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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Top of the Pops

By Henry Kippin

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There’s an interesting public policy question in the NY Times this morning.  An editorial details a dilemma in Albany, New York State over the application of a ‘soda tax’ – a ‘penny-per-ounce’ tax on sugary drinks.  Here are the arguments:

  • The tax would give a recession-hit city a new way of raising revenue without recourse to increased direct taxation.
  • The tax would fulfil public health goals, discouraging the consumption of sugary drinks.  This would have a long-term positive impact on the city’s obesity problem.
  • The tax would raise public awareness of the dangers of poor food and drink choices, which would also have a long-term beneficial impact.

But….

  • Indirect taxation is regressive.  Poorer households will pay a disproportionate cost.
  • And why should choices be made on people’s behalf about what is good or bad for them?
  • In this particular case, there is a powerful commercial lobbying interest too.

What to do?  Our own work with Volterra revealed how difficult more indirect taxation (through user charges or taxes similar to the above on tobacco, alcohol etc) would be to apply progressively in an already quite redistributive system.  But on the other hand, how can socially responsible behaviour be encouraged without using these kind of ‘hard’ levers? (less a ‘nudge’, and more like a shove!).

In the end, the issue comes down to choices.  No right answer.  And this brings us back to the age-old question of political legitimacy.  How connected are local decision-makers to the people for whom they are making decisions?  To what extent are the perspectives of those consuming fizzy drinks and those legislating on them aligned?  Tough decisions are surely more legitimate (and palatable) if they are made close to the people they affect – and in proper consultation with them.

But in order to make this consultation work, people need good information.  That is where the power of the commercial lobby can be distortive and malign.  And that is what can turn dilemmas of this type into mud fights where self-interest, public good and mandated political authority are hard to disentangle.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 10:18 am
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Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wi-Fi Highlights

By Henry Kippin

Free wi-fi on the east coast main line this weekend has allowed me to catch up on some work (unfortunately!), as well as browsing various online blogs, articles and football scores. A few highlights:

Browsing some reaction to George Osborne’s speech at the RSA last week led me on to this earlier blog by Matt Grist, who heads up the organization’s social brain project. His argument – that ‘gathering evidence is one thing; solving a problem another’ – has relevance for our own inquiry; and in particular the need for creative (detached?) thinking as well as evidence-based policy development.

Second, a recent speech by Iain Duncan Smith to the Heritage Foundation - an influential conservative US think-tank. The speech focuses on the renewal of the Conservative project, and attempts to find a place for his own work on social justice. He almost – but not quite – attempts to rehabilitate the idea of compassionate conservatism.

At the other end of the political scale, the Guardian on Friday published an article by Eric Hobsbawm, in which he offered his own perspective on what kind of society shoud emerge from the failure of socialism and the bankruptcy of contemporary capitalism. He argues for a ‘progressive’ approach that sees growth and affluence as a means, not an end. Moreover, ‘the test of a progressive policy is not private, but public, not just rising income and consumption for individuals, but widening the opportunities and what Amartya Sen calls the ‘capabilities’ of all through collective action.’

His is a call towards ‘public action’ – which, if I understand it correctly, is in large part redistributive, but also demanding of a sea-change in the way we envisage our collective roles (and in particular, that of the state). No more ‘isms’, rather a holistic, collective effort at addressing the issues of our time.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Incentivising Education

By Henry Kippin

Whatever you think about the rise of behavioural economics (and our hosts the RSA are firmly in the ‘love it’ camp), you can’t ignore the genre’s capacity to churn up fresh perspectives on public policy issues.

Today in the Times, a comment piece by Helen Rumbelow explores the idea of using cash incentives to encourage underachieving schoolkids. She writes that ‘at least seven major pilot schemes have started in the past two years, on thousands of young children in the poorest parts of Washington, New York, Chicago and Dallas’. Schools operate ‘points systems’, and allocate rewards accordingly.

As one might imagine, the schemes are quite controversial. Ultra-capitalist, ultra-patronising, but also fundamentally pragmatic, and a forceful rejection of social stasis. As the author notes, ‘this could be a crass and condescending failure, or a political revolution – but it’s not to be ignored.’

I would be inclined to keep an open mind about this. We clearly want good grades and good behaviour to be aspirational ends in themselves; but must also recognise that such idealism is not always played out in reality. And in any case, bribery is a long-used tactic to get kids through exams for those who can afford it. Could this be seen as simply a way of levelling the playing field?

In the end, the question is: are we prepared to do anything to drive up standards in our education system? And if not, where are the lines in the sand? Once again, behavioural approaches are forcing an ‘uncomfortable’ debate, but most certainly one worth having.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 9:19 am
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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Big and Small, Bottom and Top

By Henry Kippin

Barack Obama may only have been in office for 2 months, but already Robert Reich has set out his stall in a comparative analysis of the President’s economic policy. In an article published over the weekend in the Wall Street Journal, he sets out ‘Obamanomics’ to contrast with Reagan’s own response to severe economic downturn in the early 1980s.

Reich posits that ‘twenty-eight years ago, Ronald Reagan used the severe economic downturn of 1980-82 to implement an economic philosophy that not only gave force and meaning to a wide range of initiatives but also offered a way back to sustained economic growth.’ He asks, ‘is there a similarly powerful animating idea behind Obamanomics?’

The fiscal context might (at a push) be similar, but the article is actually more about setting out the key differences between Reagan and Obama. And in doing so, it highlights some interesting lessons for the packaging of policy reform.

Where Reagonomics implied a ‘trickle down’ approach, Obamanomics favours ‘trickle up’ reform. This is based on the belief that ‘an economy grows best from the bottom up’ – so government intervention should be focused on stimulating productivity at the bottom end of the scale, not just facilitating growth at the top.

In normal times, one could presumably split these two approaches according to how they envisaged the state. For Reagan, government was (famously) the problem. A more redistributive Obama agenda would logically need a more expansive state.

So, Reagonomics is top down, small state; Obamanomics bottom up, big state. Easy, right?

Not quite. The recession has meant that the policies don’t quite fit the packages anymore, and ideological dividing lines have been blurred by the failing financial system. Obama’s big government is now as much about bailing out AIG as stimulating public works programmes. And would a Reagan government have let Wall Street collapse for the sake of a slender state?

The picture looks similarly blurred over here. A future Labour government may have to make public spending cuts; a Conservative one will inherit a virtually nationalized banking system. But the packaging don’t matter – its what’s in it that counts.

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Posted by Henry Kippin at 9:12 pm
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Friday, March 27, 2009

How to widen participation? First widen the policy debate…

By Charlotte Alldritt

Localism, co-production, citizen empowerment…just a few of many current buzz words which carry little meaning outside of the public policy community…The Local Government Association (LGA) had a point when it released its top 200 pieces of jargon that public bodies should avoid using.

As Henry Kippin says in his blog (19 March 2009), the issue the LGA raises is an important one. If policy makers are going to make real headway and start to redesign public services from a genuine citizen perspective, they are going to have to have a conversation with the public using everyday language – not policy speak. But this issue of policy language and communication isn’t new. In fact, localism, co-production, citizen empowerment aren’t new concepts either.

The general public have long cried for a louder voice and more locally determined services. Accountability and increased ‘customer focus’ were meant to be the driving force behind Margaret Thatcher’s reforms way back in the 1980s. But we’re still talking about it. And therein lies the real problem. The same people are talking about the same things within the same corners of Westminster village, and have done for the last 20 years. And we wonder why little has changed?! Even this argument feels like a broken record…

So what to do? How can we make citizen empowerment or co-production meaningful policy? The Commission on 2020 Public Services is endeavouring to do things differently. Watch this space…

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Posted by Charlotte Alldritt at 4:49 pm
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