A question of trust

In seeking an antidote to the selfish ravings of Somalia-bound Liz Jones (I’m not linking. You’ll work it out, but I don’t suggest you try too hard), a kind soul pointed me towards the wise words of Barry Schwartz on society’s loss of wisdom. It’s a great piece: one of those tub-thumping, uplifting TED talks that gets you nodding and waving along with his thesis. Whooping, even.

Basically, he says we’ve dispensed with our humanity in our quest for efficiency and profit. The wrong things are being measured. What really counts in any public-facing service is an appreciation of the softer aspects of, well, human interaction. We’ve lost the wisdom that gives us sensible decision-making, discretion and the ability to “get” all this. Perhaps not “lost”, as much as “designed-out”, in order to please all sorts of other gods.

What’s not to like? How could he possibly be wrong?

There he is, pointing to the job description of the janitor who has a whole load of specified tasks to perform. Mop the floor. Straighten the curtains. Swab the sink. But nowhere, nowhere, does it say: “Be nice to people. Be human. Be flexible.” (In a really perverse way, Bonkers Liz was saying something similar. But from a position of ignorance and vacuous moral bankruptcy, so basically, she can fuck right off.)

And, one might argue, does a job description need to spell out the requirement to be nice? I don’t know, perhaps it would make some difference if it were written down? I’m not convinced.

In the murky world of measurability and management, what does it even mean, anyway? If you put your cleaning out to tender, and one company comes back with a price that’s 10% higher than their competitor, but they promise to smile a lot more at people, and leave a bit of cleaning until tomorrow if someone really just needs a nice chat instead…what then?

Because when you do start buying into this idea, and go down the road of rewarding the soft stuff like satisfaction and happiness, all sorts of strange things are going to happen.

Only last month I heard tales from a friend whose former employer was very keen for staff to “revisit” customer surveys that weren’t high enough, point out to the customer that their personal bonuses were connected to the score, emphasise that the survey wasn’t the place for all their woes with the company to be vented, and see if they couldn’t nudge it up a couple of points. Seriously.

You get what you measure, remember?

Or rather, you get the measurements that lead to a benefit for the person being measured.

And there’s a double-edged sword in all of this. Mr Schwartz and his cheering audience are doing a great TED-style job of assuming good intent. They’re thinking of all the upside that comes from freeing people up to be a bit nicer. Like that extra latitude to go and make a cup of tea for Mrs Jones through being given a bit of slack on the amount of loo-scrubbing they have to do.

They’re probably not thinking of the janitor who is a living misery to the people around him, but who, when challenged, points to the mopped floor, the straight curtains, the swabbed sink… Fancy taking on that performance review? Substituting the subjective judgements of whether someone “has the right attitude” for the hard measures of dustiness or shine? Subjectivity that puts feudalistic power back in the hands of managers who can bully or fire pretty much at will? Always a trade-off, isn’t there?

One persons’s empowered janitor is another person’s slacker-in-waiting. One person’s disability benefit is another’s disempowering handout. One banker’s justified performance bonus is…ok, perhaps that’s too far.

But it’s just Red vs Blue. The eternal debate. Centralise, decentralise. Liberate, control. Trust, assure.

Reds are great at spending someone else’s money. Blues think that pain is a far better motivator.

Trust. Trust. It all really comes down to trust. And so much of trust is based on visibility.

What we decide, what we believe, is based on what we see. The stories we’re told. And here there is an asymmetry. Negative stories travel fast, and easily become powerful myths. If conservative forces don’t believe, deep down, in public service provision at all, that will drive the narrative.

Transparency means that we get a lot more narrative. Blue editors have no end of material, and mass-consumption platforms on which to put it, to propagate Schwartz’s death of wisdom. And when they also claim to be willing to wave aside protocol and contract to “do the right thing”, the dissonance can be shocking.

I’ll end this by mentioning a fantastic piece by Onora O’Neill, one of the most enlightened people it’s my pleasure to know. She thinks rather harder about these things than most. Join her.

The trust paradox

Although we think that “being open” will increase trust and transparency, the reverse is more likely.

I came to this paradoxical conclusion after reading an interesting piece on perverse economics [link; but summarised here to save you jumping around]: why the decreasing cost of something over time doesn’t mean that overall expenditure on it is reduced; instead usage goes up by a relatively larger rate—therefore so does overall expenditure.

It was first formally proposed by William Stanley Jevons in relation to coal production in the c19th and has been applied to lots of other resources including, in that linked piece, the cost of computers. Now I’m thinking about it in relation to the issues of trust in our public services and government.

We express a wish for our politicians to be more open—to share more about the detail of their lives, and not just at the lobbyist-lunching, shady-room-negotiating level. About them as people. We have social media and other channels now that make it faster and easier to do so. The boundary between their (and our) public and private lives gets fuzzy. We love this, when we see it serving our interests.

We have more direct access to our representatives. We can exchange a few words with a government minister via Facebook updates, or hear an opinion from the front bench even before the House does. We love that we can do this with our celebrities too, and we perhaps blur the categories at times. It’s all “public interest”, and the more open the better, hey?

And then things go wrong. With wholly predictable regularity. A public figure says something they shouldn’t. Perhaps something careless, a bit dumb, or misinformed, or—indeed—showing up actual malpractice in either a professional or personal capacity. The resources of a 100-hour working week, 200-mile commuting MP with a family and private life to manage are suddenly matched against sharp-eyed and keen-witted bloggers sitting at home with hours to spend forensically dissecting every statement, every inconsistency. And with no incentive to preserve any of those category boundaries, especially between professional and personal capacity. MPs are there to be kicked, particularly if they’re not of your favourite political colour.

You probably know the sort of thing I mean. The MP may not be whiter than white. But this was always our delusion that they would ever be. They are human. And they’ll get filleted in what amounts to asymmetric warfare. Openness goes up. Honesty and dishonesty are revealed. We amplify the dishonesty and ignore the rest. And trust goes down.

There are similar arguments at play with openness in relation to published data. Throwing everything over the wall creates the appearance of transparency. Surely it must increase our trust? But like a good astrologer we’ll expertly search for the material that confirms our thesis, and glide swiftly past the rest. And I’m not necessarily talking here about material that is genuinely in the public interest: the big fraud, the unambiguous cover-up—I’m talking about the trivial, the amusing, the petty contradictions that arise when serving many complex interests at the same time. The sieve that’s required to separate the two is a rare thing indeed.

Openness goes up. Trust goes down.

There are two ways this effect could be countered: by withdrawing openness (either outright or by stealth) or by drawing on the trusty old “sunlight=disinfectant” argument—that nobody will do anything stupid or wrong any more as they know they’ll be spotted. Good luck if you think the latter is more likely.