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A neo-Londoner, who silently longs for his native countryside. Beau, beau, beau et con à la fois.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The toxic brand of Government

We (the royal; professional) have just started holding formal evidence-gathering sessions for an inquiry into the Redesign of Public Services. It sounds rather grand, but essentially we just sit next to some very eminent individuals with far more experience than us, and listen-in on fascinating conversations about how design processes and practices could be brought to bear upon the policymaking process and the delivery of public services (at some point in the future, @JocelynABailey will have to write it all up into coherent argument, including recommendations to Government – just to silence critics that perceive my job to involve a lot of talking and whispering ‘mmm interesting through narrowed eyes).

I’m not going to use this blog to explain or sell our inquiry or its premise to you. If you’re so inclined you can have a gander at our work here. However, there is one strand of the work that I find particularly interesting, so thought I’d share my thoughts with those who gave a damn.

With so many design industry bods involved in the process, it’s no surprise that talk of ‘brand’ is quite prevalent. Design, when spoken of in these terms, and in relation to the public sector, too easily conjures images of very expensive refurbs of Government departments, or Siobhan Sharpe (holy faak). Of course, on one level, we’re talking about logos and fonts, but on a much deeper and more significant level, a discussion of brand is the inevitable result of refocusing ideas about policy development away from the institutions of governance – local authorities, government departments, quangos – to the end-user or receiver of the policy mechanism or service: the citizen. It’s worth saying that the inquiry process began with extended discussions on how we should ‘brand’ the individual service user across the work stream. We chose ‘citizen’, because it holds connotations with democratic accountability, and most importantly places the end-user within his or her local democratic context. This isn’t simply a consumer who has exercised informed choice and decided to fly Virgin Atlantic; their relationship to choice, payment and accountability is very different: they pay taxes and vote.

Within the commercial world, we talk of strong or weak brands, brand ‘buy-in’, and often how a brand permeates cultural consciousness (for better or worse). My overriding impression from the opening weeks of our inquiry has been that it is astounding just how contaminated the brands of ‘Government’ or ‘Public sector’ have become within UK cultural consciousness. I’m not simply talking about the general dislike for politicians, or the widespread discontent resulting from massive budget cuts. This is visceral negativity, cynicism, and distrust associated with the experience of engaging with the public sector, or following a service from start to finish that has been designed and implemented by Government (or via one of its outsourced providers). Just listen to my colleague after a phonecall to HM Revenue and Customs, or my mother trying to book a GP appointment, or read my tweets after a 90 minute trip to the Brent Parking Shop.

An more subtle example: as part of part of a Social Design Talks series we have co-organised with the V&A and the Young Foundation, we examined a new Time Banking project called ‘Care4Care’. Time Banking is a way of encouraging greater civic engagement and volunteering through a kind of monetisation of time. If you provide non-medical care to an elderly person in your community, you are able to bank your hours in a central nationwide database to go towards your own ‘Care Pension’. This can then be redeemed when you need it, or transferred to a family member. Care4Care is, of course, a way of rethinking the problem of elderly care that removes the state completely. That doesn’t mean that professional care, when needed, shouldn’t be provided by the NHS; it simply suggests that before such dramatic interventions are necessary, there might be supporting mechanisms within the community that could step in.

Those on the left might find this problematic. Are you submitting to Adam Smith economics if you recognise that waiting around for altruistic civic engagement isn’t particularly useful, and that you have to make it worth citizens’ while to give up their time to visit an elderly neighbour, do their shopping, help them with the ironing? It’s remarkable that Care4Care doesn’t even seek to answer these questions. They identified a potential solution to a number of social and budgetary problems, a solution that focused on the needs and behaviours of citizens. They aren’t trying to attract volunteers away from schemes were they don’t benefit directly; they are much keener to draw in existing, non-incentive volunteering activity. Frankly, if the outcome of a scheme includes fewer lonely citizens, increased civic engagement across generations, and high quality non-medical care for more people in the face of remarkable state retrenchment, I don’t really care whether human beings need an incentive to go next door and keep someone company. Sorry chaps, but there isn’t enough time for ideological soul-searching.

When talking about the scaling of Care4Care, a room of (probably) left-leaning design and arty types in the V&A were all passionately adamant that it must stay outside the institutions of the state. The NHS mustn’t ‘get their hands on it’, people said. The ideational discourse of the NHS, its internal cultural references, all institutionalised, and the baggage of the word ‘care’ as it exists within the bureaucratic structures of the NHS appeared at odds with the mutuality of Care4Care: the NHS provides you, individual, self-contained ill person, with care. Co-created, home-based, non-medical interventions seem antithetical to the ideational structures that make up our public services in health. People involved in the designing of user-centred public services want to keep them away from the ideational structures and the institutions of the public sector for fear of a) what might happen to services once subsumed, and b) of how people will perceive them and perhaps be reluctant to use them. The brand, perhaps, has become toxic.

So what does brand buy-in look like? The example most frequently cited to our inquiry has been the London 2012 Olympics, and particularly the Games Makers. This, of course, links to the voluntary aspect of Care4Care, and would perhaps challenge notions that volunteering, civic engagement and community spirit have been as absent in the UK as rationing and bee-hive hairdos (Amy Winehouse aside). As civic society brands seeking buy-in, where did the Games Makers succeed and the Big Society, for example, fail? The Big Society is perhaps the strongest example of a public sector brand becoming instantly toxic. First, and most obviously, 2012 was a concentrated, international, vibrant one-off. Also, it somehow appeared de-politicised; about citizens, not politicians and bureaucrats. By contrast, the ‘Big Society’ brand seemed opportunistic, and became too-quickly associated with austerity, seen as a way for politicians to justify the retrenchment of the state rather than as a way of reinvigorating civil society and empowering communities. But also, the Big Society was formulated and rolled out from Government within the institutions of Whitehall, and the Games Maker brand was carefully constructed through private sector brand consultants and in an office space high in the sky next to Canary Wharf. The question remains: at what point does the brand become toxic: when the institutions of Government get hold of it, or when the public recognise it as an public sector brand, and so turn away from it? Are we looking at a case of bad branding within Government, or would any brand coming out for the public sector be instantly toxic and very difficult to gain buy-in from citizens?

Through the process of redesigning public services, Government must think about the rebranding of public services. Citizen engagement and buy-in requires a strong focus on how a service brand sits with the end-user. The current ‘public sector’ brand doesn’t do this, and we need to work at re-framing how ‘the state’, ‘public services’, ‘the taxman’, ‘GP surgery’, ‘jobcentre’ echo through the population. Some would argue that brand consultants and service designers are those will the skill base to achieve this. Let’s see what our inquiry decides when we launch in 2013. 

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Lines on the day they opened The Shard.

Unreal city. Wren’s dome, the cornichon, 
Make sure that tastes of every man are met 
Across the city's skyline; pacts upon 
Which London’s architectural rhythm is set 
Through variety. It’s what they say ‘bout here: 
The mix, the urban life, the greater chance 
There is of finding one whose view is near 
To mine: a critic fooled by 'mere romance'. 
A lie then: full city often empty; 
Who else feels Portland Place just as I do? 
A single set of eyes, that feed just me; 
How would it seem if looked upon through two? 
And now, from outerspace it seems, has come 
A great glass 'I', alone, reflecting sun. 

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Design and Change

I spend a lot of my professional life persuading people (as much as possible those with political power) to open their eyes in a particular way to recognise and question how the human world has been designed. 

This is in stark contrast to my views on the natural world, where the crucial argument to win is the beauty of non-design, of a universe without prescient origin, end or purpose.

The argument goes: if you understand how the world is designed, then you can understand better how to change it. Before I started working in this field I too, as an amateur observer and fan of good design, had failed to understand just how socially and politically strident design can be, whether judged ‘good’ or ‘bad’. My colleague Jocelyn Bailey writes consistently strongly on this question (her blog is here) and I have so far kept this blog unprofessional in that I don’t tend to discuss the strands of my life that pay the rent. However, following a recently conversation we had whilst jaunting about the Houses of Parliament, Joss asked if I planned to write up my thoughts on the topic in question - namely whether the design of buildings is a barrier to change - I decided to dip my toe in the water of professional and personal cross-over.

The study of making policy is frequently a study of not making policy, i.e. why nothing changes and the status quo dominates. I came to the conclusion that in order to battle against the great static, resistant monoliths (or Leviathans, as I heard Conservative MP Jo Johnston recently describe the NHS) such as the Civil Service, the comprehensive school system, or indeed the NHS, you have to approach them as huge discursive structures which exist because of the linguistic patterns that flow through them, and stay the same because this quality is ignored. 

Bear with me. The above is a one paragraph summary of a rather self-indulgent (but I think interesting) 12,000 word dissertation. Essentially, my argument was that shifting norms in public bodies (or indeed any static and resistant organisation) is all about tapping into their background music, if you like, and changing attitudes and behaviours from the inside out. These are institutions in the cultural and discursive as well as historical and bureaucratic sense, and their behaviours and quirks are fixed in their wallpaper; they are not simply the sum of the opinions and attitudes of individuals who work there. The famous criticism of the Metropolitan Police post-Stephen Lawrence was its institutional racism – prejudice was in the air you breathed, and would not disappear with the removal of racist officers. 

(By the by, I once heard Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse use just the argument that the racism would disappear because the bad eggs would soon retire. My heart sank.)

The New Labour Governments appeared to understand this in certain fields. Look at how they embedded the idea of ‘customer’ within the front line benefits system as a way of changing culture and reflecting an important policy shift. This word ‘customer’ saturated departmental magazines, staff bulletins, ministerial speeches, training manuals, and represented a huge policy shift away from the perceived benefit entitlement culture of the early 1990s to a system that hoped to place benefits payment within a clear system of exchange. No more ‘something for nothing’; the 'customer' in a supermarket pays for their bread and we were expected to pay for our benefits through training programmes, or gaining experience through volunteering. A similar example is their approach to sexism (think of chairperson above chairman). 

What does this have to do with design? Well, I’ve started to think that my earlier thesis could be expanded. Why not look to the literal as well as metaphorical wallpaper of public bodies and see if we learn anything about why they don't change? Institutions don’t change because their design, as well as their discourse, can reflect an embedded status quo. 

The modernist architects understood this. Le Corbusier was almost revolted by earlier models of housing where status, wealth and political power were reflected in architectural opulence. In his version of housing - the great, stark, flawed Unit√© D’Habitation in Marseille - he managed to link a new political view of equality through housing to a particular design and tried to break with a long tradition of slum housing where poverty was compounded in your architectural circumstance.

Take a Victorian theatre. Never was there a starker example of social division made true through design. As you reach the rafters, as the prices go down, the seats shrink, the decor loses opulence, and your view is obscured. The wallpaper is always less extravagant in the cheap seats too. One might argue that opera as an institution will never rid itself of the label of elitism until the great Houses of the world are knocked down and replaced with Greek-style amphitheatres (Denys Lasdun’s 1963 Olivier Theatre at the National – a modernist masterpiece – is just that) where status is not embedded in their design. 

Only kidding.

Now apply these ideas to current pressing questions of the elite in public life. It is said to be problematic for both front benches to be dominated by a particular background, or indeed a particular school and University. Following my thesis, it’s hardly surprising that nothing has changed in this regard when you look at the design of the institutions that we are trying to shake up. Eton, Oxbridge, Parliament – the same carpets, the same wallpaper, waiters in the same clothes, courtyards based around the same essentially medieval idea of secure open space for those with something to protect. When Charles Barry was designing the Houses of Parliament, a nod to the hierarchical structures of the past served the need for Governmental buildings to emanate legitimacy and power. Also, I am sure he was keen to make sure MPs and Peers felt comfortable in their new Palace, and so gave them a building that felt, smelt, and sounded just like their school and university. The same is true of the Inns of Court, each like a small Oxbridge College (the bar and bench receive similar criticisms of elitism to those levelled at Parliament). You could say that the march of the elite through our public institutions is laid out for them in the design of the buildings they inhabit through the first decades of life.

Am I suggesting that if we knocked down the Palace of Westminster and built a new Parliament inspired by a 1960s comprehensive school, we would solve the problem of elitism in politics? No, I’m not. Well, almost. I think it is worthwhile to imagine how the elitism question would be tackled had the Luftwaffe destroyed more than simply the Commons Chamber during the Blitz.

Constancy is often something to be proud of. Ours is one of the world’s oldest Parliaments, founded on principles that I hope we never loose. But our political and governmental system also contains seemingly unbreakable blocks, which we should not see as unfixable quirks (House of Lords reform, for example, but that’s for another blog). I would suggest that politicians look around them, listen to their surrounding, and only then think how they can change the institution of which they themselves are a fundamental element. 

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Destructive Lyrics

Some days, my job involves a lot of self-conscious marching from breakfasts to coffees to meetings to drinks. I say 'self-conscious', because I am hyper-sensitive to how I must appear to passers by. Long legs, go-go gadget arms, short body (currently elongated by a Jill Sander-inspired green mac - or 'lab coat' as some have said) and far too much hair. It doesn't help that the colleague with whom I work closest is (although female) of a similar height and build, and holds a similar love, it seems, for having loud and distracting conversation whilst strutting. Not that I shy away from this image; one might as well pre-empt judgements others make, and present them with confidence. It's a power thing, of course.

Today has not been one of those days. Today has been entirely office-based and administration-heavy. The great benefit of which has been the chance to listen to music all day long. Such a rare luxury these days, and today's choices were rarer still as I almost without thinking turned to an old university favourite: AccuBroadway.com. It is an exclusively musical theatre-oriented free online radio. It's true, it doesn't have the most diverse collection (far too much Gypsy for my taste) but there are no adverts, it's Sondheim-heavy, and the sound quality is good through office headphones.

Listening to too much Sondheim in one working day can be counter-productive. Every so often, through the e-mail chains and reports, your ear catches a lyric that is so totally devastating it penetrates right to your core, and you have to go and brew a mug of Earl Grey. I should be used to this by now, and at least prepared for the danger points. I have been totally convinced of the genius of our greatest living songwriter since I was sixteen, but owing to free time restrictions, domestic privacy, and maybe a little self-preservation, I can't recall the last time I sat and listened to a whole Sondheim show right through.

A recent conversation amongst friends was about our favourite lyrics in popular songs. "What's your favourite lyric, Thomas?" It was hard. I've always been a novels above poems boy; music above lyrics. Honestly, I can find lyrics distracting, and often embarrassing. There's a blockage, somewhere in my head, around discussing the emotive, human content of English lyrics, unless they form part of a piece of theatre, like Sondheim. My favourite lyricist, excepting Sondheim, is Jacques Brel. Talking about French lyrics seems easy, and almost natural. The one-step-removal of a foreign language provides a kind of theatricality and encourages a bit of objective distance from the subject matter, which makes it easier to deal with (for me, at least). The one and only love letter (cringe) I have ever attempted was a veiled confession of that fact, and included reams from Brel's most romantic songs. Whilst writing it, I couldn't relax, let go, and say what I (thought I) really felt. Shows that the chap in question probably wasn't worth my attentions.

(He never responded to the letter, by the way. Said he'd written one but would never send it. How pretentious.)

Lyrics, for me, are also intensely, almost unbearably, nostalgic. Sondheim's lyrics are so evocative of University life: the vast green sofa in my third-year room, the almost lacquered dark brown floorboards strewn with papers and piles of toast-crumby side plates (white, with a blue rim). The Divine Comedy, one band whose lyrics I can talk about without blushing, is so closely tied to the (and sorry Charlie for this) oddly musty but comforting smell of one of my closest friend's room. And through nostalgia, comes inevitable sadness, which is where lyrics and musical content differ. I don't feel sad listening to the melodies, the overtures, or the countless pieces of orchestral music I enjoyed through University.

I have just begun reading Iris Murdoch's The Book and the Brotherhood, which contains one of the most powerful descriptions of 'the past' I've ever come across: A character - now in his 50s - is visiting the rooms of his University supervisor:

Gerard got up and went to the shelves, knowing where to look, and as he touched the books he felt some fierce and agonising sense of the past. It's gone, he thought, the past, it is irrevocable and beyond mending and far away, and yet it is here, blowing at one like a wind, I can feel it, I can smell it, and it's so sad, so purely sad.

Having written the all the above, it's becoming clearer why one particular song that came through my headphones today has had such an effect. It's the title song from one of Sondheim's worst-performing shows, Anyone Can Whistle. Not a piece I know at all well, but I've heard this song a few times. But never has it struck so loud a chord as it did this afternoon. Read it, if you like, and tell me why.

Or tell me I'm being sentimental.

Anyone can whistle,
That's what they say. Easy.
Anyone can whistle
Any old day. Easy.
It's all so simple:
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me why can't I?

I can dance a tango,
I can read Greek. Easy.
I can slay a dragon
Any old week. Easy.
What's hard is simple.
What's natural comes hard.
Maybe you could show me how to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whilst for me.