Evolution is FAST

Spent a fascinating evening learning about pesticides on Wednesday.  

No really.  

It was a programme of talks at Rothamsted Research (www.rothamsted.ac.uk) about how pests evolve resistance to pesticides (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides).  It was really interesting set of talks, and there were around 150 people there to hear them.

One of the things that struck me is that natural selection – which we’re used to think of as a really gradual process – can be incredibly fast.

Think about a new herbicide which is fantastic at killing a particular weed.  It’s so good that it kills 99% of the weed – with 1% having a slightly different genetic composition which for some reason makes it resistant.   In season one the herbicide will be tremendous.  But for season two the only seeds hanging around are going to be the ones from the 1% resistant variety, and they’ll have the field to themselves, more or less. 

Natural natural selection may be slow and subtle, because minor advantages take some time to show their advantageous nature, but the fundamental principle can be seen from one year to the next, if you’re looking.

Well I thought it was interesting, anyway.

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The satisfaction of Unintelligent Design

In one of the New Towns near us today as we like the lake as a place to stroll around while the little one rides his bike just in front of us.  Struck once again by my ambivalence towards New Towns.  They’re all very convenient and ordered, and just the way you’d design it if you were able to do so.

And yet … 

The process of evolution by natural selection committed some errors. In Operational Research terms we have entered some local optima rather than achieving a global optimum.  Our bodies have yet to adapt to a vertical position, as our aching backs atest.  More tellingly the way that our eyes evolved left the blood vessels which feed the retina flowing along the top of it – partially obscuring the retina.  If designed from scratch the blood supply would be round the back, just as the wonderful service roads and bicycle underpasses serve the citizens of new towns.  

My chosen home town of Harpenden shows the residue of hundreds of thousands of disparate town planning and building decisions that have washed over each other and scrunched the residual shoreline of the current town.  And it’s gloriously imperfect – the way the road narrows on Station Road and always threatens head on collision, and the practical impossibility of cycling anywhere with a small child being cases in point.

And yet …

I prefer Harpenden.  Perhaps imperfection – a rich, complex, multi-layered imperfection recognises itself, and cherishes the symmetry rather than failing to click with the intelligent design.

Choosing an Organisation Structure for Local Governance

For as long as I’ve been associated with Local Government (coming up to a decade) the structure of local authorities has been pretty well determined by statute.  Certainly the scope of what is in a local authority and what is elsewhere is pretty well set.  And certain statutory roles like a Director of Children’s Services (DCS) have constrained local authorities’ ability to determine structures based on local circumstances, local political priorities and (importantly) the skills and competence of the individuals concerned.  There is some diversity – some authorities have broadened the DCS role, others have experimented without a formal Chief Executive, and different electoral models – eg elected mayors – have experiemented at the fringes with differing forms of local impact alongside Local Strategic Partnerships, Local Area Agreements and so on.

Whatever you think of the politics, the Conservative Party Green Paper on Local Government “Control Shift” ,  if implemented, would appear to open up the prospect of radically different models of what is in and out of local authorities, and different models of their organisation.

This will represent a fascinating organisational-intellectual challenge to local government.  Fortunately there are many models and analyses of corporate structures available from private sector strategy, many concepts that can shed considerable light on the choices that may be open to local authorities.  The unfortunate bit is that they will require considerable adaptation to cope with the enormously greater complexity of local government, and they will require a debate within local authorities which is up a whole level of sophistication from the current constrained domain.

There are useful and well established models about when groups of businesses should be brought together (or not) the role of the commercial corporate centre, and models of control ranging from “financial control” (heavy on the bottom line, light on the strategy) to a “strategic planning” model (which integrates cleverly but requires a deep understanding at the centre of what’s going on at the edges).  What does a “local public service conglomerate” glued together in its accountability by “Democratic Control” look like?  What does the corporate centre (both electoral and executive) look like?  The good news is that there are many valid models, the bad news is that to secure the benefits significant change in thought, approaches, and learned behaviours will be needed.

Local authorities are up to it, though.  I have the privilege of facilitating a session for cohorts on a leadership development programme.  It was abundantly clear to me at the last such session I ran that partnership working with all its complexities and benefits is now much more mainstreamed than it was even two years ago; it was really impressive.

This area of commercial cororate strategy (carefully) applied to local government and local governance is something I’ll be continuing to think about in the coming months.