National food service

The issue of obesity has been rearing its ever fatter head again in the medical community this week. Firstly we had the worrying cohort study findings published by researchers from the Hebrew University-Hadassah in Israel and the University of Washington in the US. The Researchers found that higher maternal BMI before pregnancy was associated with increased BMI in children, as well as larger waistlines, raised blood pressure and increased blood levels of insulin and fat. Greater maternal weight gain during pregnancy was also associated with increased BMI, waist size and levels of fat in the blood.

Secondly, we have had experts from the University of Oxford’s Public Health department calling on the UK government to impose a “fat tax” of at least 20% on the costs of unhealthy food and soft drinks. This was based on research looking at theoretical models, which priced in the negative externalities to the cost of unhealthy foods, and suggested the most vulnerable groups in society are more likely to change their own behaviours if food prices more accurately reflected the negative impact on their own health.

For those of passionate about strengthening society, the role of the state in guiding people what to eat and drink is always seen as a bit of tricky area. Often the state can be seen as ‘nannying’ rather than trusting society to make their own choices – “nobody should tell me what to eat and drink: if I want to eat crap then that is my right regardless of how that affects my health or impacts on my wellbeing”. I think that principle is right – the state has no right in telling people how to live their lives. For sure it should be able to inform and signal choices that are in a citizen’s own long-term interests, but it should not dictate those choices …unless it undermines society as a whole.

And that is point about obesity – the costs of unhealthy eating and drinking are absorbed not by the individual but by society. Effectively society is subsiding the profits of fast food and soda producers such as McDonalds and Pepsi as their high fat and high sugar products do not price in the crippling costs of future healthcare to society which is caused by high fat and high sugar products (i.e. Diabetes, heart conditions, pregnancy complications, etc). So there is a market failure here with potentially catastrophic effects to the future viability of society’s health services. This means there is a legitimate argument for the state to intervene ensure a stronger, not weaker, society for current and future generations (regardless of how much you like that cheap daily big mac!)

How should the UK state intervene? Well, the UK has its own huge National Health Service (NHS) which spends billions of taxpayers money on treating health conditions, many of which could have been prevented through better diets and healthy lifestyles. Recently it was estimated that 40% of cancers treated in the UK are preventable with changes to lifestyle. So, why doesn’t the NHS in the UK spin-out some of it’s vast resource and budget to set up a National Food Service? An ‘NFS’ could oversee the current food market in the UK to ensure people can get the right food at the right prices? The NFS role would probably be a regulator and subsidiser of food provision in the UK (rather than provider as market provision is already established).

The NSF shouldn’t be a state body either. While the state could give it regulatory powers and guarantee an increasing percentage of the total NHS budget (relative to national obesity rates), the actual day-to-day work could be contracted out to an enterprise that sees fit to bid to run the service. A citizens jury of 100 people could be randomly selected from the NHS database to serve a two-year term to review the bids and appoint the service contract to the bidder it thinks will best represent the interests of society. That jury will also have powers to hold the service provider to account for the regulation it carries out and the subsidies it gives throughout its two-year term.


What’s good for society is good for business

Today the Henry Jackson Initiative for Inclusive Capitalism launched a very interesting paper making the case for society to move towards a more inclusive capitalism model. It’s a good read and an acknowledgement by those most in favour of market enterprise of the need for positive reforms in current models of western capitalism if it is not to come a cropper later down the line.

There are also some pretty decent recommendations in the report – not least a call to rethink the education young people are receiving in the west today to ensure they have the right skills to be employable in the economy of tomorrow. However, what really caught my eye was the the quote they put in the report from the Harvard Profess Michael Porter: “We once thought that if business just increases its profit, what’s good for business is then good for society …we need to think differently: what’s good for society is good for business.” For those of us who have been pushing for triple-bottom lines, hybrid enterprise models and robust social impact measurements over the past few years we could see this as more evidence of corporate responsibility now exploding into the mainstream of capitalist business models.

Not surprising really as we know there is good evidence that: firms with high levels of corporate responsibility are better managed, firms with mutual models of ownership were more robust in the financial crisis, firms perceived as more ethical can have an advantage in recruiting the best talent, and traditional non-profits are realising that profit can actually significantly enhance and sustain their social impact. Yet, I bet you a dollar that for all the premiums and competitive advantages that businesses believe they can gain from being ‘best in pack’ on corporate responsibility they will always default around the board room to looking at price and how they can reduce costs to maximise profit.

This is perfectly rational in the current model of capitalism as any good business person would tell you: to increase profits you need to either reduce costs or increase sales – ideally both!  Now, I think for those of us passionate about strengthening society, what we really want to see is increased sales of goods and services that increase social bonds and relationships within communities. For example sales of TVs and Xboxs that encourage people to isolate themselves in their own rooms are actually not good for society, while services such as open-air music festivals which enable people to come together and interact with each other are good.

So, a more inclusive model of capitalism is actually much more than mainstreaming corporate responsibility within the system and institutions. It is about the next generation of businesses and enterprises enabling citizens to come together and interact within communities, rather than consume in isolation. Those organisations – whether they be commercially or socially driven – who can most effectively innovative to connect people will be the ones that can do the most good for society. It’s an open question whether such collaborative goods and services will be purchased in place of personal consumer goods (which would have a profound impact on the current model of capitalism) or whether they will be purchased in addition to current personal consumption habits.

Big lottery winners

Last week the organisation which awards money, generated from the massively popular UK National Lottery game, to good causes announced its priorities for the next three years. Given that BIG (the name of the grant-giving organisation) will have a cool £1.5bn to spend the potential to support good causes in Britain is immense. A lot of their priorities sound absolutely right – such as supporting good causes which focus on preventing expensive social problems in the first place. Yet, given the problems British society is struggling with at the moment (i.e. youth unemployment over a million) and the consequences communities absorb (i.e. the london riots) could there be the potential to do something game-changing with that substantial pot of money?

The way the money is spent is as important to society as what it is spent on and how much is spent. How does the money get from the hands of the lottery players to the good causes? Well at the moment 13% of every ticket cost is centrally collated and then distributed to a wide variety of good causes through the administrative organisation called BIG. State politicians traditionally have let BIG run their grant funding programs independent of government directions, which given the incentives for short-term popularist programs in the Westminster model is probably a good thing.

However, does the allocation of £1.5bn via appointed officials really engage society and strengthen the bonds and relationships within communities that we know are especially vital in times of economic hardship? Maybe, but I think there is a more effective way of allocating the money. Why not allocate the cash equally between the 150 top tier local administrations in the UK (equivalent of the 58 counties in California) for the next 3 years and then use it as a challenge fund for everybody aged under 25 to enhance their community? Rather than funds being allocated by officials, the local councillors together with local business partners could hold “dragon’s den” style sessions in the town halls to allocate the money.

JobCentrePlus and providers of the work programme together with local mentors from local businesses could encourage and support young people to develop pitches and implementation plans to put in front of the judging panel. Equally existing good cause organisations which currently rely of lottery grants may be forced to amend their business model so that they employ some more young people to make the pitch for them. Either way, there is real potential for the £1.5bn over the next 3 years to be focused on engaging and creates opportunities for young people to be active in the labour market through the spending system alone. Who knows maybe some young people will come forward with an awesome idea to ensure decent community support for the elderly living alone – a crisis that is now really biting across many local authorities in the UK as local service budgets become smaller.

Could state politicians make this happen? Yes, and it could be a popular move. However, the real question is is it likely to happen? The answer at the moment is no, due to path dependency. Many organisations are dependent of lottery grants – they do not want this funding stream disrupted when it is getting ever harder to raise money elsewhere. Equally one can’t imagine the grant-allocating officials themselves at BIG wanting to put themselves out of a job, regardless of whether the money could be allocated more effectively through a different mechanism – people have mortgages to pay first and foremost! Still, with a bit of imagination maybe the Executives at BIG could see an alternative business model where they act as on-call consultants with each council contracting an advisory service from them on the cost-effectiveness of local pitches and programs? Indeed, perhaps BIG should spin itself out as an employee-owned mutual and look to cash in on a potentially lucrative advisory service to lots of local administrations?!


Devil’s advocates

Kriss Deiglmeier’s latest column, just say no, on her CSI blog focuses in on the need for social entrepreneurs and organisational leaders to really identify and prioritise the most crucial actions to achieve the goals they have. “For those in the social innovation field, finding the 20 percent of activities that are going to give you maximum impact is paramount. Clearly, that means sorting through the list of innovative ideas and not trying to go for all of them.”  

Indeed, Deiglmeier points out that it is just too easy to distracted by multiple calls for your resource and time pulling in all sorts of different directions – the effects on organisational effectiveness can be highly damaging. Hence the importance of leaders to say no as well as yes. She then adds to this with some very practical advice: “This is not a call about resisting change; rather it is a call to deliberate choice and action.  As you get pulled in these directions, push yourself and those in your organization to think critically about priorities. If you could only do three things for the next year, would this item make the top of your list? Force yourself to answer.”

For organisations to do this effectively Deiglmeier suggests they seek out Devil’s advocates to ask the questions incumbents rarely ask. This got me thinking about the state officials and the decision-making that takes place throughout Californian counties. Each one of California’s 38 million residents lives within the boundaries of one of the state’s 58 counties. California’s counties serve a dual role. They provide a vast array of municipal services to residents, including roads, parks, law enforcement, emergency response services and libraries. Counties also serve as a delivery channel for many State services, such as foster care, public health care, jails and elections.

Now, within those counties I bet that path dependency is rife – a ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ or ‘why would we change that?’ mentality. Surely many of these county service providers could benefit from some devil’s advocates to really challenge current orthodoxies and ask some critical questions about priorities. Who could these devil’s advocates be? Well, why not high-flying students from Californian academic institutes and business schools?

Surely there could be a win-win here – current students could get some additional hands-on time working with Californian administrators and gain new practical understanding of influencing and innovating within the public sector. Equally Californian administrators could build up new networks and bonds with highly skilled students that could support organisational purpose clarity and operational effectiveness in their organisation. Who knows, maybe such a connections programme could spur new spin-out service innovations that could be scaled up state-wide?

Mind changers

Regular listeners of the BBC world service will know Claudia Hammond as the presenter of the weekly magazine show Health Check. However, she is also one of the most engaging psychologists around making potentially complex theories accessible to those of us who struggle with a Psychology 101 test! In London she has recently launched her new book ‘TimeWarped’ and in order to find out what it’s all about most people have already been enjoying the tests of their own time perceptions with the games on her website.

At the end of April Hammond presented a fascinating programme in her Mind Changers radio series focused on ‘Donald Broadbent and the Cocktail Party‘. Most people who know about this programme have already listened to the 30 minute broadcast. It looks at the groundbreaking research of Broadbent, the Director of the Medical Research Council’s Applied Psychology Unit from 1958 to 1974 who launched the cognitive revolution in psychology in Britain. With his innovative dichotic listening experiments, Broadbent gained a unique understanding of the ‘cocktail party effect’: significant information, such as our own name, intrudes on our consciousness, even when it’s embedded in auditory information we’re not apparently attending to.

There are some pretty neat dichotic listening experiments to play along with (make sure you listen through headphones!) on the show, and you soon learn that when different conversations are happening in different ears it’s actually quite hard to pick up the key messages. However, with a little bit of help from Hammond – notably to focus your attention on one ear rather than both – you can effectively tune in to key points and cancel out the background noise. Equally, subtle changes in the messenger itself has an impact such at the the pitch of the voice (essentially a women’s voice, as we know, is better than a man’s dulcet tones!)

Now, this got me thinking about public policy! In the UK and the US pre-teenage children are bombarded with loud and subtle commercial messages on a daily basis: drink sugary sodas to become as sporty as David Beckham, eat fatty fast food to be as cool as your dad, wear padded bras to be the next Britney Spears (seriously!), pester your dad to spend $100 on trainers that cost less than a $1 to make and will last less than 3 months, pester your mum to buy that cheerios cereal not just so you can have a sugar high on the bus while going to school but also a sugar low in time for the first maths lesson of the day. Brilliant! Of course, one parent’s obese, materialistic, hyper-active child with developing type II diabetes is also a shareholder’s dividend, a salesmanager’s bonus, a factory worker’s salary and a Government’s GDP growth figure.

Both the effective functioning of society and the state are currently dependent on mass consumerism, whether you like it or not. However, couldn’t the state help shape consumer demand towards products which are in the interests of society and citizens? Surely this would be a win-win as producers could also shift their production from sugary sodas to fruit smoothies and from crap breakfasts to nutritional ones in response to changes in consumption patterns. The problem is that – given current path dependencies of mass production and the mark-up that can be made from crap (i.e. refined sugars and hydrogenated fats) rather than the genuine deal (fruit and wholemeal products) – it is not in the interests of the producers to change their marketing practices – it’s much easier to socially engineer kids into thinking crap is good for them.

So, this brings us nicely back to the dichotic listening experiments Broadbent did. For those of us passionate about a stronger society, supported by the state, we need a way of getting children to focus on those messages which inform how they look after themselves, the people around them, and the communities they live in. Many children already get these messages from good parenting, but the state should help parents who have to struggle day-in-day-out against multi-million dollar commercial messages all aiming to socially engineer children to behave and consume in ways that are counter-productive to a stronger healthier society.

The state’s role remember is to support society. One of the ways it can do this, and help parents struggling to build resilience against ever-stronger commercial pressures, is to really think about the messaging kids receive in schools and how they receive it. In the UK schools are monopolised by teachers – their job is rightly to empower children with new knowledge and skills to learn. In the 21st century this is necessary but not sufficient to strengthen a liberal society.

In the same way commercial companies hire advertising consultants to sell a message, why can’t schools employ specialists in the dark arts of advertising to explain to kids how they are being socially engineered? In the same way David Beckham employs a nutritionist who would never dream of recommending high sugar drinks to further his sporting careers, why couldn’t schools employ specialist nutritionists to explain to kids the right sort of diet they need to achieve sporting greatness. While Britney Spears employs personal stylists, why couldn’t schools convince local hairdressers and make-up artists to share some their skills with the kids about how to enhance natural beauty (and self-esteem) themselves through creative thinking and having the courage to be original rather than paying for branded goods endorsed by a troubled singer whose body language on stage actually conveys a very sad, and ugly, inner-misery.

Perhaps the UK Treasury could encourage advertising agencies, nutritional experts and local beauticians to work with schools by either introducing a business rate discount or some conditional deregulation for those that approach and work with schools?! We know the opportunity for state institutions to strengthen society is huge, but increasingly challenging in a world of increasingly loud commercial messaging. However, by ensuring kids have the tools to focus on those messages which strengthen society the state can really support all those parents and teachers who are trying so very hard everyday, every hour to strengthen the next generation of society.

The state’s new few

A book called The New Few by Ferdinand Mount has recently been launched in London and has gained quite a bit of media attention in the UK. The central premise of the author is that over the past 30 years power and wealth in Britain have “started to migrate into the hands of a relatively small elite”. Given that Mount was himself part of a westminster political elite (he used to be a key adviser for Prime Minister Thatcher in the 1980s) he could be at risk of being seen as a perpetrator rather than a reporter of such a trend. Yet, this would be wrong – Ferdinand Mount is one of the most impressive thinkers of his generation, and a person who is genuinely committed to a state which strengthens society. Policy makers in the UK should always read, when Mount writes.

The concentration of wealth and power is bad for society according to Mount – it disconnects the powerful few (‘the oligarchs’) from the many thus threatening not only the ‘good name of capitalism’ but the ‘integrity of our democracy’ (I think post 2007/8 such givens are already threatened across the globe!). Mount makes some excellent points about the need to enhance shareholder power in businesses to hold management truly accountable for their performance. However, his proposition about the ‘hollowing-out of public life’ is something that has increasingly being accepted by the political classes over the past decade. Power has become “seperated from the electoral process” as decisions are taken at a remote level and society therefore concludes that they “can have little influence, whether as party members or voters.”

Mount gives this neat example of how decision making in the UK is increasingly done for society, rather than by society – the intrusion of the big state so to speak. “The example of High Bickington, a village in Devon [a county in south west England], which had put forward a scheme to build some new housing, a civic centre and a school. Although supported by the local community, the district and county councils, the scheme was ultimately killed off because of the intervention of a regional quango [organisation of appointed permanent officials] – the unelected Government Office for the South West.”

We know that such centralisation and concentration of power in the state sucks the dynamism and entrepreneurialism out of society. Communities are forced to rely solely on the state, and fail to maximise the mutual support of people helping each other. Such state power atomises citizens, rather than brings them together to collaborate, weakening the very social bonds and relationships that are the essence of a stronger society. For the past two years the current UK government has tried to pursue a policy idea known as the ‘Big Society’ – a radical agenda for a ‘post-bureaucratic age’ to put more power in the hands of people. This ‘people power’ narrative is exactly the sort of radical approach Ferdinand Mount argues is required, yet by all media and society stakeholder accounts the Big Society has failed to have the transformational change those of us involved with it hoped and expected it to have.

There are many reasons for this, and if a post-mortem does have to take place there will be lots of stories to tell from institutional weaknesses (the failure of the state to drive the transformation required) through to the lack of a clear narrative (nobody in the UK understands where the country needs to get to, and how it can get there over the next 10 years – hence the cynicism within UK society coupled with the hunger for hope and optimism).

I was sent an email yesterday about a blog post on the UK’s Guardian newspaper website that listed all the Big Society agenda is delivering on the ground for British people really suffering with a dire and worsening economy. This is the uber-frustrating part: the Big Society agenda should never have been about a laundry list of new state funds and pilots – it should have been about a transformational change in the relationship between the state and society. Nobody is going to knock an extra $20m fund for supporting voluntary sector organisations currently struggling, but this has had no impact on what Joe Public thinks about his state, his responsibilities and future opportunities. Essentially state activity is not connecting with the mass of society – so, regardless of whether you welcome or reject the big society activity, ultimately its current narrative (or lack of) is sadly failing to resonate.

In fact if you read the list out in either a deprived neighbourhood blighted by years of unemployment, wasted state investment and low aspirations or in a prosperous leafy suburb only slightly feeling the pinch from the European recession people would look at you equally puzzled – the Big Society simply means zip on the doorstep of Britain. That is a a missed opportunity for both the UK state and society – there is such a good story about a better future state and society to be told, one which gives people struggling today some real hope about tomorrow, a story that all of the UK – rich and poor – should and could have a stake in shaping. When the US was on its knees, as a result of the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s, FDR didn’t just give the people a list of New Deal programmes he gave them a new hope, a narrative people could connect with: ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ Without such a state narrative that connects with society, the hollowing-out effect which Mount talks about will just continue to get bigger, weakening society further.

Still, don’t write off the Big Society just yet – who knows, maybe that boldness, courage and vision required to ensure the state is redesigned to strengthen society rather than itself  will come from somewhere. Hope is good thing.

Welfare posturing

‘Welfare dependency’ has been making the headlines on UK media websites over the past couple of weeks. The UK – like the rest of Europe – is falling back into recession and with no light at the end of tunnel (growth) the media, politicians and public’s attention is, it seems, increasingly focused on how the reducing pot of taxpayers money is distributed throughout the country. Calls for the state to spend less (on running itself) are reported on all sides as can be expected (the US economy is actually growing and the calls to slash state spending are equally as strong). The other favourite target is welfare benefits – payments which are far more generous in the UK than they are in the golden state.

The British welfare state has provided a ‘safety net’ for people who can’t work, and can’t generate their own income, for the past sixty plus years. Those who can work subsidise, via state benefit payments, those who can’t. More recently though those who do work have increasingly questioned the validity of those who say they can’t work. This is one of the reasons why the state is currently reassessing people who have been claiming long-term incapacity benefit to see if actually they could return to the labour market (if given some intensive support to get over the barriers created by being out of work for a long time). Job creation in the UK will have to pick up though if such an approach is to work.

Yesterday, curiosity led me to examine some of the 2010 baseline figures, published by the UK government,  that make up the 2.6m Brits who were claiming either Incapacity Benefit (IB) or Employment Support Allowance (EA). Three figures stood out to me. Firstly, from the data it seems that around 1.1 million were claiming for mental and behavioural episodes (within this nearly half a million are claiming for depression). That is not a positive reflection of UK society today, and the state’s past efforts to strengthen community resilience. Would that figure be so high if the state had invested in strengthening social bonds and community relationships that supported people to connect with themselves, their families and those around them? If not, then the UK has to look to the future and really think how it can enable people to trust and collaborate with each other on a much greater scale.

Secondly, it appears that nearly a third of those claimants have been on these benefits for more than 10 years – that is tragic; that is state institutionalised dependency, regardless of whether people are actually able to participate in the labour market or not. For people who would now be reassessed as being able to work the state should have been given a lump sum of money (equivalent to 3-years benefit payments) on condition that they accept intensive support and mentoring to start their own enterprise: it is surely better to assume people have a talent waiting to be unlocked than to assume people are happy doing nothing? For those that genuinely can’t work then a calculated lifetime benefit payment  lump sum should have been paid directly or invested on their behalf in a community-run mutual, from which they or their carers are responsible for drawing an income themselves. Enhancing the responsibilities of society on welfare could help shield welfare payments from being exposed to the dehumanising knockabout politics on ‘state handouts’, which no genuine welfare recipient should have to tolerate.

Thirdly, back pain seems also to be a key cause of long-term claims, with just shy of 170,000 people claiming IB for this reason, of which 42% had been claiming for more than 10 years (almost 40,000 of the 600,000 ESA claimants also cited back pain). After seeing how most Londoners hunch on the underground trains or slump into their chairs I’m not surprised at this high figure! However I am surprised that the state office for education hasn’t done anything about it. Surely it is in the interest of both the state (future saving to health and welfare budgets) and society (personal well-being) for people to learn good posture techniques when young? Whether it is the parents or the schools responsibility to ensure children have the capability to sit, stand and breathe correctly is a secondary question; the first order priority is to ensure every child has it.

What is more puzzling is that a relatively simple posture programme (the Alexander technique) has been around since the middle of the last century yet no one thought to mainstream this either in schools, or just society more generally? This learning could prevent future back pain by strengthening postural muscles, improving coordination and flexibility, and decompressing the spine. In the last decade the British Medical Journal (an established research publication for UK doctors) published a neat randomised control trial of alexander technique lessons showing a positive impact in reducing levels of back pain. If everybody learnt some good posture habits at an early stage, surely it would be a win-win situation for both state and society? Surely we all want to see our children walking tall, relaxed in themselves portraying a sense of confidence to the world around them?