Could a Tickbox campaign drive Right and Left back together?

What is tickbox? When I published a book with that title it was strange how obscure this was for some people – and how others knew immediately what I was talking about.

Here, for the sake of argument, are some dfefinitions:

tickbox (noun) The phenomenon where organisations are able to dodge the letter of what is demanded from them by a simple tick (as in A tickbox exercise).

To tickbox (verb) Ticking a box rather than taking personal or human responsibility.

Tickbox (noun) A system for taking automated decisions of the kind that used to be taken by bureaucrats, managers, officials or politicians.

This is the ubiquitous system I have called Tickbox in my new book of the same name, and which explains – or so I argue – why we feel so badly let down by governments, services and companies alike.

Most of us know precisely what is wrong with Tickbox – that most of these measures or targets either miss the point or get finessed by managers. Those who can’t see it tend to be the elite forces who run the world – and who believe what they are told by the frontline. And who dream of automated systems that can manage organisations without what they fear are messy human interventions or decisions.

Or we find ourselves in a ridiculous complaints loop where it is impossible to talk to a real person who would understand our problem in seconds (try myHermes or British Gas if you really want this kind of entertainment).

Or we get irritated by being asked on a five-point Likert scale how we would rate our latest minor interaction with the bank – where the rep ‘suggests’ that you might make it a 5.

We first need to name the problem – which is why I wrote the book. Tickbox is the machine those who run the world have created to manage things in their absence: we need to call it out and then switch it off.

For that reason, that the tentacles of tickbox are so ubiquitous, I believe that – if we can make tickbox a political issue, rather than just a cultural irritation – it could potentially unite people on both sides of a widening political divide.

When both the Guardian and the Daily Mail complain about the same phenomenon, using the same word, that may be a clue about how we might make the world a bit more humane.

* David Boyle is a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and the author of Tickbox (Little, Brown). You can buy the book from Hive or Amazon.

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One Comment

  • The Guardian has a helpful review of ‘Tickbox’ here:

    https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/16/tickbox-by-david-boyle-review

    And this article argues the poor customer service by big firms has a darker motive than one might naively suppose:

    https://theconversation.com/why-bad-customer-service-wont-improve-anytime-soon-128671

    For me it’s targets rather than tickboxes that go to the heart of what’s wrong with much government and commercial culture.

    As I recall, one of Margaret Thatcher’s big concerns was that government was inefficient and wasteful. Various strategies were developed to address this including privatisation (to introduce commercial disciplines), attacks on the unions (to reduce strikes) and, from the mid-1980s or so, targets.

    For a control freak like Thatcher targets must have seemed the ideal tool; they enabled her and her ministers to reach over the heads of a change-averse and uncooperative middle management (what Michael Gove was later to call “The Blob” while Education Secretary) and decree that some easily measurable outcome MUST be achieved – OR ELSE!

    Of course, that only meant managers achieved their targets by whatever means possible and outright cheating if necessary. So, targets soon ceased to measure what ministers fondly imagined they measured. For instance, target-compliant A&E waiting times that should indicate the adequacy of the medical resource could just as easily be a function of the number of corridors that had been redesignated as wards. Essential data was lost.

    And when things got really bad, government succumbed to the growing web of deceptions. It could pretend it believed (maybe it really did believe) that schools were getting better every year and that grade inflation had nothing to do with it even as employers despair about the limited attainment of too many recent graduates.

    I get the impression that this is the BIG problem at the heart of government that Dominic Cummings has (sort of) perceived but I don’t get any sense that he has a clue what to do about it.

    He’s not the only one. Almost every professional I come across is in despair about, in effect, the lack of control they experience. Could it be that a credible path to ‘Taking back Control’ would be a winner at the next general election? I think it might!

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