Councils in 2043 – the Next Thousand Words

I was delighted to be asked recently to contribute a piece to LGiU’s 30 birthday celebration work, an imaginative idea that asks 30 people to project what councils may be like in thirty years’ time in 2043.  The post is here: http://www.lgiu.org.uk/30birthday-jonathan-flowers/ and is an imagined conversation between two un-named individuals at a mono-bus stop!

In writing the post I was determined to make it be from a citizen perspective rather than that of the council, and I wanted to present something that was a bit different to “now with less money” so I imagined a world in which council services were more consumerised and customised than they are now.  In doing that I left out a whole lot of stuff, and left quite a lot to the imagination.  I was constrained to three hundred words!  Since my piece is generating some actual interest, or, at least, tweets,  I thought I’d take the opportunity of my own blog to add a few more words, and perhaps leave less to the imagination.  My additional comments are in italics.

“Blooming monobuses, you wait and wait and then three come at once”

I have no idea what a monobus is, but it sounds futuristic!

“Yeah, too right … how you doing in your new flat?”

“It’s alright actually, me and the missus are choosing our council package tonight”

“What are you thinking about getting?”

“Well, obviously we’ll be getting the standard citizen package, and we’ll both be taking the free ID-phones because we don’t mind them knowing where we are if we get a free phone out of it, but we’re thinking about our extras”

It would be a fun exercise to consider what will be in the “standard citizen package” and how the identification of the base package would infuence the way people felt about it.  This is potentially the bit that people pay council tax for.  It’s also interesting to think about whether the “standard citizen package”, if we were thinking about it in these consumerist terms, is what we will end up with after many more years of cuts – I suspect not.  In terms of the narrative behind this dialogue it would be interesting to speculate on whether the “standard citizen package” was re-established after failure of universal services due to the pressures on demand-led ones.

The ID phone notion is intended to prompt a question of how people will feel about their data being used commercially.  In this version of reality clearly people are quite relaxed about it, much as we are now relaxed about what facebook knows about us based on content we give it freely.  I suspect that if councils – and commercial organisations – were able to use the data provided by mobile phones about peoples’ location and activity then this would generate enough “value” for (many) people to get the phones for free.  I think this will either happen or definitively not happen long before 2043, but this was a way of injecting that idea.

“I always go for the health care plus”

I called this “social care plus” in my first draft but someone pointed out to me that “social care” is a label that local government people use so I decided that if it were ever marketed it would more likely have a health label.

“What do you get in that one?”

“Well you get your credits towards the dementia insurance, health checks and double credits for using the leisure centre once a week, so that’s included”

The notion of dementia insurance came to me after hearing Andy Burnham at the LGA saying that the current means-tested funding for elderly social care was essentially a “dementia tax”.  The health checks and double credits for staying fit are a quick nod in the direction of incentivised demand management/prevention.  Maybe we’ll be sufficiently far-sighted to have free leisure centres by then, though I suspect that people will value it more if they feel they are paying for it.

“Mary gets the dementia insurance credits for us both through her work policy, so we’ll do pay as you go on the leisure centre, but we’re thinking about getting the waste booster”

If we are all insuring ourselves against the costs of dementia in some way then there will probably be many options for that.

The use of the terminology of mobile phone packages is deliberate.  It seems to be the way we tend to think of services now:  A core “headline price” service to which you get to add things based on your particular need.  A form of self-funded personalisation?

I can see a story for local government that finds its core offering reduced and reduced and that the only way of getting more citizen money into the system is to start charging for things individually (unless anyone has the political courage and persuasion skills to convince people that “taxation is the price of admission to a fair society”).  If it’s done right, and if it’s done in a way that people recognise and value, it might work.  You get your standard citizen package out of your council tax, but extras cost.  If councils had to justify the value of those extras, and innovate in how they were provided and packaged to ensure that it was aligned with actual citizen need then that might not be a bad thing – especially if in doing so they got additional resources?

“What does that one get you?”

“Choose the day of the week for collection, though we’ll probably go with the default option to get a discount on that; double collections and a tree at Christmas, unlimited cardboard and they sort your recycling for you”

This is what I would pay more for.  As someone said to me though, we’ll probably have automatic recycling separation for everyone long before then.

“That’s just lazy, we get the kids to do ours, to earn their pocket money.”

I put in a mild swear word here which got censored at the suggestion of a colleague!

“Yeah, well we’ve got to decide where to get our advice package from, because we’re going to want help applying for schools, and we’re thinking about putting in an application for a conservatory”

This is building up to the last notion I wanted to insert- the idea that “consumer-led” local authorities might actually compete with each other in some respects. I don’t think we’ll get competition for core services (that standard citizen package again, perhaps) but if we get into a world where advice services are an extra cost, then why wouldn’t I be able to choose where I get that advice from, since location doesn’t really matter?  And if I were wanting some professional advice on applying for schools I might prefer to buy it from someone independent but expert – like another local authority?

“What have you narrowed it down to?”

“Well we used to get our advice package from Staffordshire when we lived in the black country, but now that we live in Dalston we’re thinking of getting it from somewhere more local, like Barnet … their app gets 5 stars in the govstore, and it’s only £500 a month”

I am assuming a degree of inflation!  And that sterling remains a thing.

“Nice one. ”

What I haven’t commented on in any of this is the strength or otherwise of civic society and social cohesion, the state of local democracy in general, social media, the use of other sectors in service provision and a host of other things that would be relevant and might underly this little dialogue.  The ommission doesn’t mean that I think there won’t be any of those things.   It meant I had 300 words!  And I had a hunch that those areas would be covered by others that LGiU would ask!

Holiday Notes

A wonderful week in San Francisco followed by an awe-inspiring week in Arizona, and then a longer spell at an airport hotel in Los Angeles waiting to come home….

A mixed bag of thoughts that struck me at various points and which I feel oddly compelled to scatter:
1.  San Francisco is a friendly and attractive mechanism for converting sourdough bread into calf muscles.

2.  Starfish, which look incredibly inert from above are very active when you see them from underneath. Jellyfish are beautiful and deeply alien.

3.  California has a curious relationship with climate change epitomised  by the california academy of sciences. A very modern building with a  green “living roof”, strident displays warning of climate change – and gas patio heaters outside the cafe!

4.  Route 66 in Arizona has a disgraceful amount of litter by the side of it.  But the coincidence of coming into Seligman just as the Cars, the Motion Picture Soundtrack got to Our Town was just perfect, and touching.

5a. The Grand Canyon is both.

5b. The first time I saw the Grand Canyon it was so big and unusual that I couldn’t initially process it as a 3D image – it looked painted on.  When I did adjust for the diminished parallax it was truly awe-inspiring.  Definitely didn’t disappoint.  Gazing at its incessant detail I was reminded of the moment in September 1986 when I first saw Mandelbrot set images.  In a reflective moment of thinking how a river had carved this over millions of years I suddenly realised that it was less than 2% of the age of the Earth and had a “total perspective vortex” moment.

5c. There are worse places to be than the Grand Canyon at sunset.

6.  On a train journey a fellow passenger was wearing a baseball cap with the legend “World War 2 Veteran.  Battle of the Bulge” and staff members on the train and others would occasionally say to him “thank you for your service”.  I really can’t get my head straight on what I think about this.

7.  Arizona is a lot greener than I expected, though coming back to the UK I thought my eyes had a different colour filter on.  Also struck by how colourful UK currency is!

8.  On the subject of green, Wrigleys spearmint gum has changed colour since I was a boy, although I suppose it may always have been green in the US.

9.  Geology is much more interesting when its more extreme aspects are in your face or under your feet (or in the atmosphere potentially stopping you from getting home).

10.  Hypothesis: tessellated triangles are used for decoration by all cultures – human and otherwise!

11.  The paintings that captured my attention were this one and this one (why all the jugs, pots and other receptacles – must look into the symbolism of that).

12.  Neuroscience’s application to public policy is almost certainly at the level of metaphor or a repetition of evolution-based thinking rather than a direct insight. The possible exception being in relation to education policy.

13.  Disneyland broke through my cynical carapace within the first 100 seconds, but fortunately the omnipresence of retail helped me to reassemble it before we left.

14. United Airlines customer service is very good – even under pressure.

Diversity

Staying at a hotel in Central London last night, I popped down to the bar after 11pm for some hydration, and found there a group of young people, who I recognised from Youtube and the London free paper zeitgeist as being the “Britain’s Got Talent” winners “Diversity”.

They were there in matching bright yellow zip-up hoodies and quite clearly “in uniform” and it struck me as kind of bizarre that they were doing that.  They weren’t drinking particularly, not that I could see anyway, and obviously some of them are too young. I wondered why they were in a public place that late, and so obviously in costume so that people could see who they were.  People were chatting with them.  When one woman was chatting with a couple of them, and asked to have her photo taken with them, before her husband could take the photo, the others, seeing what was happening, got up and posed too, full of smiles – real ones.  It was actually very nice.

And it occurred to me that they were there, just enjoying being famous.  Not in a smug or arrogant way, but just enjoying the positive recognition, and being very nice back.  not the way I had imagined showbiz “celebs” would be.  Maybe it won’t last, but it was actually really sweet.  It made me think about that transition into fame, and what that must be like, in a way I hadn’t thought before.  And now you are too.  Which is what I was trying to achieve.

Indicators of a day working too much

More than two meals that don’t require cutlery, especially if eaten whilst standing or walking. 

A  mobile phone taken from its charger and yet dying before the day ends.

Only clothes worn: suit and pyjamas.

Thinking that an event this morning happened yesterday.

Every hot drink that day being made for you by someone else. 

No music (whilst stationary). 

Planning the day around wifi hotspots.

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.

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.