Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Personal State

This decade is not going well for Britain’s institutions. The 2010 election did not magically restore our faith in a scandal-ridden Parliament. Bail-outs failed to improve the conduct of UK banks. Our public sector finances are in an appalling state. And as more sunlight has revealed the self-serving conduct of our mountainous bureaucracies, the gradual melting of our trust in them has become an avalanche. We want to know how rotten our institutions really are. More importantly, however, we want new models that work. 

As explained in “Lipstick On a Pig”, this plunge in faith in our institutions coincides with trends that are democratising the means of producing goods and services. Using digital technology we are personalising the one-size-fits-all experience traditionally offered by the likes of record labels, publishers, retailers, banks and political parties, and manufacturing our own physical products using desktop industrial machines. Rather than merely accepting what is ordained from the top down, both individually and as members of the ‘crowd’ we are shaping products, markets and political policies to solve the problems we encounter in our day-to-day activities. 

This process of ‘democratisation’ is being facilitated by organisations that are intently focused on helping us solve those problems. I call these organisations ‘facilitators’ to distinguish them from ‘institutions’, which exist to solve their own problems at our expense. The characteristics that I believe mark an organisation as being either a facilitator or an institution fall within broader themes of alignment, openness, flexibility, transparency and responsibility. In other words, a 'facilitator' solves its customers’ problems openly, flexibly and transparently, and takes responsibility for the impact of its activities on the wider community and society. 

Why are these features so critical? You might argue, for example, that focusing on ‘creating shareholder value’ or maximising management and staff compensation have proved to be more successful for some organisations than focusing on customers. As Anthony Hilton, Financial Editor of the Evening Standard, once said, “The City has done very well over the past 50 years dreaming up any old product and shoving it down peoples' throats.” 

But if that’s such a successful strategy, why are those City firms suddenly the subject of scandal after scandal and fine after fine for mis-selling and other misconduct? Why aren’t they able to recover quickly from their mistakes and move on? Why is Parliament labouring over new banking and financial services legislation? Why are people taking to the streets in protest? 

Because these firms are not 'facilitators'. 

In “Lipstick on a Pig” I explored the distinction between facilitators and institutions in the context of financial services, which then marked the latest consumer frontier. That sector also provides a great illustration of how organisations that produce complex products with hidden fees that their own staff can neither explain nor justify to customers become hooked on revenue and profits that disappear when the regulators finally wake up. How clubbing together with competitors leaves the whole club vulnerable to the same event or the consequences of the same mistake. How ignoring complaints and covering up problems leaves an organisation unable to understand the causes of issues it needs to fix. And how, when it finally emerges that the institution is not managed in the interests of the wider community, that community will no longer support it.

Since then, however, the frontier has expanded to confront the public sector and how society works – or doesn’t - as a whole. So I've been focused on the extent to which the public sector shares the same institutional characteristics that afflict our banks, and how facilitators are emerging in that wider context to help people solve their day-to-day problems that are being ignored. 

Whether an organisation is a facilitator or an institution is ultimately a matter of personal judgement for each of its customers. You might consider that a supplier is on the cusp of either category. Some will shift categories over time - although the drift from facilitator to institution appears to be easier than reform the other way. Some may never be reformed. Instead, they will gradually wither away while alternative models grow around them. 

Ultimately, however, the success or failure of our institutions and the facilitators that replace them is down to each of us. We are obsessed with ‘our rights’, but we must also realise that each of us bears responsibility for the wellbeing of everyone else. With our rights come duties and obligations that each of us must perform personally. The state cannot perform these obligations for us. The state can only act as a facilitator for our own endeavour. This is “the Personal State”. 

The Personal State is a simple concept. But it is of course a hugely complex dynamic, fraught with deeply-rooted life and death problems. For it to operate effectively, each of us must act pragmatically - in an informed way, rather than by adopting “uninformed, stupid practice”. That means no longer describing problems in terms of political dogma and propaganda. It means thinking critically and practically to identify and solve real problems. It means praising what works and explaining what doesn’t. It means spending, saving and investing our money in productive ways, and declining state benefits we don’t need. It means finding ways to improve the efficiency and productivity of the public sector to reduce public spending. Of course we must punish the gross mismanagement of our institutions and other violations of public trust. Yet we must also encourage entrepreneurs to engage in survivable trial and error, in order to promote innovation, competition and growth. In short, we must help each other wherever we can. 

Now a state like that would be worthy of some lipstick.

Image from Makeup Artist.

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