Thursday, 28 July 2016

Still alive

Aaagh can it really be 8 months of silence?! I have been tweeting a bit on various causes and injustices and occasional bouquets amongst the brickbats.

My excuse is that I have been giving top priority (for a change) to completing my first book, which has been a 5-tear, on/off background project. Now it has been published - so exciting - and you can read all about it at new website.

Now I am about to go sailing across the North Sea for a month, so another interruption here, though you can follow our watery exploits at 

See you in September ... perhaps :-) 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Freedom of Information Consultation = danger of losing it

I was alerted to this FOI Commission Consultation today by 38degrees and I jumped straight on it.  My views are from the hip, so may not be completely thought through or expressed as elegantly as I might prefer - however 'truth before beauty' is usually a good call.  The first 2 questions, in orange, are from 38degrees, and the rest, numbered, are from the government.

Subject: Submission to call for evidence by Commission on Freedom of Information

Why do you think Freedom of Information should be protected?

The government is elected by and accountable to the UK citizens - not just once each 5 years but every single day. They and their selected providers are spending the citizens' money. If their decisions and actions are not transparent then the citizens cannot hold them to account. We have a participatory democracy where charities and volunteers contribute significantly to the well-being of the country and its citizens. Without transparency that participation is in danger of being ineffective, mis-directed and eventually lost.

How do you think government transparency could be improved?

Transparency should start at 100% and only be reduced in specific areas where there is a very strong case agreed by a body independent of government. Private companies providing public services should be under the same scrutiny as if it were the government providing those services.

Question 1: What protection should there be for information relating to the internal deliberations of public bodies? For how long after a decision does such information remain sensitive? Should different protections apply to different kinds of information that are currently protected by sections 35 and 36? (Note: ‘Sections 35 and 36’ of the Act cover policy formulation, communications between ministers, and information that would affect the free and frank giving of advice or expression of views.)

It is essential that citizens can see how all decisions have been made. How else can they hold the decision-makers to account? There should be no delays in making this information available except in the case of national security or personal privacy.

Question 2: What protection should there be for information which relates to the process of collective Cabinet discussion and agreement? Is this information entitled to the same or greater protection than that afforded to other internal deliberative information? For how long should such material be protected?

I am not interested in Cabinet discussions - the horse-trading, back-biting and manoeuvring - I am interested in traceability of decisions and actions.

Question 3: What protection should there be for information which involves candid assessment of risks? For how long does such information remain sensitive?

Risk assessments should be made fully available. The citizens want to know first that such a risk assessment has been properly done, and second what the government's view of the risks is.

Question 4: Should the executive have a veto (subject to judicial review) over the release of information? If so, how should this operate and what safeguards are required? If not, what implications does this have for the rest of the Act, and how could government protect sensitive information from disclosure instead?

The executive veto should stay in place for very rare circumstances where security is affected, and it must be subject to a strong and effective judicial review which starts with the question "what are the risks to national or personal security of releasing this information".

Question 5: What is the appropriate enforcement and appeal system for freedom of information requests?

The current system of appeal through the Information Commissioner seems ok to me.

Question 6: Is the burden imposed on public authorities under the Act justified by the public interest in the public’s right to know? Or are controls needed to reduce the burden of FoI on public authorities? If controls are justified, should these be targeted at the kinds of requests which impose a disproportionate burden on public authorities? Which kinds of requests do impose a disproportionate burden?

Organisations should not have to pay (companies, accredited media, charities and so on). There could be a small charge for individuals to discourage frivolous requests. A request should never be denied on the basis of its cost; that simply rewards inefficiency with secrecy. Technology and modern governance should facilitate the provision of information without undue cost.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Greek conundrum - DEBT FREEZE is a sensible way out

Dateline 16 Jun 2015:  It is crunch time … again, but perhaps even more real this time.  I don’t see how Greece and the troika of main creditors can kick the can ever further down the street.

According to this CAPX article Greece is running a primary surplus, and therefore without the debt mountain could begin to sort itself out.  An article in The Telegraph agrees 

So why don’t the troika take the following very simple approach: debt freeze by which I mean they forego past and future interest payments (all the loans really should have been interest free in the first place) and they leave the debt in place to be repaid starting in, say, 5 years time and spread over 15 years.  Apparently the ECB will return interest paid as & when Greece runs a primary surplus, and I can see the reason for incentives given Greece’s past record, but this does not help the cashflow.  At the same time Greece should leave the Eurozone, but stay in the EU - this would give them the fiscal flexibility to sort themselves out.

Surely this debt freeze approach is better than cancelling the debt, wherein the creditors lose their money and other countries may be tempted to follow suit – this way the money and the debt still exists, it is just locked away for a long time.  A bit like my bank when it gave me a mortgage many years ago.  If a daughter of mine had a financial crisis,  this is the kind of thing I would do – I certainly would not seek to make money out of her distress by charging her interest, and yes I would lose what interest I might get from having it in my savings account, but that’s what parents or Eurozone partners are for, isn’t it?

I wonder if the flaw in this is that, whereas I have the actual money and can leave it with my daughter while I don’t need it and she does, I suspect the troika loans are not real money – it is money borrowed from somewhere else with a servicing cost attached to it.  So they need interest payments from Greece to make their own interest payments, and round and round it goes. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

TTIP makes me crosser and crosser

Here is my email sent to my London MEPs today, via 38degrees:

Dear Claude Moraes MEP, Jean Lambert MEP, Charles Tannock MEP, Lucy Anderson MEP, Gerard Batten MEP, Mary Honeyball MEP, Syed Kamall MEP and Seb Dance MEP,

I have only so far had a response from Gerrard Batten, for which I thank him, to my earlier email on this subject.  

The postponement of the vote today only reinforces the feeling that we are all being manipulated by vested interests, instead of operating a representative democracy.  

Whilst I am in favour of reducing red tape and harmonising regulation where this maintains appropriate safety and quality, I have seen nothing to convince me that the supposed benefits of TTIP are in any sense achievable; boosting economies and employment on both sides of the Atlantic to the levels claimed by CEPR looks like sales gloss.  

On the food front it is ridiculous to encourage a huge increase in food miles as for example we export beef to the USA and import their chickens - how does that fit in with climate change management? 

The risks of TTIP are very real however, that business interests will compromise our democracies.   

Please tell me whether you will show your opposition to TTIP  - and in particular ISDS - when you get a chance to vote? Or, please can you pass on these views to MEPs who will be voting?

Please represent the views of your constituents.

I look forward to hearing from you

Friday, 8 May 2015

Post Election blues ... now pick ourselves up quickly and act

I didn't post until now, as in my sleep-deprived and emotional state I might have just said "aaaaaaaaaagh".

Don't get me wrong, I'm not an automatic anti-Conservative - the party and/or Cameron have done some good things - gay marriage, and at least containing the deficit (though not as much as they say, and the national debt is still increasing as is the interest we pay on it, and they are not doing it fairly).  They also have some really dodgy policies like selling off more council/association housing stock when we have nothing like enough social housing capability.  Don't get me started on privatisation of public services with inadequate public governance.

The next 6 months are crucial - we have to be on our toes, especially as all the Opposition parties, due to what I see as selfish, cowardly actions, are now effectively leaderless and focused inward on themselves.  It falls to the active electorate to provide checks and balances, swiftly and loudly, especially to defend the elderly, the vulnerable and the disabled.

There are many channels for this, including 38degrees and VoteforPolicies that I support. The latter are planning to track adherence to the manifesto, and as the Tories have a slim majority it's their manifesto that will be monitored.  There are a myriad of other channels large and small for expressing opinions to and exerting pressure upon our elected representatives - remember, as a nation this is what we have done, it's a democracy, we did this, we elected a Conservative government - and ideally this myriad channels would somehow come together and be immensely more powerful through acting in a coordinated way. That won't happen, not least because we also have a myriad of opinions and suggestions and so will never speak with one voice.

All democracy is skewed in favour of those who can be bothered to be involved.  What result might we have got if the one-third of the electorate who didn't vote had instead made it to the polling booth or postbox?  Unfathomable, yet certainly more representative.  What result if we had voted for a version of PR?  Again unfathomable, yet certainly deeply in the constitutional legitimacy coalition space that was being predicted just 24 hours ago ( a long time in politics, apparently - and also in media analysis).

What should the active few seek to do?  Overturn or block policies that are clearly bad? That's not very democratic, having a tiny minority alter things that a wafer-thin majority of two-thirds of the electorate on a first-past-the-post system using historical random constituencies have voted for ... if any of them read the manifesto.  Despite my attempted irony there, I do think that small pressure groups focused on policy change are undemocratic.  

Instead the role of the active few, their focus and priority, should be to expose first the policies, as many of them are hidden away under mounds of innocuous fluffy verbiage. Then expose all the information relating to those policies, in terms of background, analysis, experience elsewhere, risks, possible outcomes and side-effects - drag all of this, blinking, into the sunlight.  Then facilitate discussion thereupon on the widest possible basis.  Whereupon the elected representatives will have no choice but to do the generally accepted best, or least worst, thing if they want to be loved and one day re-elected.  And they do, they really do.  That, my friends and others, will be the least-flawed version of democracy in action.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Tax spend shock - servicing the National Debt - the General Election

HMRC sent me an email recently announcing "Your personalised tax summary is now available online, showing how much tax and National Insurance you have paid, and how it is spent by the Government".  Hmm - interesting, I thought.

The breakdown of how my tax is spent is VERY interesting:

25% on Welfare
19% on Health
13% on Education
12% on State Pensions
7%  on National Debt interest - whoa, £1 in every £14 of my taxes is used to service the nation's debt ... this is more than is spent on Defence (no, I'm not defending that), Justice, Transport, Business Industry, Government Admin, Culture. Environment, Housing and utilities, Overseas aid, and lastly (at 1/10 of those interest payments) the UK Contribution to the EU budget.

This shows to me very plainly why as a country we must reduce our Debt.  Yet if I understand correctly, all the austerity so far is only reducing the rate of increase in the Debt.  We have to do more than balance the books, we need a surplus to pay off the loans and we need this to be sustainable over decades.  

If this is achievable at all, then it needs intelligent, far-sighted strategic management which does not rely on the magic fairy of growth (which is no longer reliable), does not rely on market forces (because we want a fair society, not one at the mercy of the greedy and unscrupulous), and does not rely on passing the challenges and solutions up to a semi-federalised Europe (because that will lead to less visibility and less direct action just when we need more of those things).

I am mortified that my generation, now approaching retirement, has lived well at the expense of future generations.  So who am I going to vote for in May 2015?!  I honestly don't know.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Government gridlock could be Democracy breakthrough

Check this blog on the Royal Society for Arts, Manufacturing & Commerce (RSA) website:

Here's my comment on that blog:

A wonderful example of positive thinking ... I like it ... I am heartened by it.

The challenge is how we get the media to report a breakthrough for democracy rather than a breakdown of government.  

My suggestion is to throw it at all the walls so that some of it may stick. Send a concise version, containing a call to action, with a link to this blog, to all political parties, to all media channels, and use public online channels such as 38degrees as well as the usual suspects to reach the people.

The step before that could be to get endorsement from known, trusted, influential and politically neutral (or at least not toxic) people - professional people, not celebrities.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

theguardianlive event on NHS future - mixed reviews

In summary:  nice try, Guardian, but over-ambitious with establishment platform and a chair who was not strong enough.  A lot of aspirational statements, quite a bit of politics, and precious little on WHAT should be done and most importantly HOW to do it.  Flawed yet stimulating, ultimately frustrating. Nothing new that was significant.

The event was organised by The Guardian as part of their GuardianLive series was on 20 Jan 2015 in Conway Hall, London.

It must have been a sell-out (£15 a seat) as the hall was stuffed - the audience predominantly white, middle-class from what I could see, yet not over-polite ... there was some shouting as people lost patience with the proceedings.

Meeting Organisation
The Guardian was over-ambitious in expecting everyone to load a special app on smartphones and participate in polls and enter questions and rate questions online during the meeting.  There were 6 or 7 poll questions, yet only one was briefly examined. Many questions were entered yet only the top 2 were addressed as one item together.  The app on my android phone did not have all the functionality compared to the iphone of my neighbour.  A number of people objected that they were disenfranchised by not having smartphones or not being willing to load the app. The chair allowed a show of hands on the one poll examined, to placate the crowd. I personally find it hard to vote online and type questions when listening intently to speakers.  
Lesson Learned: do less and do it well, anticipating people's reaction to the use of technology.  The polls could have been available before the meeting started, and a separate screen used to display the results continuously - that would have been valuable rather than distracting.

Meeting Management
It will always be frustrating when 2 days worth of debate is crammed into less than 2 hours, however the chair (Denis Campbell, Guardian health Correspondent) was not strong enough.  He allowed the panel to give long answers, sometimes off the point of the question, and when the audience lost patience and started shouting comments he looked briefly like a rabbit in the headlights.  He also took up time asking his own questions when the audience was gagging to ask theirs. he only took audience questions with 15 minutes left of the meeting time.
Lesson Learned: the chair of course needs to be knowledgeable in the field, but also independent from the debate - Denis had too much 'skin in the game' to be able to sit back and manage the debate to best effect.  Short answers must be enforced.  Get the audience involved early.

Debate Panel
Here are my key notes against the main panel members - 3 establishment figures and 1 very well-connected thinktank CEO - harsh perhaps but this is what stayed with me:

Dr Mark Porter (BMA) - stop the use of markets, it has failed - no more re-organisations

Sir Bruce Keogh (NHS England) - prevention is better than cure (otherwise I heard political aspirational statements)

Rt Hon Norman Lamb MP (LibDem Minister of State for Care and Support at the Department of Health) - next 5 years is crunch time - want to pool health and social care by area, give control to that area

Julia Manning (CEO 2020health thinktank) - we cannot do everything, technology costs too much (gets my vote as 'most insightful of the evening', which does not say much for the others)

Lesson Learned:  the audience around me felt rather 'talked down to' by the great-and-good panel, influential and eloquent though they are.  I think the audience would have preferred to have one or two NHS practitioners from the front line on equal footing up on the platform.  All the staff are 'amazing' and engagement is the thing, so let's have them up there alongside the top brass.

I heard some figures that are surprising on the face of it:  NHS is one sixth of national public expenditure, yet UK (or was that England) spends less than the average across Europe (per head, or as %age of what was not stated), and we only spend half what USA spends (ah but you cannot compare tax-funded free at point of delivery with an insurance based system surely?!).

The two top-rated audience questions (and the only ones taken by the panel) were about privatisation.  The audience is dead against it.  Julia Manning pointed out that it is not a simple black & white issue - she as an optician was self-employed and contracted to the NHS.  Much IT provision is out-sourced. These are rather different to a private equity owner dumping a non-profitable secondary care facility.

The audience wanted to talk about TTIP - they were rabidly against it.  The panel, specifically Norman Lamb, asked them to be sure of their facts and reassured them that the EU had written to our government confirming that the NHS is not affected by TTIP.

The Health and Social Care Act came in for much general stick - I didn't hear anyone specifically defending it.  Norman Lamb pointed out that the PFI schemes are effectively just mortgages with huge repayments by government to private sector - that's an interesting perspective, and my respect for this MP is growing.

No one, apart from Julia Manning in passing, addressed what I see as the elephant in the room:  we should be talking about the next 5 years as tactical - the strategy should be the next 25 years;  the current and predicted growth in NHS funding is simply not sustainable - economic growth will not magically solve the problem (that's not sustainable either); therefore we need a really radical review and prioritisation of health and care services across the board, with some serious expectation management; no government is ever going to do that because it's political suicide; so we need a beefed-up equivalent of the Office for Budget Responsibility for the NHS, to provide the logical advice and take the blame for the (correct) difficult decisions.

Ok, I have finished on an off-the-wall suggestion, and the above notes are incomplete and of course it is a personal view - that's the whole point.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Housing conundrum in London

I went to a lecture this week at the University of Greenwich, given by Nick Raynsford MP on the subject of housing.  He has 40 years local and central government experience in this field and an encyclopaedic knowledge.  These are my thoughts that he stimulated.

I never knew that after World War II there was a policy to reduce the size of London, which was part of the rationale for the New Towns outside but near London.  Apparently this policy failed because there was a negative economic effect, and by the 70s the policy was reversed.

The problem in London is the lack of affordable housing.  We all know this.  The conundrum is what to do about it.

Just leaving it to the private sector does not work because they are always looking for maximum profit, and there will always be a large disparity in the incomes of different people, meaning that the low-income people get priced out.  One obvious solution to this is to have more supply than demand, but the private sector are not daft enough to do that.

So what about regulation of the private sector, at least in the rental market – what about going back to rent control?  The danger is that the properties will not be maintained by the landlords, and at some point landlords will step away from the market creating a huge rental shortage.  What could be helpful is regulation to limit rent increases over, say, a 3 year period, allowing for some certainty for the tenant without locking them in.

Do we need public sector controlled housing then, back to council houses?  Was it a huge mistake to allow them to be bought at all, let alone at far below the market price?  It seems there is no appetite in government to go back to this model, although I don’t see anything wrong with it – why not a PFI on a block of flats so that the government is in control, the developer gets paid over time, and the tenants are protected?  The favoured model for this seems to be Housing Associations, and that’s fine – my mother and brother live in such a flat and it works well for them.  Can we get more joint developments between housing associations, government and the developer companies?

I asked the devil’s advocate question “why not seek to make London smaller again, or at least stay the same size, and focus on housing expansion elsewhere in the UK?”.  The answer came that it would, as post-war, be an economic mistake to limit London’s growth … however there’s nothing wrong with initiatives elsewhere in the UK as well.

Mr Raynsford’s summary was that we need sensible, not extreme, action on many fronts.  I agree, because as with all significant challenges where there is no single magic bullet, we need the cumulative effect of many coherent and aligned actions to achieve a sustained response.  I pointed out that the challenge for our society is that housing policy needs to be strategic over a long timescale, and yet politicians who are masters of the policy operate on a comparatively short-term basis.  Mr Raynsford smiled and agreed.


It occurs to me that everyone still uses the phrase “getting on the property ladder” and I have been saying for a few years now that it’s not a ladder, it’s a roller-coaster, and if property prices are falling (or you need flexibility on your location) then renting is far better.  We still seem to have in our DNA this need to own our property, and it really doesn’t always make sense.  Worse still, the whole expectation that it is a ladder, allowing you to climb up the wealth tree because the next owners will pay far more than an inflationary increase, is surely part of the reason that we now have this problem – young people with normal jobs cannot afford to buy a property.  I benefited from the boom in the 80s, got started with just our own money, got up the ladder to a big house with mortgage paid off – without that I would be poorer now … but I am going to be poorer anyway because I need to fund the deposits for my two daughters so they can buy their first property.  It’s a mad circle.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Recalling UK MPs - blunter or sharper democracy?

38degrees have a campaign to create the ability for the electorate in an MP's constituency to Recall him or her from Parliament and force a by-election.  Whilst clearly there can be debate about the numbers that are required to make this happen, the principle is surely sound that an MP should be answerable to and accountable to all of their constituents - an extension of that notoriously blunt instrument we call democracy?  In my mind, not quite that simple ...

Here is the email exchange with my MP where I push the 38degrees approach, and below it is an email from me to 38degrees where I'm playing devil's advocate in the other direction.
Dear Rt Hon. Nick Raynsford MP,

The government’s new law to allow voters to sack MPs is simply not strong enough - it is unlikely to ever be usable, and then it is controlled by a panel of MPs.  People’s trust in politics and democracy is at an all time low. Giving normal people the democratic, properly managed power to recall their MP could be the most significant change to the way Britain does politics in decades – and it’s within our grasp.
As my MP, please will you back the only serious alternative by signing up to support the real recall law?

Thank you for your communication regarding your support for a ‘Recall Bill’. Please accept my apologies for the delay in getting back to you.

The right to recall MPs was an idea discussed in the run-up to the General Election of 2010. The Liberal Democrat Leader, Nick Clegg, who as Deputy Prime Minister has responsibility for constitutional reform, has since argued that the original proposals were only ever intended to apply to MPs who have been found guilty of breaching parliamentary rules. Predictably, Liberal Democrat support has waned significantly since the party reneged on several of its pre-election pledges, such as the promise to scrap tuition fees.

This highlights the difficulties of implementing a recall system. MPs have to vote on a very large number of issues throughout the course of a parliament, and the situation to which a voting issue relates may have changed since before the election. On this basis, an easy recall system, applying in any case where an MP is alleged to have broken an election pledge, would most probably affect every single present-day Member of Parliament.

To avoid this, most people believe that a threshold would need to be set, requiring at least 15 per cent of a constituency electorate to vote for such a recall.

However, this in turn poses awkward questions, such as how does that 15 per cent relate to the percentage of people who voted for the successful candidate? In cases where an individual voted for a candidate from a rival party who was not successful in being elected, would that same voter have the right to vote for the recall of an MP whose policies they did not vote for in the first place?

Whilst I have some sympathy with the idea of recalling who have flagrantly broken election pledges, I do see many problems with implementing it in practice, and it is for these reasons that I believe the current arrangements – where an MP is answerable to an electorate every four to five years, and can be stripped of office if convicted of a criminal offence – is the most appropriate arrangement to have in place. On a separate note, you may already be aware that I myself will not be seeking re-election at the next General Election, and will be standing down.

Thank you again for contacting me about this matter.
Yours sincerely  Nick Raynsford MP

Dear Rt Hon. Nick Raynsford MP
Thank you for your response, and I'm sorry to hear you will be standing down in 2015.
Can I just take issue, for the record, with a couple of points you made below.  You seem to morph from breaking parliamentary rules to breaking election pledges, which is not I think the same thing.  There is no reference to pledges or rules in the proposed Act available through the link in my email.  Nor is there any reference to how people voted at the previous election.  An elected MP represents all the people in his or her constituency, not just those who voted for him or her.  The principle of the Act is quite simple; if a proportion of the electorate believe their MP is performing poorly in representing them, then they can recall that MP.  This is surely democracy in action.  Can you not see that this would incentivise MPs to be far more focused on and accountable to their electorate?  Surely a good thing.

Nic Vine to 38degrees

I have succeeded in engaging my MP Nick Raynsford in an email debate on this issue, starting with the form email that you provided.
However it occurs to me there is a problem:  what if we have a prime minister who is doing something unpopular in the short-term for the long-term good of the country ... and a powerful lobbying organisation stirs things up sufficiently in his or her constituency that a Recall is enacted.  Is that really what we want?  In other words should the Recall not be constrained to demonstrable under-performance such as breaking rules, not voting, not spending time in the constituency.  I read through the draft Act and perhaps I missed it but i could not see any conditions on the reason for the Recall.  If we can Recall just because we don't like what s/he is doing, isn't that a recipe for chaos rather than improved democracy?

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Gagging & Voting - UK

I wrote this email to my MP via 38degrees:

In February I, along with 60,000 others, wrote to Ed Miliband asking him to publicly commit to repealing the gagging law. Last week 38degrees met with Angela Eagle and whilst agreeing it was poor legislation she said that these decisions are made by a wider group of people within the Labour party.

As my local MP, please can you use your influence to pressure your party into scrapping this undemocratic law.  It is crucial that all MPs call for a Labour Party commitment to repeal this law.  It needs to go into your manifesto.

I believe the constraint on charities and organisations that campaign on issues is an outrageous attack on my freedom to spend my money to make my voice heard.  Part of my decision on how to vote will depend on parties' position on this.

Thank you.

In early April Labour, i.e. Ed Miliband, committed to repeal this if they win the election in 2015.  I'm not sure they committed to a timescale, and I'm pretty sure they didn't say what happens if they are in a coalition.  And what if Labour are not in (part) power in June 2015?  

This gagging law still needs to be repealed, or at least changed to exempt charities and other organisations that campaign on issues and are not aligned with any political party or independent candidate.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Christine Lagarde's view of the future ... and mine

Here's an example of me posting something because it gets it into play, and removes a piece of paper from my pending tray, even though I haven't achieved a complete analysis.

I watched Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the IMF, give the annual BBC Richard Dimbleby Lecture on 4 Feb 14.  Her title was A New Multilateralism for the 21st Century
- the text is on the IMF site.

Here are the notes I made as I watched:
  • digital revolution
  • hyper-connectivity
  • tweet and the Arab Spring
  • we can eradicate poverty
  • we could have more frequent financial crises
  • the UN recognises almost 4,000 non-government organisations
  • with more connection we have less consensus
  • three big challenge areas:
  1. demography & migration
  2. environment:  water, food, energy - climate change - pay for the damage caused
  3. income inequality - economists see importance now - inclusive growth
  • global interest before self-interest
  • rekindle the Bretton Woods spirit
Yes, that's it, that's my notes.  The speech reached across the world and way out into the future.  It's worth reading the whole text via the link above.

My difficulty is that even the IMF still seems to see growth, ok, inclusive growth, as the answer to all things with the implication that it is a sustainable model into the medium term (many decades) future.  

I simply don't agree.  It seems to me that the emerging economies are being guided, beguiled, suckered or forced into repeating the same mistakes the developed economies have made in their financial management.  The program on China by Robert Peston this week only reinforces that view.

We need a business model for the world that is 'beyond growth'.  I say 'beyond' because clearly we need some more growth to climb out of the current mess, if that is even possible (and Moneyweek says for the UK it's not - we will apparently collapse like Greece).  However we should be thinking now about the multi-decade strategy that creates stability and prosperity (and equality) without relying solely on continued growth for ever.

Watch this space (blog) for further thinking.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Joined up Journalism

I recently rediscovered Adam Curtis, the investigative journalist and documentary film-maker.  I can't imagine what made me lose him in the first place - he's a man to follow.

I read his blog of Dec 2013 subtitled "The point at which journalism fails and modern power begins", and it gave me considerable pause for thought.

For some time I have been thinking that our global society is so complex that it's impossible to really validate any particular analysis or explanation that is offered by expert observers or the experts themselves.  To be technologically topical, the trouble with Big Data is that you can choose to slice and dice it in a way that proves the point you want to make for your own nefarious purposes.

Going back to the Curtis blog, he talks about McClure's Magazine which at the beginning of the 1900s did the first big exposé of bad practice in big business and politics.  But could the readers validate what McClure was saying?  I bet the targets of his three articles had some strong denials and counter explanations.  Or was the Magazine simply publishing on a wider scale what the readers already knew to be true?  So do we believe McClure?  How do we validate that?  Actually the answer is partly in the work at that time, because they did produce hard evidence, and partly in the lens of historical perspective, which shows the same picture from multiple sources.

Curtis says "The new journalism that McClure began spread like wildfire - and politicians took notice. They were led by the new President, Theodore Roosevelt, who decided to use the law to break the monopolies - or what he called "The Octopus" that was strangling democracy."  But Curtis makes a very simple link there, that Roosevelt took notice of McClure's journalism; that's not proved, although they apparently knew each other - Roosevelt already had a record as Police Commissioner of New York City and then Governor of New York of cleaning up the systems and removing corruption and fraud.  So do we believe Curtis?  How do we validate that? Perhaps I could if I did research beyond a quick google (which proved nothing), but is the public going to do that?  In principle I believe Curtis, or at least I believe his intentions, because of his body of work.  But it was complicated then, in 1906 - how many more times the power of ten is it complicated now?

Curtis ends with "Maybe today we are being farmed by the new system of power. But we can't see quite how it is happening - and we need a new journalism to explain what is really going on."  Yet are we not doing the investigative, exposure journalism all over the place now - wouldn't McClure be proud?  Is the problem simply that it is not joined up? And is that cock-up ... or conspiracy?  

Maybe we can't or won't join up the dots to see the biggest of pictures because the landscape is just too damned big.  And maybe because people, journalists included, have to specialise or focus on specific areas because they can't cover everything, and then they want to keep within that area in order to increase their seniority, to become an expert.

So perhaps we need a new breed of meta-journalists, who will analyse and investigate journalism and work in a very horizontal manner and try to join up the problems we see in banking, in taxation, in corporate structures, in food quality, in political management, in environmental management, in arms sales, and so on and so on.  Quite a challenge.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

The Gagging Law - still confused

So 38degrees asked me to fill in a survey, having lost the campaign to stop the component of the Lobbying Bill that will stop organisations like 38degrees campaigning on 'political' issues during the 12 months before an election.  (The vague wording here reflects my uncertainty on the detail, hence the suggestions below.)

Here's some of their questions and my answers:

What other ideas do you have for how we should handle the law?
There are a lot of simple statements, accusations and government-bashing going around.  It would be helpful to have a simple factual summary of precisely how the law restricts the normal 38degrees' activity

How would you describe to another 38 Degrees member why it’s worth carrying on campaigning?
The vote in the Lords was in effect a tie.  Therefore in principle nothing was decided, so nothing should change until it is re-examined.

Any other comments?
Presumably a number of Liberal Democrats voted for this, and yet by all accounts it is neither liberal nor democratic - could we get a LibDem MP and a Lord to explain to us precisely why they voted for it.  If we understand the other view we can spot and exploit weaknesses.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Endorphins for the mature citizen

Good news - I have discovered a couple of 'natural highs' for the older person.

As a younger man, I used to go running irregularly on some slightly spurious grounds of 'keeping fit'.  I was never really fit, and getting fit (for a non-athlete) takes a year of focused effort rather than a few weeks ... but that, as they say, is another blog.

The point is that I used to feel the 'runner's high' generally thought to be caused by endorphins - the natural narcotics in my body, triggered by the physical exercise.

Now that I'm a mature citizen (and no, I don't mean senior!), I have given up the running - I think it's too risky for my knees and ankles which, unlike hips these days, are still nasty, painful and difficult things to repair.

Instead I go walking ... and I don't mean strolling, and not quite speed walking, but certainly fast enough to get my heart-rate up and encourage me to focus on posture.  I do a 2-mile walk around Greenwich Park most mornings, and now I've been doing that for a couple of years I feel that my body (I suppose really my brain) is looking forward to it. When I can't or don't do it, I definitely feel a sense of missing something.  I may not be getting a 'walker's high' in the same way a runner does, yet there's definitely a positive feedback loop going on, and perhaps some modest endorphin production.

There's a another non-physical 'rush' I have recently identified, which is the main trigger for this blog.  When I start reading a book, fiction or non-fiction, that is absorbing, stretching, challenging, and well-written ... I feel a wave of pleasure, excitement and anticipation flow through my head.  After I put it down and continue with (get back to) work or whatever higher priority task is at hand, I can feel the book calling to me ... just as Greenwich Park does on a day when I have not walked.

The particular book that gave rise to the above is God's Debris by Scott Adams (he of Dilbert fame), and the particular rush was enhanced by stumbling across it this morning on my hard drive (it's an ebook) - I apparently downloaded it in 2006 and never got round to 'opening' it - ah those far-off days with no time to read.  It was further enhanced by the ridiculous coincidence that only yesterday I put the latest Scott Adams book onto my Amazon wishlist!  It kind-of feels the same as the 'feel-good' from physical exercise, with the added benefit that I can keep doing it for longer.

Yes, yes - I know this is my reserved time for working on my own book.  In my defence I was looking on my PC for some old notes to incorporate into my seminal work - not that I'm short of content you understand, more to show the consistency and intellectual growth of my thinking (!).  In my further defence, if I didn't take 15 minutes to write this now, it would go onto a list somewhere if it's lucky, only to fall off that list or randomly re-appear in 5 years' time ... and the world would be deprived of this content.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Self-discipline versus a wandering mind and many topics

The self-discipline explains the lack of blogging recently; I have promised myself more focus on the book I'm writing, fixed hours in the day, content targets, and less time getting distracted (interested ... puzzled ... outraged) by current affairs, science, history and anything else that wonders across my vision.

I am fond of saying that "I know a bit about quite a few things, and I have an opinion on everything";  this works well as an ice-breaker in a group of people, whether work or social.  I believe it's true, and I could spend all week blogging about topics I see in just the Saturday Guardian.  Self-discipline is hard!

I watched Professor Brian Cox recently giving a lecture on space & time - yes, it was the Science of Doctor Who, but this was proper grown-up stuff presented in a virtuosic manner.  I used to think Brian Cox was annoying but this lecture won me over.  Since then I have been thinking a lot about past and future light cones and the whole physical structure of the universe ... I haven't quite finished yet, so look out for a blog in, say, 2026.  And you still believe the bit about improved self-discipline?

My name is Nic Vine, and I find (almost) everything interesting and worthy of analysis.

Nevertheless, that one weird old tip (to use a current online vernacular) of assigning certain hours of the day as not just "writing is priority" but actually "writing is all I do" does work.  It's obvious really.  I don't know why I took so long to adopt it.  So the book will be finished in 2014, and no I'll not be tied down any further because I want it to be fun, not a millstone.

Friday, 1 November 2013

O2/Sky broadband saga resolution

So finally the saga is over - the line is fixed and I have been credited a month's charge, a whole £20, and they have promised to take up the communication/management failure between O2 and BT OpenReach.

Taking up from the last blog, then.  The engineers did arrive on 23rd as promised - a he and a she, where it appeared the she was being supervised.  She knew what she was doing, and he was checking.  Everything was alright in the house (of course), and they went off to the Exchange, leaving the pole to later if all else failed.  They could do this because he was 'frame trained' and therefore allowed into the Exchange.  They were back very promptly, it took 5 minutes to find my connection in the frame and remove a strand of wire that had fallen over it causing a short.

Aaaagh - this could have been done a week before if OpenReach had checked the Exchange then as their engineer (not frame trained) requested.  

The engineers were good enough to hang around while I checked that I had a good internet connection, even though their responsibility ends at the test socket in the wall box.  Good service from them.

So I called 800 230 0202 again, told them it was fixed, reinforced the point that we had lost a week for no good reason, and reminded them that they had promised to give me one month's credit.  The young lady in Derry said she'd do that right away.  Oh then later in the day I got another of those emails and texts telling me they are still working on our fault - this was after the text that said the fault should be fixed now - fills you with confidence, doesn't it.

I decided to wait a few days, not least to ensure the broadband was stable, before chasing the credit and entering my complaint about the whole saga.  Frankly it was a relief to not think about O2 for a few days.

Then blow me on 29 Oct we are notified of the next bill and there is no credit applied at all.  Time to immediately write a lengthy letter of complaint to laying out the whole dreadful saga.  They have a 7-day response commitment, so I duly noted it in my calendar for chasing.

Much to my surprise today, 01 Nov, I get a call from the complaintreviewservice which is apologetic, appears to genuinely understand my frustrations and the fact that errors must have been made between O2 and OpenReach, and immediately applies a £20 credit to my account (which I can see online, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this).

So will I still carry out my threat to remove broadband, home phone, mobile broadband and two mobiles from O2?  We'll all just have to wait and see ...

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Broken O2/Sky broadband and poor change management

This is a personal outpouring which nevertheless plays into my professional position as a change strategist.

Over the last 5 years my wife and I have moved to O2 for all our comms: 2 mobile phones, home phone+broadband, and mobile broadband for when we're sailing. You might say that's risky – eggs & basket – however we thought the risk was outweighed by convenience (and discounts) of one supplier, given our perception of the high quality of the O2 brand.

Until 10 days ago the service was great … well, in the sense that we rarely needed service. The occasional call on 202 or visit to an O2 shop went pretty smoothly. One problem using the mobile broadband dongle was resolved through an online chat with a Guru. The broadband in particular just worked – never needed to touch the router, wi-fi the same.

12 days ago on 9 Oct the phone and broadband just went dead. Called 800 230 0202 late in the day and they initiated a 2-hour line test straight away. Next morning it was all working again, so I called and told them this, and off we went. That seemed like good service.

The next day broadband was very slow and got worse until on 13 Oct the broadband and phone were dead again. This is where we entered the madness, and I'll spare you the blow-by-blow. Suffice to say that O2 kept saying they would call back with test results or next action and they almost never did – it was usually me calling them. The only thing in their favour is that they always answer the phone on the first ring, and the calls are free. Other factors in the frustration:
  • their telephone equipment is awful because you get huge background noise and distortion, which combined with strong Derry accents makes it hard to understand them
  • the number they had in the database to call us on was the home phone which is broken - duh
  • an engineer wasn't booked because of some problem on their system
  • I have never managed to speak to 'second level' who I believe interface with BT OpenReach, I can only get the call centre who have limited information and influence
An Openreach engineer finally came on 16 Oct, checked everything ok at the house, definitely a line problem somewhere, put in a call for someone to check the Exchange, promised he'd call me with an update … and that was the last I heard of any of that.

On 18 Oct a manager at the call centre said he'd get Level 2 to call me that day to discuss status (after putting my mobile into their database) – never happened.

On 20 Oct I spoke to another manager at the call centre, having been notified of an engineer booking for 23rd – I expressed my frustration and anger at some length, he sympathised and agreed I was not being unreasonable, I said if it is not fixed by 21st then I will be going onto social media with this, he said there's nothing he could do to get an engineer earlier. The only offer I got was that he said he'd cancel November's charges as compensation.

Now it's the 22nd and I'm expecting an engineer tomorrow morning. No pressure, but by golly he or she had better deliver.

The wider background to this, of O2 selling their broadband service to Sky, is where the change strategy comes in.** The irony is that I have just written a general blog about KIS n Tell change management, which means Keeping It Simple and communicating it well. Unfortunately O2 and Sky have failed on this, quite dramatically in my view. In the past few months I have received letters and emails advising me of the sale and reassuring me that the deals will be at least as good under Sky (so I'll still get the discount with Sky for having an O2 mobile, will I? Fantastic), and that the transition will happen by April 2014, with 2 months notice.  The main thing I want is no interruption to service, as well as no cost increase of course.

Not far into the madness summarised above it occurred to me that the transition may have started, and my breakage is a result of that. This is reinforced by the fact that we receive up to 3 emails a day branded Sky but sent from, which simply say “sorry, still working on it” with no contact details other than the head office postal address, and with links to Help and Terms which fail because is not found! We receive the same number of texts a day, saying the same thing, from 'Mybroadband” and it's not clear who that is. They both give the number of the call centre who when I asked said they ”are still O2”. My only channel of communication is with the call centre who just follow the process and cannot talk to me about the fault. Oh and they suggested I contact the complaint review service.

So in summary it's very confusing, I don't know who I'm really dealing with, and I don't have a decent channel of communication to talk to someone who knows what's really going on with my fault.

** If you are interested in change management and change strategy, you could do worse than to look at my professional site at

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Syria - still - again

Despite our Commons' vote - the right result albeit perhaps by accident - we need to be vigilant.  With the Americans now beginning to say they will make a bigger strike in which amounts to regime-change, and some UK MPs saying they want another vote, there is still a danger that we will be party to a huge military mistake ... again.

We must continue the pressure on our elected representatives, directly and indirectly, to avoid military action and focus on diplomatic and humanitarian actions.  
It's as simple as that.

If you see two people fighting you don't rush up and stab the one you think is most at fault.  Bombing, no matter how surgical the strike is intended to be, is an escalation of the violence and that is not a humanitarian act and it is not what the British people want. 

The cost of a military strike should instead be spent on UN-organised aid all around Syria's borders for the refugees, and the political effort of a military strike should instead be expended upon diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the civil war.  There are no simple answers, as there were none in Afghanistan and Iraq before, both with dreadful continuing violence.  As a nation and a UN member we need to relentlessly support democracy and help in brokering peace at every possible moment.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Syria - NO to UK military action

I sent the following message today to my MP, Nick Raynsford (Lab), Vince Cable (LibDem), and Lord Strathclyde (Con), Leader of the Lords - it's not well researched or cross-referenced, and it's not beautiful English ... it's what I feel and there's no time to spare:

I do not wish the UK to take any action using military force in Syria, nor to support the USA or any other country in so doing.
I implore you to search your conscience on the question of the UK becoming involved in the Syrian civil war, and then to vote against any such motion.
Chemical weapons are an emotive issue, yet as a country we must proceed logically.  Let me make just a few points:
  1. of course our armed forces, and those of the USA and possibly even the French, are eager to do what they are trained for, to exercise their skills to their best ability - which is why their counsel should not be the only one
  2. we should listen with equal weight to those with very similar experience who are now retired and therefore have no particular incentive - every one I have heard has counselled against military action
  3. it is not logical to think that we can make some kind of strike that will (a) only hit the chemical weapons installations, (b) have the effect of stopping the use of chemical weapons again, and (c) not have any knock-on effects in the region and our relationship with all the players in the Middle East
  4. have you stopped to consider why this chemical weapon attack was in a part of Damascus and why the televison coverage of the aftermath was so detailed?  We don't normally see people dying on our screens.  Is it possible that the Assad regime want the West to strike at him, that this will strengthen him and further his agenda?  Furthermore have you considered that by firing upon Assad's forces we are militarily siding with the opposition, and means we are at risk of providing help to Al Qaeda elements
  5. finally to say the unsayable:  why is the use of chemical weapons a call to arms for western countries when Syria has been murdering hundreds of civilians with bombs and bullets for months?;  if we are so horrified by death at the hands of government why don't we intervene in Egypt?
Of course civil war is appalling and the deaths of civilians is horrifying;  we should be doing everything in our power socially and economically to calm the 'fire' of civil war, to provide humanitarian aid, to support the surrounding countries in containing knock-on effects.

Please vote against any motion that instructs or encourages the UK to use or support military force in Syria.