Re-imagining our societies 1 – The System


I have been asked to start a discussion on: “System change. Challenging established notions. Re-imagining our societies”. I assume that the aim of the discussion is to produce material to enable Radix to publish a report.

I need to be explicit about my background, values and vested interests, to enable you to understand where my mindset came from..

I have a track record of innovation and development.

1954/74:  After training as a Municipal Engineer:  I was in charge of managing highway traffic in Hull, Southampton and Liverpool. In Southampton I imagined and implemented bus priorities which are now, 50 years on, established aspects of urban traffic engineering.

1974/78: As Oxfordshire County Council’s Deputy County Planning Officer, my proposals for decentralising bus subsidy decisions were halted during implementation, when top-down vested interests became aware of the implications. Forty years on, the council has now stopped paying bus subsidies, which was the first step in my earlier proposal.

1978/83:  Director of Transport Research, University of Wales.  I was surprised to find that funding of academic research on transport was, and is, totally tied into conventional top-down thinking.  We did some innovative research for the Welsh Office, for which I had to sign the Official Secrets Act, which prohibits publication.

1983/2000:  With my wife I set up a home-based telemarketing company.  In 1999, our two person company won the Direct Marketing Intelligence Award for the “best use of internet technology”.  The Automobile Association came second.

I emphasise that my thinking is based on my understanding of how things are and will be, irrespective of political intervention.  It is neither right nor left wing thinking.  However, political intervention will be required to change the system, to deal with the current problems, global warming and the possibility of economic no-growth.

I am now in my 80s, so I also have a vested interest in doing this as quickly as possible!

The System

To be able to imagine a future we must accept how things are now. The structure of our society is one thing which defines our system.  Like all systems in the industrial world, it is a system which has evolved, in response to the vested interests of those responsible for its development.

I consider that the focus of our thinking should be on the public sector.   It is the ways in which our public services are structured and managed which define our society.

There are two aspects of the system we should consider.  Its structure and the way it is managed.

The structure we have in the UK has developed over a period of years, according to the services involved. Which is not to denigrate the importance of the private sector.  Which market forces will develop, partly in response to public sector activities.

The health, social service, highway, public transport and education systems are all top-down hierarchies. All have reached a point in their development where they are increasingly seen by the public no longer to provide the services which are wanted.  Attempts to improve the system, by reorganisation, merging and outsourcing, whilst maintaining the hierarchical ethos, have failed to improve user perceptions of the services.

The development of services from the bottom-up has been constrained by regulation and inability to compete with subsidised top-down services.

Management of the system: 
The Public Sector

Vested interests (mostly unconscious) have determined how our public service systems have developed and are managed.

Public sector employees are motivated by a desire to be seen to follow their organisations’ top-down dictats and a related desire for individual promotion.

Attempts to behave autonomously have rarely succeeded, unless they can be seen to benefit the organisation and can then be incorporated into the top-down system.

Political considerations determined how the public services were first established. The development of the services thereafter was determined by techno/bureaucratic processes, driven by underlying vested interests.

Government departments and associated professional bodies, decide the operational standards and methodology of our top-down hierarchical systems.

The Private Sector – some provide public services

Companies providing social care are mostly large organisations, driven commercially and organised hierarchically. They are funded by the NHS, public authorities and, in social care, by individuals who do not qualify for welfare support. All now seen to be dysfunctional.

For the past 40 years or so, operational services formerly provided in-house have been outsourced.  Again, they are organised hierarchically.  The services they provide are dictated by the requirements of their clients.  They are part of the public sector.


Our public services and their management are (1) all hierarchical, organised from the top down, and (2) are managed by people with vested interests in protecting their techno-bureaucratic ways of working.

I should emphasise that this is not criticism; it is the only way things can be in a centralised, hierarchical society.  Fairness – egalitarianism – is the ethos underlying public sector bureaucracy.

The ways in which our public services are structured and consequently managed define our society.

This is the most important aspect of our consideration of how things might be in the future.

We need to agree this before we can move on to re-imagine our society.

Let us know what you think! Help us build the intellectual foundations for a new radical politics. Sign up to get email notifications about anything new in this blog.  Read Nick Tyrone’s explosive new novel too, Pop Star Jihadi.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Stephen Gwynne says

    Some interesting snippets of how the public sector might be reformed.

    Also, a recent meeting highlighted how a small department within the West Midlands Combined Authority is tasked with envisaging and building models to create sustainable sufficiency (circular economies) within the West Midlands. The department is staffed by one person but the same department staffed with 20 people would obviously yield much greater results.

    The current purpose of the Combined Authority is to grow grey infrastructure, housing, jobs, transport, schools, utilities, and combine the budgets and development plans of city councils to achieve that end. Obviously the growth and competition principles that underpin market strategies prevail.

    Is it the case that the public sector should serve socialist principles of sufficiency and cooperation and utilise, with public taxes, technology, labour and capital to create the framework for local and regional sufficiency economies. Possibly a green new deal might be the starting point for such a venture as long as non-material growth was a foundational aspect of this.

    With respect to hierarchy and technocracy then possible alternatives are

    Or ecolocracy which builds on principles of holarchy

  2. Paul Gregory says

    In the introductory contribution to the discussion on: “System change. Challenging established notions. Re-imagining our societies”, Barry Cooper spoke of difficulties with hierarchies with special reference to government structures and his wide-ranging experience:

    “The development of services from the bottom-up has been constrained by regulation….Public sector employees are motivated by a desire to be seen to follow their organisations’ top-down dictats and a related desire for individual promotion. Attempts to behave autonomously have rarely succeeded, unless they can be seen to benefit the organisation and can then be incorporated into the top-down system.”

    In reply: A cornerstone of Anglo-Saxon culture is the principle of checks & balances, i.e. of the dispersion of power. These correctives seem to be under-developed in the system structure that Barry describes.

    My proposal involves bottom-up checks and disincentives which work asymmetrically to systems of collective responsibility. I am not addressing Barry’s focus of public services, but subsume this topic in a wider context.

    In any professional capacity there will be judgement calls. People fall down here for two reasons. Many will not have developed sufficiently the capacity for judgement because what they have been trained to do is compliance. Judgement is a matter of maturity (experience, perceptiveness, exchange, time to reflect). Another cause of people failing to do right is a matter of character. As implied by Barry’s talk of vested interests, there is also the matter of people failing to be impartial, or rather, of being excessively partial to their own.

    No set of rules or codes can do justice to the complexity of all decisions to be taken at the various levels. This does not mean that they do not have a role to play.

    I understand the word “professional” to apply now to very many jobs and functions which were previously unheard of. They are, broadly speaking, middle-class occupations with corresponding remuneration and standing. Some are emergent.

    There are, correspondingly, professional associations which will typically have incorporated codes of conduct or ethics in their charters.

    Traditionally, professional organisations have regulated their affairs internally with the law of the land doing the heavy-lifting. That is, the law is only effective for those misdeeds and misdemeanours that come under its radar. There is no end of poor and indeed atrocious conduct that cannot, practically, be pursued in law or receive proper chastisement there.

    To this day, lawyers regulate lawyers, medics medics, and so on. Granted, a few arrangements do allow a look-in from outsiders.

    My line is (i) that the work of all professions and professionals should be be subject to substantial oversight by other professions. For example, the work of corporate lawyers might be subject to review by logicians, mathematicians and professors of English. (ii) For professional work, membership of one of a narrow choice of relevant associations should be mandatory.

    Furthermore, (iii) for each & every decision there must be an identifiable individual who signs responsible for that decision. Not, as I assume to be (largely) the case at present, a department or a process. “Identifiable” does not mean “publicly identified”.

    We all make mistakes and therefore, when individual errors of judgement come to light, they must be treated with some indulgence. However, if a pattern of misjudgement emerges, or the volume of misjudgements is excessive, the individual concerned must be called to account.

    This would be before a properly constituted ethics committee. Together with likely critics, I urge caution. The emphasis is on “properly constituted”. Media reports from diverse quarters would seem to indicate that many “ethics” committees are anything but. Some, apparently, are tribunals for political correctness and conventional prejudice. This is the perennial problem of who guards the guardians.

    Not least as a counterweight to in-group imbalance, such ethics committees must be constituted to be composed substantially of members of other professions. Whether fifty-fifty or another mix is a matter for another day. There would be other safeguards, too.

    The key element is that professionals (including bureaucrats) who have a record of causing mayhem should be called to account. They might produce acceptable reasons for their decisions, in which case it would be a learning experience for the ethics committee; or they might concede misjudgement and explain how they are improving. But in extreme cases they would be subject to suspension or exclusion from their professional body. And by no longer being a member of a professional body they would lose (temporarily or permanently) their employment. This might apply, for example, to individual civil servants at the Home Office responsible for high-profile cases of recklessness. There must be a fear of loss of vocation and hard-won qualifications greater than any desire for advancement or fitting in.

    To return to the thrust of Barry’s argument. There the talk was of the failings of top-down hierarchies with the implication that bottom-up is needed, but for system-inherent reasons is thwarted.

    Under my proposal, it would be possible for professional bodies to take the initiative and move in the direction I have indicated. Hence bottom-up. There would of course need to be political acquiescence but only to the extent of there being official recognition of the decisions of professional associations. None of this can happen overnight. We are talking about generational change.

    Historical and societal changes have occurred without appreciation that these make other changes necessary. Since we no longer work much in wider and life-long communities where we are known and therefore must take care of our reputation, i.e. since much work is done anonymously or else in contexts where poor (or indeed good) conduct is little registered and rapidly forgotten, traditional mechanisms of oversight have been eroded. Effective penalties (whether reputational, monetary or employment-related) are lacking except for high-profile and extreme cases. Such cases would arise less if there were novel mechanisms to guide or coax people long before criminality or gross misconduct arose.

    “Ethics” must be understood in terms entirely different to the logic of rules & regulations, which (except for the simple-minded) are stepping stones to ethical maturity and not stones for lapidation. In rare cases one might envisage people being called to account for compliance when they should have had the moral courage to set rules aside. Moral courage, incidentally, may mean risking derision and contempt from one’s fellow men as well as one’s superiors. It is the rare virtue that distinguishes western culture, with its figureheads Socrates and Jesus, despised rebels as powerless as Old Testament prophets or Protestant and Catholic martyrs post-Reformation. It is by drawing on such virtues and on asymmetric checks & balances that western culture can survive and thrive despite having ceded its technology to other nations and cultures.

  3. Barry Cooper says

    I agree with so much in what Paul says. But I fear it would rarely be practical. At first sight bottom-up checks seems so sensible, but then where would the power lie? Top-down professionalism/bureaucracy is based on common standards which are applied across the board, but on the ground the results are rarely what is wanted. A decision to spend money in a locality on, say, a new road, may be hated by locals who would much prefer spending the money on a school. The response by those at the top to the attempted checks from below will then be along the lines of “we hear your comments, but that would be unfair because your school would then be better off than neighbouring schools”.

    Within a bureaucracy, there may be four or five tiers of management. A proposal from below has to go up through each tier until it is eventually “signed off” by a manger in the tier with authority to do so. The professional judgement occurs at the bottom, where a professional designer may have a proposal. Those above are managers, probably not qualified in the profession of those at the bottom.

    In the 1950 and 60s, as a chartered engineer, those above me were all similarly qualified, including the City Engineer. Now, the senior managers may not be engineers. The same thing has happened in social services. A friend of mine, now retired, a chartered town planner, ended up running a department including civil engineers, architects and other professionals. There must have been so much inter-professional disgruntlement within the department.

    What we have now is a total muddle of mixed experiences at each level. Which is constantly changing as new people are appointed. With never-ending reorganisation. I wonder whether lack of money is the real reason why public services are seen to be in decline?

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