Bringing back working class values?

First published in Culture Wars and republished for the sp!ked review of books

Public services cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy and the demographic pressure of an ageing society. Consequently there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four of us work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7 million, making it the largest employer on the continent. Approaching half of GDP (around £700 billion) is spent on public services including welfare benefits which account for about £200 billion. In a bid to cut public expenditure by £80 billion by 2015 tens of thousands of workers have already been made redundant. But, says Tom Manion, ‘radical’ social landlord and author ofThe Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

The authorities spend a ridiculous amount of resources on dealing with a minority of people who are just not behaving as they should. It would be far better, he says, to encourage good behaviour. ‘If bad behaviour improved, we as a society would have a lot more resources to spend’. Putting to one side the child-like simplicity of Manion’s argument, he is perceptive enough to identify a genuinely big problem – one of the defining ones of our age – and its many manifestations. We now accept as normal the ‘dishonesty, idleness and lack of thought for others’ that in the past wouldn’t have been tolerated, he says. There is an £8 billion a year burden of dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’. A welfare safety net that has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. A crippling ‘contagion’ of absenteeism in the workplace: a ‘sickness sub-culture’ not confined to the public sector but nonetheless identifiable with it. Never mind the ‘yoof of today’ it is not unusual for groups of young adults to be making an intimidating nuisance of themselves. These ‘screeching, lurching lads and ladettes, peeing in the gutter and falling into fountains’ at the weekend are ‘back behind the building society counter’ come Monday morning. ‘Their parents would not have behaved like that’, says Manion, ‘so why do they?’ Why indeed?

He answers his own question. Old ‘decent’ working class values have been lost and we’re the poorer for it. He explains that as a ‘bad boy my behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture where I grew up, and I knew that and took the consequences’ he recalls. While his complaint that rent arrears have gone through the metaphorical roof is made by Manion the landlord; he also remembers how his mother’s generation ‘took pride in paying their rent, or indeed any bill, on time’. He invites us to compare this with the points-based public housing allocation system that has created an ‘arms race of need’ in which ‘people’s problems become their most valuable assets’. In place of the independence and pride of an earlier generation is a bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement. It has ‘infantilised’ tenants and kept them ‘locked into the dependency frame of mind’ and unable or unwilling to do anything for themselves. ‘Downloading help and sympathy on to people in perceived need doesn’t improve their situation’ he explains. ‘They’ve got to stand up on their own two feet and find their own way of including themselves in society’.

This isn’t helped, argues Manion, by the army of people with ‘social’ in their title ‘engaged in keeping their clients in a state of dependency’. He may sound very Daily Mail but he surely has a point? It does seem to be the case that ‘a lot of people reach adulthood without ever getting the hang of personal responsibility’. There is indeed, if one cares to look, an increasing tendency to blame other people for one’s problems. Unless you believe that living off the state is good for one’s health, it is hard to argue with Manion’s view that the welfare state – whatever its one-time merits as a system of social insurance – is now ‘entrapping people in conditions which stunt their development as human beings’. Manion’s book is welcome in as far as it challenges this culture of dependency. Far from being a figment of fevered right-wing imaginations – as today’s thoroughly conservative left-liberals would have it – a personally debilitating relationship with the state is a very real consequence of the way that a therapeutic mindset has undermined people’s sense of themselves as capable of running their own lives.

His solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). But his orthodoxy-busting and common-sense approach is refreshing. Manion is no fan of public services which he says ‘just aren’t that good’. Whatever remains of a public service ethic on the part of public servants is allowed to ‘dribble away in bureaucracy and ineffectual pettiness’. Instead of a ‘dynamic and productive’ performance culture we have a ‘survival culture’ he says. ‘People cling on to procedures’ rather than make a decision they may be held accountable for. Which is all spot on as far as it goes. But Manion doesn’t seem to notice that all of this is happening in the so-called performance culture he wants to bring into being. It is the very obsession with processes that is having such a corrosive influence over public service provision and has done for decades now. It has occupied the vacuum where a traditional public service rationale once existed.

Manion’s account of public sector absurdities and his own successes in challenging them suggest that there is much room for improvement. When he first became a social landlord he was baffled by the costly, off-putting and entirely unnecessary practice of ‘sheeting-up’ empty properties when tenants left. Despite much resistance, he says, he brought an end to it and employed estate agents instead of housing officers with a brief to move tenants in and out on the same day. But for all his wise words on dependency and welfare, and his challenges to daft public sector practices, he badly lets himself down with his supposed solutions. This is because he thinks that treating people like idiots will make them more responsible. Apparently oblivious to the economic dislocation of inner cities since the 1970s or the deliberate residualisation and run-down of public housing by successive governments since the 1980s; he insists that the mere presence of tower blocks and the ‘graffiti, litter and needles’ on the walk to school are to blame for the decline of the communities concerned. And that if only the ‘wrong sorts of behaviour by the wrong sort of people’ are dealt with, that will make things better again.

His desire to ‘restore pride and [a] sense of justice’ to communities seems genuine enough but it is soured by his contempt for the ‘wrong sorts’ and a narrow determinism that can see no way out except through his own petty authoritarian interventions. For all his talk of taking on local bureaucrats and liberal opinion more generally, Manion is actually today’s idea of a model social landlord. He believes in building communities rather than houses, and that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the sector failing to do just that. As Manion himself tells us, levels of investment in housing in the UK are roughly equivalent to that in the former Eastern bloc countries. We live in ‘poorer quality, more overcrowded accommodation’ than our north European neighbours, he says. But if this suggests rather strongly that the housing problem is a bricks and mortar one, why the obsession with tenants’ behaviour? And why go on peddling the ‘cycle of debt and despair’ that he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up in.

Manion is so intent on the naturalising of dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but a massive accommodation to, the problem he sets out to solve. So, while I can’t help but agree with him that we shouldn’t be subsidising fat people, via their GPs, to go to the gym (his gym!), nor do I think people like him who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’ are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is no business of the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision either. Manion is full of contradictions like this. He wants people to take more responsibility for their lives but his proposals would have the opposite effect. So while he is against the pampering of ‘undeserving’ dependents; he thinks the rest of us aren’t’ dependent enough and should be compelled to have an ‘annual health MOT with outcomes being linked to taxation levels’.

The same inconsistencies are true of his attempts to manage the behaviour, performance and motivation of his staff. While he seems to have achieved a remarkable turnaround in reducing rates of absenteeism his account of how he has done this is not convincing. His introduction of ‘heath awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’ seem to have less to do with it than an admirably no-nonsense approach to the sickie. If they pull one staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself but Manion goes much further. The Diamond employment package, he tells us, includes all sorts of perks but if the doctor thinks ‘they’re too fat or they drink too much, he will tell them’. And if they choose not to take his advice and make a ‘commitment to maintaining their health’ they ‘lose entitlement to most of the benefits’. Such is the deal you enter into when your employer takes an interest in your ‘wellbeing’ or ‘mental and emotional health’.

Ever the understanding boss, he worries about how difficult it can be for employees to leave their private troubles ‘at the door when they come to work’? But work can be a refuge or a welcome distraction from private worries too. Giving this up for lunchtime ‘fitness, guitar, dance, singing, yoga and massage’ classes may, and for the counsellors, coaches, mentors and ‘chill-out zones’ might sound empowering but the rationale is both an intrusive and bottom-line one. ‘We pay their wages and in return we expect certain behaviour from them’ explains the touchy-feely Manion. Turning the working relationship into one of counselled dependency can store up many more problems than it solves. For both parties. The fact that public sector workers tend to be a ‘bit jaded and tired’ isn’t surprising but Manion’s approach isn’t going to fill the hole where a public sector ethos should be.

‘Yes, it’s bossy and interventionist’ he concedes, ‘but the benefits to society will be enormous’. Really? As with his counter-factual treatment of the housing problem, Manion ignores much of the evidence in favour of personal anecdotes and prejudices. He manages to find a ’£4.6 million super-size mortuary’ to back-up his flabby argument that ‘excessive Western lifestyles’ will become increasingly unaffordable. We’ll have to spend ‘huge sums’ dealing with the consequences of a society that is ‘eating itself to death’ he claims. In truth, ordinary (as opposed to the rarer cases of morbid) obesity isn’t necessarily a health problem as study after study has shown. Again, as he is forced to admit when he refers to the data, the UK ‘fares reasonably well’ health-wise. Life expectancy is around the EU average; ‘healthy life years’ – those spent without the ill-health or disability associated with advanced age – are higher than the EU average and ‘exceed those in many comparable countries’. This is not to say that all is well with the health service – the NHS does not deserve its protected status as an officially ‘cherished’ institution as the crisis of care in many hospitals and care homes has shown – but it does make a nonsense of the dubious justifications for the lifestyle interventions proposed (and practiced) by Manion.

His obsession with behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – as if it were some disembodied dependent variable to be manipulated by public managers like himself is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s/90s into society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough they are now intent on the behaviour management of individuals too. Not only in health and housing. The same goes for schooling too. For Manion ‘education remains paramount’ not because it is important for kids to get a good education, but ‘because a well-educated person is more likely to understand the importance of healthy diet, exercise and so on’ which will result in ‘savings for the state’!

Manion, for all his radical pretensions, is more orthodox than he imagines. His belief that public services should be redefined so that they ‘support and promote a safe, decent, healthy, responsible society’ is already in the mainstream of public service reform. The problems that he raises – both cultural and fiscal – are no less real and pressing for that, however, and he is to be commended for taking them seriously. Many of his contemporaries don’t. But his attempt to build public service provision around these problems, rather than to try to understand them and address them in their own terms, can only make matters worse. While it may seem like a good idea to Manion for public sector bodies to tell people how to behave when so many are seemingly misbehaving; this has nothing to do with what public services should be (and used to be) about. Indeed, it makes it all the harder to build public services that meet society’s needs without nurturing more dependency, or taking responsibility out of people’s hands – ironically the very thing that he thinks he is challenging.

Why I’m Not For Nudging

First published in Huffington Post

I was recently at University College London to hear a talk on behaviour change. “Nudging methods … have become increasingly popular” read the blurb. “Underlying all of this, however, is the nagging question of whether it is ethical, desirable or sustainable to be nudging people in a desired direction.” Indeed. “Or, is it a case of technological fudging, where we may be covering over deeper problems?”. Well, yes it is, I thought.

So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that far from addressing these important questions, the only mention of fudge was when it was passed around to the easily-nudged and apparently infantilised students packed into the lecture theatre. There was no questioning of whether it is really the business of academics and policy-makers to be finding ever more ‘innovative’ ways of engineering a society of individuals dutifully “eating better, exercising more, or reducing our energy consumption”. There was only excitement at the ingenious inventions which Professor Rogers, whose talk it was, and her many peers working in this faddish field of behavioural economics and social psychology, were coming up with to make us do these things.

Whether it was the ‘fun’ musical stairs or foot-shaped floor-lighting designed to lure people away from using lifts and escalators, or the ‘power aware’ cord designed to make people feel guilty about their use of electrical appliances in the home, nobody bothered to ask whether this sort of thing is really a good idea. Whether it was the scannable (and ‘playful’) smiley-face attached to your shopping trolley that gets sadder as you pile in allegedly unhealthy or excessively globe-trotting food; or the Tidy Street project in Brighton that turned the asphalt into a giant graph displaying residents’ energy consumption, nobody seemed to wonder what right they had to make these sorts of interventions.

Are we really so horrendously overweight and unable to make up our own minds about how we get around that we’d rather build cities that require us to expend more effort rather than making life more convenient? Have we really given up on the notion of developing technologies that might solve the energy problem in favour of resigning to becoming slaves to petty energy-saving gimmicks? Isn’t it one of the wonders of modern living that we’re able to eat food from around the world all year round? The only doubt raised was around the dreaded ‘boomerang effect’ where people just don’t do what the behaviour-changers want them to.

The ‘desired behaviour’ – by who exactly? – is stubbornly resisted as the object of the nudge still can’t help but regard themselves as a subject. Even if it is a matter of deciding whether to have fish and chips rather than a salad, as rational and notionally free individuals we still can’t help but recoil at the suggestion that we don’t know what’s good for us. For the truth is that for all their protestations to the contrary the nudgers are not helping us to make decisions, they are seeking to make decisions for us. They have already decided what the ‘desired behaviour’ must be.

The only thing that concerns the behaviour-changer is what technique or method they should employ to bring about that behaviour. The idea of personal autonomy or that we might have the capacity, or even the right, to make decisions for ourselves or run our own lives doesn’t even seem to occur to them. So when I asked Rogers whether she was perhaps being a little patronising or that, for all the pettiness of the interventions, there might be something authoritarian about all this behaviour-changing and nudging, she seemed surprised. “If it works and we’re able to show an impact why not?”, she asked.

As she herself admitted the Tidy Street project didn’t really work. Only two residents 6 months after the project had ended changed their energy consumption behaviour. But that’s not why I have a problem with nudging. You might think that this miserable failure to get the desired results might lead to a questioning of the nudge-paradigm; or to the conclusion that their time could be better spent on something of use to society. But no, for Roberts it only justified the next stage in the research: to find ways of sustaining ‘desired behaviours’ when the behaviour-nudging researchers are not around.

It was only at the end of her talk that she held out the possibility – on behalf of students too starved of a culture of intellectual enquiry to ask the question themselves – that perhaps treating people like children is a bit ‘sneaky’. She even conceded in response to my question that debate is a good thing. But I think we have very different ideas of what this means. I certainly don’t mean yet another technical discussion between proponents of behaviour-change about the best way of doing it. Instead what we’re badly in need of is a very public battle of ideas that lives up to the promise of that wholly misleading blurb. Which reminds me, I’ll be taking part in the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October and discussing Pop-up communities: here to stay? at the Barbican, London.

When a nudge just isn’t enough

‘Nudge’, a book written by American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in 2008, was eagerly devoured by the UK’s ideas-lite apolitical elite at the time. And has become the reference-point for policy wonks intent on changing people’s behaviour ever since. For those of you who haven’t read it, the authors describe their ideal as a situation whereby so-called ‘choice architects’ go about ‘attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better’. They don’t talk too much about the validity of making that judgement or who should make it but you can rest assured that it isn’t you and I.

Of course, nudging came as second nature to politicians who, like Baroness Neuberger, chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, already believed that behaviour change is ‘one of the key things that government’s do’. Indeed, so eagerly received was it by those already obsessively intervening in the minutiae of people’s lives – but lacking a supposedly scientific justification for doing so – that few questioned the contradictions involved. For instance, how could they – so wedded to the idea of the Big Society, localism and the extension of ever more ‘people power’ – also support an ethos that seeks to make decisions for people? And how could nudging be both Libertarian and Paternalist as Thaler and Sunstein incoherently claimed?

Nudging is a ‘relatively weak, soft, and nonintrusive type of paternalism’, they maintain, at least compared with what went before, and therefore freedom-loving types should welcome it. They argue, for instance, that instead of government’s banning junk food, supermarkets should arrange their food displays in a way that encourages healthy eating. But is this really any better than explicit state paternalism? I don’t think so. The fact that this type of behaviour control is designed to sneak below our radars actually makes it more not less intrusive, in as far as it more effectively intrudes upon our autonomy and our capacity to run our own lives according to our own choices freely made.

The reality of behaviour change is worse still. In a report published by Neuberger’s committee on behaviour change, we learn that the behavioural scientism of nudging isn’t enough to make us change our ways. There need to be a ‘wider array of interventions’, she says, including the old-fashioned imposition of regulations and legislation that Thaler and Sunstein’s approach was supposed to nudge aside. They went further still recommending that the coalition-created and Orwellian-sounding Behaviour Insights Team installed at the Cabinet Office – and otherwise known as the Nudge Unit – should have its stay extended beyond its intended two years. This will give it more time to evaluate the efficacy of state interventions in the nation’s behaviour.

The authors of the British Academy report Nudging Citizens Towards Localism? acknowledge a ‘possible tension’ presented by the new behaviour change paradigm. But again it is one of means – how best to change people’s behaviour – not ends – whether it is a legitimate thing to do in the first place. They only ask whether a decentralised nudge is ‘a more legitimate and self-sustaining form of behaviour change’ than one driven by central government diktat. Either way, there need to be ‘more experiments’ apparently ‘to encourage behaviour change and citizen participation in public decisions’. They want to develop ‘interventions that, as well as nudging citizens, encourage them to think’. Something that we apparently don’t already do. At least not to their satisfaction.

That this is patronising and illiberal should go without saying. But the doublespeak is something else. The more we become objects of behaviour-led policy interventions, the freer we are as citizens and the more legitimate are the decisions we make. So say the behaviour-changers.

The Olympics and an Unhealthy Interest in our Behaviour

First published in Huffington Post

The past couple of weeks have been a once-in-a-lifetime treat as we’ve witnessed the spectacle of incredible sporting feats performed by the world’s greatest athletes on our very own doorstep. Indeed, as a resident of E17 I was only a javelin throw away (or so) from the action. I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the legendary Usain Bolt in the 200m heats at the majestic Olympic Stadium and gold medalists Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor in action at the Excel Centre.

Meanwhile, far from joining in the celebrations or marvelling at the extraordinary spectacle of the London 2012 Olympics; the behaviour-police achieved new lows in unfounded and unrelentinglymiserable opportunism. The Games became an unlikely vehicle for tackling everything from child obesity to climate change. We were told that what might look like sports fans were in fact sex tourists exploiting young immigrant women; or drink-fuelled domestic abusers, and carriers of sexually transmitted diseases and a potential flu pandemic.

Neville Rigby, convenor of the highly dubious sounding International Obesity Forum wrote a piece for The Guardian in which he claimed: ‘the Olympic dream is a nightmare that ignores the reality of today’s obesity epidemic’ by allowing ‘peddlers of junk food’ to sponsor the event. That’s Cadbury and Coca Cola to you and me. ‘Successive governments’, he continued, are guilty of ‘swallowing the big food companies’ mantra that healthy eating is all about personal choice’. If that’s the case, then along with the occasional dairy cream egg and diet coke, Neville … so am I!

Rigby was seemingly outraged that anybody, especially an evil multinational, should contradict the received wisdom of the government’s Change4Life campaign. But he shouldn’t have worried. Its instructions for healthy living were given a new lease of life with the Games4Life campaign. Apparently concerned that we might be enjoying ourselves too much this summer with Euro 2012 and then the Olympics of all things keeping us entertained, 2.6 million activity packs were reportedly distributed in an attempt to get people off their well-worn sofas.

For all the hysterical nonsense about how are lives are ruled by the ‘peddlers’ of fizzy drinks and chocolate bars, it is in reality the political class and the state who are really worth worrying about. It is they, and their hectoring friends who are treating us like naughty school children who don’t know what’s good for us. For instance, health secretary Andrew Lansley is reportedly supportive of the so-called ‘make every contact count‘ plan. As Professor Steve Field, chair of the NHS Future Forum explains: ‘A routine dental checkup or eye test … is a chance to offer advice to help someone stop smoking … Collecting medication from a pharmacy is a chance to offer someone help with cutting down on alcohol. A pre-surgery checkup is an opportunity to talk over concerns about smoking, diet and physical activity.’

Is it really any surprise that ‘lifestyle rationing’ is beginning to undermine the notion that all are equally deserving of care and treatment in the NHS, when the medical profession are being urged to take an unhealthy interest in the way people choose to live their lives? When asked ‘Should the NHS be allowed to refuse non-emergency treatments to patients unless they lose weight or stop smoking?’ over half of doctors responded yes.

Amid all this self-righteous puritanical anti-Olympic spirit I was disappointed to have missed what must have been a laugh at the behaviour-changers expense. The Fattylympics featured the actor who played Roland in children’s TV series Grange Hill back in the 1980s. With events including ‘Rolling with Roland’, ‘Chub-robics’ and ‘Spitting on the Body Mass Index Chart’, it was the kind of irreverent, sacred-cow slaughtering stunt that autonomy advocates like myself would like to see more of.


I was debating Changing our Behaviour: What is the role of government? recently with Peter John, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University College London and an adviser to the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office.

As far as I’m concerned when it comes to our behaviour government doesn’t have a role. But, more to the point, why all the talk about ‘changing our behaviour’ in the first place? The very language is degrading. As I told the audience, you and I are not laboratory rats that exhibit this or that behaviour. We are citizens; we make up a civil society. We live in what is generally understood to be a liberal democracy. The role of government is to represent us. To come up with a set of ideas. To help to shape society for the better. To lead us out of economic crisis or maybe tackle the crippling problem of welfare dependency. Of course it has fallen short of such expectations. But that doesn’t mean it should tell us how to behave instead.

And yet the policing of people’s behaviour has come to fill a hole where politics used to be. The politics of left and right has given way to endless lectures about our right and wrong behaviours. Whether its public services creating better citizens, public health zealots telling us we need to change our lifestyles or no-less zealous environmental campaigners claiming that putting the right bit of rubbish in the right colour wheelie bin will save the planet …  we are forever being told to behave ourselves.

Even the shocking scenes of unruly youth setting fire to their own communities in last summer’s riots are understood through the prism of behaviour. Barely before the smoke had cleared these unprecedented events were being used as a pretext for intervening in the poor parenting and anti-social behaviour of an improbable sounding 120,000 ‘problem’ families. But surely this summer’s celebration of the seemingly superhuman sporting achievements we call the Olympics is immune to the demeaning interventions of the behaviour-changers? As my next blog for the Huffington Post will explain … far from it!