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The health and safety and Qualification mess

Comment 15th July 2010

Britainis gripped by an enormous hand of bureaucracy. The problem is that what makes sense at a local level can frequently makes nonsense at a macro level. For example, I know a Canadian who came over to England. He was able to drive legally for one year. After that, it was illegal for him to drive manual transmission cars without taking a full driver's test. What is a driver's license for if not safety? Does this mean he was safe for one year and then suddenly unsafe? Was this to stop the plague of accidents caused by Canadians improperly shifting from fourth to fifth on the M25? I'm sure all the time and money spent testing these people is far more important than spending it on new drivers.

When I wrote an MP about this (a Conservative one) he was at first as shocked as we were, but once he got the official Humphrey's explanation, the logic backing up this position became clear. What I would like to challenge is the usefulness of a system that supports a logical system that creates such absurd situations.

I was on the National Pandemic Flu Line. The parents asked me if there were any side effects. Since I had researched the NHS website I knew the answer, however, it was not in my script. My supervisors warned me that I could not deviate from the script even by a word and so if I told the parents there were indeed a possibility of side effects from Tamiflu (especially with children) they would have to let me go. On the surface, this looks mad. But when we break it down, it all makes sense. We had to stick to script or the private company could lose the huge NHS contract. So they had to enforce the rules. The NHS felt they had to stick to script because otherwise they (and the agent) would be open to being sued by the public and all the wonderful publicity that would entail. Why would the public sue? They are repeatedly told that if they follow recommended advice and something goes wrong, they can sue if that knowledge turns out to be harmful. By not following advice they themselves must take responsibility for the outcome.

So who is wrong here?

The problem is that the British bureaucracy is looking at rational at a local level and therefore missing opportunities to be extraordinary at the macro level. All of society is supporting this cycle, just as it did with the Flu Line. So when I did get laid off I was told that they would have chosen someone else if I had stuck to script. To do the job, I was told, I had to 'leave [my] morals at the door.' Is this really the Britain we want?

Health and Safety causes people to stop thinking for themselves because everything is supposed to be safe. I don't have the study to hand, but apparently bicycle riders who don't use bright jackets and helmets are less likely to get hit by cars.

On a recent construction job, I was told that I had to buy a CSCS card for £45 in order to 'quality' to be on-site. Everyone I spoke to (supervisors and labourers) on site agreed it was a complete waste of time but they needed to do it for legal reasons. Similarly, we had to wear hard hats even though we were constantly looking down and the hat would constantly fall into our eyes preventing us from seeing. The swing bucket driver told me he had had people walk straight into his bucket because their helmets were preventing them from seeing their own environment.

What people keep forgetting is that complex systems such as human society do not work on linear principles. That is why when the Canadians reduced their police force, crime went down. I have built a simulation of human society to demonstrate these principles and wanted to take it to academia. Unfortunately, once again I ran straight into a bureaucracy and I had an extraordinary experience that left me without any money or a means to live except by temporary work or benefits … which does not earn enough for me to continue working in university (a story for another time).

If we were to learn how to utilise the principles of self-organisation to our benefit, we could transform this society in the way so many of us feel should be possible but somehow keeps eluding us.

I will give you one more thing to consider. We are missing huge realities facing us. 1/3 rd of the ecosystem has disappeared since 1970. In 2003 everyone agreed to stop it. In 2010 it was agreed that agreeing to stop it didn't work. 1 in 7 people in the world are going hungry right now. In the 1980's (Live Aid) we largely agreed to stop it. Again, we have to agree that agreeing to do something to change a large complex system does not work. The point is, we need something different if we are going to make real changes.

On the other hand, without lifting a finger we managed to begin altering the climate of the earth. Now imagine the ridicule 100 years ago if we declared our intention to change the earth's climate without any decisions, any laws, or any human wilful intent at all. If this power were consciously available …

There is a huge lesson in this but I fear it will take a lot more than 10,000 words to teach it. My suggestion is we use the exact same mechanisms to save the eco-culture, to cut crime, to create a loving society that so many feel should be possible.

For example, in the example of the Flu Line, how bad would it be if we began to teach the citizens of the UK to once again take personal responsibility for their own decisions? That getting advice was part of that, but learning how to distinguish good advice from bad was also very important.

Qualifications guarantee nothing (except the ability to sue). For example, in the US there was a fully qualified commercial pilot flying a twin turbo prop when a warning light incorrectly came one. The fully qualified pilot then decided to shut the engine down. This was an incorrect but safe decision to make. However, he shut down the wrong engine and then proceeded to incorrectly apply rudder. In other words, instead of making the plane fly straight while being pulled by one engine on one side of the airplane, he used the rudder to aid that engine to spin the airplane around. A pilot with any feel for flying would have immediately felt something was wrong and applied the opposite rudder, but this completely and fully qualified pilot successfully fought off the co-pilot and managed to spin the airplane into the ground killing everyone on board.

Qualifications are perfectly capable of empowering people with terrible failures. Any society that leans too heavily on the qualification becomes blind to real skill. Mediocre (and sometimes poor) skill can easily become just as heavily qualified as excellent skill.

Why do you think so many teachers are concerned that we are teaching to pass tests instead of actually teaching? We can just as easily spin and crash in life in spite of being fully qualified. The country that does not notice this is quite vulnerable.

The first step is to drastically scale back health and safety and qualifications (and other things … I'm just picking on these two) and return power to the people in the form or teaching them again how to be responsible for themselves in a real way.

While it makes me sad that this might be the only reason this is considered at all is consider all the money you would save.

The principles of emergent behaviour and self-organisation are difficult for those so used to thinking in cause and effect terms. I would be pleased to aid that understanding. If anyone wants to know more, you know where to find me.

By the way, Cameron should try to ban the site supporting Moat because the people there can later be shamed and that will be an incentive for more awareness to future generations. Again, simply by letting people become responsible for what they do could do a great deal of healing in the UK.

In my opinion, of course.

Have a good one.

Why does this matter?

Because if we try to solve the problems of society using the tool kit we have been using, we will likely duplicate our 'success'.

Complex systems do not respond to linear solutions. That is why the fire service in the US lights forest fires in order to lower the incidence of forest fires. That is why CEO's who make earnings their number one priority tend to lower the earnings of their companies (see the history of Boeing). That is why a Fortune 500 company survives, on average, only 40-50 years (see the Shell study).

An academic just published a book about this called Obliquity, but we need to go one further.

Safety is not created by safety policies. Crime is not cured by police. Skill is not created by qualifications.

And good governance is not created solely by the desire to create good governance (just ask Labour).

We need to think about something new and different. This is not only new and different, I have built an evolutionary  model to back up my assertions (using the academically accredited NetLogo). For example, fertility can have very little to do with population growth, so unless there is a study to proves a link between fertility and population growth, one is not likely to exist.

The point is, if we treat society like a simple cause and effect system we will almost certainly fail.

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