Recovering the Economy

Listening to the various party conferences you would think that the politicians THIS time have learned the lessons of boom and bust and are now going to revamp macro-economic policy, remake the relationship between state and citizen, write off large chunks of eurozone debt and lead us into a brave new world of social justice and prosperity.

Yeah! Right!

Because the truth is that any levers that the politicians have in a modern market based economy are generally pretty ineffective.  They may pontificate about grand capital projects like high speed trains, tramways, arenas, flood defences and so on, but this is pretty much a combination of political posturing and feeding the professional and financial beast which we call the ‘regeneration industry’.  I sometimes think that ‘Degeneration Industry’ would be a more accurate moniker.  As this refreshingly honest trader put it, ‘Governments don’t rule the world: Goldman Sachs do‘.

Recovering the economy is not primarily a function of politics, but a function of enterprise.  About people using their skills and knowledge to provide products and services that people want, marketing and selling them effectively at a price that adds value to the customer and makes a profit.  Transactions in which all parties gain. Good business if the methods of production and distribution are environmentally sustainable and neither harm nor exploit.

But, improving the economy through enterprise is not the only thing that matters.  We also need to improve our communities, making them better places for as many people as possible to live full and rewarding lives in which everyone who wants to is supported to explore their potential and express it to the full.  And, these are not 2 distinct activities but 2 facets of the same process of development.

The challenge is not to find the right ‘macro-economic policy’ but to engage large numbers of people in living their lives to the full and doing what they can to help others looking to do the same.  It is about mass engagement, facilitation of ideas, and support.

You see the politicians can’t build good communities and sustainable economies.  We get these things as by-products of large numbers of people pursuing the projects that they believe in and helping each other wherever they can.  And occasionally falling out.  Great communities and their economies spring from people living their lives to the full and making the best of their potential.

It’s about time we recognised that and helped to make it happen.

What Is Leeds Like?

This is the title of a new photography competition being run by Leeds City Council.  The public are invited to submit their snaps that capture for them what Leeds is like in 2011.

And the prize for What Is Leeds Like?  The council and its partners may use your images in a report and in any other publication they wish, to portray the city.

On the one hand I admire the enterprise.  No doubt, strapped for cash, they can’t afford to commission a professional, or even to buy some of the existing great product of the Leeds photography community.  A quick search on flickr for Leeds 2011 produces over 28 000 images.

But  it feels a little one sided…

Is there a qualitative difference between professionally commissioned and briefed city portraiture and the chocolate box approach of a ‘send us your snaps’ competition?  Is there a danger of de-professionalising photography?  Or is it just another creative industry that needs to wake up to the fact that we are all creatives now?

So what could the council do that would meet its requirements for low/no cost but high quality photography and provide a meaningful and powerful platform for Leeds photographers?

So, Leeds photographers, what would you value as a prize in such a competition?


Delighted to see the Beyond Guardian Leeds have launched an alternative  photo competition through which I hope they can really attract attention to some great Leeds photographers.

The Leeds LEP Summit…

Last Friday, 700 people descended on Saviles Rooms in Clarence Dock, Leeds to attend the Local Enterprise Partnership’s Summit on Realising the Potential.

I wish I could say it was a day full of surprises.  Of innovative and critical thinking.  Of real insights about how enterprise works in the region and beyond and what can be done to make it work better.  I wish I could say that we were listened to, engaged, given the chance to shape, not only ‘The Plan’ but also how it might be put into action.  But I can say none of these things.

It was the usual formula of a stage sequentially inhabited by a series of be-suited folk advocating their politics, or their research, or in some cases their business interests.  But generally, far too much politics and macro-economics, a sprinkling of economic development orthodoxy (clusters, sectors, high growth) and hardly any enterprise at all.  And where differences in ideology or strategy were clearly apparent there was no attempt at analysis or synthesis. It just came down to ‘we’re in charge now – so we’ll do it our way’.

The importance of SMEs was mentioned several times, but they were talking about 10+employee, high growth startups willing to put together funding bids and set up KTPs (knowledge transfer partnerships) with universities.  The kind of startup that allies itself with the economic development infrastucture and pursues every penny of public funding that it can.  There was little to no indication that anyone had given any thought to the potential of the regions enormous number of micro-enterprises and the fact that these are the hot bed from which the higher growth businesses will over time emerge.  We are back to what Drucker called ‘wanting the top of the mountain without the mountain’.

The implicit assumption was the regional economy would remain one based on traditional models of ’employment’, a white and blue collar region rather than a region where large numbers of self organising free agents contributed significantly.  What kind of employer skills board is going to define the skills and attitudes needed to escape employment by others but actually shape your own portfolio of work?  No, as per usual there was much discussion of what ’employers’ are looking for and the importance of that Holy Grail of employability.  As I said on the day, I don’t want the net result of 2 decades of education for my daughters for them to be merely ’employable’.  I want much more from the system than that, thank you very much.

It was also assumed that growth in the economy IS the only future.  And we seem to have the choice of whether we measure it using GVA or GDP.  No mention of the possibility, never mind the desirability, of a steady state economy.  Or perhaps measuring progress in terms other than purely financial expansion.  In fact nothing that wasn’t about mainstream economic development policy.  Nothing that we were not discussing in Mandelson’s White Papers on Building the Knowledge Economy at the fag-end of the last century.  Those of us with alternative ideas about to make the world a better place need to take a long hard look at ourselves – because our messages are just not getting through.

Somehow we were soon well behind the clock and time for questions from the floor was cut.  Not that it would have mattered.  If you really want to listen, you do not dominate proceedings from a stage and  give 700 people in the audience a couple of roaming mics.  You take the challenges of helping people to find their voice and express themselves a little more seriously than that, you build it into the process. If you really want to listen.

I had tried to encourage a few small business people to attend and others with an interest in ‘the economy’ who do not see themselves as ‘in business’, because the future of our economy should not be left to a partnership between business folk and politicians!  Sadly most had left within the first couple of hours as they heard nothing that spoke to them of their goals, the contexts they are working in, or their aspirations and they felt the dice had already been thrown, and that the strategy had been set for yet more capital investment and a preoccupation with high growth companies in high growth sectors.  All I could do was mouth my apologies as they picked their way out of the hall while speaker after speaker talked of engagement with ‘the business community’.

At least we had the back channel of twitter to contribute some different views.  Not that the screen displaying the twitter stream was legible and it took until lunchtime for the inimitable @johnpopham to explain that if they used twitterfall they would not need to keep hitting refresh……  I can’t help but think that something so apparently trivial as understanding twitter may hold the seeds of something important for the LEP in recognising that tomorrows economy will not be the same as yesterdays, only bigger.

So, we were late into our breakout groups.  The one I attended was like a fractal of the main hall.  A stage, a panel, an audience and not enough time to do the subject justice.  But this time there were some women too!  At least one of the panel members talked passionately of the LEP needing to speak the language of micro-enterprise!

Lunch was good.  Soggy sandwiches.  Fruit so cold it hurt.  But at least WE got a chance to talk…..

After lunch it was back into the main hall to listen to more clever and/or opinionated men (I would have been at home on at least one of those counts).  One of these had some thing to say about the drivers of regional growth in OECD countries and how some ‘basket case economies’ had managed to turn things around.  I can’t think why he would choose to provide data on basket case turnarounds in our region, can you?  Sadly the slides he presented were unreadable and I could not follow the plot.  I was so angry!  We jet in a researcher from lord knows where, presumably at great expense to the sponsors and then we don’t make sure that his slides will be legible to any but the front rows?  So I bailed out to the LEP Conversation Corner which was deserted to begin with, but which did eventually yield some fascinating conversations!

What did surprise me was the number of attendees who seemed to think that the gig was OK.  That it had ‘gone well’.  That any dissenting or challenging perspectives on twitter were just negativity rather than the result of any critical thinking, or different perspectives that may be worth exploring.

I found it genuinely puzzling until I realised that this was the congregation of the church of orthodox economic development – at prayer.  Where GDP is all that matters, and green/culture/tech/creative is only good IF it will create yet more economic growth.  This was the economic development supply chain in the room.  Hardly likely to be open to the possibility of radical innovation when they have so much vested in the status quo.

The Spirit Level – dodgy science or not?


“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” – Buddha

Improving the NHS – the role of social media

Nearly everyone I speak too recently has a horror story to share about their experiences with the NHS.  And nearly everyone has a fairy tale to tell as well.

For several decades now I have been contracted by various parts of the NHS at different times to provide management development and leadership training, to run assessment and development centres, to develop standards for the board of NHS trusts, to turn HR teams into organisational development teams and so on.  And for just about all of that time the training has been done against a permanent backdrop of policy and structural changes that makes real learning almost impossible.

So it was with some interest that I read about some work that the National Health Service Social Media Group had been doing to explore the potential of social media to transform healthcare. Recently this group have been talking about how the use of video cameras by patients could provide feedback to drive service development.

I love the idea of social media being used to report on both the good practice and the bad.  To shine a spotlight on all that we love and hate about how healthcare is delivered.

But, until we we build a culture where such data can be collected, analysed, reviewed and acted upon by experienced clinicians and managers with the time and resources to provide excellent management and leadership we run the risk of finding ourselves with ever more tearful and frustrated health professionals.

And I suspect that it would be the failures and lapses that would get the attention and the resources.  A culture of name and shame is unlikely to work in the long run.  And what would it do to the relationship between patient and staff?  Do we really want patients to be policing their own healthcare experience?  They can recognise and film obvious lapses of protocol and procedures, but the more subtle stuff?  And, do we really want service providers to change what they do just because someone is pointing a camera at them?

At its best great healthcare is delivered as a partnership between clinicians and patients.  I find it hard to see how this partnership can really thrive when when one party is busy filming the other.

It may have a role in driving out bad practice – but I am not convinced that it can ever drive excellence.

As Deming has shown us the road to excellence is reached by driving out fear, not by increasing it.