Stephen’s thinks

Housing benefit cuts: the view from the front line by Stephen Whitehead
December 12, 2010, 1:18 pm
Filed under: swearing

A friend of mine who works with families in a hugely deprived part of East London just posted this on her Facebook page:

I’m debating sending out a massive and very public apology to the residents of Luton, Reading and Woking who are about to get a massive influx of families I work with if the housing benefits are going to be as dramatically cut as they’re predicting. They’ll move from areas with heavier funding for the many social issues facing them to… areas really, really not equipped.

How do you say ‘Sorry, I’ve been trying really hard to engage these families with positive challenge in order to bring them out of 3 generations worth of third world level poverty but the government are c**ts so now you’re getting them’.

Oh no wait. That works.

Says it all really.


Piecing together the story of protest by Stephen Whitehead
December 10, 2010, 12:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In the aftermath of yesterday’s protest it’s becoming clear that the detail of what happened will never really be pieced together. Although there will be individual eyewitness accounts, a bucketload of  tweets (many of dubious reliability) and reels of newscopter footage, much of the story will be impossible to reconstruct.

For the people who allege police brutality and heavy-handedness this  matters. Impressionistic first-person accounts may be compelling but they are easy to dismiss. Without a way to compare notes, to get multiple accounts of the same incidents, and to construct a narrative of events, hard truths are easily dismissed by a media which is instinctively supportive of the police and hostile to demonstrators.

One of the defining features of the last month of protest has been the use of technology by protestors to co-ordinate actions. Perhaps now we need technology which lets us tell the story of those actions.

How could this work? I’ve got one idea, though I’m sure there are many more. I’m picturing a site which lets people post brief witness statements on individual incidents, tagged by time, location and keywords. Locations could be linked to a google map and searchable so that it would be possible to see a map of, say, all reports mentioning a wheelchair, from 16:00-16:30, or track a particular officer number around the area and then browse the statements. All of the statements would be accompanied by contact details would be held so lawyers, reporters and even the IPCC could contact the individuals for more details. Messy and confusing incidents like the formation of the Whitehall kettle and the use of horse charges could be captured. The spread of violence could be tracked and understood and particular incidents could be properly investigated.

Another approach would be to use something like Ushahidi to enable live reporting, or even the #uksnow map but I don’t know whether they are sufficiently granular to capture the messiness of a street protest – plus contemporaneous accounts can be dominated by hearsay and rumour, while what is needed is eyewitness accounts.

I hope that a tool like this could help us piece together the story of horrific incidents like yesterday, to understand how trouble really starts and get the evidence together to tell credible, unignorable stories of police behaviour.

This is just an initial thought. I’m sure there are plenty of techy people out there who can do better. But if you’ve got any ideas give me a shout – @steveistall.

Tory manifesto: behind the buzzwords by Stephen Whitehead
April 14, 2010, 12:12 pm
Filed under: Public Services, Snark | Tags: , ,

Inspired by a fiery critique of the Tory Manifesto over at Obsolete, I’ve become slightly fascinated with one particular sentence of the Conservative manifesto which, I think, tells us a lot about the way that the Tories have engaged with the many of the newer concepts emerging out of progressive politics. One of the Tory’s key big society pledges is the initially baffling promise to

develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action.

Although it sounds like a very woolly concept, wellbeing is actually a much debated and investigated term. Originating with psychologists like Richard Layard, the study of Wellbeing is an attempt to develop analytical tools to describe and measure the different factors that make up a fulfilling life. Although it’s often caricatured as focussing on happiness, many wellbeing measures are sophisticated attempts to measure quality of life not just at the level of the individual but also in the relationships between communities. For example, the National Accounts of Wellbeing project developed by the New Economics Foundation used survey tools to measure not just mental and physical health but also the extent to which people trusted those around them and felt they had fulfilling lives.

Although on the face of it, the study of wellbeing seems like a relatively academic pursuit, it has real practical implications. A number of high profile academics such as Joseph Stiglitz and Anthony Giddens are calling on governments to use national wellbeing surveys as an alternative to GDP in measuring social progress. It’s intended that this will help create a culture where institutions and actions are judged not only on their economic power but also on their contribution to people’s lives – which is critical for those who argue that to combat climate change we will need to find ways to shrink our economies without damaging wellbeing.

It’s interesting to look, then, at the use that the Tories envisage for wellbeing. Importantly, like so many of the fashionable ideas that they’ve adopted over the past few years (co-operatives, wage ratios, citizen participation) they are only proposing to apply wellbeing measurement to the public sector. So many of the bright ideas that Tory researchers have put into the manifesto are used in this way: in the service of a narrative which can only describe the state in terms of failure. The private sector, despite the role of the banks in instigating the current financial crisis, is left fundamentally unchallenged.

Secondly, and again similarly to other Tory buzzwords, the role of wellbeing measurement is seen as making the state do the things it already does, better. There’s no sense that these ideas should contribute to a wider transformation in society or, in particular, in the way that our social relations are governed by the market. This is one area where the Conservatives seem to be shying away from the Red Toryism promoted by Philip Blond. While Blond is actively hostile to the way that the logic of the market, and in particular, the power of big business, has encroached on what would traditionally have been inter-personal relationships, this is something that Cameron (like all the main party leaders) is reluctant to even acknowledge, let alone take on.

Another way our system screws small parties by Stephen Whitehead
April 13, 2010, 1:29 pm
Filed under: democracy | Tags: , ,

Just been ploughing through the British Academy’s fascinating new report on Choosing an Electoral System and was intruiged by this little tidbit:

In many constituencies, electors may find that voting for their preferred party is of little value – because it is either bound to win there or almost certain to lose.They may therefore either consider their vote of little value and abstain (which is why turnout tends to be higher in marginal constituencies) or vote for a candidate/party who is not their first choice. British Election Study data, for example, indicate that 15% of electors voted for a party other than their most preferred at the 2005 general election.

Of those whose first choice was neither Conservative nor Labour, 45% voted for a party other than their most preferred; and of those whose first choice was other than Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat, only 21% voted for their most preferred party.

To my mind, this tells us a few important things:

  • Firstly, the low number of votes achieved by smaller parties at the General Election should not be taken to indicate that they are a minority concern. A quick (and admittedly crude) application of these figures to the UK general election, sees the Greens as the first choice of one in 20 voters and the Lib-dems the first choice of one in 3. Equally, the high (though significantly declining) share of the vote going to the two biggest parties does not indicating the overwhelming support of the electorate.
  • Secondly, it shows us how the current electoral system distorts behaviour and disenfranchises many voters. Voters are smart – they understand how the system works and they work to get the best outcome that they can hope for. But the tendency for tactical voting is a response to a real dilemma: a choice between expressing their beliefs and having a meaningful impact on the result of the election. Real democracy would be a system which lets voters do both.

NB: for a fuller (and infintitely better informed) review of the report see Stewart Weir’s piece in OurKingdom.

The digital exclusion bill? by Stephen Whitehead

I’m hardly the first to observe that more and more of the things that we do are made easier by being online. From reading the news, to paying our taxes, to political campaigning, to keeping in touch with friends, we all benefit from the power of the internet.

Actually, I should probably qualify that ‘we’ a bit. I benefit, and since you’re reading this on a blog you probably do. But nearly one in three British adults don’t use the internet, and as more and more opportunities become available online, they are increasingly disadvantaged. Tackling so-called ‘digital exclusion’  is a real concern for government – though an increasingly they understand that it’s inseparable from broader issues of inequality.

Still, with all the efforts being made to adsress digital exclusion, it’s a little perverse that this week the government is attempting to rush through legislation which could throw tens of thousands of people off the web.

The Digital Economy bill will set up a ‘three strikes’ system where any person, family, or organisation accused of downloading copyrighted material three times will be disconnected from the internet. No trial, no judge, no jury: just a simple administrative procedure to take away something which 80% of the world’s population believe is a fundamental human right. The provisions have attracted criticisms from organisations as diverse as Liberty, The British Library, The Joint Parliamentary Select Committee on Human Rights and the British Computer Society, but are strongly backed by the music industry which is concerned by the effects of piracy on record sales.

The disconnection provisions are so controversial that a leaked memo from the British Phonographic Institute says they are unlikely to survive a full parliamentary debate. Unfortunately, the government is insisting that the bill is forced through before the Election, even though this will mean that MPs are not given time to debate the new powers. There’s still time, however, to write to your MP and ask them to fight for the time to subject this bill to the scrutiny that it deserves.

While the disconnection provisions are a real threat to human rights, there’s a bigger issue at stake here: the power of parliament to act as a check on the executive. MPs are, in theory, our representatives in the legislative process. It is their role to scrutinise government legislation and ensure that is both well designed and in the public interest. By steamrolling bills through parliament, we will inevitably end up with more and more legislation which is neither.

Our current system has given us a parliament which is willing to vote through controversial legislation, without demanding the chance to subject it to scrutiny. That’s yet another sign that we need to look again at the first past the post electoral system which almost always delivers an unchallengeable commons majority for the government of the day.

Stopping the Digital Economy bill in its tracks is just the start. Making sure that more bad bills can’t be pushed through parliament in the future is a much bigger task.

You can take part in the Write to the your MP campaign organised by 38 Degrees and the Open Rights Group at

Digital refugees and digital citizens by Stephen Whitehead
March 11, 2010, 10:53 pm
Filed under: Digital Inclusion, Participation tools, Public Services

This week’s National Digital Inclusion Conference was a relatively upbeat affair – a thousand techies and bureaucrats itching to do something – anything – to take the digital revolution to the rump of luddites who remain stubbornly offline. The solutions proposed were many and varied – from paying the unemployed to lay fibre-optics up people’s driveways, to teaching your neighbour how to email. But lurking amidst all these juicy carrots was a worrying undercurrent of stick. Several times across the last couple of days, I’ve heard people have talking openly about using the withdrawal of offline services to force people online.

To be fair, these were all reasonable proposals by reasonable people: laden with humanising caveats about support, education and showing people the benefits of online services. But still, they sent a little shiver up my spine. The idea of withdrawing service to drive people across the digital divide is, in my view, dangerous and short-sighted.

Firstly, and most obviously, there is the danger of excluding people from vital services. In a time of huge financial pressures on all parts of government it will be easy for those comforting caveats to slip away, as agencies rush to withdraw but skimp on support. This is especially troubling where the responsibility (and the budget) for service delivery is held by an agency with little or no direct responsibility for digital inclusion. It will be easy for them to withdraw offline services to save money (indeed, cost saving was explicitly cited as a motivation by some) and assume that support with going online will happen elsewhere. Inevitably, the effect of withdrawing offline services will be most keenly felt by the already excluded who will have to use cumbersome work-arounds or simply miss out.

Secondly, and more fundamentally, this idea reflects an impoverished view of what digital inclusion could mean. Just accessing the same services as before, albeit with quicker turn-around times or less hassle, is hardly the transformative prospect that we might aspire to. Real digital inclusion means much more than being a more able consumer of public services, or for that matter, a more able consumer of cheap flights and cheap DVDs.

Inclusion means being a part of something – a family, a community, a workplace, a network of friends. And digital inclusion means being a part of something online. Making people digitally included means giving them the tools and skills to build relationships online.

Actually, I do agree with one part of the offline-withdrawal plan – changing the way that we deliver public services can be an important mechanism for combatting digital exclusion. But only if it also tackles exclusion in the real world. Schemes like time-banks and other forms of co-production, which re-imagine public services around the relationships between people are perfectly placed to help people take their first steps online. By offering people access to a new network and then providing support to be part of that network online as well as face to face, co-production schemes can offer a pathway online which people want to take.

Rather than forcing people online to do the things that they already do, we should be thinking about what digital public services can offer which will make us want to be a part of them – and how to embed them in everyday life.

Forcing people online, if it works at all, will create a class of digital refugees, isolated in their new online environment. But by supporting people to come online and form meaningful, effective relationships, perhaps we can create a nation of digital citizens.

Defining democracy 2: Economic democracy by Stephen Whitehead
February 10, 2010, 12:21 pm
Filed under: democracy | Tags: , , ,

In my last post, I set up the idea that we can identify three seperate domains where we can usefully introduce some aspect of democratic control: the economic, the social and the political. In this post, I want to talk about economic democracy.

Economic democracy is an almost counter intuitive idea in a system like ours where all economic relationships are articulated primarily through the market. We tend to explicitly reject morality, or mutual obligation as a factor in our economic relationships.  As Adam Smith suggested, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest.” In the modern context, we expect our local supermarket to stock the most profitable items, not those which will do the most to make our lives better. And we expect our employers to pay us just enough and make our working lives just tolerable enough that we don’t work somewhere else. In the market, our power is simply that of ‘exit’ – if we don’t like the deal we’re offered we can try to find a better one.

But, this is, in many ways, an impoverished idea of our economic relationships. The individualised, impersonal transactions of the marketplace are not neutral, nor are they the only way of deciding what’s important. The market produces decisions of a particular character – self-interested and self-regarding.  Given the freedom to choose in other contexts – like collective, values-oriented spaces of political debate – people may make different kinds of choices. Witness for example, the widespread popular support for the BBC,  an instituton which explicitly sets out to be different to those that reflect the pressures of the way people choose in the market.

Given this, it’s legitimate to question whether the market is the only, or the best, way that we can interact with the economic  institutions which have such a huge impact on our lives. Rather than accepting that all the institutions that we have economic relations with value us only in so far as we can help them turn a profit, we can look for ways to reframe the relationships of one of mutuality where each actor values the welfare of the other.

One promising way to introduce this mutuality is by encouraging the spread of co-operatives and other mutual structures. Co-operatives – organisations which are collectively owned by their employees (and sometimes customers) create spaces where their actions are open to scrutiny and control on grounds other than pure profitability.

In practice, co-operatives are linked to greater wage equality – itself an important step in equalising political power. But they can also offer a real gain in terms of reconnecting disengaged embmers of the public with collective decision making. By offering people a chance to get involved in the institutions which have the greatest effect on their lives, co-operatives make democracy vibrant and immediate.

Of course, there’s much more to economic democracy than co-operatives – local ownership of human-scale enterprises, locally controlled currencies, real opportunities to express democracy through unions – all of these will provide a counterbalance to the dehumanising logic of the market. But thinking about how we inject the moral and the collective back into economic transactions is a good place to start.