December 2010

When it comes to the number of people in the world human beings will beat governments hand down every time.

The thought’s been bubbling in my mind for some time.

Ever since I earned a living forecasting population it’s something I’ve known.  But it’s come back into focus for three reasons.

First the never-heard-of-before (by me) Optimum Population Trust popped up on BBC news  programmes twice this month.  They punt the idea of an optimum (posh for best) level of population for both the UK and the world.  In particular

In the UK…population should be allowed to stabilise and decrease by not less than 0.25% a year to an environmentally sustainable level, by bringing immigration into numerical balance with emigration, by making greater efforts to reduce teenage pregnancies, and by encouraging couples voluntarily to “Stop at Two” children.

Then yesterday the UK Department of Work and Pensions claimed that by 2066 there could be more than 500,000 people aged 100 or over in the UK – there were 11,600 in 2009.

And finally, also yesterday, think tank Institute for Public Policy and Research published a briefing note that concluded net immigration is unlikely to fall much in the next year despite government attempts to curb it.

This is all an intensely political and emotional subject as a few quick Google searches will show.

On the one hand, those concerned by high levels of population are often characterised as neo-eugenicists – a clumsy phrase but hinting at some distant link with extreme right wing views.

On the other, those relaxed about higher levels of immigration are sometimes confronted with claims that white people will be a minority in Britain by the turn of the next century, if not sooner.

My take is rather different.  You can call it technical but it’s basically about the futility of government attempts to control the size of the population.

There are three immediate causes of population change

  • births
  • deaths
  • net migration – the difference between the number of people moving into the country and out of it.

The control of government over each of these causes in a democracy is at best distant, at worst non-existent.

The most controversial of the three for many is migration.  While government can to some extent control the level of immigration, it has little direct influence over emigration.  That depends on

  • how would-be emigrants perceive their own prospects in the UK for work, social advancement, education, the future of their children, and so on
  • work opportunities, lifestyle and government policy in each of the 190+ other countries in the world.

The lack of control is exacerbated by our old friend the law of unintended consequences, of which there are many examples world-wide.

Romania under communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu sought to increase its population when the consequences of static numbers for longer term growth in a planned economy were realised.  Most abortion was criminalised, income tax raised for childless adults and lowered for those with three or more children, divorce made more difficult, contraception illegal and so on.  The US Library of Congress produced a good summary of all the measures and their impact (you might say the full horror).  The birth rate, after an early increase, fell almost continuously throughout the remaining period of communist rule.  The adverse social consequences arguably remain until the present day.


China perceived the opposite problem – a population increasing out of control.  The government response was a one child policy with heavy penalties for parents having more than one child, increases in forced abortions, female infanticide, underreporting of female births, and a gender imbalance in the population.  Recent reports suggest one unintended consequence, perversely, is a much higher value placed on the education of girls and women as the economy has grown and a single daughter is seen by parents as a source of support in old age.  More dramatically, there is now concern at the longer term ability of the population to meet the needs of the labour market, and unfavourable comparisons drawn with India’s much more youthful population.

Even in the more benign environment of a democracy the consequences of public policy impact on population levels in unintended ways.

Who could argue with the principle that citizens should lead longer, healthier lives?  Yet no political party has a policy of increasing the number of people living to 100.  And the consequences of increased longevity are impacting dramatically on social service, health and pension provision.

Incidentally, for readers working in local government, the same truths apply.  The only circumstance in which you can control even the initial population in an area is to start with an empty site and build houses where there were none before.  But once the people have moved in understand you cannot control the number of children they have, how long they live for, and whether they move into or out of the area.

In a recent post on Ideas whose time has come I recorded the views of two experienced ex-politicians on what makes a successful government policy.  Their criteria included

  • ease of achievement
  • working with the grain of human nature
  • focus – don’t do more than you are capable of doing.

Politicians seeking to influence levels of population would do well to remember these points.  They certainly don’t seem to have impacted on the Optimum Population Trust.

Totally random for the holiday season – two Hawaiian teachers bring history to life through some classic songs.

Check out Ancient Rome to the tune of Mambo #5:

Groove to Anne Boleyn by the Beatles:


There are 46 more where they came from.

A virtual prize to anyone who can identify any public sector video on YouTube that is half as effective and entertaining as this stuff.

My thanks to Paul W for bringing this to my attention through his ever-entertaining and humbling Facebook page

There was a fascinating contrast on BBC Radio 4 a few days ago.

Think tank The Institute for Government had published a survey of members of the Political Studies Association.  Mea culpa I hadn’t heard of the PSA.  They say their membership includes “practitioners [and] policy makers” but the game is given away by their web address –  They’re academic political scientists.

Nothing wrong with that and I make no criticism of them.

The fascinating bit was hearing two ex-politicians discuss the survey – Andrew Adonis (ex-Labour minister and now i/c of said Institute for Government) and Michael Portillo (ex-Conservative minister, once-upon-a-time nemesis of the left, now cuddly media figure).

Asked what made a successful policy, the political scientists’ top answers were

  • social impact
  • successful implementation
  • economic impact
  • duration of impact, and
  • realisation of political principles

and their most successful Westminster policy interventions since 1980 were

  • the minimum wage
  • devolution
  • privatisation, and
  • the Northern Ireland peace process.

(Incidentally, of the 800+ members of the PSA surveyed only 150 bothered to reply, a response rate of less than 19% – pretty poor for academics who often rely on surveys of others for their own research)

In the much less structured rough and tumble of a short radio interview Portillo and Adonis seemed to come to a perhaps surprising consensus on the subject.

They endorsed the political scientists’ list of successful policies although Portillo, understandably from his point of view, added council house sales (he also had the sense to acknowledge the poll tax as an unsuccessful policy doomed to failure).

Where they parted from the political scientists was their politicians’ view of what made a successful policy.  Between them they said it was

  • determined political leadership (often across political parties)
  • careful preparation
  • learning from previous mistakes
  • starting small and building up
  • ease of achievement (minimum wage easy, education reform hard)
  • working with the grain of human nature
  • focus – don’t do more than you are capable of doing

and above all (the “above all” is my take)

  • recognising an idea whose time has come.

Portillo offered the additional insight that a government’s quality of decision making declines over time, or as national-treasure interviewer Jim Naughtie paraphrased it – “They become clapped out” (that incidentally being a profound truth politicians in government are unable to articulate in public).

What a great list and what a different insight from the academics.

I think I’m with the ex-politicians, or at least these two, on this one.

Aspiring and serving governments should have the Adonis-Portillo list to hand as a litmus test for all their proposals.

How would our still-new UK government’s policies match up against that litmus test?

Just as intriguing for someone (me) who has worked for many years in and with councils, what are the ideas whose time has come in local government?  And what would people’s list be of past local government ideas whose time came?

Historical note.  The origin of the phrase an idea whose time has come seems to rest with French novelist Victor Hugo who actually wrote “On résiste à l’invasion des armées; on ne résiste pas à l’invasion des idées”.    There are numerous English translations and paraphrases and an idea whose time has come produces 9.7 million Google hits.

From today below each entry in this blog you’ll see a small row of stars and the injunction Rate this.  It’s another way of commenting on what you think about my posts:

  • *****  – excellent
  • ****    – good
  • ***      – average
  • **        – poor
  • *          – very poor.

So please use it as another way of giving me feedback.

Apologies to one of my heroes Alfie Kohn, one of whose book titles begins Punished by Rewards.  The Trouble with Gold StarsIf you’re reading this Alfie, this is  different.

Initially flattered by a comment received today on an elderly post:

Thank you for another terrific article.  Where else could anyone get that kind of facts in like a ideal way of writing?  I’ve a presentation next week, and I’m around the look for this kind of information.

I decide that if he’s around the look for that kind of facts for his presentation he’s got problems.  As moderator of my own blog I hit the Trash button.

30 November was an unusual day.  I was doing more listening and reading than communicating myself.  This is what I heard and saw.

On a serious note, the UK snow dump was at its height (literally).  Councils all over the UK were keeping people up to date about the impact on their services – mainly travel warnings and closures of various sorts. The #uksnow web site map spelt out by the minute where the white stuff was falling.

The UK Department of Health quoted Secretary of State Andrew Lansley on his new proposal for public health responsibilities to be moved to English councils – “Directors of Public Health will provide strong and consistent local leadership by acting as champions within councils”.  Hope the budget moves with the responsibilities.

I received a reminder from HM Treasury that their independent review of fair pay in the public sector led by Will Hutton would  publish its interim report next day (They did.  He recommended the highest paid employee in any public sector organisation should receive no more that 20 times the salary of the lowest paid – I’d have missed that without the reminder).

The Scottish Government told me I could watch a video on their web site of their response to the UK Government’s Scotland Bill.

There was other serious stuff too.

Someone said “Several years ago, I worked with the head of a large company who was very skilled at his job.  Because no one doubted that, including him, he was also utterly at ease with acknowledging his shortcomings.  He was also eager for any kind of feedback, because above all, he wanted to grow and improve.  What you got was a whole person, confident and humble, skilled and flawed.  Not surprisingly, he was beloved”. A great example of leadership.

Meanwhile over in the Daily Telegraph a medic was recounting his experience of being an unexpected emergency patient in an NHS hospital – “A kind word, a thoughtful gesture, a sympathetic smile: these are the things that there are no tick boxes for, and that are so difficult to regulate or control; yet for the patient, are so important”.   Hmm, that put performance management in perspective.

Elsewhere, there was a heartfelt blast by a dis-satisfied customer against his internet service provider (ISP) –“What is it about call centre staff that is most irritating?  Their ability not to listen or their ability to patronise?” Be assured friend.  They are not unique.

I also learnt for the first time about social media surgeries where those  familiar with the likes of blogging, Facebook and all things webby make themselves available for people to get help with the technology so many still fear.

Another first was discovering Jumo“We connect individuals and organisations working to change the world – find issues and projects you care about; follow the latest news and updates; support their work with your time, money, and skills”.  One to investigate further.

Sometime after mid-day (a bit late guys) the Scottish Government reminded me it was St Andrew’s Day.  As it happens, someone else had got there first and already let me know that “legend has it St Andrew’s head was once stolen from Constantinople and brought along to Rome”.  They cited Radio Vatican (“la Voce del Papa”) as the source so no doubt about that one.   In a surfeit of things Caledonian someone in York (York?) asked me what my three favourite Scottish beers were.  I was tempted to answer “The first three pints” but held back.  Even more weirdly, Hillary Clinton, yes her, sent me and doubtless many others a historic (she said) St Andrew’s Day message.

The bit of me interested in history was intrigued to see the UK mapping agency Ordnance Survey had mapped the Southampton blitz 70 years on in a “mashup” of data.

To leaven the diet of serious information the wilder fringes enlightened me on other matters of great import:

  • the Queen had little to say in favour of Nick Clegg but a lot in favour of a good G&T (this intelligence sadly turned out to be false)
  • an American woman who uses the Twitter name “theashes” had been pestered by cricket fans falsely believing she is the bearer of news about sport and was driven to respond “I am not a freaking cricket match!”
  • The Economist advised me that Canadians do not like to be fondled (at least in airport security searches)
  • someone said they’d just discovered that MILF stands for Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Filipino terrorist group and advised the group concerned to “get some brand advice”.

And back to where we started another correspondent wished Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and himself a Happy Birthday and noted the first two were probably having a better day than him – “Being dead beats being snowbound”.  Oh, I don’t know.

Footnote.  If you use Twitter you may guess what was happening.  All this was brought to me in or via the Tweets I received on 30 November.  It’s taken a while to review them and post this.  Yes, there was a lot of dross and, no,  I don’t normally do more than scan incoming Tweets quickly.  But there was news, learning and amusement, nearly all of which I’d have missed otherwise.

My thanks to the anonymous and unattributed authors of my 440 Tweets that day.  A quick Google will probably bring you oodles more information on any of the topics not linked above.

Shortest blog entry yet – latest HelpGov newsletter available to read and download online at the HelpGov web site.  Read.  Enjoy.  End of commercial.