. OK - we can't have truth here, but we
also don't need it. Vive La Difference.
Now let's look at the other end. How long is that piece of wood?
Well, it has a definite length. It's a fact, and there's only one
right answer. Truth is absolute here, and absolutely knowable, describable
and defendable. Science lives here (for the most part).
Now let's walk towards the middle and into the gray. Were you late
to work this morning? Well, you might say that your watch says you
weren't, but your boss's watch says that you were. Well, the truth
about what time it is, is easy to discover. It's a no-brainer. OK,
then you might say "but the traffic was heavy". OK, that's
an assertion which we could also discover the truth about, but it
doesn't affect the truth about you being late. You either were,
or were not, and it's not difficult to find out which.
Moving further into the gray, what about political
one is best"? This is, of course, far more difficult to tackle,
and so much is tied up in the definitions; (what does "best"
Best for who?). I believe that if you clarify the terms, then
a truth can be discovered in theory, though we may not
be able to determine it in practice because of complexity.
So, there's my spectrum. My conclusion on truth,
is that - in most practical cases, we can define our questions
carefully, and derive
answers which are un-arguably true. It's at the "were
you late for work" place on the spectrum where I feel most
of us don't operate as truthfully as we could and should. This
where politicians lie about their huge undeclared loans, where
national statistics are manipulated to misrepresent, where supermarkets'
food packaging pictures tell lies about their contents, where advertisements'
large print giveth, while the small print taketh away, where
liable is dished out daily, and where you and your employer, and
you and your family, live out your lives.
If you are truly honest with yourself, you can't help but turn
into a more honourable human being. You'll do the right thing more
often, and you'll set higher standards for yourself and for those
around you. If you demand the truth from others, and if it can become
institutionalised, you'll have a sound foundation on which to build
Truth should be our goal. Let's find out the truth - all of it,
and tell the truth about it. Let's deal with the world as it really
is and make it better.
Sound Motivation is my second core value. A politician's
motive should be to work hard to make things better for society.
They should be able to conceive of excellence, and to be self-aware
and self-honest about their own effectiveness. They should not
be lazy, self-absorbed, self-important or arrogant. They have a
job to do, not just a position to occupy. They should be open about
what they do, accessible and accountable to their constituents.
Their honesty and self-awareness should lead them to find high quality
solutions, not just to tow a party line or blindly follow an ideology.
So, smoke-filled rooms in which carefully selected members of the
old boys network make decisions which suit them and their hidden
agendas, perhaps orchestrating dirty tricks, encouraging nepotism,
and perpetuating class or racial barriers are diametrically opposite
Layered on top of my two core values are a body of heuristics - rules
of thumb - which my experience in life has suggested are generally
good things. There are exceptions when they won't completely apply,
but in general, they will.
- Fact-based Decision Making is driven by my
truth core value. Collect the relevant data before making a decision.
- Metrics & Goals are
invaluable when you're trying to change the performance
of a system. It might be a school,
or a local authority, or perhaps you're trying to improve
patient waiting lists. So - define sensible measurements
for what you're trying to improve. Then collect facts
the situation. Then implement changes. Collect more facts
to see if you made things better or worse. Act on the basis
of this new
information. Keep running around the loop, driving change
the goal states you're looking for. Choose challenging
goals to drive improvement.
Of course, this solid concept can be - and has been - misapplied
a. It's possible to choose bad metrics which don't
accurately or fully represent the system you're working on.
tables are very crude metrics,
for example, and they have some negative consequences.
b. You can
choose goals which are entirely unrealistic, and force
good, busy people to jump pointlessly through hoops.
Well, that's a bad application
of a good idea, and it doesn't invalidate the idea.
c. You can choose a metric which is entirely un-representative
of the system. A recent example is when the government informed
a hospital that they'll be measuring waiting times over a
particular week. What happens
the rest of the year is not monitored. I would seriously
FIRE whoever was responsible
for implementing this. It must
have gone through many layers of civil servants and politicians,
and cost us millions. It
is stupidity beyond understanding.
d. You can blatantly manipulate
metrics dishonestly. Recent reports of hospital executives
cheating to meet government
goals illustrate this; (I
wonder why these people are still in post).
e. You can meet one metric
at the expense of other parts of the system. Again, the
hospitals illustrate this when they cancel all other activities
to meet a particular
Benchmarks are the natural
partner to metrics. What if I told you the 5 year survival
rate in Britain for a certain
kind of cancer was 52%? That's a metric, and you can set
a goal of 60% to move things forward, and reward those involved
But what if I told you that the same metric for the same
cancer in France was 86%?! That tells you straight away
- with no expertise on medicine, management, or anything
else - that Britain is seriously at
That's the magic of benchmarks. If someone else on the
planet is doing what you're doing, we can see how well
it, and this broader context gives us valuable information.
For all our services - from how much it costs us to clean
toilet, to how much it costs us to run our air traffic
control system - we should know, and use, global metrics
to drive us towards being the best on the planet.
Sound Management is a
contentious issue, but I believe that good managers are
hugely important. Again, the NHS
provides a useful real-world history for
us. You can put in place good metrics and goals, and you
can contextualise that with global
benchmarks. But you haven't changed anything
yet. You just collected some numbers.
The most powerful way things change is by people
on the ground doing things differently. Nurses, doctors,
assistants, radiographers, cleaners, and
so on. And it's the role of managers to work with these
folks to make that change happen.
It's a highly skilled and absolutely essential
role, that we need to pay good money to get done.
Can't we rely on our consultants to manage their organisations
efficiently? Absolutely not. There are many cases which
this. Management is a profession,
distinct from medicine. Organisational
skills, people skills, financial skills
- are all
required but may not be (and probably aren't)
present in a gifted surgeon. Good managers
grow working environments where decency,
internal responsibility, accountability,
bi-lateral incentivisation, openness and
continuous improvement thrive.
Do we want to give managers lots of NHS money to sit on their
arses all day dusting off their swanky suits? No, of course
Each manager should be gifted, highly motivated,
highly effective, and worth every penny. We should be monitoring
and measuring their
performance. If they're not delivering,
we should free up their futures. But I feel we need to acknowledge
that the management
role is absolutely key to implementing
change in any organisation - health authority, rubbish collection
service, magistrates court,
etc. Perhaps if we paid private sector
salaries we'd get some top notch managers back into the
Cost-Benefit Analysis is
a sound principle which I think we often lose sight of. Before
doing anything -
before spending any tax-payers money - we should clearly
understand what the cost is, and what the benefit is. When
we know those,
we can decide how to proceed.
This approach smashes head-on into a common viewpoint, which
can be characterised as "benefit at any cost".
If doing a thing bestows some benefit, then we should
do it. WRONG
I don't know how many people are sufficiently blind in Bedfordshire
to receive benefit from the knobbly pavements which lead up
our road crossings. I also don't know how much those
cost. But I would be very surprised if the cost justifies
Equality of Opportunity is,
I believe, a fundamental human right. Each of our citizens
should be granted the same opportunities
to grow wonderful lives. That means they should have
the right to first class health care and a first class education,
should be funded by the state.
However, I do not believe we have a right to equality through
re-distribution of wealth. See the next item.
Personal Responsibility is,
I believe, the sensible way of managing our society. Where
possible, each adult
should bear the responsibility for their own lives.
Human beings will always cover a wide variety of personality
types. Some will want to work hard in conventional ways in
of monetary wealth. Others will prefer to coast and do
as little conventional work as they can to meet their minimum
a personal choice.
But I think it's fundamentally unfair and counter-productive
to take money from those who worked hard for it, and to give
those who prefer not work hard for it.
What about those who can't support themselves? We should support
them, of course. But the current system is wrongly incentivised.
It pays people to not go out to work.
I know someone who, at 43, was fired as a fork lift truck driver
for violence, and will never work again because any job he
get, will not pay as much as he used to get. WRONG ANSWER!
I would not be paying tax payers money to this man. He would
need to take
a less well-paid job. He needs to make his own way in
the world, and bear the consequences of his own actions.
I know someone else with a bad back who has not worked in 15
years. He works 3 days a week doing volunteer work. Noble,
I'm sure -
but - if he can do clerical work sitting down, then he
can and should be earning his own living, not taking it from
the tax payer.
I know someone else who used to be a butcher but "did
his back in". At 52, he will never work again and we
will foot the bill. Yet he is able to walk, talk, abuse his
goes out every night and argues with his brother into
the early hours. WRONG ANSWER! He is an able human being. Perhaps
support him into finding a new job, but the onus should
be on him, and the ultimate incentive for him should be poverty.
should not be financing him until he dies.
Education for Life
to these last cases. Our society is
our people. If
we want a better society, we should grow better people. The
two biggest opportunities are
in education and parenting. In the area of school education,
I want to see us investing our time and money far more effectively
into growing better people. I would teach the following:
Social Skills - getting on with people.
Societal Understanding - what society
is, rights & responsibilities.
- a raft of growth and coping skills.
Self-esteem - how
to remove self-limiting beliefs and maximize
Role - learning what our life's purpose is.
In other words, we devote large amounts of time to developing
our children into happy, responsible, productive members
society. Perhaps we devote 8 hours a week to this.
Where do we get the time from? Well, I understand the argument
for providing a well-rounded education, but I refer you
cost-benefit heuristic above, and then suggest that we
can remove plenty of what currently takes up those 14 years
of full time
education. Does knowing how to do differential calculus
make our society better? What about understanding how Oxbow
lakes are formed?
Butterfly anatomy? Foreign languages? You get the picture.
Of course, part of what school does is to provide us for
our working lives, and we break that at our peril. But there's
plenty of content which, though entirely useful, is not essential.
An Efficient Legal System
an essential part of making a healthy society. At least
until we can bring the benefits
of all that new schooling online! We need a situation
All rules are obeyed.
Justice is swift.
Penalties are appropriately punitive.
Rehabilitation is effective.
Transgressors fully compensate society
justice" - i.e. the guilty party contributes whatever it takes
to restore the status quo - and all this in addition
to whatever punishment
is assigned for the crime.
Justice is open and accountable.
The Big Picture should
be understood and used to make changes in the "society
machine". I think this
is what Blair meant by "joined up government",
but there is little sign of it.
Market Forces provide a
mechanism for consumer-related elements of society to self-organise
in a way which encourages
efficiency and value for money, so I support them in
general. There are some instances where their free-reign does
us, and in these cases, we should apply appropriate controls.
Smaller Government goes
hand-in-hand with personal responsibility. I believe that
the actual rate of taxation in
the UK exceeds 50%, and I think that's too much. It's
also not being spent very carefully, and the organisations
into which it
disappears don't seem to be providing significant benefits.
Well, there's a dozen ideas to be going on with. I welcome your
views on any of them! And if you'd like to write your own Harry
Seacombe article, send it along, and I'll consider publishing it