Choice, Service Design, the State, Change, the Future, Utopia and Dystopia

Posted: 08 July 2013, in Blog

Choice, Service Design, The State, Change, The Future, Utopia and Dystopia

Once upon a time, public services were based on a simple choice; take it or leave it. Today, The State in all its glories still wants to hang on to that power relationship and run public services in that manner with officials telling us what to do, think, consume, believe, behave etc.  

Regular blog readers will know that I’m a conflicted soul. I support the State a bit, but oppose it becoming the behemoth it has grown into. I think I’m (sometimes) a left of centre libertarian if that is not an oxymoron. A recent Senscot newsletter tickled me. It referenced the problems that social, religious or philosophical organisations have in managing growth. I liked the observation that as an enterprise or organisation grows the spirit wanes and its values are diminished.

Criticism of The State from the bonkers right wing media and their commentator and political pals is that The State is now too big, too slow, too “progressive”, complex, unwieldy, inefficient, old fashioned, corrupt, useless, unresponsive etc. Apart from the nature of the State itself, an element of the argument against it is that it just does too much and that what it does do well is overshadowed by all the things it does badly. For defenders of The State this is heresy. Their answer to social and economic problems is “more of The State”. This attitude mirrors the world-view of Angela Merkel and her pals who say that the EU and Eurozone crises can only be solved by “more Europe”.

Anyway, it was the fashion a wee while ago for metropolitan policy wonks to admire the idea that the hoi polloi could be nudged into better behaviours and lifestyles. Trying to engage with and convince folk of the merits of a policy or argument on the basis of solidarity across the social classes seemed to have been abandoned. Part of the normative and cultural justification for this view is the idea that (more) intelligent and rational folk than you and me know what is good for you and me and “them”. In addition, the idea that your opinion matters does not really sit well with the folk who apparently only want a better world and not too many interruptions as they go about their business or mission.

In part, this mind-set helps to explain why lousy services, conspiracies against the public, malicious whistle-blower defenestrations and PR disasters are so much a feature of the NHS and other big bits of The State and (for another example), The BBC. Not only are these folk unable to see they are part of the problem, they defend the indefensible because they don’t have the tools and mind-set to encourage dissent, opinion, innovation, novelty, experimentation, diversity of supply and critical feedback. Truly, they are in denial. They are officials and that term says a lot about how they view and treat the rest of us.

Here are a few wee observations though. Change often comes about despite the best efforts of those who oppose it. In fact, the more entrenched the opposition the more likely the (over)reaction. In our lifetimes, new technology has and will continue to wreak havoc on old ways of thinking, doing and communicating. For example, you can bet your life that someone somewhere* is imagining what to with 3D printers (for good or ill). Others*may want to trash/redesign the global financial system through the actions of web enabled guerrilla social financiers, religious fundamentalists, political naïfs, frustrated mavericks and crooks probably. Possibly a sort of a Bitcoin on steroids that Governments, Banks, The IMF and World Bank can’t control.

The very idea of a truly global financial market without national borders or barriers is a bit frightening yet somehow strangely alluring. After all, how much worse can it be than the present obscene system when nearly 50%  of our fellow human beings live on less than $2.50 a day and 80% live on less than $10  a day?

Aside from the problems of The State and the global financial system, how we engage with each other is also changing at breakneck speed. This has consequences for us as individuals, families, communities and societies. Traditional media as the cradle of expert and elite opinion and therefore the legitimate source of news, information and civilised thought, is drowning under the weight of whistle-blowing, democratised news, comment, abuse, gossip, trash, skullduggery, hacking and chat. Who’d have thought that smartphones with cameras could do so much?

 Techys and geeks have changed the world for ever, although I do wonder if this is just the unintended consequence of UG students wanting to meet girls online and play newer shoot ‘em ups. Techy imagineers tell us that (soon?) early adopters will be queuing up for an e- chip in their heads so that they are better connected with the grid. Google Specs are merely a stop along the way. Science fiction is getting harder to write because the techys are outpacing the authors. The BBC Licence Fee seems like a relic in this world doesn’t it?

Anyway, this is all potentially good news for social entrepreneurs.

This is because we are not The State, we are comfortable with complexity and instability and we are calculated risk takers. We also have a high tolerance for failure and ambiguity, are opportunity driven and don’t like being told what to do by officials. We should thrive in this environment as long as we don’t aspire to, or play at, being mini State substitutes. We need to be more and more entrepreneurial if we are to succeed.

The significance of technology and the internet, (Berners Lee gave it away to make it successful rather than try to make money out of it – a real social entrepreneur perhaps?) is not merely that it becomes technically feasible to have choice. It will be desirable and empowering to have and exercise choice.

Choice will be managed by the folk who are able to choose to use their choices. The social entrepreneurs that will succeed are those who understand this. Public services delivered by central command and designed by monopoly suppliers are dying – let’s help that process and develop new models of public services that are about choice, markets, consumers and communities, not about more of The State. If we do nothing but ape The State our rivals in the private sector will beat us to the punch because they will prove to be better at choice and markets.


* But not Scotland, obviously, as we are not to be trusted with doing things without permission.

NOTE: This opinion piece blog does not necessarily reflect the views or beliefs of Social Enterprise Scotland.