Are state-regulated force-fed humour courses with every meal the future?

Happy personI am currently slowly writing – or more accurately trying to write – a chapter for a book. My thesis is that we live our lives surrounded by the unattainable – the ‘must haves’ of how our lives should be, what we should do, think, eat, be and aspire too – all of which leaves us meandering along life’s path, whichever path we are on, feeling vaguely disappointed in our achievements or our lack of them and feeling perpetually disappointed or deprived. Even in this age of unparalleled wealth in our country – it doesn’t protect us from a perpetual feeling that if we only had X or did Y, our lives would be so much better.

So how – in this world that has moved on from those ‘old-fashioned’ values – can we create structures or environment that value our human good qualities more and place less importance on wealth or status?

And what – if any – role is there for government and public bodies in all this? This is tricky territory to tread in as one false slip of the sentence and you open yourself up to pastiche as wanting a Ministry of Fun and state-regulated force-fed humour courses with every meal.

You can read where my thoughts have go to so far in my latest newspaper column, published just after Easter.

0 thoughts on “Are state-regulated force-fed humour courses with every meal the future?

  1. It puzzles me that MPs and Ministers don’t know what’s going on in the public sector (both central govt and local govt), for there is plenty of evidence for it, and plenty of us still alive who saw the same mistakes being made in the private sector 25 years ago. Maggie cut down some of the forest but didn’t know how to build things up again. This last 10 years it just gets worse and worse. If the people at the top are incompetent, those down below will get progressively more and more unhappy. And incompetent people hire more incompetent people. Believe me, there are many many frustrated people in the public sector. More of this tomorrow, as its late.

  2. Actually I don’t think this necessarily has anything to do directly with either Maggie or with the public sector per se. It is a function of consumerism and has IMHO been exacerbated by NuLab’s policy of ‘more choice’ in just about everthing. The effect has been to reduce more and more things to merely consumer goods – everything is being commoditised. You don’t need to be a Marxist to agree with a lot of his theories. In particular “..all that is solid melts into air”.Forgive if the quote is not quite correct – it’s a bit early yet :-)Lynne, good luck with the book.Midlands LibDem

  3. It’s good to see someone talking (even in the cagyest of terms!) about the third of the big three; “happiness” (the first two being, of course, life and liberty). Too often politics can focus on the administration and provision of services – and miss out on what or how we can improve general happiness too.

  4. Gone are the days when neighbours really are neighbours but that starts with the parents. If the parents don’t get on, then the children don’t get on and so the world continues….The only reason I know my neighbours is becaus I made the effort when first moving into Highgate of inviting my nearest neighbours for drinks and knocking on their doors to introduce myself.Maybe it would be nice if, when a new neighbour moves into the area that their next-door neighbours and opposite drop them a note saying WELCOME. It makes such a wonderful start to a very nerve-racking experience! Love thy neighbour…..Good luck with your new book, Lynne!

  5. Dear Lynne,Perhaps my street in Haringey is different. The community has been united by the misfortunes it has achieved – the house that was invaded by “snake heads”; the brothel that was set up in a rented house; fire engines and police swarmng the cannabis factory three doors up from me; the man who was stabbed on his way home and his chips lying on the pavement for over a week. As soon as the police arrive we’re all out to see what’s going on and now we chat, “Do you remember the last time…”It’s war mentality but it works – we laugh about it and we are closer as a community without “structured activites”.Neighbours helped eachother recently to repair fences after storms this and we stop to chat more readily; We remember the Hindu wedding party along with the disasters.Adversity appears to be creating a more stable street:I heard that neighbours checked out the owner of a newly bought property owner to see if they were going to rent the property – and persuade them no to! And the rest of it, humour is the key (even if it is dark) as it is always the first casualty.

  6. There has been some material on the web (in Liberal England on 25/3, following the Ch 4 series The Trap) about positive and negative liberty, Blair and Isaiah Berlin. Overall we are warned against too much interventionism by any group, existing government or revolutionaries. Certainly in the UK there is too much intervention or micro-management, and its grown over the last 10 years. But let’s not get hung up over commoditisation – that’s a natural progression. Electricity had to be centrally generated at first, but improved technology now allows many thousands of generators to synchronise with and feed into the National Grid – that, of course, brings new problems of managing the security of supply, and brings new responsibilities for us to co-operate to maintain the ordered fabric of society. What has not been done is anywhere near enough encouragement of that co-operation, and the real disaster is that its not happening internally in significant parts of the public sector. The new style co-operation needs the public sector to work with the citizen and private sector business, rather than simply running the old fashioned well oiled civil service and local govt organisations. As I noted above, 25 years ago the private sector made the same mistakes internally, characterised by endlessly reorganising and the mistaken assumption that there is such a person as the all-purpose manager who can manage anything. The counter to that was the development of the quality management culture: don’t do anything unless you know what you are doing, teach others about what you know, and individually all commit to doing the job correctly. To use a jargon word, respect your colleagues – but also challenge and help them to do better. And ensure that the right people are in the right jobs – getting that wrong, as is so often seen in significant parts of the public sector, is a very good indicator of an organisation going very sour. Next, if I can put together a coherent argument, is to put the target culture in its place (and the ‘Putting Passengers First’ paper from DfT is an absolutely crass example of getting it wrong, but the Lyons Inquiry report points in the right direction).

  7. This is all good stuff. Thank you. With regard to to the ‘target’ culture – is that not a reflection exactly of a world where the quality of the outcome is diminished because precisely of your argument that personnel standards have become laissez-faire because a number, a statistic, a tick-box is considered enough? Do tick boxes – which are supposed to ensure standards actually take away personal responsibility for doing a job well. So – does it come back to behaviour then? Unless individuals demand of themselves high standards – there is an inevitable slide of responsibility which is unsustainable.How do you turn this round to behavioural change then?Also – my feeling is that this all feeds into a society that is becoming legal rather than social – and that to me is the crux of the issue.

  8. Individuals who demand of themselves high standards are being denigrated: they are branded ‘difficult’. Dalrymple’s 29/3 article is “Good people have become a defeated class in Blair’s Britain’. In the particular situation where work is contracted out, the supplier is constrained to do that which is in the contract. The recent EFRA committee inquiry into the RPA SPS had an MP ask one of the contractors if they had a moral duty to tell Defra that the scheme was unlikely to work. His answer was ‘No’. The contractor who objects doesn’t get the next job (which makes some of us poor). See the mission and recent press release at If you contract work out, you cannot escape the responsibility for ensuring that the overall organisation works properly. Going back to Defra, it was clear from recent media reports that Johnston McNeill was the wrong man for the job and hadn’t applied for it – he was persuaded by people who should have known better. Unfortunately, there are upstart consultants who fail to advise their public sector clients that system integration is a vital part of the whole task of developing a new service scheme.Targets are just one part of an overall good management method. They are part of the necessary business of managing an organisation or service, and are particularly necessary when the service is to the public. 99.9% good, or maybe 95%, might be OK to some, but to anyone who doesn’t get the service it’s a disaster. When we fail to use targets within an overall assessment of outcomes, we denigrate the service delivery team. When we punish them on a target by target basis, we are grossly unfair to them. And then some of them cheat. Some friends of mine run TLO Ltd (, a training organisation for proper management of education in schools – but don’t all rush to talk to them at once, please, because two of the principals are currently Down Under with their Aussie associates.An organisation can go sour if just a few people in the managerial tree are not good enough, so you have to start at the top with that self-dedication to high standards, along with a determination to be open to performance assessment. Quality Management methods, which the UK pioneered, are a way to enable the dedication to flourish right down the tree – and they have to be accompanied by the right contracts of service. As for the relationship between govt Ministers and the civil service, that’s something different.

  9. Hello Lynn,We are certainly lucky to be alive and here in Britain, as your article says. But perhaps part of the reason for our renowned misery is that we’ve got too cosy, relying on the government or some corporation who’s bought the rights from the government to run everything for us. And when their handling of some issue, as one of your respondents says, doesn’t suit our lifestyles or pockets, we start to complain, or worse, bottle it up and become miserable. We don’t need government to make us happy. We need government to make it possible for us to make ourselves happy. Government is there to deal with the minimum – to protect us, to oil the wheels, to provide the essential services of education, health, policing, foreign relations etc and to let us fend for ourselves in every other way. We don’t need micro-management by government or its quangos or neo-monopolies.Sadly, a case in point is happening in your beloved Regents Park. When I was at school and the teacher organised a five a side football competition, we’d lay down 4 shirts as goal posts in the nearest park and would play. Now, under the government’s sports plan, a sexy five-a-side plc is to be given the right to astro-turf and floodlight several acres of the north of Regents Park, build a cafe/changing room/club pavillion) and a carpark in return for handsome profits. A combination of over-weaning health and safety rules, government directives for kids to get fit and a need for the privatised Royal Parks to meet targets means 60 trees and a meadow that I thought belonged to me and my neighbours, will become a profit centre for city shareholders. Now that makes me miserable. Good luck with the book, Lynn. Please join in our campaign to stop this nightmare.

  10. What would really make a difference would be some truly joined up government where the citizen is not confronted with conflicting demands from different arms of the state.I’m not very confident that government is really capable of this, so the default setting should be ‘don’t interfere’. Local councils encouraging street parties? The idea is risible. Most of them couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery.

  11. I’ll get down to practicalities in a moment, but first a reference to the paragraph in your newspaper column: “A British Malaise” in which you discussed life’s ‘unattainables’. To the extent that ‘unattainables’ are to do with personality and ability I don’t think any of us can do anything about them, we succeed or fail, achieve or underachieve, make mistakes or not, have aspirations beyond our talent or character, and must just accept it. These failures may make us less happy or content than we’d like, but they cannot be changed. What we can do, personally or politically, together or separately, is organise things in a way which maximises the chance that, personality and ability apart, we are as content as possible given our personal regrets.I don’t think that what you are struggling to write about is anything to do with unattainables. If you want to live in the countryside but never make it your may have regrets, you may be less happy than you’d like, but hard luck you missed it. What can be done is for society to create an ambience, a background, which maximises the chance of quality of life. Worldwide our species, for all its talents, has been very bad at this, and in Britain especially bad, though perhaps not quite as bad as the States. And most unfortunately we’ve created some of the worst of the problems in striving for the things most people desire.You mention street parties as a means of fostering community. I’m afraid that’s crying for the moon, because for street parties to work you need a community setting, rare these days for good reason.Picture a Victorian/Edwardian residential street in Crouch End or in Southgate (where I live), anyway somewhere you know. What is the primary function of that street? Universally these days, government – national and local – most individuals in the area, think of streets as a conduits for traffic and a parking space for cars. If I were a planner I’d draw up a list of priority functions and top of my list would be the street as setting for homes, an extension of sitting rooms, a space for personal contacts, a place for the freedom of children. I’d lavish my love on it’s ambience, nice materials, plants, especially trees, active wildlife, seats to sit on and talk. Traffic could use my street, but steadily (20mph or less) giving equal priority to pedestrians and cyclists. Cars could park but not at the expense of front gardens.My street would foster street parties as night follows day. There wouldn’t be a lot of knife crime in my street.My street would be close to the shops, the post office would not be closed, the supermarkets would not have brought about the closure of local petrol stations as well as costermongers and pharmacies. The local hardware store would not be a victim of B&Q.It’s cars who meet in supermarket and DIY shed car parks, not neighbours.Big shops would be in cities not out of town, easily reached by public (where public meet public) transport. Cars would not be welcome there because they carve up the community and foul the air. If they come they would come steadily, and not on fast roads which consign people to dark and dangerous underpasses or make it hard to cross the road to meet a friend.———————————– This is not a full statement of the things I would do, but an example of how in a sense we have fouled our own nest. There is research to show that in no and slow traffic streets people make more social contacts and friends, and business does better. There is also research to show that traffic pollution is more dangerous than an A-bomb.Contact Living Streets (previously the Pedestrian Association) for better information.I imagine you’ve read Bowling Alone, the American classic of community alienation. Vote for the Sustainable Communities Bill.

  12. It is interesting to see that your article has produced so many long and thoughtful comments Lynne. It its own small way, I think this thread shows you are on to a good topic to investigate. I look forward to the book.

  13. Lynne, specifically answering your question about the cause of the quality of outcome being diminished: those who create the target culture are themselves making an inadequate response to the opening up of society as information becomes more available and feedback mechanisms multiply. They actively created the tick box method to avoid having to plan and work with delivery professionals to create the required outcome, fully monitor performance, and adjust delivery mechanisms as necessary. Going back a little, the 1980s attack on professional exclusivity was proper: the old professions were too often not giving best quality service or best value. But in the 1980s we failed to rebuild the institutions that were crumbling. At the same time, Marshall McLuhan’s global village statement appeared, but it was one way only: information reaching us, but we had little opportunity to respond. That has changed, and I fear that legislators like you are in danger of information overload – government has to change to accommodate that. Last night I was talking to a recently retired production manager. He had worked in a multi-national electronics and computer equipment manufacturing company. As manufacturing moved to the eastern hemisphere he became involved in consultancy, advising other companies. Introduced (like me) to first scientific discipline and then engineering discipline as he went through school, university and then into industry, he has been appalled at the lack of such discipline in younger decision makers in industry. We, however, were the products of a much smaller university population. So many of the people against whom we now rail have been to university instead of being trained through numerous business and industry pathways, and it seems that something has been lost along the way.One sentence from my previous comment needs correcting: 2nd para, 4th sentence should be: When we fail to see targets as just one part of an overall assessment of outcomes,…David Hughes makes me think: are not growing numbers of European towns doing their urban planning the way that he advocates?Next could be something about the asymmetry of the relationship between citizen and government when service delivery is provided direct by govt (or by its direct contractor); the symmetry is actually better when we purchase a regulated service from the private sector. This leads us into the problem of Crown Immunity. But it may be that you would prefer to take this off line now – please indicate – or simply wrap it up.

  14. Dreaming Spires is correct; at least four Northern European countries are organising some of their cities as I suggest. I put it the way I did to encourage readers to approach it with an open mind rather than from their mindset.Anonymous mentioned consumerism; I think we need to tie people’s lust for objects to the concept of relative affluence. Increasing affluence has not made British people happier because there is always someone with more money able to acquire more objects to feel envious about. Above a certain minimum affluence is not a factor in quality of life and happiness.Neville Farmer referred to the stultifying grip of attitudes to health a safety issues. Whether it’s money, or health and safety, or traffic, there is so much about 21st Century life which puts us in prison. Who did decide to build motorway style roads in cities?Scale is another issue which affects quality of life. 21st buildings are too big, roads are to wide, traffic is too fast. Whatever our thinking mind tells us our unconscious is more content in quiet, domestic environments.

  15. In the early days of power utility privatisation, my gas account was stolen by Scottish Power. They attached to it the name of someone who I had never heard of, and therefore complaints in my name were not dealt with: I was not the customer, and thus could not be heard. Worse, British Gas had not handled my departure according to the rigid rules, so that, by the time that I demanded that they object to the transfer, the legally determined window for them to object had closed – a lady from BG told me ‘If we object now, we would lose our licence to supply gas’. Worse still, the team in the DTI overseeing all this knew nothing of one of the errors in the process: the key to an account is the Meter Point Number, but that is not displayed on the meter as it should be. Worse again, because a new customer moving into a property may not know the MPN, there was an emergency provision for a new supplier to open an account by quoting the house number and postcode of the property and thus obtain from the then Transco database the name of the previous (or, in my case, existing) supplier in order to take over the account (by old law, the account belongs to the property, and the person paying the bill can be a mere passing thought). Hey Presto! The account is stolen! There existed no body with authority to halt and then reverse the whole process. The Crown had created a flawed mechanism, but we the people had no redress against their incompetence. Its still much like that in our relationship with the Crown, but regulation of privatised and private services has been much improved, and, with the caveat that changeovers from one energy supplier to another, or from one bank to another, can be fraught with problems, in general the individual’s relationship with private sector service suppliers is much more evenly balanced than our relationship with the Crown. Crown immunity needs to go when the Crown is providing the individual citizen or resident alien with a service. That leads to the idea of splitting the public sector into two: those who directly provide a service to the population, and the rest. On the service side, the whole organisation (and its contracts of employment) has to be re-jigged: administrative process re-engineering. Include in the re-jig is adoption of formal quality management principles. The civil servants will have to be more competent, getting it right, and ready to move fast when policy changes. Don’t get me wrong: there are many many competent civil servants, but it’s the management that’s the problem.The origins of all this go back a long way. A long time ago, Ferranti Wythenshawe (near whose factory I lived in my teens) overcharged on the Bloodhound missile contract (and was eventually forced to repay a lot of money). For military procurement on smaller contracts involving technology development, there used to be a relatively cosy relationship between the military, a layer of agents, and the suppliers. The agents brokered the requirements of the military with suppliers who worked out how to make the requirement into reality. Work was of course shared out among the suppliers, and prices allowed a comfortable profit. 25 years ago Michael Heseltine decided to stop this, and that procurement should be truly competitive. Chaos for (at least) several years until the military learned how to specify what they really wanted in the light of what the technology could provide. Since the early 1990s the same principles have been applied to civil public procurement of significant areas of technology: chaos. Separately, the military had quality management methods: standards, plus the right of military inspectors to go into the supplier’s factories and offices and check on progress (and call a halt if necessary). From that came the civil standard BS 5750 and then the international ISO 9000 series and derivatives – but without the right for the customer to monitor progress. Thus came the separate contractual provision for two contracts to be let: one to deliver, the other to provide in-process audit. The public sector doesn’t use the audit method, which is a big mistake.