In that wonderfully bizarre 1960s TV programme The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan would rage against his benign captivity in the surreal ‘village’. His memory and name taken, he would reject his new designation as ‘Number Six’ by screaming “I am not a number”.
This idea – that the powerful forces above us both see and treat us not as individuals but as faceless statistics – formed a crucial conceptual part of the 1960s counter-culture. But has it got worse than that? Do we exist in an era where being treated as a number would actually be a promotion?
Two examples illustrate the problem. When Storm Arwen hit a few weeks ago, many people lost their electricity. The various National Grid companies across the UK had the immediate responsibility of managing their infrastructure to return that power. Managing infrastructure is what they do.
And they were pretty successful – most people got their electricity back quickly. But 9,000 people didn’t. In fact 9,000 people were left without electricity for eight days. In the modern world, in the cold of winter and in an era when home working is crucial, that is an eternity.
So what did government do? It ‘liaised with the power companies’. Which is to say that government managed the infrastructure (or more accurately it phoned for a catch-up with the people who were managing the infrastructure).
What didn’t seem to be a consideration was that the infrastructure had something specific at the other side of it – people. The cables were down so the electricity didn’t flow, but in modern government people often disappear from the picture. It is at times as if the electricity is flowing for its own sake.
If electricity is generated by a private corporation and that electricity makes it onto the grid (the only one in Europe owner by another private corporation) then that is one half of the equation resolved. If the electricity makes it as far as an electricity meter where a third private corporation can then sell it, the equation is complete, oversight is a success and all is well.
What happens next is nothing to do with ‘energy’ or the grid or public policy. If this electricity causes severe fuel poverty when it gets past the meter, that is a totally separate subject. That can also be dealt with by managing the ‘superstructure’. Government hears ‘fuel poverty’ so creates a ‘grant fund’ of a generally arbitrary size.
That grant fund is then opened to a network of large service providers (either local authorities or NGOs) who bid for the money to do ‘something’. The money is distributed to these agencies and the government produces another media release about how that in and of itself is a success.
If the electricity doesn’t get to the meter then the role of government is to keep phoning the grid owner until it does. Three days, six days, eight days – get the updates, be prepared to say ‘we’re on top of it because we’re in regular contact’ and send out a success media release at the end.
The 9,000 people who may have been unable to cook, heat their house, keep the contents of their fridge edible, work, look after their children properly? They are incidental to this. Both government and grid owner are managing cables and cables alone – the people at the end of the cables are no-one’s direct responsibility. So nothing is done to help them.
This is a mirror image of what happened with the care homes at the start of the pandemic. The medical experts warned of overwhelmed hospitals so the role of government became to manage beds. There are two kinds of beds, those absorbing capacity and those providing capacity. Government had a single task; convert beds that absorb capacity to ones that provide capacity.
Lists of factors absorbing capacity are scrawled on a white board as ministers and civil servants look on. ‘Delayed discharge’ features high on the list and so a structural response is made – change the factors which are causing the delay. It turns out those factors are largely political.
Because during a previous phase of management, the problem was quite different. Capacity in hospitals is ‘paid for’, priced in. Capacity in care homes is not – and it’s expensive. To balance this, capacity in hospitals is traded for capacity in care homes, reducing the bill for the bit not priced in.
Perfectly ‘sensible’ – all performance indicators met. Until now, when it is clearly not sensible because the management task has changed. No longer ‘save money’ but ‘expand capacity’. So the opposite of what was previously sensible is the new sensible. Get that bed capacity up.
The instruction is given, the order comes down – empty the beds. No-one seems to say ‘but that means decanting vulnerable people who are infected with a highly-transmissible illness which kills vulnerable people into closed environments with more vulnerable people which do not have the equipment to deal with the consequences of what is bound to happen next’.
Because there were people in the beds. That was what was sucking up all that ‘capacity’. But the people weren’t the numbers in this story, the beds were. It was beds that was being counted, not people.
All of this is absolutely endemic in public life now. It is an inevitable consequence of the domination of ‘New Public Management‘, the Thatcherite idea that the public sector is just a business to be managed like any other business – by managers (not practitioners) who manage performance indicators. If the indicator moves in the right direction then everything is self-evidently good.
Problems are converted into these indicators. Often they don’t count the problem, they indicate the scale of the problem so it can be compared against other problems. To a performance indicator a patient who is on their last legs and could die if moved is identical to a healthy patient who should have been decanted into properly-supported accommodation long ago. There is no difference between them.
Which means – absolutely crucially – if people die as a result of this, if people freeze or starve or lose work, it is definitely no-one’s fault so long as the indicators say it is no-one’s fault.
Money shuffles its way around the system, handed from manager to manager, each issuing a media release when it comes or goes, the arrival or departure of the money is the story. Ministry A gives money to Agency B which gives it to NGO C to spend, each skimming some for costs, each trumpeting their success with each shuffle.
Wires are managed, beds are managed, systems are managed. The whole bloody circus has created its own complex religion in which performance indicators can offer redemption to anyone, any time without reference to who is at the end of the wire, who is in the bed, who is crushed by the system.
In this religion, we are not numbers, we just plug our plugs into numbers on the wall, we sleep in numbers, our hunger or cold or pain take place somewhere underneath numbers. We ourselves are incidental.
To get politicians to acknowledge that these issues aren’t abstract an issue either needs to become politically expedient (when politicians want to appear compassionate or ‘in touch with the people’) or highly embarrassing (if the performance indicator becomes just too bad).
You know this is happening when politicians either become highly emotional about how people’s feelings matter or start saying things like ‘there are real people behind these numbers’. Both of these statements are presented as if they are a revelation, that the politicians is exceptionally perceptive to have grasped this fact. That in itself says a lot.
In the system with which we live, a managing class manages abstractions that the management class designs for itself, usually with ease of management in mind. All outcomes are legitimate so long as the abstractions are managed according to regulations, no-one involved cannot be absolved of responsibility so long as they say ‘with hindsight perhaps…’.
What never, ever happens is for someone to say ‘oh, those poor people without electricity – we should send someone to see if they’re OK’. Patrick McGoohan’s Number Six may have resented being a number, but his captors at least made sure he had food, clothing and somewhere warm to sleep…