This is the abstract of a newly published article, in which I discuss the idea of leadership: it has appeared under the title of “Leadership”: a perniciously vague concept, International Journal of Public Sector Management 25(1) 34-47.

Purpose – Despite the vast amount of literature covering the concept of leadership, it remains contentious, under-conceptualised and often uncritical. The purpose of this paper is to question the validity of the concept and dispute its application.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper reviews what the idea of leadership means, how it relates to competing accounts of management in the public services, and what value it adds.
– There is no evident reason why the supposed roles, tasks, or qualities of “leadership” either need to be or should be concentrated in the person of a leader; the tasks involved in “leading” an organisation are not in fact the tasks of motivation, influence or direction of others which are at the core of the literature; and there is no reason to suppose that leadership is a primary influence on the behaviour of most organisations.
Practical implications – In the context of the public services, there is no set of skills, behaviours or roles that could be applied across the public services; the emphasis in leadership theory on personal relationships may be inconsistent with the objectives and character of the service; and the arrogation to a public service manager of a leadership role may be illegitimate.
Originality/value – The argument here represents a fundamental challenge to the concept of leadership, its relevance and its application to public services.

Sick note Britain?

A report by Carol Black and David Frost makes proposals that are supposed radically to reduce the flow of people moving on to Employment and Support Allowance. The argument that this can be done is built on the belief that the initial response to illness makes it more likely that people will adjust to long term sickness by claiming benefits. However, the most substantial reduction that is foreseen in the report is in the numbers of people who move directly to long-term benefits without going to employment in between. This group includes people who would formerly have claimed Severe Disablement Allowance.

Despite the reports about “sick note” Britain, benefits are not in general issued with sick notes – or “fitness for work notes” as we must now learn to call them. GPs didn’t, in general, get to sign people onto Incapacity Benefit, and they don’t sign people onto Employment and Support Allowance. However, there are some exceptions. If a person is not entitled to Statutory Sick Pay, typically because their employment has been terminated, they will be put onto ESA directly. If they have certain illnesses, principally terminal illness and life-theatening conditions, there may be no requirement to undergo a Work Capability Assessment. Those exceptions will be maintained. The main proposal in the report is that such claimants should move directly to the WCA. It is not immediately clear how this procedure is going to deliver a substantial cut in the number of successful claims.

"Government cannot create jobs"

I am puzzled by the repeated mantra that government in general, and the Scottish Government in particular, cannot create jobs. Of course they can; for example, every job in Parliament is created. Nor is it true that public jobs are not “real” jobs. Real jobs we need more of include, for example, police, cleaners, teachers, janitors, carers, street and park wardens, or guards. If we invested more in builders, plumbers, painters, gardeners or people to mend roads, it would do a power of good. Part of the argument was made by Keynes: it makes more sense to pay people for doing something than it makes to pay them for doing nothing, and the economic benefits of engaging people in paid employment will be considerable. But there is also a social benefit in ensuring that people are integrated into the economic structures and have the basic entitlements that work brings. If we judge certain activities only by the standards of costs, then it will often seem cheaper to use heavy machinery to repair holes in the road than it is to get human beings to do it – but we cannot afford the machines, and we have labour to spare. (I do not understand the case that CCTV is more cost effective than a street warden; CCTV is very expensive, and a camera cannot actively intervene during an incident.) Creating jobs is often worth doing in its own right. We need to start thinking about costs and benefits across the wider economy.

Kiss and tell

This is, admittedly, just a little out of my usual field.  However, I cover issues relating to human rights as part of work on principles in social policy, and privacy is also a vexed issue in social research, so the recent furore about privacy injunctions has piqued my interest. The central issue concerns a footballer who had obtained a “superinjunction” preventing a girl from revealing secrets about an affair, or even the name of the footballer from being revealed. There are two striking issues. The first is the issue of secret justice, which is no justice at all; the prospect of anonymous, unreported enforcement and legal sanction is repellent, and John Hemming MP was absolutely right to raise it in Parliament. The other issue is the interpretation of privacy by the courts.

Privacy is usually understood in one of two senses. The first, which is the interpretation given to privacy in legal cases in the USA, is that people have an intimate sphere of life which other people are not able legitimately to intrude on. The second, which is more prominent in social science, gives people control over information that relates to them. In the context of social research, the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council explains:

“Individuals have a sphere of life from which they should be able to exclude any intrusion … A major application of the concept of privacy is information privacy: the interest of a person in controlling access to and use of any information personal to that person.”

The idea of consent in research is based on the idea that information is private, and that it needs the consent of the person who reveals it – the research participant. It’s not usually the case, however, that researchers are asked to get the consent of everyone mentioned in research. That, by contrast, is what journalists are now being asked to do.

Let me offer a little scenario: a man’s girlfriend goes to his wife and says, “I am having an affair with your husband”. If the husband has an intimate sphere which no-one can impose on without permission, the girlfriend has breached it – admitting the girlfriend to intimacies is not a licence to reveal those intimacies later. If he has a human right to control the information, the girlfriend has breached it. I find it hard to believe that either outcome is what the advocates of privacy laws intend; privacy may be a right, but it does not follow that secrecy is. An individual may retain control over information only in so far as that information relates solely to his private actions. A couple, a group, an association, may control aspects of information that relate to that couple – but they exercise that control jointly, not severally, and if they do not agree, neither retains the right. If one partner in a couple wishes to reveal all, the right does not pass to the control of the other person. The attempt to curb revelations by those who want to “kiss and tell” may be many unpleasant things, but it is not a breach of human rights. The courts have got it wrong.

The assault on the public services

Several entries on this blog refer to cuts, austerity measures and pressure to transfer public services to the private sector. The rationale for doing this is very weak.

  • Reducing public spending during a recession is a certain way to turn it into a slump. Everyone – including the private sector – depends on demand generated by public subvention. The main effect of cutting services across Europe is to ensure that there will be no-one to sell things to.
  • Public expenditure in a slump is counter-cyclical. Keynes argued that wars or building pyramids would be better than parsimoniousness in such circumstances. Deficit financing is not intrinsically a problem – most countries in the OECD incurred debts during the second world war, and it took a long time to pay them off. Like Keynes, I tend to think that neither is the best use of public money. Now is the time to build roads, railways, water treatment plants, housing and energy production facilities. There will never be a better time.
  • Cuts will cost jobs. I do not understand the argument that projects not undertaken or “natural wastage” do not imply the loss of jobs; of course they do. Often the loss will be felt most keenly in the wider economy.
  • The main source of the current deficit is not the public sector; it is the private sector. That does not mean that the public sector does not have to pay, but it does raise questions as to how far the cuts can legitimately be represented as the management of a structural deficit.

Ultimately, the only way out of a slump is through growth, not through retrenchment.

Population and resources

Thomas Malthus, at the end of the eighteenth century, argued that increasing population must inevitably lead to disaster. We were going to run out of food. Malthus was wrong, but that has not stopped generations of neo-Malthusians from claiming that it was going to be true next time. In the 1970s, The limits to growth claimed that the world was going to run out of energy. It isn’t. What happens in an economic market is that as an item grows scarce, it becomes more expensive. As some sources of energy will become more expensive, we will be forced to switch to other sources. There is no point at which the last drop of petrol will ever be poured into the last car, while other drivers look on in fury. This is just not the way that the economy works.

The other side of the Malthusian argument is about population. Population does not grow exponentially: the birth rate falls as the economy develops. The reasons are complex. Part of the explanation is the changing role of women, who delay childbearing when they have options for education and employment. Some reduction may be attributed to contraception; some, perhaps, to the effect of urbanisation on the costs of raising a child. But a significant element must be the fall that most countries have seen in infant mortality over the course of the last forty years. The association is clear and strong (try this link, which opens a new window): once parents see that children have a realistic chance of surviving to adulthood, the number of children they have drops markedly. As an Indian minister once commented, “The best contraceptive is development”.

The age of austerity

Now that cuts in public spending are on the agenda, a parade of experts has been in evidence, arguing for a new kind of welfare regime. However, what they are arguing for looks a great deal like the policies the same people have been pushing for over twenty years – a programme of privatisation, individualised services, diversity and a withdrawal of the state from direct provision.(1)

Precisely because these arguments have been running for more than twenty years, we can form a pretty clear picture of what happens when services are based on these principles. The policies may seem in principle take expenditure off the books of the public services, but that is largely illusory: the most expensive services are nearly always paid for ultimately by government, and the costs are still largely held within the accounts. The central argument is that the private sector is supposed to be more efficient than the public sector. That efficiency is largely achieved, however, by refusing to do things that the public services are bound to do; and the main way that private services have reduced cost is simply by reducing labour costs. Partial provision by the private sector still leaves the public services to provide residual services. The appropriate comparison to make is not between public and private services, but between the total cost of services where there are different patterns of service provision and delivery. Taken in the round, the combined effect of expenditure in the private sector, the development of regulatory mechanisms in the public sector and the maintenance of residual public services has been generally more expensive than services were when services were planned, delivered and strictly rationed by a sole provider.

Personalisation, diversity and consumer choice are not cheap options. There are no good grounds for believing that such policies save money.

(1) e.g. R Hewit, Public service reform is the only way to avoid cuts, Scotsman 1.3.2010

Rationing and road pricing

The Times tells us: “there are only two ways to ration the space on the roads: by queue or by price” (Editorial, 31st October 2009). Rationing is about how resources are allocated. There are many other ways to ration besides queues or pricing. The standard approaches include service restriction, dilution, filtering and reallocation. This might mean e.g. restricting the class of vehicles or drivers able to use certain roads; redefining the use of the road space through line markings; reserving space for certain purposes (e.g. breakdown lanes, bus lanes, car sharing lanes); changing traffic flows (in the US they use gates to open or close road sections at different times for traffic moving in different directions); changing the rules of the road (should there be fast and slow lanes, instead of all outside lanes being for overtaking?); and redefining the use of existing roads (freight-only roads, motorways and ring roads are examples). I’m a specialist in social administration rather than transport, and I cannot tell which of the options is better; that needs evidence. Pricing may or may not be better than the alternatives, but we should never assume it is the only option.

Why cut?

All the main political parties in the UK seem to have reached a consensus, that the economic situation must mean cuts in public spending. This is alarming. Governments must understand that they cannot cut their way out of an economic depression; they have to grow out of it. The way to bring in higher revenues is for people to earn more, not less. If they cut, the reduction in demand will lead to lower tax revenues, and increasing costs through higher unemployment.

The government finances are certainly bad. It is not because of high spending on public services; it is because the government has bailed out the banks. The main way to recover that money is going to be from the banks, as they repay their loans. The idea that this has to be paid from tax or public spending cuts is a false choice. Either might be true in time, but this is not the time.

Financial socialism

There may not be much to chuckle about in the current financial crisis, but complaints in the US about “financial socialism” (e.g. in Forbes magazine) offer Europeans some wry amusement. The US has never really understood what socialism is about; it seems to be some kind of infection, where exposure to a mild but toxic measure, like a publicly funded library or a school, turns people into brainwashed automata. Socialism, in most of Europe, refers to forms of social organisation for collective benefit. Socialists like Robert Owen, R H Tawney or Richard Titmuss stood for principled, moral intervention in social and economic organisation. (I have been puzzled by the number of commentators – like Matthew Paris in the Times – who seem to think that this has something to do with Marxism. Marxism had no time for principled idealism, or for collective groups working together to improve things, or for the idea that governments should intervene to make economies work better. The socialist parties in most European countries had very little to do with Marx – marxist parties in Europe were “communist”, not “socialist”.) The Parti Socialiste Europeen, the largest bloc in the European Parliament, is committed to “principles of freedom, equality, solidarity, democracy, respect of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and respect for the Rule of Law.” In respect of financial markets, equality, solidarity and social justice implies much more than regulation for greater stability. Whatever one makes of the Paulson plan, “socialist” is not a word that springs to mind.

There is a different word for pragmatic intervention intended to achieve order and stability: that word is “conservatism”. The standard view in conservative thought was powerfully expressed by Edmund Burke (incidentally, as much a supporter of the American revolution as he was a critic of the French one). “Government”, Burke wrote, “is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” The idea that government should take action as needed to regulate, balance and protect people is fundamentally conservative, and it has been a cornerstone of the “christian democracy” of central Europe for sixty years.