Monday, February 13, 2006

Loosen up

Over at Harry's Place, Marcus thinks he's got Madeline Bunting bang to rights.

He quotes extensively from Bunting's review of the update on Young and Wilmott's 'Family and Kinship in East London', ('The New East End: Kinship, Race and Conflict' by Geoff Dench, Kate Gavron and Michael Young) and suggests that Ms Bunting is hearing a penny dropping as she writes.

Marcus then goes on to argue that Tony Blair has taken the trouble to listen to all types of people, and not just self-styled experts, and has responded with an agenda - the Respect Agenda - that recognises those concerns.

I'm not sure that the liberal left have quite as much guilt to trip on as they think over this one. There has always been a section of the Left that has argued for greater involvement of ordinary people (as opposed the the politically-correct paternalism of professionals) in shaping their lives.

New Labour's evidence-based policy, and it's willingness to use focus-groups in order to trump the stance of the liberal establishment may have led it into a focus on anti-social behaviour. But this approach often simply allows policymakers to address symptoms, rather than causes.

The great Colin Ward could probably have written Dench, Gavron and Young's conclusions for them, twenty years early. I suspect that he would also conclude that, since the mid-1990s, focus-group managers, think-tanks and other high-priced wonks have simply replaced the liberal professionals that buggered up the post-war experiment - without addressing the cause of that failure.

The real answer may be for professionals to, instead, focus on removing themselves from the equation altogether, and allowing people to take control of the design of their surroundings. Or their schools, come to that.

Actually getting people speaking to each other in a constructive way is a skill in itself - and one that isn't abundant either in the public sector, charities, or in so-called 'social enterprises.'

So much public money seems to go on routing around this inability to communicate. It may keep lots of counterproductive projects in funding. It may even have a positive effect in Keynesian 'burying money down a pit and selling the contract to dig it out' terms.

But it's time that political parties of all stripes started to encourage public dialogue. At the moment, they either don't do it at all, or they have highly structured 'big conversations.'

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