It’s the public sector we should reform, not the public

A new book challenges Britain’s bureaucratically endorsed culture of entitlement and dependency, but the author’s behaviour-changing solutions are just as paternalistic.

Dave Clements

Topics Books

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Public services in the UK cannot be sustained at their current level. They are under unprecedented pressure from the global financial crisis, the slow growth of the UK’s service-based economy, and the ageing society. Consequently, there need to be drastic reductions in what is currently very high but unproductive public spending. One in four working-age adults work for the public sector – councils are often the biggest local employers and the NHS alone employs 1.7million people, making it the largest employer in Europe. Nearly 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 of The Reward Society, it is the deterioration of our ‘attitudes, values and behaviour’ that is most costly of all.

UK authorities, it seems, 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, Manion 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 childlike 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. Dysfunctional families who ‘run health, police and social services ragged’ place a burden of £8 billion per year on the state. A welfare safety net has ‘become a spider’s web, trapping people in dependency and making poverty comfortable’. There is 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’ himself once, his behaviour completely violated the standards of the working-class culture he grew up in, but ‘I knew that and took the consequences’. While the 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’, 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, 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 insofar 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.

Yet Manion’s solutions don’t break out of this mindset so much as reconfigure it (which I’ll come to in a moment). Nonetheless, his orthodoxy-busting, commonsense 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 on 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, everything will be 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 he believes that housing is – despite what you might think – about ‘more than the provision of roofs over people’s heads’. This is despite the fact that the sector has failed even to provide rooves. 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’ in which he, like every other patronising left-liberal commentator, claims the poorest in society are caught up?

Manion is so intent on naturalising today’s dependency-induced inadequacies that his behaviour-intervening approach isn’t a challenge to, but rather is 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, through their GPs, to go to the gym, I do not think people like him, who are ‘exercising regularly, not smoking and eating healthily’, are any more deserving of state ‘support’. It is not for the state to dictate to people how they live their lives or to reward them when they make the ‘right’ decision. The Reward Society 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 can be seen in 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 did it is not convincing. He introduced ‘health awareness, anti-smoking policies, motivational programmes, annual medical checks, eye tests, fitness and relaxation packages’. If they pull a sickie, staff are booked in for an appointment with the resident GP. This would be enough in itself, but Manion goes much further. His Diamond employment package, for example, includes all sorts of perks for employees, 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 will ‘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 be music to the ears of Manion’s counsellors, coaches and mentors, but the rationale is intrusive. ‘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 ‘£4.6million 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 practised) by Manion.

His obsession with managing behaviour – whether it’s that of his tenants or his employees – is as depressing as it is wrongheaded. But this is in keeping with the extension of the new public management developed in the 1980s and 1990s across society at large. As if the managerial colonisation of public services isn’t bad enough, Manion and his ilk are determined to manage the behaviour of individuals, too. This trend is not confined to 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.

Dave Clements works in social care, writes on social policy issues, and is co-editor of The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exagerrated. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This review was originally published in Culture Wars.

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Topics Books


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