Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The need for a pause in an age of change

Earlier in June I mentioned (Monday Forum - fin de siècle, the decadents and other such matters) that my train reading  was Holbrook Jackson's The Eighteen Nineties. First printed in 1913 and then reprinted multiple times, the book explores art and literature at the climax of the Victorian period in England.

In the weeks since I have kept reading, but it's been slow progress. That's partly because I have been working from home trying to focus on my my writing so don't have those blocks of travel time with their reduced distractions. At home, I constantly feel that I should be doing something on my main writing projects even though I know that feeling is unproductive. But  I am also out of sympathy with many of those he is writing about. I end by reading in bed before I go to sleep; a few pages puts me to sleep quite effectively.

Holbrook Jackson is part bibliophile, part literary historian, part literary critic. As a bibliophile who knew many if not all the people he writes about, he is clearly well informed. As a literary critic, he is highly opinionated. Some of his best writing comes when he lets lose crescendos, piling phrase on phrase towards a climax. This is also the area where he is most clearly wrong as seen from one hundred years later. Some of those he considers best, the new wave who will become appreciated with time, have vanished almost without trace into the dusty shelves of the diminishing number of second hand book shops.

Rober Hughes coined the phrase the shock of the new to title his 1980 TV series on the history of modern art. Jackson is also concerned with that shock, although he complains frequently at the way the English public, really the London public, are resistant to and fail to recognise the value of the offerings placed before them.

I have increasing sympathy with the English public. Perhaps I am becoming old and increasingly jaundiced, but as someone who writes across a variety of topics from present to past I find myself increasingly resistant to the idea that I should accept change simply because change is seen as a good thing.

In his 1970 best seller Future Shock, Ivan Toffler pointed out that each of us makes thousands of decisions each day. Most are minor decisions made within established patterns and pass without real thought or tension.  Some decisions require thought, create tensions. Toffler and his wife suggested that the normal person could make only so many such decisions before becoming overwhelmed. They went on to argue that the pace of change had become such that more and more people were in this condition. The accelerated rate of technological and social change had left people disconnected and suffering from "shattering stress and disorientation"—future shocked. The Tofflers believed that the majority of social problems were symptoms of future shock. In their discussion they popularized the term "information overload."  

Fourteen years earlier (1956), the economist Kenneth Boulding published a seminal work, The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society. The book explores the way humans use images - what I often call mental mud maps - to simplify and impose patterns on a complex and sometimes chaotic world. These images, symbols, are very powerful and are resistant to change even where external reality and the personal mud-maps diverge. If that divergence become too great, as at a time of major change, people can react very strongly.

Earlier, I quoted Hughes' phrase the shock of the new. Hughes was referring to major movements, major challenges. I would argue that today we have a further and different problem, the shock of change that is not really new beyond being change, of a continuing and growing instability in public and private life.

I was thinking around this in the context of recent debates about policy and government stability in Australia and indeed elsewhere in the world. This is often expressed in terms of the rise of populism and minor parties. I would argue that there is a different and more fundamental problem, and that is policy instability. Does that sound extreme, overstated? Let me explain. .

Government has many roles which can be carried out in different ways. However, one key element is a desire for stability, for continuity that allows citizens to get on with their lives. This is not an argument for stasis, for an absence of change. There have been many major changes over the last two centuries that were resisted at the time but then became institutionalised, part of the status quo. But what happens when Government .itself become part of the instability, something that cannot be relied upon?

Consider, for a moment, the current Australian debate about taxation. Wearing my policy hat, I might argue that both Government and Opposition approaches have problems, but does it matter? Does anybody actually believe that what is being proposed will be what actually happen, that there won't be major changes in the next few years regardless of current views?

This type of uncertainty, of constant change in the stated name of reform, is replicated across all policy and program areas and all levels of government.

If you are about to become parents you don't know what child care or school arrangements will be like three or five years out. If your children are at school you don't know what the university arrangements will be when they are ready to go. If your children are at university, you don't know what future funding changes might affect current arrangements and loans.

As a family, you don't know what medical system and associated costs might be in place in a few years' time. If you are a pensioner, you can't be sure that your pension will survive and if so on what terms. If you are covered by the National Disability Insurance Scheme you don't know what that might look like in a few years' time or even if it can survive.

If you have a child overseas who has an overseas partner, you don't know what might happen if they want to return to Australia in a few years' time. You don't know what financial changes might be made in taxation or other arrangements that will affect them.

These type of uncertainties roll across every aspect of society. The only thing that you can be sure of is that what is in place now is unlikely to be in place in three years, still less likely in five years. I tried to calculate once what the average life expectancy was of any Government policy or program before it was subject to significant change. My impression was that it was now about eighteen months. It makes planning difficult and adds to the pervading feeling of insecurity.

If. as Toffler suggests, people were suffering from future shock in 1970, the position is worse today. If we follow Boulding, increasing groups in society find themselves in the position of growing divergence between their images, the mental mudmaps they use to make sense of the world, and external reality. They have not yet absorbed, internalised one change before the next is upon them. These groups are ready audiences for politicians who play to the increasing gap between the external world and those group images.

My argument in this post is that governments themselves have become a growing part of the problem. Now I find myself wanting to say stop, give over, leave it alone.

Take education. Does it really matter if Australia does not measure up to certain narrowly defined global standards in educational performance? Surely it matters more that in our search for "improvement" we have subjected our educational system to constant change without achieving even the narrowly defined performance improvement we sought, adding stress to parents and students without result beyond added stress?  .  .

I have been a reasonably successful change agent as both manager and consultant. In that process I learned that change brings pain before gain flows. If you bring in another major round of changes before the gains, performance does not improve, it deteriorates. We are in that position today in Government.

There is a tendency among Australia's political elites to blame poor performance, the inability to bring about effective change, on the three year electoral cycle. To my mind, that is absolute rubbish. We have had three year cycles for a long time. There is no evidence that I know that countries with longer cycles actually perform better. The problem lies in the way the task is approached.

Could we call stop to the current process? I think that we could, but it would require a very different mind set. In education, for example, the NSW Government could say that our school system has been subject to constant change over a long period. It is not clear that those changes have actually improved performance.We are therefore going to freeze the current system for three years (I would like to say five years) only making minor changes at the margin where the possibility of demonstrable improvement can be established. This may require the state to reject Commonwealth initiatives unless they can be shown to improve performance.

I accept that this would be difficult in part because of money. Compromises may be required. But it would give all of us a chance to gather our breath.


Ruth Cotton said...

Well said, Jim, especially your remarks in relation to education. As someone who has spent decades helping organisations/people adjust to change, and putting a positive spin on it, I agree that there is much pain before the gain - and not many of those who go through the pain actually get the gain. Uncertainty is the constant of our world, our kids' world, our grandkids' world. Jim, you still have that fearless and wide ranging intellect I remember well from History I at UNE!

Jim Belshaw said...

Crikey, Ruth. That's a while ago! Thank you for the compliment :) Speaking professionally, I think that there are two problems with the gain issue. One is the time question. The second one is the way in which gains are measured. So often, they are one dimensional, just so much in cost savings This was compounded by the rise in consultants whoe were on performance pay linked to things like cost savings. They were well gone with their cheques before the adverse consequences came though.

Evan said...

There are stable patterns - increasing ecological unsustainability, increasing social inequity.

I do agree with you about government as the source of instability.

My guess is that we need a new measure in the public conversation - not just GDP or dopey NAPLAN. I'd like to see human flourishing become a common consideration. I guess in political terms 'a better future for your children - and your old age'.

Jim Belshaw said...

I don't agree with you about increasing ecological unsustainability so far as Australia is concerned, Evan. I would agree about increasing social inequity.

I think that we may need new measures, although the prevalence of measures is already part of the problem as is the constant search for improvement however measured. I just think that we need to stop, to pause and that includes environmental or social measures!

Jim Belshaw said...

Just amplifying my response a little, Evan. There is so much static around, so many issues, that it becomes difficult to respond sensibly except, perhaps, by withdrawing from response to most! I would argue that we have lost sight of a basic reality, that Government's ability to do things is constrained. Because Governments feel the need to do things, to be seen to be relevant, they make changes in areas where they can be seen to take action even though the effects of those changes are uncertain or of limited value. That leads to instability that affects us all. It also means that policy lose focus, that the ability to concentrate on areas of real change value is reduced.

Take the question of ecological sustainability. I have indicated that I do not think that ecological unsustainability is increasing so far as Australia is concerned. That can be argued. I would argue that the changes that have taken place improving sustainability have been more associated with individual and non-government actions that in aggregate have had very considerable effects.

Anonymous said...

Nup. Evan is right: we need a new measure, or maybe several? Perhaps a formal inquiry, with several outreach initiatives (hearings, town halls, and such) so that 'all voices can be heard'.

This will provide jobs to the otherwise unemployable (and if you wish to disprove, create perhaps a further inquiry into the efficacy of the collation and analysis of the new measure?) and not actually produce anything of value in the 'real world' - or, more importantly, disturb the status quo.

And there must be meetings, and minutes thereof, and bullet point summaries encapsulated in the 'Executive Summary' with lots of meaningless graphs annotated in very small font, and a cute family+dog pic or two.

So little time, so much to organise; can't see how I'll get it all done - how will the world cope upon my demise :)


Jim Belshaw said...

I would agree with your last remark, kvd!

I fear, however, that you are not approaching this matter in the right and modern professional way. Clearly, we need a detailed stakeholder analysis. This must be associated with a proper risk assessment. You have forgotten the need for suitable power point presentations. And, come to think of it, obligatory questions and answers setting out the information stakeholders and perhaps even the broader community needs to know, to stop them becoming confused.

And you haven't really discussed the report(s) - there will need to be a number - beyond a few points. I accept the importance of the cute photos. I believe that there is a boarding establishment that might provide same, although it is in the country. A bit far away from the real world, perhaps. Design consultants will need to be employed to select the right pastel colours, agonise over the photos and layout and thus extend the 1,000 words of content into the required twenty plus page document. You have also, I think, not properly dealt with the required flow charts and structural diagrams subdividing the desired outcome into broad groups with all the initiatives and measures cascading down from there. More work may be required to identify every conceivable things that might seem relevant for inclusion, thus adding to employment.

To meet your known desire for evidence based public policy, it is important that the whole things include review dates and evaluation processes. Desirably, these should be set at an early enough date to preclude any meaningful positive result. It should be possible to build in some pilot programs desirably including private and not for profit input. These can be properly structured to ensure that no real agreement can be reached. This has two advantages. It means that no money needs to be actually spent beyond all the resources from participants required to prepare the proposals. Since this is off-budget it need not appear in the Government accounts, but will add to the employment effects.

I would suggest, kvd, that while you comment did set out a possible path, it lacked professionalism in articulating the full story.

Anonymous said...

Dear Lord :) kvd

Jim Belshaw said...