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Brokering For Adequacy In Austerity

July 13, 2010

A bit like redundancy, ‘more for less’ can look OK unless it’s you that’s in the firing line. There’s little most of us as individuals can add to the current commentary about what’s happening to the public sector, beyond hoping (a) that perhaps it won’t be our own name next on the list, and (b) that somehow we’ll cope. But beyond this, someone has to consider how to reduce the likely damage which will ensue.

Whilst individuals can rarely make a real difference in the face of fierce financial cuts – we need only so many heroes when the going’s this tough – there is a real role for brokerage, undertaken by non-partisan cross-industry bodies, to find a way forward.

The first priority, beyond politics, must surely be to minimise harm as far as possible in the face of a grim determination to reduce public spending at any cost.

Fully thought through?
The intention to cut severely is clear, but already there’s also evidence that as yet not everything hangs together or has been thought through by the coalition government. (How many schools? Which bits of the NHS? What transport policy? Housing…?)

The temptation for some at both ends of the political spectrum will be to say ‘Told you so’ and walk away, whilst others directly enmeshed in the torrent of change are as we speak coalescing around a battle to the bitter end to fight their particular corners.

These responses are understandable at the human and individual level. There may be uncertainty, but neither the instigators of the ‘cuts’ nor those on whom these cuts are being visited are likely to want to give much ground at this stage.

A broader view of what works
Perhaps though there is another, more nuanced, possible response which could be taken by organisations which straddle the various parts of our wider body politic and socio-economic.

The fundamental question, as the economic realities are being renegotiated, is surely: what’s essential, in what specific ways, if our society as a whole is to stay intact? What proposals and actions will do more harm, in whose judgement, than they will do longer-term good?

Given that all the major political parties actively claim to want in their own way to support ‘society’, there’s scope here for a bit of mediation.

Honest brokers
There are several UK organisations, most of them non-profit, with expertise and / or membership which embraces the whole range of interests within their trade or area of activity – whether it be social enterprise, health, eco-sustainability, regeneration, or various other causes.

I hope these organisations will now step up to the mark as honest brokers.

Like the recent ‘climategate‘ fiasco, the danger of secrecy is greater than that of dialogue and transparency. The more everyone can see all ‘sides’ of the issue/s, the more likely there is to be a generally acceptable way forward. Here is where the honest broker role comes into play.

Managing the timescales
It’s fairly irrelevant whether any of us relishes the idea of cutting back the state; that’s already happening. But the outcomes of cutting back are relevant to everyone, those who are making the cuts as well as those who are beginning to feel overwhelmed by them.

Fiscal pruning may or may not produce stronger growth in due course, but inevitably some pruning measures may be deeply damaging in the short and medium terms, whilst other measures could avoid interim devastation. And no-one wants to end up accidentally throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Acknowledging the risks
Some evidence at present suggests that this, the interim, is what has not yet been thought through (or perhaps even understood) in every instance by the coalition government.

The interim is, however, just as important to politicians as to the general public…. very short-term is not too hard for politicians to deal with; serendipitous damage in the medium-term is more of a risk.

New knowledge, new imperatives
The critical thing now is know where austerity will hit the bottom line, the point where originally quite unanticipated costs, both economic and human, will start to mount rapidly and perhaps irreversibly.

We are not in the same time frame as were previous ages of austerity. Now we know without doubt that some environmental (and probably also social) costs are just too dangerous to contemplate.

There are things which simply must not be put off for too long, and the difference from before is that we now have no excuse, because we know what they are.

Austere, inevitably; adequate, perhaps?
What we often do not know however is exactly which parts of a given risk are most pressing.

Can we be sure that delays in, say, retrofitting given buildings will not cost more over the next decade than just getting on with the job? Can we be certain that redundancies will not cost much more than the budgeted costing; and how can we ensure that we retain essential knowledge and skills for the future?

In other words, how can all those elements of our society which now face stringent austerity nonetheless remain adequate for core function?

Negotiating the realities
It won’t be easy, but all of us, whatever our perspective, need answers to these questions and many more, before it’s too late.

This is where I’d hope that brokerage is possible – a brokerage both of evidence and of intent.

Whether the message is ‘Me too (I can do Big Society!)’, or ‘No way (not with a barge pole)’, there is no point, for those of us who try to work for the common good, in shouting it across an over-heated and crowded room.

Good intentions and good offices
We all, government and others alike, need to be coolly at the negotiating table, hearing carefully what each ‘side’ claims it intends, and helping to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the strategies proposed to get there. The time for talk about whether the government, determined to implement change, has good ideas or intentions is past. The real issue now is adequacy.

But these things need proper process, they need agreed measures (toolkits) to indicate probable short and longer-term outcomes, and, perhaps most of all just now, they need to be done with speed.

For any truly fit for purpose and enterprising industry-wide body, the opportunity is surely visible.

It’s time for these umbrella organisations to offer good offices and brokerage, to see where partnership, dialogue and inside knowledge can make a constructive difference.

A first version of this article was posted on the New Start magazine blog on 13 July 2010

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