Saturday, 31 December 2011

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! I thought I should say that and keep the Odanglesex Chronicles for tomorrow. Unfortunately it seems the Australians have jumped the gun and inaugurated 2012 before the fabric of being was ready and the Japanese retaliated. The whole world will never all be in the same year again (but was it ever?).

It might seem that one of the best reasons for celebrating the end of 2011 and the start of 2012 is that 2011 (apologies to my most sensitive readers) has been a bit of a bummer. The world economy has lurched from crisis to crisis, with the continent I'm associated with (however hard the Brits tried to separate themselves by melting the sea-ice at the end of the last ice-age to flood the North Sea and English Channel)in the worst crisis. After irresponsible bankers caused a world recession, the governments of at least two European countries have effectively been turned over to - the bankers.

But...while the Arab Spring will lead to massive disappointments, as all true revolutions do, it's been an extraordinary demonstration of the power of hope and love over brute power and greed; and not all the gains will prove illusory. Even the Occupy movement (which unlike protesters in Tahrir Square seems not to be focused on specific changes) is a healthy reaction to the undermining of democracy and community.

Hope. Then act.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Standing on Ceremony

People are often impatient of ceremony. I was when I was young, although I could see the beauty in some ceremonies and a half-hidden meaning in some. Ceremony seemed to get in the way of thought and so often to reinforce the status quo in ways you couldn't question rationally, only ridicule - and that was a great time for satire in the UK.

I still feel moved to remind myself (and others) that something isn't true or valuable because it's wrapped in ancient or impressive ceremony. Ceremony does not make a royal wedding either important beyond the couple, or loving between them. The Nazis deliberately built up a great edifice of impressive ceremony, some of it visually very clever, artistic and effective. Something can be great ceremony, something can be impressive art, and still be evil.

There are two dangers in ceremony. One is that wrong can be wrapped in gold and music and marching till it is accepted by people who might have rejected it. The other is that it is treated as magic. In rejecting so much ceremony, Puritans and Quakers (who differed on so many other things) shared a perception that these things could get in the way of truth.

When a priest raises a chalice with wine, when set words are spoken over a grave, when traditional things are done reverently before a marriage or a battle, do we think the words or the ceremonial acts themselves change anything? Traditionally many people have thought just that. If the right words were not spoken, if the right sacrifice was not made, the enterprise would not prosper and perhaps even the winter would not end. The fate of the dead person's soul would be different. I think one of the several reasons why people reject religion is that they associate it with this claim of effective magic. I reject this magic entirely. But I do not reject the ceremony.

Clearly people educated to believe in certain ceremonies will be affected one way by a ceremony done properly in the traditional manner, and another way by it going wrong. In the second case, for example, the soldier may be more inclined to perceive defeat coming and to run, making defeat more likely and reinforcing belief in the magic of the ceremony. I believe the impact of ceremony can go beyond that.

Ceremony is poetry - sometimes ossified, sometimes in a strange language people struggle now to understand, but still poetry. Ceremony can represent something powerfully beyond words and engage emotions which might otherwise fester and bubble under the surface. Have you watched while a priest threw a handful of soil on a coffin? Stood a moment in silent respect? Wondered why things as everyday as bread and wine could take on huge significance for Christians? Clasped hands at one moment and not another? Sacrificed a small coin into the sea or a river? Sung a song supporters of the same football club sang generations back? All these are ways of saying something, of symbolising something. The soil on the coffin symbolises our dependence on the soil, our bodies' identity with it, that we come from it and go into it. The football song symbolises unity in a common cause, common across time as well as numbers.

Sometimes ceremony becomes too ornate, too dominated by gold and jewels and long processions, just as some poets lose their way in their own clever and creative talent. At the root, though, there should be meaning - meaning we could not so effectively encompass in logic, but that does not make it illogical.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Blogging in the half-light

A while back I posted "Blogging in the Dark", talking about the information I could get on visits to the blog and the questions it raised but didn't answer. For example, I was intrigued and slightly puzzled by acquiring a Russian and a Latvian readership and encouraged the Russians and Latvians to talk back. They didn't, but I do have a theory about the Latvians: suddenly all at once I had 26 hits from Latvia and thereafter only one repeated, so I wonder if this might have been a computer-savvy English-language class looking through English-language blogs. The Russians, though, gradually increased until they overtook the USA into second place (the UK being unsurprisingly first).

Then, dramatically, the Americans hit back. The Russo-American space race was nothing to the SibatheHat blog race. A sudden surge in American hits coincided with sudden interest in a very early posting I'd thought had vanished without trace, "The dangers of being customer-centred". I was very pleased by this as I felt I'd been saying something important there. Soon hits from the US were running at about 2/3 of the total and after they'd looked at the customer-centred thing and the two posts on happiness as an aim of government policy, all six most viewed posts were episodes of The Odanglesex Chronicles, my lampoon of English local government. The conclusion is unavoidable that this has found interest in the US somewhere - but why? I'd be fascinated to know.

At the same time a level of two or three German hits per week trebled and France came from nowhere(well, France was in France all along, but you know what I mean) to overtake Russia for third place. Interesting and a bit mysterious too.

One reason why this all remains a mystery is that unlike on my poetry blog (, and please do visit that too) hardly anyone is commenting. Please do (by clicking on "comments"): I'd love to get some discussion going.

Just a birdwatching note while I'm about it: my yearlist is now on 211 without being a twitcher or leaving Britain (Glossy Ibis and Great Grey Shrike at Fingringhoe, TICK); there was a White Wagtail feeding in the next street along four days ago; and while good numbers of many winter visitors in Essex hadn't been matched by winter thrush numbers, especially Redwings, suddenly along the Colne valley on Christmas Eve there were lots. Birder folklore might suggest this was one of those movements ahead of hard weather, but the meteorologists said no and they were right.

Back to the Odanglesex Chronicles soon. I think they'll be struggling with Agile Working soon, but maybe first, an ukase from the Secretary of State...

Sunday, 25 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles - A Good Performance (2)

The story so far: the Council has promulgated a profile for performance review with set percentages for each category, any departure from this profile to be approved at senior level. It has also created a "Best Person of the Year" award and ceremony: both of these are presented as responses to a staff survey finding that people want more recognition for good performance.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager


I'm applying for the performance profile to be varied for my team. It really would hit me in the guts for any of my people to be judged "failing", as basically they're all up to the job and working hard. You'll be aware that the team has had a number of major successes this year and I fill in the case for a variation in the attached submission. I also attach the rating I believe would be appropriate if variation is approved.

FROM: Neil Balderson
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Sammi Parrot, Maurice Maina


Thanks for submitting your requests for EDPE variations. As the robustness of the model depends on maintaining the highest standards, it has unfortunately not been possible for Kenneth, Conor and myself to approve any variations. Where you submitted assessments based on the hoped-for variation, these have all been downgraded to fit the profile. I know you'll be disappointed by this, but I know you and your team members will understand the reasons.

Best wishes

FROM: Dale Brashcon, Transformational Excellence Champion
TO: All Transformational Excellence

GOOD NEWS! You've probably seen the announcement on the Extranet or the latest Ed's Job, but if not, THE DETAILS OF THE BEST PERSON OF THE YEAR AWARD ARE OUT!!! Except, of course, the names of the winners! That we only find out on the night. I know just how excited everyone has been about this and it's obvious from the nominations received that this is really going with a swing. Thanks to all those who nominated colleagues, and special thanks to those who nominated me (ONLY JOKING!!)

If you've read the Extranet you'll know that we've been really lucky to get Ned Pratt OBE to compere and present the awards. Ned will be known to all of you as Odanglesex's premier comedian, the star of "Carry on up the Rear Passage, Gunga Din", "Pratting About" and many other excellent shows.

I hope to see you all on the night. If you're not there, I know where you live (ONLY JOKING!!)

Kenneth wants a really good turnout from TESV. Remember, there are cakes and soft drinks.

The blog of Chief Executive Edelbertha Spengler


There's really only one thing I can talk about this week - the wonderful night we all had at the Best Person of the Year celebration. I'm sure you'll all agree that Ned Pratt, who was so kind to agree to run the show, was outstanding and I have to admit I was in stitches at times, though I couldn't quite understand the joke about someone called Lord Pond.

The cakes and pop went like, well, hot cakes, and Minnie in my office had to nip out to Tesco's for replacements.

Well, if by any chance you were unable to attend, here are the results. Congratulations to everyone who was nominated and to those who nominated them.

BEST GUARDIAN ANGEL: Bartholomew Addison, Financial Resources
BEST INNOVATOR: Kerry-Anne Porritt, Older People and Recycling
MOST IMPROVED: Satish Chatterparjee, Transportation and Settlement

AND THE OVERALL WINNER, BEST PERSON OF THE YEAR: Henry Donaldson, Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision.

MANY CONGRATULATIONS, HENRY! Your book vouchers are in the post (sorry they weren't ready on the night).

Now just think, everybody - next year THIS COULD BE YOU!

FROM: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


Just a little blip, but it could be embarrassing, so better make sure UNISON don't hear about it. Did you realise that Henry Donaldson in Hamish's team is Best Person of the Year and has just been adjudged in EDPE to be failing?


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Hamish Carpenter

Hamish: We need to have a word about the debacle concerning Henry Donaldson. I hope tomorrow at 4 is suitable for you. Emma Carver from HR will be present. We will be reviewing criteria for EDPE assessment and appropriate implementation pathways.

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Ed's Christmas Message

ED's JOB: The blog of Chief Executive Edelbertha Spengler

Wow, only two days to the REALLY BIG DAY - Christmas!

At home we've been hyperactively getting everything ready, the presents, the wrapping paper, the cellotape (desperate last-minute trip for that), the turkey, the pudding, the tree, the car window de-icer, the battle plan for refuse and recycling arrangements. Just remember to check out what the changed timetable is for collections in your area.

My twelve-year-old is a bit hooked on glace cherries, so I'm having to take steps to limit the supply this Christmas or she could be sick again.

It's a bit like that about the Council's budget. Some restrictions are necessary and even some compulsory redundancies. Today those of you who that applies to will be getting the notification. I'm really grateful to them for all the work they've done, whatever it was. My eldest son tells me Christmas is really an ancient midwinter festival when people got rid of all their accumulated fat and vegetables and nuts and celebrated the end of the old year and the start of s new and exciting one, so for all of you experiencing change, IT CAN BE EXCITING!



Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Good Performance (1)

FROM: Conor O'Connor, Director of Human Resources Development
TO: All Directors; Chief Executive


The proposal for an Excellent Performance Delivery Environment (EPDE)I put before CRB has been approved. To summarise:
* All employees will be graded from A - E by their line managers as part of the annual My Performance process. Grades will be reviewed and approved or amended by Team Leaders.
* To prevent grade inflation, managers will adhere to the following performance profile as closely as possible: A: 15%; B: 25%; C: 25%; D: 20%; E: 15%.
* The thumbnail definition of the categories is as follows: A: outstanding, innovative achiever; B: high achiever within normal parameters; C: meets requirements of job; D: meets requirements of job with some areas for improvement; E: failing and in need of remedial action.
* Categories A and B will receive income augmentation in line with annexe 3A.
* There will be an appeals procedure: details will follow.

This will sharpen up our performance and ensure that we both encourage the high-fliers and weed out the underperformers.


The blog of Chief Executive Edelbertha Spengler

Hi! I think I've mentioned this before, but I'm a great fan of Queen's Sticks Wielders women's hockey team. Last season was really depressing and we got relegated to Division 2. This season, though, we're going great guns and have won four out of six matches, one of the others being drawn.

What made the difference? A real determination to concentrate on performance and raise the team performance level! And it was a real team effort.

Although performance levels at Odanglesex County Council are pretty much through the roof, we can't afford to rest on our laurels. We only beat Scunthorpeshire by one point in the Local Goverment Chronicle poll last year, and they're making big efforts. We must achieve continuous improvement. That's why I could so easily relate to the finding in the Employee Survey which said that 71% of you thought we could do more to reward good performance.

We've taken that VERY seriously and done two things in response. One is to introduce a Good Performance system which will identify the best performers and reward them. Your directors will be speaking to you about that very soon. The other is to launch a BEST PEOPLE OF THE YEAR award scheme in which all of you will be able to nominate fellow-employees (you can't nominate yourself, sorry) for recognition of their outstanding service and they will receive awards at an annual ceremony hosted by a major Odanglesex public figure. Councillor Wayneflete and I will judge the nominations together with Conor O'Connor and we're really looking forward to it!

FROM: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


Does this new performance reward system really mean I have to assess one of my people as failing?

FROM: Neil Balderson, Senior Transformational Excellence Manager

TO: All Transformational Excellence managers

Kenneth's had a number of queries about EPDE. They come down to the same thing - the degree of flexibility in the recommended profile. In order to ensure a robust performance structure, departures from the profile must be minor and exceptional. Appeals will be dealt with by Kenneth. I hope that clarifies the position.

To be continued...

Monday, 19 December 2011

In memoriam Vaclav Havel, 1936 - 2011

I speak in celebration of all those who freely enter danger and deprivation to fight for freedom, all those who challenge lies and oppression, all those who refuse to allow their thoughts, their words and their loves to be controlled by abused power, who though they may give ground, never give way.

I speak for those who love freedom and do not confuse it with the oppression of poor by rich or the reduction of all life to money.

I speak for those who know true freedom cannot be won by denying it to others.

Vaclav Havel was a great man and a great example.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A Terrible Accident

Today I was going out birdwatching on coastal marshes in Essex (Old Hall Marshes in fact). It was a cold and windy winter day, so I decided to take not only a thermos of coffee but also one of hot chicken soup. I put the coffee powder in one thermos and had both flasks ready while the water boiled and the soup heated up. The soup won the race. I poured it into the thermos containing the coffee powder.

Now I know that some of the followers of this blog are of an adventurous character in matters culinary. They may be moved to try this new combination. To them I have one word of advice - DON'T. OK, that's probably two words.

Oh well, it was an enjoyable day's birding. I chose to keep a day list in my head and so the first bird I saw (Jackdaw) was 1 and so on. Amazingly, Black-headed Gull came in at 38. Hardly less surprising, Meadow Pipit was 41 and Starling 42.

So really the day balances out - White-fronted and Barnacle Geese on one hand, coffee-flavoured chicken soup on the other.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Thousand Miles (2)

FROM: Kelly Pattrick, PA to Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Hamish Carpenter, Transformational Excellence Manager

Kenneth wanted to be assured that your claim for 49 miles for the round trip from County Hall to and from Little Pilesbury is correct. The AA route planner says 45 miles.

FROM: Hamish Carpenter
TO: Kelly Pattrick

Kelly: Bodger's Lane was blocked by a fallen tree. The best alternative route through the Dirksedges took an extra four miles.


FROM: Reema Narlikar, Transformational Excellence Officer
TO: Bunny Hare, Financial Processes Consultant (claims)


I submitted my mileage claim for the second quarter of the year nearly four months ago and it hasn't appeared even in the pay statement that's just arrived. Sorry to push, but what's happening?


FROM: Bunny Hare
TO: Reema Narlikar


Sorry, it hasn't been approved by Kenneth yet. He has quite a backlog.


FROM: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision


Just to assure you that following the informal word you had with me about the large amount of time Directors are having to devote to checking mileage claims, I'm putting to CLB that claims under 500 miles be self-assessed and thereafter by line managers only.


Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: A Thousand Miles (1)

FROM: Grant Coutts, Director of Financial Process and Resources
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Kenneth: I attach a copy of the quarterly analysis of mileage expenses by directorate. While the overall trend for the Council is directionally benevolent, your directorate's mileage is increasing. One employee in your directorate claimed for more than a thousand miles in the last quarter.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Grant Coutts

Grant: Many thanks for this. Who was it and what was the precise figure?

FROM: Tracey Love, Financial Processes Officer (claims)
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision

Kenneth: Grant asked me to supply details as above. It was Chalmers Butt, District Community Development Outreach Officer. He claimed for 1071 miles.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Danni Worrall, Senior Strategic Visioner

Danni: See the above. Please get a grip on Chalmers' expenses.

FROM: Danni Worrall
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob

Kenneth: Chalmers was appointed six months ago to a new post, if you remember. It involves going round all the districts and many of the meetings are in village halls and so on. He really does need this mileage.

FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Danni Worral

Danni: Thanks for this. Nonetheless, try to control his mileage. This is a corporate priority.


FROM: Edelbertha Spengler, Chief Executive
TO: All directors

Colleagues: Some of the trends in mileage claims are not as we would wish. Moreover, where the trend is benign, it is generally well short of our milestones. Consequently, as you are aware, at the last CMB meeting we agreed the following changes which should be conveyed to your staff.

All journeys which generate an entitlement to a mileage claim must be approved at least a week in advance by the line manager and by the relevant director.

If the line manager is the relevant director, approval must be in place also from the assistant director. If the potential claimant is the director, (s)he may approve his/her own expenses subject to normal controls (you can leave that bit out when you cascade).

All claims must be approved and countersigned by the director.

Thanks and have a good weekend


FROM: Kelly Pattrick, PA to Kenneth Spotlessnob
TO: Kenneth Spotlessnob

Kenneth: When I sent out the mileage e-mail to all Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision, was I supposed to leave out that bit about directors' expenses and Ed's comment in brackets?



Sunday, 11 December 2011


This will be a familiar experience to those who still buy a newspaper (you know, one of those flat, rustly hard-copy things). You get it in your hands and curiosity drives you to check out the headlines or the front-page picture.

If you have a walk with the thing, as I do now, speculation is given more time to flourish while you have limited opportunities to read if you don't want to have an intimate encounter with a lamp-post.

This is not on the level of the tabloid which once headlined STRIP CLUBS SHOCK: MAGISTRATES MAY ACT ON INDECENT SHOWS (what roles would they be acting?, but I did speculate on the "Observer"'s "BLUNKETT IN SECRET MURDOCH PAYOUT OVER NEWS OF THE WORLD PHONE HACKING CLAIMS". Had David Blunkett when Home Secretary ordered Rupert Murdoch's phone to be hacked? Surely not - the Murdoch press was a New Labout friend then.

As for "ANGRY CLEGG TURNS FIRE ON CAMERON OVER EUROPE VETO", I was merely speculating how this would play in the Far East: "ANGLY CREGG TURNS FIRE ON CAMELON OVER EULOPE VETO". A camelon, of course, is a temperamental beast of burden used by King Arthur and his knights. Hmm, his first years at Eton may have been very much like that.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Odanglesex Chronicles: Lord Pond

FROM: William Wayneflete, Leader of the Council

TO: All Odanglesex County Council

I thought I should let you know that I have been informed that an exhaustive routine check of our records has revealed that the convicted necromancer "Lord" David Pond, a cat-herd, was once a member of this council, elected for the Graveigh division. An intensive and rigorous investigation is now taking place into whether he was ever, as he has claimed on television, leader of this council.

Any enquiries from the media should be referred to External Communications. If, as may occasionally be the case, you should enter a hostelry and be asked about "Dave Pond", the line to take is that you have never heard of him.

Many thanks for your support.

Bill Wayneflete


Edelbertha Spengler's blog


Yesterday my eight-year-old left the back gate open and Rupert the Tortoise escaped. We were just in time to stop him getting on a bus. I don't know about you, but I hate telling the children off. However, I did feel I had to lay down the law a bit about gates.

In the same way, I thought it'd be timely to remind you about security at County Hall and particularly access issues. After all, as a nerve centre of government, we would be an obvious target for terrorists or "Occupy" protesters, and a thief seeing all the publicity bandied about on the amount of money we spend might try to gain entry to see if any of it was lying around!

I need to remind myself about this just as much as anyone else. Only about four years ago, I distinctly remember being  greeted in the Roman atrium by a short, fat man who embraced me and said he had just found out that I was a woman, but never mind, I still had a job. Naturally I assumed he was a leading member of the council. I now realise this may have been incorrect and I should have asked to see his I.D.. Please do the same for anyone you don't recognise, unless, of course, they have a badge saying VALUED CUSTOMER.


FROM: Kenneth Spotlessnob, Director of Transformational Excellence and Strategic Vision
TO: Kelly Pattrick, PA to Kenneth Spotlessnob


I'm just updating my gifts and favours register entry. Could you check for me with Internal Governance Excellence whether Lord Pond giving me an ice lolly constituted a gift which should be declared?


Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The Market and the Ballot (2)

As I suggested two days ago, the Market is great for reflecting individual choice in the present. It can be distorted by advertising campaigns - people buying a particular car or drink or footwear because they've bought the message that it'll make them young and popular and sexy and trendy, perhaps, when in fact it can't deliver most of these things - but customer pressures do quite often go against what the producers or retailers might like.

The question of what should be left to individual choice can usually be settled through John Stuart Mill's test. Does your choice hurt someone else (or, we might now add, for example drive a species extinct)? Some things cannot be settled by a series of separate individual choices: in my post on the dangers of being customer-centred, I gave an example of a controversy over proposals to cut down some trees in a public park. It is not possible for all the different users to have what they want, so a much-despised thing called politics intervenes to make a collective decision. As I suggested in that post, a danger of a zealous market approach to public services and decisions is that it undermines the understanding of community decision-making and co-operation and creates the expectation that individuals should always be able to get what they want; and when they don't, they turn against politics and democracy. Our species developed as a social animal making collective decisions: it's an essential part of being human.

Where an individual choice can be made without harming others though, as in a frail old person deciding to spend on making her garden accessible rather than on improvements within the house, it's of course far better than professionals deciding for her.

I am not usually one for conspiracy theories (they have abounded through history and very few of the alleged conspiracies have gained any support from evidence subsequently coming to light), I do suspect that behind the populist campaigns of the Murdoch press, for example, is a wish to denigrate public service, politics and democracy, not to bring in dictatorships, but to make people happy to see collective democratic decision-making replaced wherever possible by the market.

So would there be a problem? In some areas, yes - as if we can't understand the processes of debate and compromise that lead to a decision on that public park or library, we may end up with no public parks or libraries, only charged-for services far more accessible to the rich than the poor.

A few years back, two radical right Conservative writers embarked on a  series of articles on land and housing policy. They actually came up with some good points, such as that German local authorities' greater powers to raise local income from business led to more balanced decisions on building proposals; but in advocating the abolition of land planning, they proposed, in some detail, that government should not intervene in issues of wildlife habitat protection. If enough people wanted some marshes preserved for wildlife, they said, they could join the RSPB or whatever, pay subscriptions and donate, and their economic power would be measured against that of the developer.  Now this proposal was mad for several reasons, but I want to concentrate on one. Whereas in democracy everyone has one vote, to influence public decisions, in a free market power equates to spending power. A million people of modest means could support an organisation trying to establish or preserve a nature reserve and be "outvoted" by one billionaire or by a corporation made rich by consumers who would never have been consulted on the nature reserve and might be horrified at its destruction. The extreme pro-market approach is simply grossly inegalitarian: it assumes that the more money you have, the more power you should have in a straightforward relation: a hundred times the money,  a hundred times the power.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Market and the Ballot: (1)

Over the last thirty years or so, in Britain and many other countries, the areas of life controlled by market processes have expanded at the expense of those controlled by government. In many cases, of course, the governments were not democratic - East European Communist regimes or African or Latin American military dictatorships, and the replacement of these regimes has been accompanied by marketisation of many areas of life, especially in Eastern Europe.

I want to concentrate on the existing democracies and to point out some of the dangers and losses along with the undoubted benefits of the triumph of the market.

Anyone who saw the old Soviet regime with open eyes, for example, would know how an absence of market mechanisms can distort and deaden so many areas of life. The shops do not stock what people want and they have no great incentive to attract customers or to sell. The customer does not matter - only what the state says the customer should want. Even in mixed-economy, democratic Finland in the 1970s the effects of the combination of a state monopoly on the sale of alcohol with planning policies that deliberately held down the number of bars and other alcohol consumption outlets below demand, were to disadvantage small producers, reduce choice and the quality of advice and leave bars with so much demand that they could afford to offer a bad service and be rude to customers because they would still make a profit.

The market is very good at reflecting customer choice where customers or families can make individual choices and where they are well-enough-informed to do so. This has been extended into some areas of public service, for example the "personalisation" of social care in the UK. In principle, people who need help such as frail old people, instead of being offered types of help they may not want, get a budget and can spend it as they like. There are risks, particularly with vulnerable people lacking good advice, but basically this is a liberal and empowering measure. Even where services are hard to break down to an individual choice - it would be impossibly inefficient for each household to make a free choice of their refuse collector - an element of competition can be healthy, with local authority providers competing with the private sector, social enterprises and one another. The benefit here is not an extension of personal choice, but a likelihood of better value for money.

In some areas, though, the market does not work well. Consumers may not be well-informed enough to make a good choice. For example, energy provision in the UK is theoretically a free market with competing providers, but the deals are so complicated and so often look good but on exhaustive study are bad, and the companies make it so hard to swap, that there is virtually no real competition and the vast majority of people are on deals substantially worse than they could get. This may well be through collusion, and in theory at least, action by a regulator could force changes which made the competition real. But the point is worth noting - that an unregulated market does not necessarily work for the best for consumers. This may be because take-overs and aggressive business tactics result in monopoly, which the state can and often does ban. But monopoly does not necessarily mean providers understand less about customer desires than in a competitive market. Let's compare rail travel or policing with credit cards or car insurance.

Policing is a state monopoly (though I could see that changing, with state-given powers for private security forces). The police do not suffer economic pain through loss of customers if their performance is poor or their actions unpopular. But people who are dissatisfied often complain - to the police, to the media, to their elected representatives. As the police know they need the support of the community to be effective, such pressures have an impact. and the police generally know lots about what people want of them. Some rail travellers have choice if a car journey would be a credible alternative, or a flight, or a bus journey: but in the UK, many commuters have no real choice. The car journey is too stressful, too comparatively unsafe, too difficult when it comes to parking, to be attractive, the buses are too slow and the airports too far from home or place of work. So people who feel aggrieved by changes in the timetable or by cancelled services complain or even campaign. Consequently, if the rail companies don't know what people want, it's a deliberate act.

By contrast, what do you do if you find a better deal on your car insurance (a genuinely competitive market), or you're unhappy about some inefficiency at your credit card provider? You switch. There is no point in telling the company you're leaving what turned you off. You just switch. Companies may try to test customer preference through surveys, but very few people respond, and the findings are unlikely to reveal, for example, that while a change in a  service is popular with 65% of customers, 20% disliked it enough to leave - so the company will be reassured and will not consider offering two options to satisfy both groups.

Where services are provided on by local authorities, there is another thing you can do. Your experience of the service can influence your vote. Many other things influence voting behaviour, of course, but it's a safe bet that a new administration that makes services better stands a better chance of re-election than one that doesn't.

Markets also famously think short. Depletion of non-renewable resources, for example, does not have much impact on the markets until the crunch is very near. Where confidence is the issue, as with loans, ridiculously excessive confidence can drive towards a sudden collapse as in 1929 and 2008 - and then lack of confidence can be just as illogical. Markets also think narrow. If a company can save modest amounts of money by making 30% of its staff redundant, and the consequent loss of money through lost business is less than the gain through reducing the wage and energy bills, it will almost certainly make the change. The state, and through it, all taxpayers, pick up the bill in increased benefits take-up, health problems and so on. It is possible for government to disincentivise such choices, but business will use its influence effectively.

When I return to this, I'll look at situations where collective democratic choice implemented by bureaucracies is directly in competition with an atomised market approach and at how marketisation sits with the cocept of community.

Was that heavy? OK - to my post on the winter ale festival, I add high praise of Shalford's Levelly Black and Allgates' Caskablanca.

And I leave you with another learned presentation on words. Cats are kept in a cattery; bats in a battery; apes in an apiary; nurses in a nursery; and alligators in an allegory.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Harwich Winter Ale Festival

And so walking home along Marine Parade on a windy night after a trip to the tenth Harwich Winter Ale Festival on Kingsway - but well worth it! The variety is incredible and the atmosphere friendly. Mauldon's Blackberry Porter was incredible (in a nice way) and Oakham's Citra very refreshing. I wonder if astrophsicists can advise me whether my request for half a Black Hole was feasible?

Some years ago I was helping at this event and an Italian lady approached, said she had never tried British real ale but wanted to, and asked what I would recommend, requesting that I chose something local. What a responsibility! I went for Crouch Vale's Amarillo as being tasty, Essex and not as wildly different from a good lager as, say, a weighty porter might have been. She liked it.

Nina Jørgensen: Mexican drug war book

Nina Jørgensen: Mexican drug war book