One problem with the Labour party is that it has too many Brownites and Blairites and not enough Brailsfordites.
I mean, of course, Sir Dave Brailsford. He has explained how he made British cyclists into world-beaters by aggregating marginal gains:
If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.
It is possible to make significant progress against the biggest problem in the world through the accumulation of a set of small steps.
Labour should apply this philosophy to the public services. And it should do so in combination with Hayek's insight that knowledge of where these gains are to found lies not in any contral body but rather is fragmentary and dispersed across all individuals.
What Labour should do, then, is ask everyone connected to the public services as client or worker: what concrete steps can we take to improve this Job Centre, this hospital, this school? Many of the suggestions will - I'd hope - be utterly mundane and apparently trivial: they'll consist in slight tweaks to how wards are cleaned, minor changes to procurement or teaching. And they'll vary from place to place. But as Sir Dave said, if you add together thousands of tiny improvements, you get a big improvement.
Liz Kendall, among others, has spoken - rightly - of the need for decentralization. But this should not merely be the end of the policy process, but the beginning.
What I'm calling for is for Labour to "connect" to people and to "listen" not in any abstract focus group sense, nor as a kowtowing to prejudice, but rather to use genuine but local and specific knowledge of how to improve the public sector.
As for what institutional form this listening should take, it varies. It might be as simple as using Labour's website as a suggestion box, or getting local parties to ask local workers for concrete ideas about how they can work better. Or, as Paul says, local trades councils or their successors could propose locally agreed action plans for school improvement instead of Ofsted-type special measures. Just as the improvements shouldn't be centrally-directed, so the institutional forms through which they are articulated should be diverse.
All this might sound like low-level cheeseparing - not that there's anything wrong with that. But it might not be. It's what I've called a building-block policy - an apparently small initiative that leads onto others. Smallish forms of civic engagement can lead to others - in effect, we're putting learned helplessness into reverse. Giving people a little bit of power will encourage them to demand more. They might ask: if we're coming up with all these ideas for improving public services, why is some guy getting a six-figure salary for sitting in an office? Eventually, this might lead to a transformation in politics - to forms of sociocracy rather than hierarchy. Politics will no longer about what men in Westminster do for (or more often to) us, but what we do for ourselves. As Tocqueville wrote:
Democracy does not provide people with the most skilful of governments, but it does that which the most skilful government often cannot do; it spreads throughout the body social a restless activity, a superabundant force, and energy never found elsewhere, which, however little favoured by circumstance, can do wonders.
"Small changes can have big effects" wrote Duflo and Banerjee. The transition to socialism will not happen by protesting, emoting or even perhaps by voting. It'll come instead by small and individually innocuous steps.