☑ Brexit, or Brexit Not — There Is No Try

I voted against Brexit as I feel the UK is significantly better within the EU. However, the looming uncertainty over whether the UK will follow through is much worse than either option.

union jack

On Thursday 23 June the United Kingdom held a referendum to decide whether to remain within the European Union, of which it has been a member since 1973. The vote was to leave by a majority of 52% with a fairly substantial turnout of almost 72%. Not the largest majority, but a difference of over a million people can’t be called ambiguous.

So that was it then — we were out. Time to start comparing people’s plans for making it happen to decide which was the best.

Except, of course, it turned out nobody really had any plans. The result seemed to have been a bit of a shock to everyone, including all the politicians who were campaigning for it. Nobody really seemed to know what to do next. Disappointing, but hardly surprising — we’re a rather impulsive nation, always jumping into things without really figuring out what our end game should be. Just look at the shambles that followed the Iraq war.

Fortunately for the Brexiteers there was a bit of a distraction in the form of David Cameron’s resignation — having campaigned to remain within the EU he felt that remaining as leader was untenable. Well, let’s face it, that’s probably disingenuous — what he most likely really felt was he didn’t want to go down in history as the Prime Minister who took the country out of the EU, just in case (as many people think quite likely) it’s a bit of a disaster, quite possibly resented by generations to come.

This triggered an immediately leadership contest within the Tory party which drew all eyes for a time, until former Home Secretary Theresa May was left as the only candidate and assumed leadership of the party. At this point everyone’s attention seems to be meandering its way back to thoughts of Brexit and all the questions it raises.

And a lot of questions there certainly are. There are immigration questions, NHS questions, questions for the Bank of England, questions for EU migrants, questions for Northern Ireland, profound questions for Scotland1 questions for David Davis, and even a whopping great 94 questions on climate and energy policy, which frankly I think is rather hypocritical — they know full well that nobody has any use for so many questions and most of them will end up on landfill.

To my mind, however, there’s still one question that supercedes all these when talking about Brexit — namely, will Br actually exit?

You’d think this was a done deal — I mean, we had a referendum on it and everything. Usually clears these things right up. But in this case, even well over a month after the vote, there’s still talk about whether we’re going to go through with it.

Apparently the legal situation seems quite muddy but there are possible grounds for a second referendum — although Theresa May is on record as rejecting that possibility. I must say I can see her point — to reject the clearly stated opinion of the British public would need some pretty robust justification and “the leave campaigners lied through their teeth” probably doesn’t really cut it. It’s not like people aren’t used to dealing with politicians being economical with the truth in general elections.

Then we hear that the House of Lords might try to block the progress of Brexit — or at least delay it. Once again, it’s not yet at all clear to what extent this will happen; and if it happens, how effective it will be; and if it’s effective, how easily the government can bypass it. For example, the government could try to force it through with the Parliament Act.

What this all adds up to is very little clarity right now. We have a flurry of mixed messages coming out of government where they tell us that the one thing they are 100% certain of is that they’re definitely going to leave the EU, but not only can’t they give us a plan, they can’t even give us a rough approximation of when they’ll have a plan; we have a motley crew of different groups clamouring for increasingly deperate ways to delay, defer or cancel the whole thing, but very little certainty on whether they even have the theoretical grounds to do so let alone the public support to push it through; and we have an increasingly grumpy EU who are telling us that if we’re really going to leave then we should jolly well get on with it and don’t let Article 50 hit us in the bum on the way out.

Meanwhile the rest of the world doesn’t seem to know what to make of it, so it’s not clear that we’ve seen much of the possible impact, even assuming we do go ahead. But to think there hasn’t been any impact is misleading — even when things are uncertain we’ve already seen negative impacts on academics, education and morale in the public sector. Let’s be clear here, it hasn’t happened yet and it isn’t even a certainty that it will, and we’re already seeing a torrent of negative sentiment.

To be fair, though, we haven’t yet really had the chance to see any possible positive aspects of the decision filtering through. In fact, we probably won’t see any of those until the decision is finalised — or at least until Article 50 is triggered and there’s a deadline to chivvy everyone along.

That’s a big problem.

I think that the longer this “will they/won’t they” period of uncertainty carries on, the more we’ll start to see these negative impacts. Nobody wants to bank on the unlikely event that the UK will change course and remain in the EU, but neither can anyone count on the fact that we won’t. We’re stuck in an increasingly acrimonious relationship that we can’t quite bring ourselves to end yet. If they could find an actor with a sufficient lack of charisma to play Nigel Farage, they could turn it into a low budget BBC Three sitcom.

Don’t get me wrong, I voted firmly to remain in this EU. But whatever we do, I feel like we, as a nation — and by that I mean they as a government that we, as a nation, were daft enough to elect2 — need to make a decision and act on it. This wasteland of uncertainty is worse than either option, and doesn’t benefit anyone except the lawyers and the journalists — frankly they can both find more worthwhile ways to earn their keep.

So come on Theresa, stop messing about. Stick on a Spotify3 playlist called something like “100 Best Break Up Songs”, mutter some consoling nonsense to yourself about how there are plenty more nation states in the sea and pick up the phone. Then we can get on with making the best of wherever we find ourselves.

  1. Although they’re asked by Michael Gove so I dont know if they count — given his behaviour during the Tory leadership election I’m not sure he’s been allowed off the naughty step yet. 

  2. In the interests of balance I should point out that, in my opinion, more or less every party this country elected since 1950 has been a daft decision. Probably before that, too, but my history gets a little too rusty to be certain. The main problem is that the people elected have an unpleasant tendency to be politicians, and if there’s one group of people to whom the business of politics should never be entrusted, it’s politicians. 

  3. Assuming Spotify, being Swedish, are still allowed? 

4 Aug 2016 at 7:45PM by Andy Pearce in Politics  | Photo by James Giddins on Unsplash  | Tags: uk  brexit politics  |  See comments

☑ Agile Government

I’m quite a fan of Agile software development, but it seems that the same approach can be used in a wide variety of other industry areas. In this post I’ll briefly describe how I discovered a very Agile-sounding approach to nursing in Holland.

beach gymnast

Britain is currently undergoing a swathe of austerity under a Tory-lead government, with significant cuts to all sorts of public services. With a national debt of £1.4tn, rising by around £100bn a year, it’s not a surprise that the government is trying to balance the books regardless of what you may think of their means of doing so.

One of the biggest budget items in the UK is, of course, the NHS; and naturally it gets some of the most scrutiny for possible savings. At the same time it’s extremely sensitive when it comes to cuts in frontline services - nobody wants to feel that their health is being put at risk for the sake of saving a little money. As a result, there’s usually a great deal of rhetoric bouncing around about how to achieve savings without affecting actual care. Typically these take the form of some sort of hand-wavy diatribe produced by throwing phrase like “cut through the red tape”, “strip out middle management”, “get rid of bureaucracy” and “back to basics” into a cup, shaking it all around and throwing it onto a page to see what sticks1, but are conspicuously light on concrete plans to implement such measures, or even evidence that it’s possible.

Well, I read a Guardian article about a pilot scheme in Holland which has achieved some impressive-sounding efficiencies. The Buurtzorg community nursing organisation is now supporting 7,000 nurses with only 30 back office support staff; that’s over two hundred nurses for each non-medical employee. Apparently the quality of care is better, with patients requiring 40% fewer hours of care, and nurses have less than half the absenteeism and a third less turnover than other nursing organisations.

This all sounds rather too much like the holy grail of NHS savings for which successive governments have been searching all these years to be true, so decided to try and find out a few more details. Their US homepage has some interesting tidbits, but what really intrigued me was a report I found on the web page of The King’s Fund, a charity that works to improve policy around health care in the UK.

It’s a fairly brief bullet point summary, but here are the main points that leapt out at me:

  • Independent teams of up to 12 nurses.
  • Teams are autonomous and responsible for the whole process.
  • Assessment and care of all types of client: generalists.
  • Monitor the outcomes instead of effort.
  • Focus on activities instead of processes.

So essentially the group improved productivity and employee satisfaction by splitting the nurses into small, autonomous groups who self-organised into the optimal structure for their particular tasks and focused on whatever task they needed to carry out to achieve their objectives instead of rigidly adhering to some centralised process.

To any software engineers out there this might be starting to sound awfully familiar - specifically it really sounds rather like a Agile methodology to me. I’ve long been attracted by the benefits of Agile in software development, but it’s fascinating to see something that appears extremely similar being so gainfully employed in such a different industry. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised, since Agile practices originally grew up in the automotive industry, but it does make me wonder how many sectors could be significantly improved by judicious use of these ideas.

In an oblique way it also reminds me of a TED talk by Sugata Mitra awhile ago about the deficiencies of the education system. His thesis is that our current approach to education was shaped by the Victorians, who needed people who could be employed as effectively cogs in the massive global machine that was the British Empire. He further suggests that today’s technology has rendered the need for such roles largely obsolete, and instead we should be trying to produce young adults who can build on a sound technological foundation and innovate upon it.

In both cases I suspect attempts at widespread change will face an uphill struggle against those who want to cling to the old ways of doing thing, regardless of evidence supporting the change. Personally I believe this is the real challenge in turning round organisations like the NHS, not any shortage of ideas for improvement. That’s why it’s so good to see real world schemes like Buurtzorg showing such massive improvement - such compelling evidence is going to be critical in pushing through change.

But I fear it’ll be a long, long road yet.

  1. Incidentally, the Daily Mail appear to use a similar approach to writing articles on the matter. 

19 Feb 2015 at 7:47AM by Andy Pearce in Politics  | Photo by Trevor Paterson on Unsplash  | Tags: agile politics  |  See comments