“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance”, George Bernard Shaw once wrote – it seems to sum up some extraordinary lessons that the recent winter weather is offering us. What really gets people off their backsides and make representations to local councils are things that affect them immediately. Go for a peaceful evening walk and stand in some dog mess and suddenly you are aware of the all inconsiderate dog owners in your neighbourhood – it snows and you become aware that the grit bin at the end of your road is empty – hit a pot hole in your car and you are immediately aware of poor road surfaces. You are so wound up you e mail and write letters of complaint, but it is not enough, you actually go and berate your local Town or Parish Council at the next meeting because it is closest to you.
This immediacy of awareness can be the cause of backlashes and sweeping generalisations of public service performance. Whether the gap between public expectation and the reality of delivery can ever be reconciled is a matter of useless speculation, but when faced with the anger of a citizen for what they see as public service failure an incremental level of dissatisfaction can be the result. This seems to be the case in a number of what may appear to be small incidents but taken in the round add up to what is a serious problem. This is often most evident in the thousands of Town and Parish Councils that make up so much of the English democratic infrastructure.
This problem can be illustrated by a story told to me as part of a Masters programme some years ago, it centred around the new CEO of an airline who sought to better understand the customer experience by booking himself on a number of the airlines services in a kind of mystery shopper experience. On one flight he fell into conversation with a regular passenger (in economy) who was concerned that aircraft maintenance was being undertaken in a shoddy and potentially dangerous manner. Somewhat surprised, he enquired as to whether the passenger had professional experience in this matter only to find out he was a furniture salesperson. He had made his striking and knowledgeable conclusion from the fact that this was the third time he had recently flown on an aircraft where there were sticky messy rings left from leaky coffee cups on previous flights. If the airline could not do something as simple as clean up a coffee cup ring on a fold down table then how on earth could they effectively maintain a complex system like a jet aircraft properly?
This came to mind the other night when out doing my bit as a Parish Councillor - I had a reflective vest on (bought by myself) used a spade (my own) and was spreading some grit over a road junction that is regularly the scene of multiple minor bumps and scrapes when there is snow and ice around. A motorist – not young – hurtled up the lane at a speed that suggests he was not taking account of the conditions and braked suddenly close to where I was doing my bit. The driver’s window opened and a veritable torrent of abuse was directed towards me – assuming that I was a council employee I was accused of wrecking the national economy, luxuriating in a huge public funded pension, ruining his children’s education and future prospects and robbing him blind of his wages through his council tax.
It is not about the factual correctness here – it is about the underpinning belief systems that pervade society. It is the drama around false knowledge – seeing me looking like a council employee, doing what he assumes a council employee does was enough to trigger connections that confirm and reinforce the underlying belief system. It is also about the dangerous level of ignorance we have allowed to accumulate in civil society. Most reasonable and rational people can see what goes wrong locally, and on top of this they often know stuff about putting it right but the disconnect between the two remains. If localism is about reversing the top down, parent always knows better in public service delivery do we not have to offer some seed corn to enable the person in the street to engage better with our attempts and actions to make living here better?
The sting in the tail here is that anger at perceived failure is only one aspect of the danger of false knowledge – the phenomenon of the dangers of success is out there too. Although anecdotal, we are capturing the awkward issue of what some are calling ‘need acceleration’ – this occurred to one councillor who recently was pleased to find that after some door knocking and street level engagement a number of residents were saddened by the state that some Victorian iron railings were in around an amenity area. They were rusting and in poor repair. This became the target for spending his small discretionary ward grant – within days the railings were restored to their former glory – rust removed, gleaming black paint and looking very much as they did in the days of the childhood of local residents. However, as much as a few were clearly delighted with the result more residents came forward pressurising the councillor that if they could do something as simple as put right the railings around the small park then why on earth could they not do something about the ghastly, unsightly ‘bomb site’ at the end of the street? A fine example of need acceleration and perhaps a good example of false knowledge.
High expectation coupled with innocent ignorance of the reality of how we link civil society and the state is perhaps a problem that localism will never satisfactorily resolve – the last chapter will perhaps be written on Parish and Town Council letter headed notepaper! Increasingly it seems that is where the buck stops.
Ian Briggs is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Local Government Studies. He has research interests in the development and assessment of leadership, performance coaching, organisational development and change, and the establishment of shared service provision.