Can the Leviathan stop eating people?

From buoyant to bust – a broken policy model?

In the boom times for public spending there has been a conspiracy between the public and politicians, aided by the popular media. It goes like this: something bad happens in at least one person's life, they complain via the media, politicians demand a 'solution' from officials, and an initiative is announced and funded based on whatever evidence there is to hand The initiative is seldom evaluated, is orphaned when the politician moves on, but continues in some half-life until the arrival of a new government.

The boom times will come to an abrupt end after the next general election. Attractive as it is, the fantasy that the government can address challenging behaviour by funding activity and using a mechanistic performance management framework to 'deliver' a way out, the money will not be there to support it. In any case, that particular model has been showing every sign of having reached its limits: teenage pregnancy, binge drinking, childhood obesity, social mobility, worklessness (particularly in London) and violent youth crime are all issues that have failed to find solutions.

This broken model of public policy-making (or, if you do not concede the model is broken, a lack of resources to maintain it) presents what Professor Ronald Heifetz (John F. Kennedy School of Government) would call 'the adaptive challenge'. To meet the adaptive challenge, I believe we need to look deeply into how humans and society work in order to understand why this model of state intervention has shown such clear limits.

Well hello lifeworld!

I think at root is that fact that we have not fully grasped the distinction made by Jürgen Habermas, the German philosopher, between the 'lifeworld' and the 'system'. The lifeworld is society as community: as a network of relationships between parents, children, grandparents, aunties, uncles, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, buddies, school mates, lovers, cliques and so on. Why do we help a friend in trouble?

Because we care. Because we are affected. In the lifeworld we help because we feel close to a person. This type of support is quite concrete and tangible: 'I'll take care of your kids while you need to see the doctor', 'I can pick up your kids from the child carer and they can eat with us, while you can do the extra shifts your boss is demanding you do'.

We can also explain society as a system consisting of organisations, hierarchy, contracts, laws, economy, politics and politicians or, in other words, 'experts'. What is important is that the logic of the system differs from the logic of the lifeworld significantly.

The German economist and sociologist Max Weber called the logic of the system 'instrumental rationality': meaning we do something because we expect to gain from this action. The market economy, for example, is driven by this logic: people work because they are promised a salary. Restaurants provide food because we pay for it. Achievements are the driving force of what Habermas calls 'strategic action'.

We may be deeply disappointed if our spouse said to us: 'I married you because you are earning lots of money and provide me with excellent living conditions'. However, our boss would be pleased to hear from us that his excellent salary motivates us as well as the superior working conditions he provides. People act on instrumental rationality when they expect advantages from their actions or to avoid disadvantages.

Pathologies occur when the system oversteps the mark, or 'colonises the lifeworld'. A child is neglected. Social worker intervenes. Case ends up in court. Lawyers for both sides battle it out. Family is left disintegrated and never able to function again as a family in the lifeworld. The child is consigned forever to the system, which has 'won'.

The pathologies or 'disturbances' in our social interactions, and corresponding crises, Habermas lists as: loss of meaning, withdrawal of legitimisation, confusion of orientation, 'anomie', destabilisation of collective identities, alienation, psychopathologies, breakdown in tradition and withdrawal of motivation. All present in the list of policy failures I itemised at the beginning of the article. As Habermas wrote in 1987: 'The dilemma consists in that, while the welfare state guarantees are intended to serve the goal of social integration, they nevertheless promote the disintegration of life-relations'.

If not now, then when?

Why is this important now? Basically the successes and the failures of the Blair years, with their absolute focus on delivery and preparedness to back that up with resources, has been an almost laboratory experiment in the limits of the system and strategic action.

Much has been achieved in system terms, for example the CPA story, but the public satisfaction story is largely unchanged. We are still left with new giants of evil (to update Beveridge) to slay: obesity, violent gang crime, low parental aspiration, disadvantaged kids in care; all lifeworld problems which remain impervious to strategic action.

So it poses the question for me: can the state, the very embodiment of the system, actually cross over into the lifeworld and engage in communicative action with citizens? Or will all our efforts merely result in system interventions in people's lives that might sort the state's problems but not their's. Strategic action will never encourage people to change their behaviour; it has not helped to solve challenging behaviour either.

But fortunately there is now a greater opportunity for communicative action between the state and the citizen than there ever has been. If rationality is 'the experience of reaching mutual understanding in communication that is free from coercion and the this understanding is reached through the practice of argumentation as a court of appeal without the direct or strategic use of force', then the potential of Web 2.0 offers a much greater chance of rational communicative action between leviathan and the individual than any amount of community forums or care assessment interviews.

This is what Jürgen Habermas calls his 'practical hypothesis': for a decolonisation of the state and the markets, and reviving the Enlightenment dream of a life steered by reason. Can the Leviathan stop eating people up whole and using them to sustain its own existence?

Leo Boland has been Chief Executive of the Greater London Authority since January 2009. Previous to that he was Chief Executive of Barnet Council in north London, which between 2006 and 2008 went from two to four stars in the Audit Commission's Comprehensive Performance Assessment.

Public leaders jobs

Today in pictures