Category Archives: Thinking Aloud

Who Do You Follow?

Who Do You Follow?

Watching this Friday’s Daily Politics I was struck by the long argument caused by the fact that some Scottish MSPs are apparently “following” cyber-bullies, an example being a Twitter account whose name was “Yes! Thatcher Dead.”  Andrew Neil continually asked: “Why are you allowing your colleagues to follow these people?”  To which, the SNP lady kept saying: “But Labour do it too…” and so on.

What a stupid argument.

Since when does it matter who you “follow” on Twitter?  The only people who that would matter to are people who don’t understand Social Media, or people who just want to score points at any cost.  It’s ridiculous.  Following somebody on Twitter, or on Facebook, doesn’t indicate that you agree with the things they say.  That’s such a bizarre notion and yet it tied several commentors on the program up in argument for nearly ten minutes.

Following somebody doesn’t mean you like the person, that you agree with the person, nor even that you want to draw attention to the person.  Following somebody on Twitter is no different to reading about somebody in a newspaper.  Everybody who reads about some terrorist in The Sun isn’t suddenly condoning terrorism, are they?  They are just reading about it.  That’s what following somebody is.  You do it because you want to see what they say.  It might be because you liked something they said in the past and wanted to see what else they came up with, but even in that instance it doesn’t tie you to some tacit agreement of everything they ever say after that.  It might equally be that something they said shocked and appalled you in the past and you want to keep an eye on them, perhaps to counteract their arguments, or to demonstrate the paucity of their ideas through debate.

It gets muddier still though.  On Twitter you can change the name of your account any time you like – not the original signup name, but the screen name.  Even in the early days when you only have a few dozen followers nobody is going to check them all constantly to see if their names have changed.  Neither are you always watching their comments, so you certainly can’t be expected to always see what they are saying.  And even if you did see what they are saying, the fact that you are following them doesn’t indicate support of those statements.  So let’s say you follow somebody whose Twitter name is “happy_Cat.”  Then, while you are sleeping they change their name to “Iluvhitler” and post a load of anti-semitic hogwash, then go quiet for a few weeks.  Next morning you won’t notice they’ve changed their name, their nasty comments will already have been lost way down the Twitter Feed, you will have no clue.  So if you are asked, three months later, why you are following somebody called “Iluvhitler” who has expressed a desire to commit genocide, is that in any way reasonable? Of course it isn’t.

This is a really slippery slope, as anybody who watched Daily Politics will have seen.  The SNP lady could have said: “Who I follow has no bearing on my views, that’s crazy talk” but instead she responded with accusations about politicians from other parties and the people they follow.  Before you know it, the Social Media Police (self-appointed) will be scouring the lists of who everybody follows and compiling all the most “juicy” ones into a damning – yet utterly nonsensical – list.  Members of the public who don’t understand Social Media, and they are legion, will simply nod and say: “I knew they were all wrong-uns.”  It’s yet more destructive hogwash and everybody should challenge it before it goes too far.

Before you know it the focus will have moved from who you follow, to who follows you.  This is even more crazy than the original assertion and will then lead to some activists and politicians deliberately following their rivals with dummy accounts which then switch names and profiles to sound horrific.  It’s all just so pointless and overblown, but potentially very destructive.

Finally, every politician at every level will be forced to run a dummy “public account”, sanitised by constant scrutiny and terrified censorship of online links.  This will lead to a withering of genuine debate and the anodyne politically-correct responses that everybody hates to hear from the mouths of those that represent them.  As ever, we are encouraging a regime which strengthens and normalises all the worst things about our political communications.

Don’t let it happen.  Online connections are just like telephone connections.  You are no more responsible for who you follow than you are for the people who answer the phone when you ring out.   it’s just another witch hunt.  Don’t be a part of it.

Bumpy Ride

Bumpy Ride

Independent Councillor Virginia Bucknor made the following Facebook statement today:

FDC have already outsourced Building Control. Staff from Peterborough Planning have been contracted to Fenland Council for a long time as we’re under-resourced, FDC are planning (if the Conservative-controlled councillors support) to outsource Parks and Open Spaces later this year – this will be a particularly terrible loss for Wisbech.

FDC have agreed to contribute £850,000 to the A14. (I was the only councillor to vote against as there was no evidence of how Fenland residents would benefit).

We are now paying £1/2 million for a Pensions gap as we have one employee in the Port pensions group.

I suspect Licensing will be moved to King’s Lynn.

What do I think? The council is driven by difficult budget cuts, easy options (cut staff or move them elsewhere) and short-term goals. The expertise and local knowledge will be gone and FDC will cease in 4 years and the community will be much the poorer as our current committed officers who are already suffering low morale and some working under extreme lack of staff, will be small fish in a big pond – based somewhere else.

We will also be left with councillors whom residents will hope are competent to fight Wisbech’s corner – probably on Norfolk County Council and King’s Lynn. Whittlesey will be part of Peterborough. March and Chatteris probably moved to Huntingdon council.

A very sad future for Fenland.

Unusually, her comment was lacking in any political “sting” and was broadly factual.  With that in mind, I thought I’d have a look at it.

So first – what she is right about.  She’s right about the things that have been out-sourced and she’s right about the things that might be out-sourced – as much as you can be right about a “might be” situation, anyway.  She’s also right about the contribution to the A14.  But what about her gloomy prognosis?

I would be surprised if Licensing moved, but then I was surprised by today’s announcement in the press that the Leader had decided to share Planning.  Don’t get me wrong, I have some information which wasn’t in the public domain and so I was not yet able to share, but I am unsure why any of this appears to be a foregone conclusion?  It hasn’t been to Overview & Scrutiny as a pre-decision item.  It hasn’t been discussed by Full Council, nor by the ruling political group at this point either.  So if it is a foregone conclusion, then I guess it’s one of those things decided behind closed doors.  I very much hope this isn’t the case, since this is precisely the sort of thing which backbenchers always complain about, and which new leaders always claim they won’t do.  If the full level of input that non-Executive Councillors will have on something this significant is going to be a seminar and a brief chat, then that would be a real shame and, in my opinion, a mistake.  But let’s hope not.  Maybe everybody has the wrong end of the stick?

Mrs Bucknor talks about “easy options” and then refers to staff cuts.  I’m not sure I would agree that its an “easy option” to cut staff, particularly not now that the Council is quite lean.  These are, after all, real people with real families who have worked hard for us for years.  There’s nothing “easy” about telling people they might lose their jobs.  But I understand what she means – if you’ve got difficult budget decisions to make then its probably easier to just slice here and dice there and share the other thing than to really use your imagination to look for innovative solutions.  Where I differ from Mrs Bucknor is that I’m prepared to admit that such imaginative new ways to do business are not easy to find.  Which is why neither she, nor I, are suggesting any in our critique.  Though I have a few ideas I will suggest over the next few weeks.

I do agree with her on the danger of a “cuts at any cost” approach, though.  Rushed, ill-considered, or even Officer-led cuts can be counter-productive and can indeed be a false economy.  Incorrectly applied, we could well end up with the situation she describes – losing experience and skills, sacrificing local service and knowledge before an altar of “savings”, many of which may turn out to save nothing at all. Some of which will ultimately come to cost, rather than save, money.

And yes, I am genuinely concerned with a quiet momentum that seems to be building.  A momentum that points to Fenland eventually doing and managing so little that it is mothballed, that services and representation is fielded out to a variety of other authorities, while Wisbech – which sits so comfortably on two borders – is stretched like a medieval torture victim on the rack.

None of this has to happen, though.  It is one outcome of many possible ones.  And it would be such a shame because – moaners and naysayers aside – Fenland District Council has been a rather successful authority.  It has managed to weather the austerity storm, because of sound financial management, strong leadership and no small measure of luck.  I wont deny that I am worried by the speed and nature of some of the proposed changes.  I’m worried by the way things seem to be rushed through with little input or scrutiny from any but a select group.  I’m worried by the way we seem to totter from one situation to another, like a boat tossed on a violent sea of public opinion.  I’m worried by the way communication seems to be an afterthought, rather than an intrinsic part of a strategy.

But most of all I’m worried because I don’t know what the Big Plan is.  Beyond some fancy buzz words I don’t know what the vision is for Fenland.   And without a vision, you are simply reacting to events, rather than being proactive.  It’s a very difficult position to maintain successfully.  I have every faith that there is a Plan – because I’m a glass-half-full kinda guy and I like to believe the best.  I would hate to believe that Mrs Bucknor is right about the “sad future for Fenland.”   But now, leaders and higher-ups, would be the time to start talking about that vision.  To start telling us how all this fits together, and where it goes.  If we’re going on a journey, that would be a great way to avoid a bumpy ride.

Ouroboros

Ouroboros

Today, I was thinking (as you do) about Ouroboros. For those not familiar with the ancient Egyptian legend, Ouroboros is a huge serpent usually depicted eating its own tail. The Norse version of the creature has it growing so large it could circle the world, but it rather seems to me that something which is dead set on consuming itself would be more likely to get smaller and smaller and smaller.  Magical enchantments aside.  :)

Now don’t get me wrong. Small is beautiful, no doubt. Particularly in regards to local Councils. Nor would I deny that, starved of external sustenance, any organisation is going to be left with little choice but to eat itself. Starving animals do the same thing, by consuming their fat reserves first and then their muscle reserves, before succumbing to the eventual ending of every case of long-term severe resource deprivation.

When a Council is huge, bloated, top heavy – it can stand a little of this. Or a lot, sometimes. The unsightly mass goes, replaced by a lean, mean working machine. The unnecessary and the overly bureaucratic and the vanity projects disappear, in a perfect world, leaving the key services on which people depend.

But at what point have you gone too far?  If you have a dozen key services; but you “share” out five of them, close down two of them, turn three of them into voluntary organisations and then begin “consulting” on the “rationalisation” of the other two, what have you got left?  At what point does astute Leadership become self-destruction?

Ouroboros has been variously considered to represent the first living thing, eternity and entropy. But the huge world serpent isn’t real, to the best of my knowledge. It’s a metaphor, and a pertinent one. My personal view is that any organisation which is forced to eat itself will eventually come to a point where the “hard decisions” are no longer: “Do I keep doing this?” and “Can we afford to do this?” Instead, the decision becomes much simpler. “Do we still do anything at all?”  And “Why are we here?”

At that point, perhaps the serpent will have consumed itself entirely and will be quietly replaced with something else. Maybe that’s the point?

Why Bother?

Why Bother?

A good friend of mine asked me why I spend so much time on social media, trying to talk sense to people who have no interest in actually listening to any arguments which don’t precisely match what they are so sure is true.

It’s a good question.  It is a mostly thankless task.  Being pretty much the only Wisbech Conservative Councillor who talks via Facebook in this way means that all the issues are targeted at me, even ones I had nothing whatsoever to do with.  Even ones that happened before I was a Councillor.  Sometimes, even ones which happened before I was born!

Actually, it’s not true that I am the only Wisbech Conservative Councillor who talks via Facebook – but I do think it would be fair to say I am the only one who regularly engages in discussion, or who regularly challenges the spin put about by the opposition and the handful of naysayers for whom the Conservative Party, or individuals in the Conservative Party, or sometimes just a generic “the Council” are the ultimate evil.  A handful of others; Samantha Hoy, Michelle Tanfield, Garry Tibbs, David Oliver, Rob McLaren, can be found online looking after their wards and occasionally dipping into debate a little.  But a good 90% of the time it’s just me – usually up against a group of the Usual Suspects telling me how “corrupt” everybody is, or how stupid we all are, or how they could do so much better because they are the ones with “common sense” or whatever intellectual tools they believe they possess more of than the entire Council.

So why do I do it?  Why do I waste hours of time pointing out the errors, fallacies and just plain lies that a handful of individuals like to put about?  Well, it’s not for them, I promise.  I could not care less what the few individuals who drip poison onto the internet say, or why.  The problem is that they are talking to thousands of other more reasonable people who may not respond, who may not engage with the argument at all – but who do see it.

If a lie is repeated often enough, people start to believe it.  And this is particularly true if nobody ever bothers to challenge it.

So if a certain individual is busy telling everybody that “Wisbech Town Council is corrupt” or that “Fenland District Council bend planning rules for their mates” or whatever other unpleasant line is being put about that day then a narrative has been created.  If nobody ever pops up to say: “stop talking such rot”, or pointing out the various and many errors in these diatribes, some people think: “Well then, it must be true, musn’t it?”

I have heard colleagues say: “Social Media doesn’t matter and I wont have anything to do with it.”  And then they wonder why an increasing number of the public seem to view the local Council in a dim light.  Why are people so quick to nod when somebody says: “They must be getting backhanders!”  Why are people so ready to agree when they say: “The Council never does anything” or “if the Council is involved it will be a disaster?”  Because a narrative has been built and people have started to buy into it.

The local newspapers don’t help.  If often seems they will literally run any negative story that is given to them as though it were news and not just somewhat biased and politically-motivated opinion.  But I am increasingly of the view that the old media matters less and the new media matters more every day.

When somebody makes a sly aside suggesting that “The Leader of Wisbech Town Council” has acted in some inappropriate way, if nobody challenges it what are some people going to think?  They won’t think: “They probably aren’t answering because they don’t think Social Media matters.”  They will think: “the lack of a response speaks volumes.”

So this is why I spend so much time doing it.  Why I try to add a little logic to the dramatic flourishes of others.  Why I try and inject some truth into the most fanciful of stories being put about.  And why I pull the opposition, in all their forms, up on their spin and more colourful media concoctions.

But I won’t lie, it is tiresome.  It feels like a full-time job, but one that is unpaid and which nobody gives a stuff about.  In a lot of ways it makes me the public face of the faceless others, which is a nonsense given that I’m pretty lowly in the scheme of things.  If I stop doing it, which I am sorely tempted to do, then these stories will grow and morph and gain traction.  The world has changed and the media with it, but many folks are still living in the past.  I think there are a lot of people who don’t realise just how quickly things can run out of control.

Nevertheless, I am increasingly wondering why on Earth I bother.  I could spend the time doing more productive things.  Helping more people in my ward, seeing more  of my family, or just sitting in the garden and enjoying the Summer :)  If people want to believe every lie, every piece of spin and every nasty little anecdote put about, nobody else seems to care so why should I?  Maybe it’s time to just let them all get on with it?  Haters gonna’ hate, as they say.

Something More

Something More

We Conservatives have a reputation for delivering sound finances to Councils we control.  Not always, not exclusively, but it’s a mostly deserved reputation.  I wouldn’t change it for the world – without sound finances everything else falls to pieces.  The numbers have to add up or every other plan and dream is doomed to fail.  But the problem with sound finances is that they aren’t exciting.  They don’t get people fired up.  Nobody is going to climb to the top of the highest building and cry: “Look, look what we have done, sound finances!”

The best Conservative administrations bring something more to the table.  Not just sound finances, but also a vision.  This is one of those horrible, over-used managerial words.  “Vision.”  When it is trotted out alongside a bunch of graphs and some corporate buzz phrases it is meaningless.  But when it is a real plan, tied to real tangible ends, fuelled by creativity and imagination, coupled with some well-managed risk-taking and aimed at a finite goal it turns a grey and featureless executive into a dynamic driver for growth and prosperity.

How do you know if an administration has a vision?  It’s easy.  Listen to see what they want to achieve and what route they plan to get there.  If those goals are exciting, popular and have momentum, then that’s a plan.  If the goals tie together to achieve a specific aim or closely-linked set of aims then that is a vision.  If, on the other hand, the administration seems to be spending its time bouncing from one mini crisis to the next, with no momentum and no goal other than “how to get through next month” then the vision probably needs a little work.

Councils are not the same as businesses.  But there are similarities and in this respect there is a parallel.  An unimaginative business can plod along for years, simply maintaining its customer base, doing the work, surviving.  But it almost certainly wont grow.  In fact, very slowly, it will usually decline because even with the best will in the world there is natural entropy in every organisation.  People leave, customers move on, times change.  Councils are slightly different because their “customers” don’t have the same amount of choice to “buy elsewhere” and will often opt for safe and dull, for fear of something worse.  If a kind of sound and uninspiring middle management is the best the organisation can achieve then the Council will limp along for years, while its nearby peers shine it will rest comfortably in their warm afterglow, content that at least the finances are sound.

I have every confidence that our Leader and his Cabinet are up to the task and I look forward to seeing the new and innovative ideas as they emerge.  Fenland District Council has demonstrated sound finances.  We have a new elected Council full of talented and dedicated Members champing at the bit to help Fenland grow and thrive.  We have unprecedented opportunities as the recession falls behind us and the future buzzes with potential.  What we need now is a real vision.  Not a vision in inverted commas, where we talk blandly and meaninglessly about “growth” and “working with partners” to achieve “efficiencies.”  Not a vision of managed decline where the best we can achieve is to tell people that it won’t be quite a horrible as it could have been.  But a plan for growth and prosperity, driven by a forward-thinking and lean council, hungry to deliver for the people we serve.  A plan which capitalises on our many strengths as a region, and which improves those areas where we are weak.  A plan which first, does no harm, and then seeks to be bold, imaginative and exciting.  Not just sound finances, but something more.

Time To Get To Work

Time To Get To Work

With all the drama and excitement behind us it’s time to get on with the job.  Steve Barclay has five years and the local Councillors have four years, all with a strong and refreshed public mandate.  This week will see the first group meetings at both WTC and FDC where Leaders will be decided/confirmed and where the new teams will get everything on track for the future.

We have the matter of the County Council by-election to get out of the way too.  Nobody wanted another by-election immediately after the main election, but we were given one anyway thanks to UKIP’s choice to offer up Peter Lagoda as a Councillor.  But never mind, they couldn’t know he would turn out to be what he turned out to be, I guess.

Elsewhere, new and re-elected Councillors are talking about a completely fresh way to do things.  I hope to see more surgeries, more newsletters, more regular engagement.  We have a chance to start afresh here, backed by a national Conservative government.  It’ll be a tough four years, anybody who thinks otherwise hasn’t been paying attention.  But with some hard work, clever thinking and a solid team, it’s an opportunity to deliver improvements for the people of Fenland.

Time to get to work.

Chasing Phantoms

Chasing Phantoms

In the past, when I have been involved in a local campaign, I have noted that the opposition do not appear to be doing very  much.  But they were at least doing something.  Sometimes.  This year’s big campaign is quite different and positively eery.

I have been out canvassing almost every day for the last few weeks both on my own area and in many of my colleagues’ areas on team action days.  I have not personally encountered even a single member of the opposition at any time, not from any of the parties.  I have not had a resident tell me they have been visited by a single member of the opposition either.  It’s kind of surreal.  What is arguably the most important election period in a decade and there’s nobody around!

In part it’s because – at least here in Fenland – the Liberal Democrats are extinct.  You can usually count on Liberal Democrats to run a reasonable campaign if they are around, but they just are not around.  The Green’s have a candidate here or there but their local base appears to be about three people and I’ve seen none of them doing anything.

The two main opposition parties these days in Wisbech and the surrounding area are Labour and of course UKIP.  Dean Reeves has covered his house in posters, and the Parliamentary Candidate Ken Rustidge has been seen once or twice by other people – but given that they may be in Government next Friday it’s a pretty big vacuum where local Labour would normally be seen.  Despite a certain Independent candidate claiming that Labour stepped aside for her, our information from them was that they don’t endorse her in any way and simply couldn’t find enough candidates.  Which is weird, isn’t it?  I mean – this is Waterlees we are talking about.  Once a Labour bastion.  And they couldn’t find any candidates?  It doesn’t sound healthy.

Now UKIP are probably the main local opposition, at least based on the previous County Council elections.  UKIP have had years to prepare for this election and to build on their wins last time – but still couldn’t even field a full slate of District candidates?  Nor a full slate of Town Council candidates without getting their Parliamentary Candidate to stand for Town Council!  (Against me, as it happens.)  Though I doubt the people of Medworth will choose him, I do wonder what he would do if he were elected for Town but not anything else.  Travel up from his multi-million pound London property empire to sit on the Wisbech Allotments Committee?

The thing is, I’d be much happier if UKIP were doing some canvassing.  In my experience, when people actually meet them their support shrinks.  I met a man the other day who had met with Peter Lagoda (while he was still with UKIP, before the benefits fraud thingy, and the racist language and the £7000 resignation) and following that meeting was quite clear he would never vote UKIP again.  I’ve heard similar stories a few times.

Word is that there is one place where UKIP are out and about.  Roman Bank.  Sam Clark gave them a good hiding in last year’s by election, so it seems an odd place for them to choose to put their energy.  Mind you, it’s a different campaign there this time so anything could happen.  I very much hope their hiding is repeated by the sensible folks from the villages.

When you go out and talk to people they will often quote echoes of what they have heard in the newspapers, or on the TV, or through word of mouth.  But we are hearing nothing that has been heard from any of the candidates.  Most people are saying: “You are the only ones who have called.”  We were fully expecting an almighty campaign with the area flooded by activists of all kinds.  But other than the usual faces and voices doing their usual thing on social media, it’s very quiet out there.  It’s like chasing phantoms.

Of course that doesn’t mean the phantoms won’t win in some places.  Perhaps they will.  In which case, I am led to wonder if they will also be phantoms when it comes to doing the work they are elected to do?  I don’t think it takes an enormous stretch of the imagination to believe that is so.

Tribal

Tribal

I was pleased to encounter a lady while canvassing this week who immediately recognised me on the doorstep.  She was very nice and assured me that she had noticed all the work I had been doing as her Councillor, that she supported many of the actions I had taken and that she and her husband had received my monthly newsletter and both enjoyed reading it.

Sounds like a good start, right?

So we chatted for a while and then I asked if I could count on her support in the election and she said: “I’m sorry, no, I’m voting Labour.”

So, no worries, this happens sometimes.  But I was bemused.  Hadn’t she just assured me that she was entirely happy with my work as her Councillor and that she appreciated that I had done the job well?  So I said: “Of course, it’s your vote to use how you choose.  If you are a Labour supporter then it makes sense that you would be voting Labour nationally, but wouldn’t you vote locally for the Councillor you thought would work hard for you?  Have you met the Labour candidate?”

She explained that she hadn’t met the Labour candidate and that, in fact, no Labour person had ever knocked on her door.  She knew very little about them and she even admitted that she could not see how a Labour Councillor could do any more than I had been doing.  So I asked: “Have I taken some action you don’t approve of?”  She said I had not, and that in fact she approved of the Town Council’s work and broadly of the District Councils work too.   She had simply voted Labour all her life, and that she simply could not bring herself to ever do otherwise.

The tribal vote is something all parties have and all candidate’s for all parties encounter it.

But if got me wondering.  Am I the same?  If I lived in an area where there was a hard-working Councillor from another party who I thought had done everything they could and represented me well – and if there was a Conservative who I didn’t think would be anywhere near as good, would I still vote for them?

Truth is, I honestly don’t know.  I have never lived anywhere in which the local hard-working Councillor was not a Conservative, so the issue has never arisen.  But I suppose that sometimes it must.  I like to think that in that instance, if I was sure the Conservative would not be as good a Councillor, I would consider voting some other way.  Never UKIP, obviously, but potentially for Labour or the Lib Dems if the Councillor was not too militant and seemed to be up for the work involved?  I like to think so, but I don’t really know for sure.  Maybe I am as tribal as that lady was?

Of course, each of us owns our vote.  We can use it any way we like.  We can vote based on person, or party, or eye colour, or a cool-sounding name, or the toss of a coin.  It’s our choice, based on each of our values and perspective.  But I find it interesting, nonetheless.

Same Old Same Old

Same Old Same Old

Before any election our local Conservatives get together to discuss it, plan our campaign, think about the issues and how best to communicate and address them.  I commonly predict a number of things every single time which will happen.  The first is that any and every thing that crops up along the way, regardless of how innocent it may be, will be spun as though it were a conspiracy by the Usual Suspects.  The second is that the Wisbech Standard, particularly its editor, will help nudge those conspiracy theories along wherever possible.  The third is that as the last month progresses there will always, always, always be a front page in a local paper carefully designed to “appear” like election coverage, while simultaneously pushing the opposition.

I did smile at the “online poll” carried out by the Wisbech Standard.  No way to check the submissions for cheating, no recognition of the weighted nature of responders to such things, no verification of the locations of those filling it in, nothing more than the most basic test for duplicated submissions (anybody who knows a little about the internet can bypass their check easily.)  They said they: “Didn’t ask which party would be voted for to prevent individuals from cheating.”  So removing that question removes the temptation for some parties to cheat does it?  What nonsense.

This didn’t stop them draping the front page with “the results” as though it were somehow qualitative and quantitative data.  Nervetheless, let’s take it at face value and have a think about it.  Apparently 48% of people said: “The Government has had a negative impact on my life since 2010.”  The question is nebulous at best.  It doesn’t say an “overall negative impact” and so what people do or don’t think it negative becomes a very wide field indeed.  You could argue that PAYE is a “negative impact” in that without it you would have more money.  You could argue thousands of things were.

One of their “big bullet points” was “not to privatise the NHS.”  Which is odd, since no party is proposing privatising the NHS, except Nigel Farage, who said something about it which was quickly revised or retracted or something.  They are all accusing one another of damaging the NHS, because it’s a powerful “scaremonger” issue close to people’s hearts.  But unless you believe one party’s propaganda or anothers, what use is the question?

So “Stop cutting the Fire Service and the NHS,” was interesting.  The Fire Service can increase their budget via the Council Tax if they want to do so.  The NHS budget was protected the last four years.  This is precisely the problem with these broad brush questions, they get nowhere and offer very little in the way of detail.

So how about 95% of people saying: “I am registered to vote and will do so.”  Okay then.  Let’s see if we have a 95% turnout shall we?

Then there was “get the Rich to pay their taxes.”  Definitely no party bias there then! :)  Clearly there is this idea that the vague “the rich” must all be tax cheats.  Of course, there are tax cheats amongst the rich, just as there are tax cheats amongst all income groups.  There are, equally, a majority of perfectly honest tax-paying “rich.”  Though what precisely is meant by “the rich” is not specified.

I did enjoy “Make election pledges legally binding.”  I made a proposal just like this a few years ago and was roundly mocked by all and sundry.  How things change.

But my favourite is the one that John Elworthy and the Bucknors are making hay with on Twitter, in a way that doesn’t look at all orchestrated. :)  Apparently, forth percent of voters are going to vote “differently” to how they voted last time.  This is pronounced as though it is some death knell for something.  But it is meaningless.  We don’t know which way they are switching or to whom.  We don’t know that it’s not two way traffic which will balance itself out.  We particularly don’t know if any of this data is actually meaningful at all, given how easy it would be to fix it if somebody with the knowledge had a mind to do so.

We put out five thousand surveys across Wisbech last month.  We have had just over one thousand returned.  The returns are comprehensive and include many with details notes and points, from people of all sorts of political persuasions.  I reckon that’s probably more valuable than the Wisbech Standard’s vague, afterthought of a poll which become front page news.  But even though our survey includes quantitative and qualitative data, much of which is verifiable, it would be wrong to presume ours was “right” too.  Because the sort of people who will fill in a Survey  sent to them by the Conservatives are every bit as weighted as those who will fill in an online survey in a politically-active local newspaper.

The question: “Has a candidate knocked on your door asking for your vote yet?” was an odd one to ask, at the very start of the campaign period.  I was surprised the number was as high as seven percent.  You wouldn’t expect candidates to have reached everybody at that point.  In fact, as election periods go, this seems quiet at the moment.  We Conservatives are doing a full canvass as usual, but I have only encountered one other party so far and there were only two of them.  Normally we’d be running into them everywhere.  I guess this is because the Liberal Democrats have left the building, the Labour Party seem to be really struggling even to find candidates.  And UKIP?  I have no clue what they are doing.  Their choices are either utter utter madness, or some kind of genius I cannot comprehend.  Time will tell.

Making It Stop

Making It Stop

I was going to think a little about Virginia’s Bucknor’s latest brainwave of an Anti-Litter Campaign as announced at FDC Full Council a few days ago and immediately picked up by the local press in the usual fashion.  Now I know that sometimes I would just poke holes in the idea and point out what I perceived were the motives behind it, but I thought i’d do something different today.  As regular readers will know I do occasionally like to muse on the way policy is made and consider options.  Given that many people are concerned about the prevalence of litter in our town I thought this would be a more positive way to approach the idea, such as it is.

I have talked previously about the importance of knowing the actual problem you are trying to solve before proposing a remedy for it.  But if you don’t want to spend a lot of time deciding if the thing you want to stop is (1) People dropping litter, (2)  Not enough people picking up litter, (3) There being too much litter, (4) Things being too disposable, (5)  People not having enough respect for their community – all slightly different actually – then you can look at the problem in the round.  In the case of an Anti-Litter Campaign you are usually trying to discourage people from dropping litter.  Simple, right?

There are a limited number of ways of stopping a behaviour that you would like to curtail.  You can; Educate, Persuade or Enforce.  The middle one, persuade, breaks down into three more: Persuade by entreatment, Persuade by Incentives, Persuade by Threat.  So our five methods are; Educate, Entreat, Incentivise, Threat and Enforcement.  Although you can usually try all five, most things you are trying to stop have some that you immediately know will work less well than others.

Let’s consider what those things mean:

Educate
This is where you try and explain to the people doing the thing you want to stop why it is that they would benefit from doing so.  So if the thing were “driving without a seatbelt” you might show them photographs of people who died after an accident without a seatbelt on and point out that, but for the twist of fate, that was them.  For education to work they have to be able to see why choosing what you think is a more altruistic action would be better for them, either directly, or indirectly (for instance, by protecting the people they love, or making their environment better.)  For this to work, the person must not already know or fully understand all the things involved.  If they already know the facts you reveal to them but have chosen to take the action anyway then education will not usually work.  It isn’t telling them anything new, so there cannot be a “eureka” moment which changes their mindset.

Entreat
Entreatment is simply an attempt to charm somebody into agreeing to change their behaviour.  You aren’t suggesting that they will benefit in any way from the change – perhaps because there is no way to do so or perhaps because they have already rejected your attempts to educate – instead you talk to them directly on a person-to-person basis.  Or perhaps you are doing the same thing with a reverse tactic and trying to shame them into changing their behaviour, usually through the way others perceive them.  For entreatment to work, the person has to be open to your charm or your shame or whatever other interpersonal method you are using to try and persuade them.  If they don’t care what you think, or what others think, or if they value their old behaviour more than the one you are suggesting despite your entreatment, it wont work.

Incentivise
Changing somebody’s behaviour by incentive is simply offering them some reward if they make a different choice.  “I’ll give you a pound every time you put your seatbelt on.”  Any economist will tell you that human beings are immensely susceptible to incentives – more than you might ever imagine.  In fact, we often respond to incentives we’d laugh at if presented directly.  But for an incentive to work well it has to have more value than what we perceive as the value of our original behaviour.  So offering £10.00 for every day somebody does not smoke might be effective for a person to whom £70.00 a week was a lot of money but would be much less effective to a billionaire.  You also have to have some way to check the reward has been earned.  For instance, offering £1.00 each time a seatbelt is put on would be ineffective if there was no way to check they had really done it.  They could just claim £500.00 for five hundred journeys and perhaps have not truly done so even once.

Threat
A threat can be anything from: “A bunch of big fellas will come around and beat you up” to “if you do this you will be arrested and locked up for ten years.”  So it can be a legal, or illegal threat.  Either way, the purpose is to create a fear of the consequences of the action you wish to stop.  When the person makes a (subconscious) cost/benefit analysis you want them to be thinking: “Nah, it’s not worth it.”  As the severity of the threat grows, so the number of people who are prepared to change their behaviour does also.  If stealing a loaf of bread has the punishment of a brief telling off, versus stealing a loaf of bread carrying the death penalty – you will get quite different numbers of prospective culprits willing to do so.  How hungry the individual person is, or how many children’s mouths they have to feed, or whether or not this threat is ever enforced, or how good they are at not getting caught, or how great the bread tastes – all these things play a smaller or larger part in the subconscious cost/benefit analysis.  (Note: I am not suggesting there are not millions of people who would never steal – of course there are – this analysis is looking at how to stop some form of behaviour that some number of people are doing.)

Enforcement
Enforcement changes behaviour in two ways; firstly by physically preventing the culprit’s behaviour happening, as it might by putting an electric fence around an apple field to stop scrumpers or posting security guards outside a trouble hotspot. Secondly, by leaving a memory of a punishment that the person does not wish to repeat and therefore works in a similar way to a threat, like D.N.A. testing dog poo compared to a Dog Database and then arriving at the owner’s door to deliver a big fine (or posting the dog poo into their letterbox.) When you physically prevent, fine, arrest, reprimand, or otherwise catch and punish a culprit in some way, that is enforcement.  It only works if the person is caught and if they perceive the punishment to be in some way worse than the value of continuing the behaviour you are trying to prevent.

So:

Education only works if they don’t already know the facts and consequences.
Entreatment only works if they care what you or others think.
Incentivisation only works if the incentive is greater than the perceived value of the behaviour to the culprit.
Threat only works if the perceived threat is greater than the perceived benefit of continuing the behaviour and if they believe the threat is real.
Enforcement only works if you can stop them, or catch them (if the personal cost of the punishment is greater than the perceived value of continuing the behaviour.)

There is a final consideration which must be made.  Whether it “matters” or not depends on individual perceptions, but the issue is the cost of any action you choose to take.  All five methods have a cost involved in time, resources, money etc.  If the cost of preventing the behaviour is greater than the cost of allowing it to continue, then that must surely challenge the method of interaction chosen.  So let’s say you print 50,000 flyers saying: “Please do not throw stones at the windows” in order to prevent your windows getting broken about three times a year.  Putting aside whether that method would actually work and just presuming it did – If the cost of the 50,000 flyers is greater than the cost of repairing the window three times, was it worth doing?  Maybe you think it was because that behaviour change has knock-on effects.  Or maybe you think it wasn’t because you don’t have much money and every penny counts.  But it’s got to be in your considerations either way if you want to be fully informed.  Only an idiot or somebody with more money than sense (or somebody spending somebody else’s money) makes suggestions without at least considering the cost.

So there we have it.  My potted logic for Making It Stop – whatever “it” is.

With that in mind, how does a “Campaign” to prevent littering by using some colourful new signs and a new logo fit in?  Particularly one which claims it will “save thousands?”

Education:  Signs may be considered to educate, for sure.  But do the people who are littering not know they are littering?  Do they not realise they shouldn’t do it?  Do they not realise that it makes the environment look bad, encourages vermin, has health consequences?  If they don’t have a clue, then a new sign and logo  might work.  If they know and just don’t care, it won’t.

Entreatment:  Signs with a colourful new logo and some press releases and the like might be considered entreatment.  They might appeal to the culprit’s sense of civic responsibility, or they might shame them into changing their behaviour.  Do you think that prolific litter bugs are likely to have a strong sense of civic responsibility?  Are they likely to be plagued with guilt when they see that sign after just dropping a chip carton on the floor?  If you do think so, the campaign will probably work.  If you don’t, it probably won’t.

Incentivisation:  No incentive is offered as part of the campaign.  It doesn’t say: “Pick up a bag of litter and bring it to the One Stop Shop to get a £2.00 voucher for Tesco” or anything like that.  So this doesn’t apply.

Threat:  The signs carry no additional threat beyond the ones which already exist.  They don’t say: “£10,000 Litter Fine in this Hot Zone” or something.  So this doesn’t apply.

Enforcement:  The Campaign carries no additional enforcement that I’m aware of so far that doesn’t already exist.  So this doesn’t apply.

Even if some degree of threat and additional enforcement were later added to the campaign there would be a cost involved.

So the final test – what is the cost compared to the result?  A bit of free publicity in the paper doesn’t have much cost.  A few signs don’t have an enormous cost, although if the Council is delivering them then they’ll probably cost more than you would expect them to.  How many people would change their behaviour based on these new signs?

There have been plenty of signs in the past, and there’s no shortage of people trying to entreat and shame folks into putting their litter in the bin instead of dumping it on the floor or in a bush.  So my strong suspicion is that the campaign – even if it were rolled out with new signs everywhere – would have a very limited success rate.  But it might still have a marginally positive success rate by reminding people who are just careless (for instance) and with that in mind it could, possibly, have a greater benefit than cost.  I doubt it.  But it could.  The idea that it will save “thousands” though?  Seems desperately unlikely.

I can’t see it doing any harm so I certainly won’t be opposing it, as long as the costs of delivering it are kept in check.  And even if I suspect that the timing – a few weeks before an election – is a mighty convenient way to get your picture in the paper again.   I reckon just encouraging more people to join the excellent Street Pride folk would be a more effective solution, but what do I know?

I can’t shake the feeling that “pick up some litter” would be a better campaign than “stop littering.”  Because I reckon the number of litterbugs is tiny compared to the decent folks who wouldn’t drop their rubbish.  If every person picked up just one thing each time they went out and put it in a bin – we’d have zero litter and it wouldn’t cost the Council a penny.  In fact, it might save the Council thousands.  Have a think about it.  Run it through my five methods above – and see if you don’t agree.