To a conference of software suppliers organised by Opentext, where ex civil servant Jonathan Portes and I were the keynote speakers. Jonathan now runs the National Institute of Economic and Social Research and gave a relatively upbeat assessment (I emphasise the relatively) of the economic future.
Among his graphs was one which had the Labour activist in me giving a little internal sob. It showed the relative economic performance of the UK, the US, France and Germany, and as I looked at the 1997-2010 markings along the bottom, I quickly saw that on the measurements he was using, the UK started behind and ended up ahead. So why the sob? Because it underlined once more that whilst we were busy electing a new leader in the wake of election defeat, the Tories and the Lib Dems were successfully telling a Big Lie about recent history – namely that Labour failed on the economy.
They still tell it of course, and still use it to justify all manner of cuts and changes for which they have little or no specific mandate; and still we don’t push back hard on it enough. Even I, tribal and unafraid of a bit of argument as I am, let Jonathan’s graph pass when I got up to do my own presentation, in which I tried to apply some of the strategic lessons we learned in good times to businesses and other big organisations now operating in less good times.
Jonathan also said that whilst income inequality was now a huge issue among the public, the use of the tax and benefits system to rebalance it was no longer politically sustainable. I’m not so sure about that. I was able to point to some of the research in The Happy Depressive, which suggests that the best way to extend the greatest happiness to the largest numbers of people is indeed for governments to take active steps to close that gap; which is why I was not dismissive of David Cameron embracing the ‘happiness agenda’, because I think if he is serious, he will realise he has to do exactly that.
As at so many business events these days, fair to say the jury was out on both the PM and the Chancellor, George Osborne. But one thing I did hear, loud and clear, again and again, was that we did not have a public procurement policy fit for purpose in a modern age defined by the velocity of change.
I was able to tell them that just as they are frustrated by the slowness of it all – one man told me he won a tender for a government contract but by the time he had done so, the system he was selling had already been overtaken by a new and better one – then so are ministers. Or at least Labour ministers were. And I imagine Tory/LibDem ministers are too. Or if the mood at today’s meeting is anything to go by, they should be. One of the delegates said ‘the government is absolutely brilliant at procuring the wrong things; they follow their processes really really well, but so often end up taking the wrong decision and incurring unneeded cost.’
As the government takes an axe to large swathes of the public sector, including among the higher echelons, gaps in service delivery will emerge, and there will be openings for private sector solutions. You might imagine that is exactly how the Tories planned it. But that is not how their suppliers seem to see it. ‘Muddling along’ will be even harder with fewer muddlers to muddle. But there was definitely a feeling they were still muddling.
Ps — a footnote on the enivronment … The conference was held at the National Liberal Club. Does it still have a connection with the Liberal Party (as in today’s Lib Dems)? If so, I really do not think it is environmentally friendly to have individual fluffy hand towels for everyone who makes a trip to the gents’. Only sayin’