democracy unchained

Conspiracy theories usually turn out to be just that – theories. That doesn’t mean conspiracies don’t happen. Nancy MacLean, a social historian, uncovered one by chance. It’s a big conspiracy with potentially catastrophic consequences for most of us. You can read its well-documented history in her book Democracy in Chains (there’s a review here). This post is about the ideas behind it.

Friedman to Buchanan

Nancy MacLean is William H Chafe Professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University, North Carolina. In 2013, she was researching the use of education vouchers during the somewhat chequered history of public education in Virginia. In Milton Friedman’s papers on the subject, she noticed a couple of footnotes referring to James McGill Buchanan, a Nobel prize-winning economist who’d died earlier that year. MacLean became curious about Buchanan’s contribution and visited the archive of his work at George Mason University (GMU) in Virginia, where he’d been based. ‘Archive’ usually means shelves of carefully organised, neatly labelled papers. Instead, Buchanan’s work had simply been stacked in his former office. MacLean started at the door and began to work her way round the room…

Buchanan to Koch

What she first discovered was letters referring to Charles Koch’s investment of millions of dollars in Buchanan’s research centre at GMU, The Center for Study of Public Choice. Koch, a brilliant engineer who became a multi-billionaire via the family’s oil business, wanted a ‘climate of liberty’ in which entrepreneurship could flourish, but that wasn’t likely to happen in a world where entrepreneurs were ‘drastically underappreciated and overcontrolled’ (p.132). Koch wanted to change all that. His financial support of politically conservative research organisations was no secret. What wasn’t clear until MacLean read Buchanan’s papers, was how the organisations that Koch supported were connected, how they influenced the Republican party, or that Buchanan was the missing link.

Calhoun to Buchanan

To understand Buchanan’s views, we need to take a closer look at the ideas held by a man who inspired him. He was John C Calhoun, a contemporary of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, who became 7th Vice President of the United States.

John Calhoun’s grandfather, Patrick, had migrated to Pennsylvania from County Donegal. Calhoun’s father (also Patrick) had settled in South Carolina in the mid-18th century. When the younger Patrick died in 1796, the 14 year-old John found himself in charge of a group of local farms. This interrupted his studies but his brothers eventually paid for him to attend Yale College. He went on to read law, was elected to the House of Representatives in 1810, and by 1824 was a Presidential candidate.

Calhoun was renowned for his robust opinions. He had especially strong views about taxation – taxes were of course a sore point at the time and had been a major factor in the United States declaring independence. What Calhoun objected to was governments having the power to tax wealthy citizens to fund public projects (roads, canals, bridges, schools etc) over which the citizens in question had no direct control. He objected particularly to other groups of less wealthy citizens being able to put pressure collectively on politicians to raise taxes to fund such projects. Calhoun felt the US Constitution didn’t go far enough to prevent the majority limiting the liberty of a minority. MacLean summarises his view as “if something must be sacrificed to square the circle between economic liberty and political liberty, it was political liberty” (p.4).

Calhoun drew attention to a fundamental difficulty with democracy as a political system. Democracy is supposed to defend the liberty of all citizens. But one-person-one-vote means that the majority prevails, and can restrict the liberty of a minority. (Brexit being a case in point.)

It’s easy to see why Calhoun’s ideas appealed to a wealthy minority in the Southern states. MacLean points out that in 1860 two-thirds of Americans with wealth exceeding $100k lived south of the Mason-Dixon line (p.2). Like Calhoun, they saw themselves as self-made men, and objected to governments being able to appropriate their hard-earned cash. What they and Calhoun conveniently overlooked was that most of their wealth had accumulated as a result of the labour of another minority – slaves. The slaves’ contribution was viewed merely another means of production, alongside horses and the cotton gin.

Calhoun’s ideas took a back seat following the defeat of the Confederates at the end of the Civil War, but they were never forgotten in the Southern states, and were revived in the 1950s by the economist James McGill Buchanan.

public choice economics

Buchanan called his field of research public choice economics.  He was particularly interested in government incentives. He’d observed that whatever their political persuasion, governments tend to behave in very similar ways. Buchanan wasn’t an impartial, disinterested academic, but one with a political agenda. He was especially bothered by how organised groups of people could control government policy by threatening not to vote for representatives who didn’t support their demands. And like Calhoun he objected to individuals being taxed to pay for public projects they didn’t necessarily approve of.

Buchanan decided that the only way to stop what he considered to be legally sanctioned gangsterism (p.xxiv) was to dismantle the institutions causing it, and to do so in a way that would make it very difficult to reinstate them in future. Koch had been told that Lenin had written the playbook for social and political change (p.xxviii), and proceeded to take some leaves from that book. He knew his economic and political model would be unpopular, and that change would need to be stealthy, piecemeal and gradual. Buchanan knew how to implement those changes.

change in Chile

Buchanan had the chance to test his plan following a visit to Chile in 1980. Augusto Pinochet, commander-in-chief of the Chilean Army, had declared himself President in 1974 following the military coup during the previous year.  In 1978 he appointed José Piñera as Secretary of Labor and Social Security. Piñera was one of the ‘Chicago Boys’, a group of Chilean economists who’d studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. (Buchanan and Friedman had both studied at Chicago and were contemporaries there from 1946 until Buchanan moved to the University of Virginia).

Piñera’s gift to the Chilean people was ‘the seven modernisations’ (pp.156-7):

  • ban industry-wide unions
  • privatise social security
  • privatise healthcare
  • open agriculture to market forces
  • transform the judiciary
  • limit regulation
  • introduce k-12 school vouchers.

Friedman had visited Chile in 1975, and has since defended his role as an economic adviser to Pinochet. Buchanan visited in 1980, shortly after a purge of ‘politically unreliable’ university teachers. He had been invited to advise on a new national Constitution. Buchanan advocated (p.159):

  • severe restrictions on the power of government
  • no spending without prior taxation
  • a balanced budget
  • an independent central bank
  • new expenses to be approved by a ‘supermajority’ – 2/3 or 5/6.

The stealthiest of Buchanan’s reforms was the apparently innocuous use of fine print. The level of detail of Chile’s Constitution of Liberty (named after Hayek’s book) rendered it ‘virtually unamendable’ (p.161). The Pinochet regime was ousted in 1989, but Michelle Bachelet, elected President in 2013, still struggled to implement the changes she planned due to the Chilean Constitution’s ‘locks and bolts’ (p.168).

For Charles Koch, Buchanan not only leant academic weight to his mission, but had figured out a way of bringing about the kind of world Koch envisaged. In 1997 Koch supported the James Buchanan Center at George Mason with a gift of $10m.   It’s important to note at this point that we’re not talking here about ideas that are merely ‘right wing’. Buchanan didn’t want a right wing takeover; he wanted to demolish the institutions integral to liberal democracies.  His plan for doing just that was implemented in Chile and according to MacLean, is currently being rolled out for the rest of us.  MacLean tells the compelling and well-documented story in Democracy in Chains. What intrigued me is why Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas had such appeal.

the appeal of ideas

The logical outcome of Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas is a plutocracy – control by the wealthy. It’s been argued that the USA had become a plutocracy after the ‘Gilded Age’ following the Civil War, when a handful of very wealthy men had considerable influence in the Senate.  It was a phenomenon that greatly exercised President Theodore Roosevelt – who used antitrust legislation to break up the largest corporations.

38_00392

A related outcome is oligarchy – control in the hands of a few. Robert Michels, a German economist who eventually joined Mussolini’s fascist party, argued that oligarchy was the natural outcome of any large organisation, because only a few people involved could possibly have access to all the information they needed to run it. Michels called this outcome an ‘iron law’ and pointed out that many ostensibly democratic institutions were in fact oligarchies.   Plutocracies and oligarchies might be the natural outcomes of human societies but a description isn’t a prescription.

Human beings have a tendency to lie, cheat, steal and fight each other, but such behaviour is seriously detrimental to us, so we have laws to limit it. And it was problems with oligarchy that resulted in the first recorded democracy in ancient Athens. Democracy is by no means problem-free, but as Churchill is reputed to have said “Democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others.” Democratic institutions are swimming against the tide of natural outcomes, so are in a constant struggle to find the checks and balances to keep democratic systems democratic.

It’s easy to see why Calhoun’s ideas appealed to wealthy plantation owners, and Buchanan’s appealed to wealthy business owners. What’s puzzling is why anyone would consider those ideas a suitable foundation for a political/economic system. After all, slaves are rarely happy about being slaves, even if the alternative is begging on the streets. And the poor don’t usually like being poor – especially if they’re being kept poor by the wealthy. History demonstrates that oligarchies and plutocracies aren’t sustainable and usually end in tears, often those of the plutocrats and oligarchs as well as everybody else. So why did Calhoun’s and Buchanan’s ideas catch on amongst the political/economic movers and shakers?

I think there are several reasons, all to do with the way human cognition works. Over millennia, our brains have developed default cognitive strategies that maximise our chances of survival. If faced with an immediate threat to life or limb, we don’t have time to gather all relevant information, work through decisions logically and systematically, and weigh up the possible outcomes. We stand a much better chance of surviving if we process only information that’s immediately relevant, take the first decision that makes sense, and prioritise our own interests.

The problem with these strategies is that they are default strategies. They’re the ones we tend to use first and fast and that result in plausible – and often premature – conclusions. And they’re the opposite of the strategies needed for long-term, sustainable political and economic planning. Here are some of the default strategies key features:

cognitive load

Our working memories can handle only a small amount of information at any one time; we have a low cognitive load. That protects us from being overwhelmed by information and paralysed by choice. But when dealing with complex matters like public policy, it means we have to make a conscious effort to consider all relevant information, not just the first three bits that spring to mind.

incomplete information

Due to the limitations of cognitive load, we make many decisions based on incomplete information. The planters represented by Calhoun  liked the Athenian idea of direct democracy – citizens voting on every decision, with women, children, slaves, freed slaves and foreigners excluded. But the fledgling American republic was trying an experiment; a representative democracy with a broader franchise. No one could have known at the time how that would pan out.

prioritising self-interest

If we’re making decisions based on incomplete information, even the most altruistic of us have more information about ourselves than about others, so our own interests tend to carry more weight.

ingroups and outgroups

First noted by Henri Tajfel when researching social identity, people tend to identify with others whom they perceive as like them (ingroup), and differentiate themselves from people they perceive as different (outgroup). Outgroups are often viewed as more homogeneous than they actually are, and are often viewed negatively.

aversion to loss

People prefer avoiding a loss to making a gain of equivalent value. Representative egalitarian democracies that redistribute wealth do result in significant losses for slave owning planters or billionaire businessmen. Their aversion to prospective losses despite their considerable wealth isn’t surprising.  Even if the plantation owners and billionaires were the most compassionate, altruistic and public-spirited persons imaginable, they would still have to work at not focussing on a few issues only, seeing other demographic groups as negative ‘others’, and seeing their contribution to the common good as a loss.

Calhoun and Buchanan

I think we can cut Calhoun a bit of slack because neither he nor anyone else could have predicted how the American experiment with representative democracy would pan out.  Buchanan is a different matter.  He would have been aware of the plutocracy that emerged from the Gilded Age, the need for Theodore Roosevelt’s antitrust legislation and the Wall Street crash – its impact mitigated by Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal.  But his interpretation of events wasn’t the orthodox one.

Although Calhoun and Buchanan paid considerable attention to detail, they paid less attention to the framework within which they were working. Although ostensibly concerned about the tyranny of the majority, their focus was on the threat a representative democracy represented to the wealth and property of a small number of individuals, and on the risks of corruption and freeloading by government officials.  What they glossed over was the contribution to the wealth of individuals made by the slaves and the poor, the misery caused by slavery and poverty, and corruption and freeloading in non-democratic governments.

Liberal democracies are by no means problem-free, but the last 200 years shows they’ve had better outcomes overall than plutocracies and oligarchies. Dismantling the democratic institutions that limit corruption and offer protection to the most vulnerable is likely to have catastrophic consequences. But if Nancy MacLean is right, dismantling democratic institutions is exactly what Buchanan’s followers are intent on doing.

reference

MacLean, N (2017).  Democracy in Chains:  The deep history of the radical right’s stealth plan for America. Penguin.

acknowledgement

Cartoon by By Joseph Ferdinand Keppler – http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/art/artifact/Ga_Cartoon/Ga_cartoon_38_00392.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24889994

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life as a lobster

Jordan Peterson is a controversial figure. He’s made some provocative statements in interviews and discussions. And inconsistent ones. One inconsistency was in his (in)famous interview with Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMcjxSThD54, on the subject of the gender pay gap. Peterson says it doesn’t exist (5m45s). Later, when Newman refers to his comment, he denies that’s what he said. He should, of course, have said that’s not what he meant. But then he adds “Because I’m very, very, very careful with my words” (8m27s).  Verbal slips are easy to make. I guessed Peterson might be more careful in his writing, and might present a clearer picture of his worldview. So I read 12 Rules For Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

The rules emerged from Peterson’s experience as a clinical psychologist and had proved popular on the Quora website. Each rule gets a chapter in the book, explaining its rationale. Peterson’s worldview is grounded in ancient myths that have stood the test of time and resonate with us today. Fundamental, for him, is the yin-yang principle; the interdependence of two opposite forces, notably order/chaos and masculine/feminine. He’s also intrigued by the account in the book of Genesis of chaos, order, man, woman and the consequences of sin.

lobster life

Peterson draws further support for his philosophical framework from comparative zoology – in the form of lobsters. Lobsters are crustaceans, an ancient sub-phylum believed to have arisen around 350m years ago. Male lobsters compete for territory using aggressive displays and sometimes fights, resulting in a social dominance hierarchy. Female lobsters choose dominant male lobsters to mate with, so high status lobsters get the best territory and “all the girls”. A lobster’s social status is mediated by serotonin, a neurotransmitter with a role in the human nervous system. In lobsters and humans, social status correlates positively with serotonin levels.

What this means for Peterson, is that biology determines culture. “…the dominance hierarchy, however social or cultural it might appear, has been around for some half a billion years. It’s permanent. It’s real. The dominance hierarchy is not capitalism…communism…the military-industrial complex. It’s not the patriarchy – that disposable, malleable, arbitrary cultural artefact. It’s not even a human creation; not in the most profound sense. It is instead a near-eternal aspect of the environment, and much of what is blamed on these more ephemeral manifestations is a consequence of its unchanging existence…There is little more natural than culture. Dominance hierarchies are older than trees.” (p.14)

If lobsters and humans exhibit dominance hierarchies mediated by serotonin, Peterson reasons, the dominance hierarchy must be what drives their behaviour and its outcomes. “There is an unspeakably primordial calculator, deep within you, at the very foundation of your brain… It monitors exactly where you are positioned in society… If you’re number one… you’re an overwhelming success. If you’re male, you have preferential access to the best places to live and highest-quality food. People compete to do you favours. You have limitless opportunity for romantic and sexual contact. You are a successful lobster and the most desirable females line up and vie for your attention.” (p.15)

Note that Peterson is not talking to lobsters here – in the next paragraph he refers to the “verbal tricks and strategies” available to high status females. But in Peterson’s model serotonin doesn’t result in the disorder of unfettered competition; it leads to order because high status humans in whom “the serotonin flows freely“, are “confident and calm, standing tall and straight. You can delay gratification, without forgoing it forever. You can afford to be a reliable and thoughtful citizen.” (p.17)

The passages I’ve quoted are in the chapter about Rule 1: Stand up Straight with Your Shoulders Back. Peterson’s argument is essentially that Nature is Nature and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better. The argument is a persuasive one. But the evidence Peterson marshals for it is highly selective. What he doesn’t say is as important as what he does say. Let’s start with serotonin.

serotonin

Serotonin is far more ancient than lobsters. It’s made by all bilateral animals, which first appeared around 550m years ago. It’s also found in many plants and some species of amoeba. Most of those organisms don’t have dominance hierarchies. That’s because serotonin’s role is primarily to mediate the perception of resources – usually food. It’s no accident that most human serotonin is produced in the gut, where it regulates intestinal movement. In the brain, the serotonin pathway works in concert with dopamine pathway that mediates reward. It’s only a couple of short steps in neurological terms, to associate food with territory, then territory with social dominance signals. So it’s not surprising that neurologically more complex animals have made that connection.

male and female

Then there’s male and female. Peterson claims “when we first began to perceive the unknown, chaotic, non-animal world, we used categories that had originally evolved to represent the pre-human animal social world. …Our most basic category – as old, in some sense as the sexual act itself – appears to be that of sex, make and female. We appear to have taken that primordial knowledge of structured, creative opposition and begun to interpret everything through its lens.” (p.40, Peterson’s emphasis.)

Peterson assumes that if a category distinction is used by an entire species, or by several species, it must be ‘inbuilt’. This is a risky assumption. It was what zoologists assumed about imprinting (newly hatched birds following their mother/other conspecific/primary carer) until Konrad Lorenz discovered they would follow his wading boots if they were the first thing the hatchlings saw. And there’s been a heated dispute for decades over whether the structure of language is hardwired or constructed or both, but you’d never know from Peterson’s account that there is any biological evidence suggesting that the male/female categories, (as opposed to male/female biological characteristics) might be constructed rather than inbuilt.

He overlooks research showing that infants construct categories from the features of things in their environment such as sounds (e.g. Kuhn, 2004) or objects (e.g. Rakison & Oakes, 2008). The research shows that categories develop as the children’s knowledge of the environment increases. This suggests that if young animals are surrounded by conspecifics that generally show sexual dimorphism, they will start to form the categories male/female. It doesn’t follow that there are no alternatives. On the contrary, some crustaceans are hermaphrodites and parthenogenesis (producing viable, but unfertilised eggs) is not uncommon. Similarly, although sexual dimorphism is typical of human beings, there’s a range of biological variations on that theme in homo sapiens.

Peterson also conflates sex with gender. Sex is a set of biological characteristics. Gender is a social construct. Biology largely determines sex. It plays an important role in determining gender, but many other factors come into play.  Peterson doesn’t have much time for social constructs, which is odd, because that’s what myths are.

myths

Peterson’s focus is on order/chaos and masculine/feminine; order is inherently masculine (“the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine” p.40) and chaos, presumably, inherently feminine. There are many other opposites in life of course; pleasure/pain, loss/gain, activity/rest etc. But pleasure, gain and rest don’t feature much in Peterson’s world. We’re told “life is suffering” (pp.161, 227) and reminded that it’s “nasty, brutish and short” (p.177). There are many references to the fall of Adam and Eve, Cain’s resentment and murder of his brother, and the suffering of Jesus on the Cross.

Peterson says myths are “moral in their intent, rather than descriptive” (p.xxvii). For him “the great stories of the past” have “more to do with developing character in the face of suffering than with happiness” (p.xxvii). He can’t seem to decide whether his worldview is prescriptive or descriptive; whether it’s about what life should be like, or what it is like.  On the one hand, he can’t emphasise enough the grim factual realities of life – “life is suffering” and “dominance hierarchies are older than trees“. On the other hand, he blithely ignores facts about serotonin, crustacean reproduction, and human cognition that don’t support his model.

And despite citing considerable evidence showing that lobster dominance hierarchies hinge on whichever lobsters are more physically powerful, he denies Jacques Derrida’s claim that power is a prime determinant of human social status on the grounds that … it shouldn’t be. “In well-functioning societies, competence, not power is a prime determiner of status” (p.313). Wasn’t that Derrida’s point – that few societies are well-functioning?

For Peterson, “life is suffering” and the way to deal with that is “to stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open” (p.27). I understand why he wouldn’t advocate untrammelled hedonism as a guiding principle, but in reality life is more of a mixed bag. Once our basic needs are met we don’t spend all our time fighting over who gets first dibs on resources or mates; we sing, dance, tell stories, play games, solve problems and make stuff. We often do those things very well, to our enjoyment and the benefit of others.

Nor do people usually select mates by behaving like lobsters. It might feel like women get to do all the choosing if you’re a young man with low social status living in North America, but for much of human history, women have rarely had much choice about anything. One mate selection strategy popular with top human lobsters was droit du seigneur. Not popular with anyone else, however, so most communities make other arrangements.

conclusion

Much of what Peterson says is true, and most of his 12 rules are sensible, in principle at least. His arguments are plausible and convincingly made. But although his worldview is based on evidence, it’s based on only some evidence. He doesn’t consider evidence that doesn’t support his hypotheses.

He plays to the disappointment, resentment and fears of young white, North American males.  Their feelings might be real, and might need attending to, but that doesn’t make them normative. Peterson’s entire worldview appears to be constructed around how tough it is to be one of them.

His worldview is also internally contradictory. He points out “Here’s the fundamental problem: group identity can be fractionated right down to the level of the individual. That sentence should be written in capital letters. Every person is unique – and not just in a trivial manner: importantly, significantly, meaningfully unique. Group membership cannot capture that variability. Period.” (p.316)

Absolutely.  So where does that leave Peterson’s sweeping generalisations? Maybe he needs to be more careful with his words.

references

Kuhl, P. (2004). Early language acquisition: Cracking the speech code. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 5, 831-843.

Rakison DH & Oakes, LM (eds) (2003). Early category and concept development: Making sense of the blooming, buzzing confusion.  Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

biologically primary and secondary knowledge?

David Geary is an evolutionary psychologist who developed the concept of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge, popular with some teachers. I’ve previously critiqued Geary’s ideas as he set them out in a chapter entitled Educating the Evolved Mind. One teacher responded by suggesting I read Geary’s The Origin of Mind because it explained his ideas in more detail. So I did.

Geary’s theory

If I’ve understood correctly, Geary’s argument goes like this:

The human body and brain have evolved over time in response to environmental pressures ranging from climate and diet through to social interaction. For Geary, social interaction is a key driver of evolved brain structures because social interactions can increase the resources available to individuals.

Environmental pressures have resulted in the evolution of brain ‘modules’ specialising in processing certain types of information, such as language or facial features. Information is processed by the modules rapidly, automatically and implicitly, resulting in heuristics (rules of thumb) characteristic of the ‘folk’ psychology, biology and physics that form the default patterns for the way we think. But we are also capable of flexible thought that overrides those default patterns. The flexibility is due to the highly plastic frontal areas of our brain responsible for intelligence. Geary refers to the thinking using the evolved modules as biologically primary, and that involving the plastic frontal areas as biologically secondary.

Chapters 2 & 3 of The Origin of Mind offer a clear, coherent account of Darwinian and hominid evolution respectively. They’d make a great resource for teachers. But when Geary moves on to cognition his model begins to get a little shaky – because it rests on several assumptions.

Theories about evolution of the brain are inevitably speculative because brain tissue decomposes and the fossil record is incomplete. Theories about brain function also involve speculation because our knowledge about how brains work is incomplete. There’s broad agreement on the general principles, but some hypotheses have generated what Geary calls ‘hot debate’. Despite acknowledging the debates, Geary’s model is built on assumptions about which side of the debate is correct. The assumptions involve the modularity of the brain, folk systems, intelligence, and motivation-to-control.

modularity

The general principle of modularity – that there are specific areas of the brain dedicated to processing specific types of information – is not in question. What is less clear is how specialised the modules are. For example, the fusiform face area (FFA) specialises in processing information about faces. But not just faces. It has also been shown to process information about cars, birds, butterflies, chess pieces, Digimon, and novel items called greebles. This raises the question of whether the FFA evolved to process information about faces as such (the Face Specific Hypothesis), or to process information about objects requiring fine-grained discrimination (the Expertise Hypothesis). Geary comes down on the Faces side of the debate on the grounds that the FFA does not “generally respond to other types of objects … that do not have facelike features, except in individuals with inherent sociocognitive deficits, such as autism” (p.141). Geary is entitled to his view, but that’s not the only interpretation of the evidence.

folk systems

The general principle of ‘folk’ systems – evolved forms of thought that result from information being processed rapidly, automatically and implicitly – is also not in question. Geary admits it’s unclear whether the research is “best understood in terms of inherent modular constraints, or as the result of general learning mechanisms” but comes down on the side of children’s thinking being the result of “inherent modular systems”.  I couldn’t find a reference to Eleanor Rosch’s prototype theory developed in the 1970s, which explains folk categories in terms of general learning mechanisms. And it’s regrettable that Rakison & Oakes’ 2008 review of research into how children form categories (that also lends weight to the general learning mechanisms hypothesis) wasn’t published until three years after The Origin of Mind. I don’t know whether either would have prompted Geary to amend his theory.

intelligence

In 1904 Charles Spearman published a review of attempts to measure intellectual ability. He concluded that the correlations between various specific abilities indicated “that there really exists a something that we may provisionally term “General Sensory Discrimination” and similarly a “General Intelligence”” (Spearman p.272).

It’s worth looking at what the specific abilities included. Spearman ranks (p. 276) in order of their correlation with ‘General Intelligence’, performance in: Classics, Common Sense, Pitch Discrimination, French, Cleverness, English, Mathematics, Pitch Discrimination among the uncultured, Music, Light Discrimination and Weight Discrimination.

So, measures of school performance turned out to be good predictors of school performance. The measures of school performance correlated strongly with ‘General Intelligence’ – a construct derived from… the measures of school performance. This tautology wasn’t lost on other psychologists and Spearman’s conclusions received considerable criticism. As Edwin Boring pointed out in 1923, ‘intelligence’ is defined by the content of ‘intelligence’ tests. The correlations between specific abilities and the predictive power of intelligence tests are well-established. What’s contentious is whether they indicate the existence of an underlying ‘general mental ability’.

Geary says the idea that children’s intellectual functioning can be improved is ‘hotly debated’ (p.295). But he appears to look right past the even hotter debate that’s raged since Spearman’s work was published, about whether the construct general intellectual ability (g) actually represents ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. Geary assumes it does, and also accepts Cattell’s later constructs crystallised and fluid intelligence without question.

Clearly some people are more ‘intelligent’ than others, so the idea of g initially appears valid. But ‘intelligence’ is, ironically, a ‘folk’ construct. It’s a label we apply to a set of loosely defined characteristics – a useful shorthand descriptive term. It doesn’t follow that ‘intelligence’ is a biologically determined ‘something’ that ‘really exists’.

motivation-to-control

The motivation to control relationships, events and resources is a key part of Geary’s theory. He argues that motivation-to-control is an evolved disposition (inherent in the way people think) that manifests itself most clearly in the behaviour of despots – who seek to maximise their control of resources. Curiously, in referring to despots, Geary cites a paper by Herb Simon (Simon, 1990) on altruism (a notoriously knotty problem for evolution researchers). Geary describes an equally successful alternative strategy to despotism, not as altruism but as “adherence to [social] laws and mores”, even though the evidence suggests altruism is an evolved disposition, not merely a behaviour.

Altruism calls into question the control part of the motivation-to-control hypothesis. Many people have a tendency to behave in ways that increase their control of resources, but many tend to collaborate and co-operate instead, strategies that increase individual access to resources, despite reducing individual control over them. The altruism debate is another that’s been going on for decades, but you wouldn’t know that to read Geary.

Then there’s the motivation part. Like ‘intelligence’, ‘motivation’ is a label for a loosely defined bunch of factors that provide incentives for behaviour. ‘Motivation’ is a useful label. But again it doesn’t follow that ‘motivation’ is ‘a something’ that ‘really exists’. The biological mechanisms involved in the motivation to eat or drink are unlikely to be the same as those involved in wanting to marry the boss’s daughter or improve on our personal best for the half-marathon. The first two examples are likely to increase our access to resources; whether they increase our control over them will depend on the circumstances. Geary doesn’t explain the biological mechanism involved.

biologically primary and secondary knowledge

In The Origin of Mind, Geary touches on the idea of biologically primary and secondary competencies and abilities but doesn’t go into detail about their implications for education. Instead, he illustrates the principle by referring to the controlled problem solving used by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in tackling the problem of how different species had arisen.

Geary says that such problem solving requires the inhibition of ‘heuristic-based folk systems’ (p.197), and repeatedly proposes (pp.188, 311, 331, 332) that the prior knowledge of scientific pioneers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace “arose from evolved folk biological systems…as elaborated by associated academic learning” (p.188). He cites as evidence the assumptions resulting from religious belief made by anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen (p.187), and Wallace’s reference to an ‘Overruling Intelligence’ being behind natural selection (p.83). But this proposal is problematic, for three reasons:

The first problem is that some ‘evolved’ folk knowledge is explicit, not implicit. Belief in a deity is undoubtedly folk knowledge; societies all over the world have come up with variations on the concept. But the folk knowledge about religious beliefs is usually culturally transmitted to children, rather than generated by them spontaneously.

Another difficulty is that thinkers such as Linnaeus, Darwin and Wallace had a tendency to be born into scholarly families, so their starting point, even as young children, would not have been merely ‘folk biological systems’. And each of the above had the advantage of previous researchers having already reduced the problem space.

A third challenge is that heuristics aren’t exclusively biologically primary; they can be learned, as Geary points out, via biologically secondary knowledge (p.185).

So if biologically primary knowledge sometimes involves explicit instruction, and biologically secondary knowledge can result in the development of fast, automatic, implicit heuristics, how can we tell which type of knowledge is which?

use of evidence

Geary accepts contentious constructs such as motivation, intelligence and personality (p.319) without question. And he appears to have a rather unique take on concepts such as bounded rationality (p.172), satisficing (p. 173) and schemata (p.186).

In addition, Geary’s evidence is not always contentious; sometimes it’s his conclusions that are tenuous. For example, he predicts that if social competition were a driving force during evolution, “a burning desire to master algebra or Newtonian physics will not be universal or even common. Surveys of the attitudes and preferences of American schoolchildren support this prediction and indicate that they value achievement in sports … much more than achievement in any academic area” (pp.334-5), citing a 1993 paper by Eccles et al. The ‘surveys’ were two studies, the ‘American schoolchildren’ 865 elementary school students, the ‘attitudes and preferences’ competence beliefs and task values, and the ‘academic areas’ math, reading and music. Responses show some statistically significant differences. Geary appears to overegg the evidential pudding somewhat, and to completely look past the possibility that there might be culturally transmitted factors involved.

conclusion

I find Geary’s model perplexing. Most of the key links in it – brain evolution, brain modularity, the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking, motivation and intelligence – involve highly contentious hypotheses.  Geary mentions the ‘hot debates’ but doesn’t go into detail. He simply comes down on one side of the debate and builds his model on the assumption that that side is correct.

He appears to have developed an overarching model of cognition and learning and squeezed the evidence into it, rather than building the model according to the evidence. The problem with the second approach of course, is that if the evidence is inconclusive, you can’t develop an overarching model of cognition and learning without it being highly speculative.

What also perplexes me about Geary’s model is its purpose. Teachers have been aware of the difference between implicit and explicit learning (even if they didn’t call it that) for centuries. It’s useful for them to know about brain evolution and modularity and the heuristics and biases that result in ‘folk’ thinking etc. But teachers can usually spot whether children are learning something apparently effortlessly (implicitly) or whether they need step-by-step (explicit) instruction. That’s essentially why teachers exist. Why do they need yet another speculative educational model?

references

Eccles, J., Wigfield, A., Harold, R.D.,  & Blumenfeld, P. (1993). Age and gender differences in children’s self‐and task perceptions during elementary school, Child Development, 64, 830-847.

Gauthier, I., Tarr, M.J., Anderson, A.W., Skudlarski, P. & Gore, J.C.  (1999). Activation of the middle fusiform ‘face area’ increases with expertise in recognizing novel objects, Nature Neuroscience, 2, 568-573.

Rakison, D.H.  & Oakes L.M. (eds) (2008). Early Category and Concept Development.  Oxford University Press.

Simon, H.A. (1990). A mechanism for social selection and successful altruism. Science, 250, 1665-1668.

Spearman, C.  (1904).  ‘General Intelligence’ objectively determined and measured.  The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-292.

 

 

Home education: the consultation

I’ve just submitted my response to the government consultation on home education (closes 2 July). The consultation documents (a call for evidence, and proposed guidance for local authorities and for parents) are the most poorly drafted I’ve ever seen. Home education is an obscure area of the law. Here’s why I’m interested…and why you should be too.

it’s confusing

Home education is described as ‘elective’ because parents choose it. There wasn’t much choice in our case. One kid wasn’t well enough to continue attending school, but the local authority (said it) couldn’t provide home tuition because the consultant couldn’t give a date for return to school. School provision for the other fell apart after the school’s brilliant SENCO left and we couldn’t find a nearby suitable alternative.

When we started home-educating, the LA offered a visit from an ‘adviser’. I accepted – I did have a few SEN questions.  But the ‘adviser’ said he couldn’t advise because home education was my responsibility; his job was to assess the suitability of my provision. He arranged for a colleague with SEN experience to visit. The colleague was willing to advise, but his advice contradicted that of the occupational therapist. I didn’t accept any more home visits.

My local authority isn’t the only one confused about its duties towards home-educated children. At least two sets of government guidelines have been issued to clarify LA obligations, the most recent in 2007. In 2009, the then Labour government commissioned a review of elective home education by Graham Badman, newly appointed chair of Haringey Local Children’s Safeguarding Board in the wake of the Baby P tragedy. (I’ve blogged about the political background to the Badman review here.)

it’s the law

The current legislative model for home education starts with an education suitable for the individual child. Parents have a legal duty to cause their child to have such an education (s.7 Education Act 1996) – wherever it takes place. LAs should make enquiries ‘if it appears’ a child isn’t receiving a suitable education (s.437(1) EA 1996), and must make arrangements for identifying children not receiving a suitable education (s.436A EA 1996).

In other words, parents are assumed to be complying with the law unless there is evidence indicating they might not be, at which point the LA can take action. This model is commonly applied in respect of other legal duties for individuals (e.g. taxation, vehicle registration). It’s not watertight – no model is – but it’s the most effective approach we’ve found to date.

Graham Badman’s conceptual model of the legislative framework was different. He saw home education as requiring a ‘balance’ between the parent’s and the child’s rights. But parents don’t have a ‘right’ to home educate, they have a duty to provide a suitable education. And legislation has to take into account the interests of different parties within the existing legislative framework, not to ‘balance’ rights regardless of the framework.

Badman’s conceptual model was way off the mark, but at least he explained it, and his recommendations were internally consistent with it, even if they were at odds with the legislative framework. The new proposals are all over the place.

why consult?

The consultation was prompted by “lacunae or shortcomings in the current legislation which have been drawn to the department’s attention by local authorities and by local children’s safeguarding boards” (2.3)*, i.e. organisations experiencing ‘confusion’ (2.3e), being involved in frequent disputes with parents (5.4), and for whom the previous guidelines had to be written. Despite very diverse views about legislation amongst home-educating families, there’s no indication they were involved in framing the consultation documents.

Local authorities’ main concerns are:

  • Home-educated children being radicalised.
  • Children attending unregistered schools under the guise of being home-educated.
  • LAs being unable to identify children not receiving a suitable education unless they know the identities of home-educated children, can find out whether or not a child’s education is suitable, and can monitor it regularly.
  • Home-educated children might be at risk of harm.
  • Some parents “willing and able to be fined repeatedly can continue unsatisfactory provision of home education indefinitely” (L6.20).

The focus of the consultation documents is on compiling registers of children and the sanctions that can be imposed on parents who don’t co-operate with the local authority, rather than on how best to ensure all children get the suitable education defined in law.

Proposals for change include;

  • compulsory registration of home-educated children
  • regular monitoring
  • LAs should have access to the child
  • LAs should know the views of the child about home education
  • not receiving a suitable education constituting a safeguarding issue.

The first three proposals have long been on the LAs’ wishlist because LAs believe those measures will pick up children not receiving a suitable education or at risk of harm. There is no evidence to support that belief. In fact, any evidence was noticeable by its absence from the consultation documents.

absence of evidence

Local authorities frequently see the majority of children getting a perfectly adequate (often very good) education in schools. They rarely see the substantial number who end up not attending school, in pupil referral units (PRUs), or being educated at home.

They also see a very small number of shockingly memorable cases of children educated at home who are neglected or abused. What they don’t see is the large number of home-educated children who get a perfectly adequate (often very good) education at home, and are completely safe and well.

I can’t find figures for the number of school attendance orders issued by local authorities – which suggests it’s very small. Fewer than 0.4% of home educated children had child protection plans in 2009 (see the parliamentary exchange about that here ). And in none of the cases of neglect or abuse cited as examples of the risk to home-educated children, have the children been previously unknown to the authorities. In fact, in several of the cases cited by the NSPCC, the failure of the authorities to follow procedures properly contributed to the harm experienced by the child.

If you don’t have evidence of the extent of a perceived problem, or of the effectiveness of your proposed solutions, your argument is based on speculation, and speculation knows no bounds. As a consequence, the consultation documents:

  1. cherry-pick human rights

States that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or are party to the European Convention on Human Rights must have regard to all the Articles when they legislate – not just those that support recommendations governments happen to think are a good idea. The Articles about a private family life weren’t mentioned.

  1. ignore legislative principles

Even when human rights conventions were a mere twinkle in the eyes of politicians and lawyers, UK law enshrined principles such as the presumption of innocence, protection from undue state intervention, and reliance on evidence. The consultation documents blithely ignore all three.

  1. change the wording of the legislation

Some legislation is cited inaccurately in a way that changes its meaning e.g Part V Children Act 1989 (L7.8) – the ‘reasonable cause’ threshold.

  1. extend the original scope of the legislation

For example, the duty to make arrangements to identify children not receiving a suitable education (s.456A EA 1996), is turned into a duty to find out whether or not a child is receiving a suitable education, exceeding the ‘if it appears’ limitation imposed by s.437(1).

  1. cite irrelevant legislation

For example in L9.4c, s.13 EA 1996 (availability of primary and secondary education) and s.175 EA 2002 (general duty to promote and safeguard children’s welfare). Some legislation is referred to despite being described as irrelevant e.g. s.17A Children Act 1989 (L10.2).

  1. conflate education and safeguarding

Despite warning against conflating education and safeguarding, which are distinct issues in law, section 7 of the guidance for LAs and section 5 of the guidance for parents proceed to do precisely that. These very muddled sections appear to be the result of LAs wanting a way to deal with the small number of parents mentioned in L6.20.

  1. assume average is normative

Requirements and advice for schools are cited despite being irrelevant to home-educated children e.g. L9.4. Children vary widely – they are not departures from the ‘average’ (L9.4e).

  1. focus on bureaucracy

The focus of the law is on an education suitable for the individual child. The focus of the consultation, in contrast, is on compiling a register of children not receiving an education suitable to the average child, and on compliance by local authorities and parents.

  1. offer sanctions not support

The consultation emphasises sanctions that can be imposed on parents who fail to co-operate with LAs. Significantly it does not propose a statutory duty for local authorities to provide advice and support for home educating families. This calls into question the claim that children receiving a suitable education is a local authority’s chief concern.

take home lessons

Whoever drafted the 2007 EHE Guidelines understood the legislation, its purpose and the principles behind it. The current consultation documents appear to have been drafted by someone who sees legislation as being about people’s views; and whoever cites the most pieces of legislation bearing a superficial resemblance to their view, wins.

For many children, home education is their last shot at getting a suitable education. If there’s evidence that home education is causing them significant problems, let’s see it. If there’s evidence to support the proposed changes to the law, let’s see that too. And consult on that, not whatever local authorities think would make their lives easier regardless of the impact it might have on local families.

If the Department for Education can produce consultation documents as poor as these in respect of home education, they can do it for other areas of education too.  Parents of children with SEND, beware!

 

*References in brackets are to the consultation document. References prefixed L are the proposed guidance for LAs.

co-production: now you see it, now you don’t

Co-production is currently a Big Idea in public services in the UK. The previous post summarised my attempts to track down the theory behind it. That search has prompted some further thoughts. I’d found out where the idea of co-production came from, but it’s presented quite differently by the NESTA papers and Parent Carer Forums (PCFs).   How did it get onto their agenda, and why are their models of it so different to the model originally developed by Elinor Ostrom and Edgar Cahn?

co-production and Parent Carer Forums

Co-production isn’t mentioned in the 2007 paper Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families, which proposed parent engagement via parent carer forums – and the funding for them. Nor does it appear in the 2011 Green Paper Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability that heralded the new SEND legislation.

The first appearance I could find was in the April 2013 report Co-production with parent carers: The SE7 experience.  In June 2013 it pops up, frequently, in a Pathfinder Information Pack Engagement and participation of children, young people parents and carers. The ‘strategic participation of parent carers’ is described as:

“The participation of co-production with representative parents carers in strategic planning, decision making, commissioning and service evaluation. Over the last five years, the Department for Education have supported and funded the development of parent carer forums in every area across England. It is essential that Parent Carer Forums are involved in co-producing plans and implementation of the reforms. Forums are also members of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF), provide the opportunity to feedback at regional and national levels. Representatives from the NNPCF work strategically with Department for Education (DfE) and Department of Health (DH).” (p.3)

The information pack cites the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO)’s March 2011 Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures. Page 36 of the NCVO almanac reviews participatory methods used to involve communities in local decision making. Interestingly, co-production isn’t mentioned.

Participation: Trends, Facts and Figures in turn cites a study by Involve, set up in 1996 and part of the National Institute for Health Research. I couldn’t find a publication date for their People & Participation: How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making, but it was based on research carried out in 2004/05 and has an introduction by Hazel Blears as Minister of State for Policing, Security and Community Safety, a post she held until May 2006. The Involve study does refer to co-production – in the context of Arnstein’s ladder of participation (p.18) – but doesn’t mention Ostrom’s or Cahn’s work.

putting the production back into co-production

The term co-production isn’t trademarked, so there’s nothing stopping people using it to refer only to one component of the Ostrom-Cahn model, such as a dynamic group process (PCFs), active participation (Involve), or volunteering to ‘give back’ (NESTA). But using it in such different ways is confusing. A single sentence could point readers to co-production’s origins and why an organisation was focusing on only one aspect of it.

Significantly, presenting only one aspect of co-production as co-production, also means that a key component of the Ostrom-Cahn model has repeatedly been overlooked. That missing component is the non-money-based, or ‘core’ economy; the things people make or do (‘produce’) that have value or benefit, but that they don’t get paid for. A key tenet of both Ostrom’s and Cahn’s model of co-production was that this unpaid production is effectively ignored by the market (money-based) economy. Making the invisible economy visible was fundamental to the original model of co-production.

now you see it, now you don’t

Obviously, a group of people drafting an Education Health & Care Plan (EHCP) or reconfiguring the local speech and language therapy service, won’t need to measure the economic efficiency of the project using Ostrom et al’s methods. Nor will they need to set up a Cahn-inspired time bank before they can get on with the task. But if the people doing the planning take into account the views, wishes and feelings of children, young people, parents and carers, but overlook the unpaid activities they all do that contribute to the development and well-being of the child or young person, what’s happening is co-design, not co-production.

Co-production PCF-style encourages parent carers to complete surveys, take part in consultations and conferences, and work with their local PCF in planning services at ‘strategic’ level. For most parent carers, this is on top of their already time-consuming caring responsibilities. A few get a nominal remuneration via the PCF. Most don’t.

Involve’s ‘active participation’ and NESTA’s ‘giving back’ also expect people to engage with public sector services in addition to whatever unpaid activities they do already. Sometimes, that participation can result in a power-shift leading to increased ‘citizen control’. It can also result in citizens having even less free time (and thus fewer resources) than previously. If expenses aren’t paid, they can be out of pocket as well.

In all the new co-production models, the unpaid contribution of carers to the well-being of the people they care for is almost invisible. There are nods to it, in the shape of Carer’s Allowance and ‘celebrating’ it during Carers’ Week. Parent Carer Forums are well aware of unpaid production on the part of parent carers and frequently refer to it, but it’s not an integral part of their model of co-production, and one has to wonder why not. I’ll come back to that point later.

culture change

The Involve participation report devotes an entire section (2.4 p.22ff) to issues and tensions. It includes several paragraphs on culture change. Culture change is frequently cited as the reason new legislation hasn’t been properly implemented in public services.  Involve describes an organisation’s management culture as “a reflection of the values that underpin how they do their work” (p.26). PCFs frequently cite culture change as a key challenge, and see co-production as an important route to changing the values of public services, thus changing their culture.

Organisational culture is a reflection of values, obviously, but that’s not all there is to it.   Culture is an emergent feature of an organisation – an outcome of the interaction between a wide range of factors. I can’t better the Wikipedia list, attributed to David Needle’s book Business in Context: An Introduction to Business and Its Environment. The factors include “history, product, market, technology, strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture”. Culture manifests itself as “vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, environment, location, beliefs and habits.”

It is difficult to change people’s values, and one way to do it, in the case of implementing new legislation relating to people with disabilities (e.g. Mental Capacity Act, Children and Families Act, Care Act) is to ensure public services are aware of, and comply with, statutory requirements.

The current system explicitly expects people with disabilities and their carers – who together form one of the most vulnerable and resource-poor demographic groups – to enforce compliance, using their knowledge of the law, and via complaints and litigation. This is inequitable. And blaming culture change for the system not working, to me looks like an excuse.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard organisational culture cited as the reason public services don’t carry out their statutory duties, or why new legislation isn’t being properly implemented. Culture change, apparently, takes years to effect and there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about that. Which provides a convenient excuse for poorly drafted legislation, non-compliance, and any failure of participation, engagement or co-production initiatives.

co-production has been framed

Earlier, I wondered why the invisible activities of children, young people, parents and carers have remained invisible in the co-production model adopted by Parent Carer Forums. After all, the forums are acutely aware of those activities.

The most likely explanation is that the idea of co-production has passed from one organisation to another, becoming transformed on the way by a process of conceptual Chinese whispers, and that few people have read Ostrom or Cahn. And so have missed their key point about activities in the non-money economy.  Parent carers are sometimes paid for participation, but that just makes participation part of the very money-based economy that co-production is supposed to help reform.

The NESTA authors clearly have read Ostrom and Cahn, and understand the informal non-money economy and the contribution it can make to communities. But they’ve framed tapping into that economy as “patients, pupils, parents or service users are being asked to do something, to give back and to help deliver the service.” (Challenge of co-production p.14)

To me this comes across as somewhat paternalistic. It frames co-production in terms of the state being in charge, service users being obliged to it for the services it provides, and being expected to ‘give back’. An alternative perspective, and the one taken by Ostrom and Cahn, is that the state exists for the protection of the people, that public services exist for their benefit, that people informally exchange activities, and that informal system of exchange can interact with public sector services so that everybody benefits.

Ironically, given the number of times Sherry Arnstein’s analysis of power structures has been cited alongside models of co-production, it’s not just unpaid activities that have remained invisible. Power structures have too.

references

Arnstein, S. (1969).  A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, (4), 216-224.

Boyle, D. & Harris, M. (2009).  The Challenge of Co-production: How equal partnerships between professionals and the public are crucial to improving public services, NESTA.

Britton, C. & Taylor, J. (2013).  Co-production with parent carers: the SE7 experience, Mott Macdonald & South-East 7.

Cahn, E. S. (2004) No More Throw-Away People: The Co-production Imperative (2nd edition).  Essential Books, Washington DC.

Department for Education (2011).  Support and aspiration: A new approach to special educational needs and disability: a consultation.

HM Treasury & Department for Education and Skills (2007). Aiming high for disabled children: better support for families.

Involve (2005/6). People & Participation:  How to put citizens at the heart of decision-making.

National Council for Voluntary Organisations (2011).  Participation: Trends, facts and figures. 

Parks, R.B., Baker, P.C., Kiser, L., Oakerson, R., Ostrom E., Ostrom V., Percy, S.L., Vandivort, M.B., Whitaker, G.P. & Wilson, R. (1981).  Consumers as Coproducers of Public Services:  Some Economic and Institutional Considerations, Policy Studies Journal, 9 (7), 1001-1011.

in search of co-production

Co-production. The only time I’d seen the word was in film credits, so when it appeared in a Parent Carer Forum (PCF) newsletter in 2013, I asked what it meant. I was directed to one of the Pathfinder area information booklets.  It defines co-production as:

“…when all team members together agree outcomes, coproduce recommendations, plans, actions and materials as a collective. It is an approach which builds upon meaningful participation and assumes effective consultation and information sharing. In its essence, co-production is a dynamic group process and happens in the room when there is equal value for each participant’s contribution and when there is a meaningful proportion of participants who are service users (in this case parent carers) present.” (p.10)

scaling up

Co-production turned out to be a buzzword in public services. That prompted another question. I could see how co-production could be used to develop a personalized programme of medical treatment, or an individual Education Health and Care Plan, but how could it be scaled up? A handful of patients wanting unusual therapeutic interventions, or half-a-dozen EHCPs specifying provision that has to be imported from out-of-county, is one thing. Tens, or hundreds of treatment plans or EHCPs along those lines is quite another and would require some major changes in commissioning.

I asked around. I joined several online groups and met many well-informed people. They all said ‘that’s a good question’, but no one could answer it, and no one had any examples of co-production happening at scale. This was significant. If co-production didn’t work at scale, there wasn’t much point to it.

I asked around some more. An organization called NESTA has done a good deal of work on co-production, so I read their research papers. NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) describes itself as an innovation foundation. It was founded as a non-departmental public body in 1998 with a grant from the National Lottery, and in 2010 became a charity.

Their co-production discussion papers The Challenge of Co-production, Public Services Inside Out and Right Here, Right Now, (more have been published since) were fascinating. But I couldn’t find an answer to my question about scaling up. The papers were packed with inspiring examples of co-production, but unless I missed something, all the examples looked like one-off local projects, some of which had been quite short-lived. Would co-production at scale consist of a bunch of local projects? If so, at what point would you need to do some joined-up thinking?

engagement

The NESTA papers indicated there was considerably more to co-production than producing “recommendations, plans, actions and materials as a collective”. The NESTA authors saw it as the active participation of citizens in delivering public services, a model that had significant potential to halt spiraling and unsustainable costs. The citizens’ engagement was framed in terms of ‘giving back’. There were obvious parallels with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

I felt uneasy.   Big Society emphasized the importance of volunteering, but blithely overlooked limitations familiar to volunteers. I vividly remember eyebrows being raised at a local meeting where it was suggested volunteers could support elderly people discharged from hospital. One former nurse asked what training the volunteers would get. Another asked about insurance – she’d once been falsely accused, by a patient with dementia, of stealing money. It would be more cost-effective to employ a few more district nurses.

power

The Pathfinder description of co-production had a footnote to Sherry Arnstein’s 1969 paper ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’. Variations on the ladder of participation are widely cited.  Here’s Arnstein’s version:

arnstein

Arnstein’s paper is about the role of power structures in planning decisions in the USA, and cites numerous examples of citizen participation. In some cases, the citizens had to engage in quite robust action before getting to the point where they were actually participating.

The NESTA papers referred to power shifts, but not quite as explicitly as Arnstein does.  Parent Carer Forums often refer to the ‘empowerment’ of parents, but generally in terms of parents sharing experiences and familiarising themselves with the law.  It’s assumed that in and of itself, this will make things happen. I can’t recall seeing any references to power structures.

Parent Carer Forums do, however, report co-production taking place at a ‘strategic’ level. As far as I can ascertain, this means PCF representatives working with commissioners and providers on the design of local services. Public sector services do appear to have shifted from a ‘doing to’ to a ‘doing for’ approach, and are now en route to ‘doing with’.

How far ‘doing with’ is likely to extend is debatable.   Even if the contributions of the people ‘in the room’ are given equal weight, what about the ones who aren’t in the room? The non-verbal children? The ‘hard to reach’ parent carers who’ve never even heard of parent carer forums? And at the other end of the scale, what about the Treasury, the DfE and the Education & Skills Funding Agency?

Most PCFs are funded indirectly by the DfE and/or directly by their local authority (see p.10), so who’s in the room and what power they have over the dynamic group process are key questions.

missing pieces

Although I could see the potential for co-production, as a model it still didn’t make sense. Pieces of the jigsaw were missing.  I found frequent references to Edgar Cahn, who worked on co-production in the 1980s. The NESTA papers presented his role in terms of ‘transforming public services’ (Challenge of Co-production p.13), which didn’t quite square with his being a civil rights lawyer. Then there was Elinor Ostrom, the Nobel prize-winning economist who coined the term ‘coproduction’ in her studies of the Chicago police force in the 1970s. You don’t get a Nobel Prize for studying a police force. Something didn’t add up.

So, I read Cahn’s book No More Throw-Away People, and the 1981 paper ‘Consumers as coproducers of public services: Some economic and institutional considerations’, co-authored by Ostrom.  And had an epiphany.  Cahn and Ostrom use ‘production’ in the economic sense: an activity that creates a good or service that people value and that contributes to their well-being.  This might have been obvious to policy makers, but I’d been completely unaware of it in my reading until then.  I suspect I’m not alone.

markets and time banks

Ostrom’s analysis straddles the divide between a formal market economy that uses money as the unit of exchange, and an informal economy based on exchanges that don’t involve money. (Cahn calls them the market economy and core economy.)

Exchanges that don’t involve money are generally marginalised by the market economy even though it’s utterly dependent on them. The profits of plantation owners in the 18th century, mill owners in the 19th century, and multinationals in the 20th and 21st, have depended variously on the labour of slaves or low-paid employees, and the market economy would grind to a halt without the unpaid, invisible, behind-the-scenes labour of what Gordon Brown called ‘ordinary people’.  It’s a point Cahn makes explicitly, right after he compares the core economy to a computer operating system.  Interestingly, NESTA cites Cahn’s operating system analogy several times in The Challenge of Co-production, but omits his reference to “the subordination of women and the exploitation of minorities, immigrants and children” in his next paragraph (Cahn, p.54).

Ostrom was interested in the interface between the activity of public services and the activity of private citizens. Coproduction referred to their joint activity in producing services. Co-production can make services more efficient, but Ostrom and her colleagues identified a number of issues around the incentives for citizens to get involved.

Cahn’s contribution to the concept of co-production came about because of his pioneering work with time banks. A time bank is a system that allows people to earn credits for any activity they engage in that’s of benefit to others. The credits are based on the time spent, and can be exchanged for goods or services produced by other people. So you might earn credits by collecting library books for housebound elderly neighbours, and use the credits to pay someone to cut your lawn.

incentives

Cahn realised that time banking addressed some of the problems with incentives highlighted by Ostrom and her colleagues. Time banking:

  • Explicitly recognises, via credits, the value of activities that contribute to the wellbeing of others
  • Provides incentives for people to engage in and continue with such activities
  • Prompts people to identify and develop their skills and knowledge
  • Enables those on low incomes to participate in economic exchanges
  • Reduces economic and social inequality
  • Creates and sustains social support networks
  • Increases community stability and reduces crime
  • Facilitates the development of local businesses.

Parent carer forums and the NESTA papers also address incentives, but very differently.

The National Network of Parent Carer Forums (NNPCF) has a reward, recognition and remuneration policy. There are good reasons for parents not being out-of-pocket as a result of their participation, but the policy has had some unexpected and unwanted outcomes. Most PCFs have relatively small budgets. If, as a matter of principle, volunteers have to be rewarded financially, the budget limits the involvement of volunteers, so it’s hardly surprising PCFs report limited capacity (see p.27).

NESTA’s Public Services Inside Out goes into some detail about rewards (p.11ff), but they appear to be treated as an added extra rather than an integral feature, as incentives are in time banks. The underlying incentives of the NESTA model look more like moral indebtedness – there are frequent references to ‘giving something back’ and being ‘rewarded’ for one’s efforts.

The beauty of time banking is that it isn’t framed in terms of contributions and rewards. It’s framed in terms of exchange. People decide what activities they can offer and what activities they’d like in exchange. The exchange system is very flexible and can be modified to accommodate people’s resources and needs as they change; young children can be credited for learning and the elderly for mentoring.

Time banking also offers a way of integrating the market (money) and the core (non-money) economies. Taking family carers as an example, it would be impossible for all carers to be paid a living wage for the number of hours they work, but they could be paid in credits that could be exchanged for other services of real value, such as cleaning, child-minding or transport.

conclusion

The model of co-production adopted by Parent Carer Forums is different to the NESTA model in several respects, and both differ from the model developed by Ostrom and Cahn. There’s nothing stopping someone taking some features of the Ostrom-Cahn model and badging it ‘co-production’, but it’s unlikely to result in the significant changes in economic activity, power and well-being that Ostrom and Cahn envisaged.

Co-production, in the sense that Ostrom and Cahn used the term, offers the opportunity for everyone to be ‘in the room’, and allows the dynamic group processes to be scaled up to local and national level. It has the potential to transform economies, reduce inequality, increase the resources within communities and kick-start businesses. That’s the one I’m going for.

More thoughts in the next post.

references

Arnstein, S. (1969).  A Ladder of Citizen Participation, Journal of the American Planning Association, 35, (4), 216-224.

Boyle, D. & Harris, M. (2009).  The Challenge of Co-production: How equal partnerships between professionals and the public are crucial to improving public services, NESTA.

Boyle, D., Coote, A., Sherwood, C., & Slay, J. (2010) Right Here, Right Now: Taking co-production into the mainstream, NESTA.

Boyle, D., Slay, J. & Stephens, L. (2010).  Public Services Inside Out: Putting co-production into practice, NESTA.

Britton, C. & Taylor, J. (2013).  Co-production with parent carers: the SE7 experience, Mott Macdonald & South-East 7.

Cahn, E. S. (2004) No More Throw-Away People: The Co-production Imperative (2nd edition).  Essential Books, Washington DC.

Contact (2017).  Parent Carer Forums in 2017, Contact.

Parks, R.B., Baker, P.C., Kiser, L., Oakerson, R., Ostrom E., Ostrom V., Percy, S.L., Vandivort, M.B., Whitaker, G.P. & Wilson, R. (1981).  Consumers as Coproducers of Public Services:  Some Economic and Institutional Considerations, Policy Studies Journal, 9 (7), 1001-1011.

 

 

 

Home education: politics

Something that perplexed many home educating parents in 2009 was why a major review of the legislation should be commissioned only a year after the publication of the Elective Home Education Guidelines. It was clear many local authorities and other bodies weren’t happy with the status quo: what wasn’t clear was why.

Sharon Shoesmith’s book Learning from Baby P published in 2016, offers a convincing explanation – even though she doesn’t mention home education at all. I’ve blogged about her book previously.  The issues are important ones not limited to home educating families.  Here’s a slightly abbreviated version of my original post.

In August 2007, a toddler living in the London Borough of Haringey died. 18 months later on 11 November 2008 his mother, her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s brother were convicted of causing or allowing the child’s death. The toddler was Baby P, eventually named as Peter Connelly.

Media interest was intense. On the day of the conviction, Sharon Shoesmith, director of Haringey’s children’s services, and Jane Collins, CEO of Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) held a press briefing that mentioned the disciplinary proceedings against individual social workers finding no evidence of gross misconduct. On the following day, November 12, the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) issued a press statement condemning the behaviour of those convicted.

Later that day, at Prime Minister’s Questions, Gordon Brown (then PM) appeared to be taken by surprise by David Cameron’s (then Leader of the Opposition) criticism of the way Haringey Council had responded to Peter Connelly’s death. Cameron asked who was taking responsibility and why no one had resigned. He followed up his attack later with an emotive article in the Evening Standard, and the next day with a letter to the Sun. The Sun launched a petition calling for Sharon Shoesmith, the social workers involved, and a paediatrician at GOSH to be sacked, and by the weekend the petition had 1.4 million signatures. The Government’s reaction triggered a chain of events culminating in a ‘perfect storm’ that had significant, far-reaching repercussions for national and local government, the news media, social work as a profession, children’s services, individual social workers, and vulnerable children.

the government response

The Government’s response to the criticisms was swift and robust. A press officer was sent to Haringey Council and on 1 December the Council leader, and the cabinet member for children and young people, resigned. Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families announced in a press conference that he was replacing Sharon Shoesmith with John Coughlan, then director of children’s services in Hampshire, and appointed Graham Badman, previously director of children’s services in Kent, as chair of Haringey’s Local Safeguarding Children Board. A week later, Shoesmith was formally dismissed by Haringey Council.

Shoesmith didn’t take her sacking lying down. She appealed and in 2011 the High Court ruled that Ed Balls and Haringey Council acted unlawfully in dismissing her. By 2015, she had completed a PhD analysing the psychosocial factors involved in the aftermath of Peter Connelly’s death. In 2016 she published Learning from Baby P, which draws on her research.

Shoesmith points out that by late 2008, the ‘New Labour project was running into trouble’ (pp.123-127). Gordon Brown had taken over from Tony Blair as PM the previous summer, but in May 2008 Labour had had its worst local government election results for 35 years and Labour’s attempts to reduce child poverty were faltering. In October the Healthcare Commission’s investigation into the Mid-Staffs scandal revealed significant failings, and the global financial crisis prompted a £500bn rescue package for UK banks.

Cameron’s framing of Peter Connelly’s death in political terms had significant implications for the Labour government. Their flagship strategy Every Child Matters couldn’t be seen to fail, nor could Ed Balls, who had previously been Brown’s chief economic adviser. Then there was Haringey. Haringey had a history of what Shoesmith calls ‘defining events’. It had witnessed the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985, and the death of Victoria Climbié in 2000 that had led to the Laming Inquiry and significant changes in child protection policy. In addition, Haringey Council had long been perceived as hailing from the ‘loony left’; understandably a centre-left government might want to distance itself. Lastly, the government felt compelled to align its narrative with that adopted by large sections of the public and press – that public sector services should be seen to take responsibility for Peter Connelly’s death.

All three key political figures – Cameron, Brown and Balls – used the press directly to manage the political narrative.  It could be argued that the press used politicians to the same end. In July 2007, six months after he’d resigned as editor of the News of the World following the conviction of two reporters in the phone hacking scandal, the Conservative Party had appointed Andy Coulson as its director of communications. The Sun, another News International paper, had a history of campaigning for changes in the law as a result of high profile child abuse cases. During the Leveson Inquiry into phone hacking, it was suggested that after the Baby P trial the Sun put pressure on Ed Balls to order resignations (p.183). The issue of resignation warrants further comment.

it’s a resigning matter

In 2004, the offence of ‘causing or allowing the death of a child or vulnerable adult’ was introduced to close a legal loophole. Although the offence can be committed only by people living in the same household as the victim (such as Peter Connelly’s), its title begs the question of whether police officers, social workers or paediatricians might be brought into the frame, something that could be inferred from David Cameron’s Evening Standard article (p.144).

But there’s another factor involved in the calls for sackings; it’s the assumption that if a public sector worker failed to prevent the death of child, they would have been able to prevent it if they’d acted differently. That’s nonsense of course. Even if a child were taken into care or a social worker were to live with the family, no child can be totally protected from harm. But the idea that children can be fully protected persists. Cameron, Brown and Balls all vowed to ensure that nothing like Peter Connelly’s death happened again (p.178) – even though, in reality, such promises are meaningless.

Child protection had become a political football and government, opposition and the media were vying for control of the ball. Ironically, the outcomes had significant negative repercussions for vulnerable children. Directors of social services became very nervous about their jobs, and social worker recruitment and retention, already under strain, became even more challenging, further increasing the vulnerability of the children social workers were dealing with. Local authorities made sure they erred on the side of caution; between October 2008 and March 2012 the number of applications for care proceedings increased by 79% (p.19).

elective home education and the Badman review

The ‘Baby P effect’ rippled out to another group of children Shoesmith doesn’t mention – those educated at home. Home education has long been a contentious issue, and in November 2007 Jim Knight and Andrew Adonis at the then Department of Education and Skills, published guidelines for local authorities.  A year later, in January 2009, Ed Balls announced a review of elective home education. The review was framed in terms of home educated children being ‘hidden’ and home education being used as a cover for child abuse, even though there appeared to be no robust evidence of this actually happening.

The review was led by Graham Badman, introduced as the former director of children’s services at Kent County Council. A month earlier, Balls had appointed Badman as chair of Haringey LCSB, but unless they’d been following the news closely, most home educating parents wouldn’t have made a connection with the Baby P case. They would also have been unaware that in May 2008, seven year-old Khyra Ishaq had starved to death at her home in Birmingham. She had been educated at home for the previous six months. Khyra’s death came to public attention only in June 2009, when the trial of her mother and her mother’s partner began. Her death was presented as reinforcing the government’s call for reforming the law relating to home education, rather than as a trigger for the review happening in the first place.

In 2009 Graham Badman was busy. In November 2008 he’d set up an education consultancy, Nektus, that carried out two local authority progress reviews in its first year.  In December he’d been appointed Chair of Haringey LCSB.   In January 2009 had become a visiting professor at the Institute of Education, and Acting Chair of BECTA – being appointed Chair on 1 May. He became a Trustee and Board member of UNICEF in July. His elective home education report was published on 11 June, and his recommendations accepted in full the same day by Ed Balls.

Given all these commitments, it’s not surprising that more than one organisation complained that Badman’s account of what they said to him wasn’t quite what they recalled saying, and that Graham Stuart MP, a member of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee, felt obliged to point out that Badman had made a significant sampling error in his assessment of the risk to home educated children.

The full government response to the Badman report wasn’t published until October 2009, towards the end of the public consultation, so many people who responded wouldn’t have read it. Throughout the review, I got the strong impression that the Government didn’t see those who disagreed with the proposals as citizens expressing their opinions, but as political opponents.  The high number of responses to the consultation prompted references to an organised campaign, despite the wide diversity amongst home educating families.

Conservative MPs had, not surprisingly given the political overtones of the review, been quite supportive of home educating parents. In December 2009, a record number of petitions protesting against the proposed changes to the law were presented to Parliament, a strategy initiated by Graham Stuart.  The Government planned to include the Badman recommendations in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, but instead they were abandoned in the ‘wash up’ prior to the 2010 General Election.

learning from the Baby P effect

The primary task of government, national and local, is to protect our liberty to go about our lawful business without let or hindrance. Obviously, there are going to be instances where legislation that protects one group of people infringes the liberty of another group – the law has to weigh up the various interests of different parties. On the face of it, it looked as if that the actions of government, opposition and press in the wake of Peter Connolly’s death could result only in beneficial outcomes for vulnerable children. But their focus was on only one aspect of child protection.

Other aspects got completely overlooked, including local authority priorities (disabled children are also children in need but LA thresholds for support are set so high many disabled children get no social care support), social worker recruitment and retention and the consequent impact on vulnerable children, and children being taken into care unnecessarily. The proposals for home educated children, such as social workers being entitled to enter the family home and to interview children alone had significant implications for a number of important legislative principles.

Government, opposition, and the press, framed child protection solely in terms of the behaviour of individuals, whether they were adults who might harm children directly, social workers who might fail to prevent harm, or elected members of local government responsible for implementing national policies. Little attention was paid to key legislative principles, the effectiveness of legislation, local authority resources, the impact of the government’s action on social workers and senior local authority officers, and on children deemed to be at risk when they weren’t. Good legislation requires careful thought and wide consultation, not a knee-jerk response to a party political attack. If government is seen as a party political project, rather than an institution that exists to serve the population, it puts everyone’s welfare in jeopardy, not least that of vulnerable children.

reference

Shoesmith, S (2016).  Learning from Baby P.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers