The Experimenting Government

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beaker-512We will soon have a government.  What kind will it be?  Time and a Programme for Government will tell.  But what we really need is an experimenting government; one that uses resources and creativity to experiment with different proposals.  There are many good ideas out there but it is hard to know how they might impact on the economy and society were they introduced in one go.  Commissions, green papers and studies can only tell you so much.  We should experiment – trialling ideas for a limited period in different contexts and sectors.  We can then assess the results to see if they are runners.  Here are a few examples.

1.    Shorter Working Week

I wrote about this here.  In Sweden a number of trials are being conducted to assess the impact of a shorter working week in terms of cost, productivity, firm or agency performance, customer satisfaction and the health and well-being of the employees.  Why not trial it here?  We could select public and private sector workplaces to run 18-24 month experiments in reducing the working day.  A study of productivity and all other elements would be done before and after the trial period and the results made public for study and debate.

2.    Basic Income

Basic Income – a guaranteed payment to everyone regardless of employment status – is attracting more attention and discussion.  Arguments centre around a new era of reduced formal work opportunities, the growing complexity of welfare states, strengthening workers’ bargaining power (if I have a living income to fall back on, I can walk away from the boss’s grief), etc.

But there are downsides:  the high cost of implementation, inflation, unknown impact on the labour market.  This is complicated by right-wing arguments that with Basic Income we can abolish the welfare state and minimum wages.

It is unlikely that a Government would introduce Basic Income all at once, or across the board.  If it didn’t work out it would be very expensive to undo the policies and repair the damage.  However, some places are conducting experiments – for instance,Utrecht and other Dutch cities.  It will be limited to a certain cohort but the hope is to discover how it changes people’s behaviour and what the fiscal and bureaucratic impact would be.  So why don’t we do the same thing – we could model it on the Dutch experiments so we don’t have to re-invent the wheel.  It could be run out in urban and rural areas for a time-limited period with the effects to be studied afterwards.

3.    Labour-Managed Enterprises

There has been increased academic interest in the performance of labour-managed enterprises (workers’ cooperatives, employee-ownership and other models).  While extremely limited in Ireland, there are a considerable number operating in other countries – notably France, Spain and Italy – throughout the industrial and service sectors.  Proponents argue that such enterprises increase productivity and firm performance while generating higher investment and reduced wage inequality.

Here is an opportunity to run a trial programme – through Enterprise Ireland, local enterprise boards or a new agency if that is seen a better fit.  It would provide funding and training, and work with firms that are closing down due to poor performance or owner-retirement as well as greenfield start-ups.  This experiment would take time – a firm may survive the first and even second year but could fold soon afterwards.  However, this could be an on-going process, with periodic reports and analysis.  This shouldn’t be too contentious – after all, it is about generating indigenous enterprises and putting people back to work.  What we might find is that labour-managed firms are a better route to those goals, with positive spill-over effects in the community.

4.    Employee-Driven Innovation

You want to reform public services?  Improve their quality and cost-benefit?  You start with those who are knowledgeable about how the service is run – the defects, the shortcomings as well as ‘what works’.  You start with the employee.

Employee-driven innovation acknowledges that one of the best ways to improve the quality and efficiency of a service is to involve employees in the management of that service.  In other words, employees become the ‘innovators’, the ‘reformers’.

Here I write about two examples of employee-driven innovation – in the Danish Railways and Stockholm Water.  While there are different models the basic idea is that you bring together workers in small teams through a formal structure, within a sector or an individual workplace, across grades and occupations.   These teams go through the shortcomings of the services and make proposals to improve them.  This process must have buy-in from both workers and managers which requires a considerable level of trust.  The proposals are then put to a joint committee of management and workers to assess and implement.

We could roll this process out on a trial basis in a limited number of areas – in the public sector and public enterprise companies.  We may find that going to those who actually produce the goods and services could be a valuable reform resource.

5.    Participatory Budgeting

Ever since Porto Allegre in Brazil first introduced ‘participatory budgeting’, their model has been adopted and adapted in over 1,500 cities worldwide.  Participatory budgeting allows people to decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget.  It gives people the right to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects, and gives them the power to make real decisions about how money is spent.

It can be a protracted process, with community meetings throughout the local authority area to discuss priorities and goals, elect community delegates who then work with the officials to implement the most popular proposals.  When it is done well (rather than just as a PR consultation process without power), it can build greater community and political participation, and result in better outcomes.

Cities in other countries are trying it so why don’t we?  Select a few places (again, urban and rural, large and small), agree a process with community groups, and trial run it using the most appropriate model found in other comparable locations.

* * *

Five experiments – shorter working week, Basic Income, labour-managed enterprises, employee-driven innovation and participatory budgeting; you are probably getting idea.  These are experiments to promote people’s life-chances and conditions, greater participation in the economy and enterprises, and authentic grass-roots democracy.

And the great thing about this is that the cost would be minimal and once-off.  This would be an investment in ideas and people.  And it would start to popularise these and other ideas about how we can reshape our economy and society to make it a more prosperous and efficient place for everyone.

So whatever government we get in the next few weeks, please let it be anexperimenting government.  One that is not afraid to test out new ideas.

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