Friday, September 07, 2007

Into the Confessional

The art of the possible
I've done a hundred or more surveys where I am forced to try and categorise what I do for a living, and nobody seems to have the right radio-buttoned answer. It's hardly surprising because it takes me about five minutes to explain it face to face with someone I haven't met before. I guess the closest bite-sized answer would be the somewhat discredited term 'Management Consultant' rather than something more focused on the world of IT where most of the day to day grind comes from.

In my defence I would say that although most of what I do ultimately has a result involving more computer systems, I've used what influence I have to nip ill advised and ultimately unprofitable 'good ideas' in the bud at least as often as I have promoted the use of the latest 'sexy' technology to my own business' gain. Other than in the shortest of terms it has been the right approach to take.

I was struck today by the similarity of the position of senior politicians, especially those in opposition, with the announcement of David Cameron's ideas for voluntary 'Citizen Service' for 16 year olds.

It seemed to contain all the right buzz words, and touched on an area where there is almost universal acknowledgment of the need for action. For all that, I was surprised by the level of support from some of my favourite areas of the blogosphere, most noticeably Iain Dale who termed it a policy 'Everyone can Unite Behind'.

To an extent I believe Iain, one of the most rational and erudite commentators you could ever wish to listen to is right. It is certainly a message that will appeal to the broadest possible church that the Conservative party can ever hope to appeal to. It is also possible that the appeal may go even further, given that the best of stinging attack from the government was:
Cabinet Office Minister Ed Miliband said the Tory proposals were "neither costed nor funded".

Source: BBC News

Neither "costed nor funded". Mmm, there's a formula we've seen before that basically means "that will be in our manifesto too and we'll just quibble over the balance sheet, and may drop that 'voluntary' bit too."

The problem is though, and I hate to use a buzzword myself, is that one of the most valuable skills of a good consultant is to really understand how the proposal sounds to the 'stakeholders', and to really put yourself in their shoes, view it throug their eyes. Ok, 16 year olds do not have the vote yet, and perhaps electoral maths comes first, but they can still make the difference between good policy and a costly failure from which no party can withdraw without loosing face.

Frankly, I suspect that the vast majority of 16 year olds to whom Cameron's concept will appeal are already doing a Duke of Edinburgh award or something of equal merit. To reemphasise the great value of such schemes is a good thing and well deserved, to assume that you can market the idea to a vast new audience of willing teenagers is something else entirely. To assume that, for those not already engaged in good works, you can take another six weeks out of someone of that age's life 'for the greater good', at a time when every moment of freedom seems precious, and think that it will breed anything but resentment towards those that demand the sacrifice of them would be, in most cases I think, naive.

There's a simple mathematical fact in play here. Mr Cameron is 40 years old, just a few years older than myself. We've also both had 3 years of Oxbridge with relatively short official terms and a lot of leisure time that we may or (in my case at least) may not have used constructively (in a socially responsible sense). We've both had a range of experience in the workplace which, if Mr Cameron was anything like myself, did put me in a position where, regardless of other sources of income, at least when younger, I would have been, and to an extent was, able to take make a little time for some personally enriching experiences; you could even, with no hint of criticism intended, say that Cameron's Rwandan experiences, which I think was a fantastic idea, fall into this category as were my own travels in India.

The problem is that even at my age, let alone Mr Cameron's, the time we have devoted to such activities represents a relatively small fraction of the truly free time that life has afforded us. Six weeks overlapping a year crammed with the pressures of exams would seem like a lifetime to those just becoming accustomed to some degree of control of their lives outside the prescribed requirements of the educational system.

Presented as one option, for the willing and enthusiastic, the existing schemes are fantastic. For such models to become the clear state mandated norm can only cause resentment whether a Tory carrot or Labour stick is used.

I'm sorry to be so negative about what is most certainly a well intended proposal, and I have a deep attachment to some of the underlying philosophy. That said, I must swim against the tide as I feel this was one of the weakest proposals in what should have been a very good week in Conservative policy announcements were it not for certain acts of petty vandalism.

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