Do you have time to think?


Does a lack of free time, and continual other worries cloud our ability to see the big picture?

I’m starting this blogpost with this number by Chicago

Bonus points for anyone who can work out the time signature for the opening segment. Back in late 2005 I teamed up with a dancing acquaintance to choreograph a piece that we and a group of others performed at the ADC theatre in Cambridge. Which nominally means I can put: “Experience of choreographing dance performances” on my CV. Hell yeah! The piece was called ‘Time’ and the performance contrasted the zombie-like status of those in seemingly high-pressure office jobs versus the free living and free spirited youth.

The year that followed (2006) was probably the most eventful year of my life – not least in terms of things that I made happen, culminating in moving down to London to join the Fast Stream, the start of a new relationship at the same time, as well as spending six weeks in Vienna and another couple of weeks in France and Germany respectively earlier on. At the time, I recall having this sense of ‘If you don’t leave Cambridge now, you’ll be stuck here’ mindset. It was one that was sufficiently strong enough to overcome by coward-like disposition of not wanting to do anything remotely risky. If someone said to me at the start of 2006 that I’d have the year I had by the end of it, I would not have believed them.

External shocks and taking that step back

Looming job cuts at the end of 2005 and the breakup of a previous short relationship were the external shocks that made me step back and think big picture. The difference between then and when I left the civil service is that back in 2006, the world was much more of a certain place. Certainly as far as public policy was concerned. Remember the Conservatives were reeling from their third election defeat in a row – Blair having seen off Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard. The economy was booming and lots of exciting things seemed to be happening – but in London. And I wanted to be a part of that. Fast forward to today, and Hague and Duncan Smith are two of the secretaries of state still in place from 2010, the economy has imploded, services are being cut to the bone and we have this new phenomenon of social media. A lot has happened in a very short space of time.

Dependents, liabilities and worries

Never having had children or my own mortgage to pay has perhaps given me the breathing space to think ‘big picture’ about various things – as has illness. When I have too much time on my hands, I dwell on the bad stuff and implode unless I consciously stop the thought-process. When I’m busy, this doesn’t happen – my mind is occupied. But where is the downtime for many people? Where is the downtime when you’re working all hours there is, with a long commute and with a young family to raise? Where is the downtime when a maxed-out card and overdraft have you worried about whether you can afford the shopping for the week before payday? Or if you are on benefits or on zero hours contracts when you don’t know when the next payment will come in…isn’t ‘big picture thinking’ something of a luxury?

Politicians fiddle while the planet burns

Literally – when you look at the number of coal-fired power stations going up – see these figures from 2012.

My point here is that the sort of radical thinking and doing that’s needed to deal with the problems of today is not coming from the traditional political, financial and academic classes. Why should it if you have the trappings of wealth and power to shield you from the day-to-day struggles that the majority of the population has to cope with? People in local communities give powerful personal testimony about the challenges they face, and public policy world dismisses it as anecdote. Politicians respond with lists of facts and numbers, which is meaningless to people in local communities because being told of such lists doesn’t actually help them deal with the immediate problems at hand.

“Yeah, it’s great that the official ONS figures state that unemployment for the past three quarters has fallen 0.01 percentage points in succession, but is that going to put food on the table given that I have no money?”

Exactly. When I signed on not long after leaving the civil service, I overheard many desperate people shouting into the phones at the local job centre begging for their benefits to be paid. For some, it was the difference between whether they were going to get fed or not that evening.

When we give food to the poor, they call us saints. When we ask why the poor have no food, they call us communists.

The war of words between Iain Duncan Smith and the Trussell Trust that runs food banks has become incredibly toxic of late – as this news article illustrates. Responsibility for this breakdown in my opinion rests entirely with ministers. Any organisation with an operation that has 400 outlets serving over 500,000 people in food poverty with next-to-no-help from central government is one that officials should be all over in supporting. Ministers should be directing their policy civil servants and analysts to go out on the ground to observe what’s going on, gathering data and seeing where the policy solutions might be – and feeding all of that back into the policy-making machine. That ministers are choosing to blank such organisations means an important strand of evidence-based policy-making is now broken. And it is utterly avoidable.

I also spotted a number of tweets from Lisa Ansell recently, about the health impact of relying on food banks. How can politicians and public health officials be sure that people are getting a decent balanced diet? When you are living on such low incomes, especially at a time of fuel poverty, the choice can be between cooking a warm meal and heating a poorly-insulated house. This is one of the reasons why free school meals are potentially an essential component of tacking food poverty and tackling poor health too. One of the other things I remember from my school days was that at primary school, the children didn’t know who did & did not get free school meals. We all had the same choices and the admin was done by parents out of our sight, whether paid or free. At secondary school, cash canteens meant it was very clear who got free school meals and who didn’t. Ditto at sixth form college where not having school uniforms and having some students driving to college (clogging up local roads in my neighbourhood – it’s still the same 20 years later) made wealth differentials all too apparent.

What are the ‘difficult decisions’?

I blogged about some of them six months ago – see here. We’re seeing examples of more and more difficult decisions being put off for tactical reasons – most recently all things around London airport capacity.

To what extent do ministers and decision-makers want to be influenced?

For all the good work civil servants are doing on open policy and open data, the fact remains that the processes and structures of the big political parties are out of sync with what the civil service is trying to achieve. It’s something I touched upon in this blogpost. What’s the point in engaging with academia if politicians decide their recommendations are too politically unpalatable? To what extent do politicians need to listen & respond, versus leading and persuading?

This is also where transparency of what politicians get up to needs to be radically overhauled. What’s the point on having a ministerial and civil service code if wealthy interests can by a seat next to a minister or shadow minister at a political fundraising event?

An inevitable problem of piecemeal progress…

…is that there’s little opportunity to consider big picture things. You don’t get the opportunity to tackle some really big and complex issues. It’s much easier trying to deal with something in a little silo. This in part is where ‘Big Society’ fell down. In the mindset of ministers (and, dare I say it the civil service) in the Cabinet Office they saw Big Society as a stand-alone ministerial policy area in the traditional sense, rather than a big cultural change whose success was also highly dependent on what was happening in other government departments – not least the Department for Communities and Local Government. The cuts to services in local councils has shredded many of the support mechanisms that local organisations were dependent upon. At the same time, nothing substantial was in place to manage a transition away from state funding towards other forms of funding – not least when trying to account for huge economic uncertainties faced by many.

The even bigger picture of the current economic climate – especially with lots of people in unstable low-income or zero hours contracts is that their spending patterns change. Housing, fuel, food and transport costs rising higher than wages and benefits mean that people have less to spend on non-essentials. At the same time, we’re seeing a greater polarisation of wealth not just in the UK but globally. I’m also noticing that in several other countries – most recently Australia, France and Sweden, housing bubbles are also a growing problem.

Bringing it back to time…

I appreciate I’ve deviated significantly from the start. But to bring it all back, many of these issues are complex and interlinked. Where do you even begin to unpick it all when you’ve got a mainstream media screaming at the latest scapegoat of the month.

This is one of the challenges of politics and public policy. In a time-poor life-style it’s perhaps understandable for people to respond to emotive headlines than the dry detail of data and statistics. How do you respond to the ‘drip-drip’ feed of ‘Read this and get angry!!!!’ headlines? Hence accusations and counter-accusations on the relationship between media headlines and the rise of parties like UKIP.

Misinformed Britain

Public policy shaped by public opinion informed by prejudiced headlines spun from partisan or simply wrong data/information makes for bad policy. Simple as. (See how misinformed we the public are, here). We have seen this most recently with the internet parent filters much trumpeted by the Prime Minister and much lampooned by anyone with a vague understanding of the internet. (See here). Even Parliament’s education web pages were being blocked – not just the vital helplines such as Childline. My local MP Julian Huppert has written about the challenges here.

So…what do we do?

There are a number of issues/questions that stem from all of this. These include:

  • How do you get people to re-engage with politics in general?
  • How do you give people more time to engage with what happens in their communities, as well as take the time to engage in politics?

This forms two themes – both inextricably linked. One is about ‘brand politics’ which is toxic. The other is about the busy and worried lives we lead. And we have to tackle both at the same time. It’s no good trying to work on the ‘time’ issue if brand politics remains toxic. It doesn’t matter how good your brand is if the content is rubbish. For politics this means institutions, structures, systems, processes, policies and yes, the politicians. It’s also no good trying to sort out all of the above if we don’t enable people to make time for things that happen in their local area. This for me is why things like housing close to where people work, and the ratio of earnings to costs of living are ever so important. I dare say for those of you in full-time work, many of you would love to live closer to your workplace and perhaps spend fewer hours a week in it – spending more time doing the things you want to do but without the knock on fall in standards of living.

But as with ‘choice’…

If people are faced with a limited amount of information, limited time and a limited ability to learn how to scrutinise what little information they have in front of them, the choices that they make may not be the same if given increasing amounts of all of those variables.


5 thoughts on “Do you have time to think?

  1. When you talk about “brand politics” being toxic I assume you are talking about politics that is defined primarily in terms of party allegiance. However, “politics” itself is arguably a toxic brand. For example, the phrase “office politics” tends not to carry any sense of politics as “the art of the possible”. Instead, it’s all about individuals and cliques gaming for power. This view is nicely expressed in this definition (from a software engineer I know): “Politics is any attempt to win status through actions that don’t advance the goals of the community.”

    I think it is telling that quasi-military language is used to describe political debates. Opposing sides take “positions” which are attacked and defended; they take pot-shots when they sense weaknesses; and, of course, debates are there to be won or lost. It’s understandable that people might wish to keep their heads down, and stay out of the line of fire.

    Political debate itself can’t really involve much thinking, since thinking in any meaningful sense has the potential of changing ones mind: in a debate this would be taken as a sign of weakness, so all the thinking must be done ahead of time.

    Any form of collective thinking would therefore surely look more like a conversation than a debate, and certainly good conversation is engaging. However, I don’t know how an open political conversation in a community, doing real analysis and having real consequences, would work. Perhaps there are examples.

  2. One factor you’ve got to consider is the barrier to good political debate and collaborative working: the general public. There are of course other factors like the politicians themselves, the party system, the traditional and social media and others.

    However, the way politics is presented by traditional and social media is conducted on these competitive or quasi-military lines and so we are either playing to reinforce what is already known or to convince of the same point anew.

    An electorate without the requisite education, the time or the willingness to research and scrutinise our politics are generally going to make human choices rather than intelligent decisions. There’s nothing wrong with that but it doesn’t always lead to the best policy making nor the best decisions.

    That’s why political figures fall in and out of favour. We don’t have time, or information, to adequately balance our judgement on their actions. We take snippets from the press and fit the information we have into our ideological prism of understanding.

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