Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 9th December 2011

The Problem of Giving

We do not quite forgive the giver. The hands that feeds us is in some danger of being bitten. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Gifts

The problem of giving is profound and double-edged. If we are the recipient of a gift there is a danger that we see our own need as a weakness (which it is not) and this then erodes our sense of our own value. If we are the giver then the danger is that we view our gift as some subtraction from ourselves (which it is not) and that we feel a pride and superiority to which we are not entitled.

One approach to this problem is to deny the reality of property (the property as theft argument). But this leaves us all poorer – or all subject to whatever power is in the business of organising property (the state, the market or the gangster).

A better approach is to welcome the concept of property and the notion of property rights but to recognise that property rights are not absolute. Property rights must be balanced with other social rights in order to ensure that everyone has the right to enough – even if some have more and some have less.

Paradoxically the healthiest perspective is to recognise that everything is a gift – not from other human beings – but from God. Humility before God takes nothing away from the soul.

Design Requires Deeper Thinking

Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really work out what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

Steve Jobs from Wired in 1994

This seems to me to be true of design in our welfare systems too. People are always in such a hurry, working so hard, but thinking so little. What this leads to in the end is poorly thought-through public policies.

It is not the lack of ‘research’ that is the problem – no design innovation ever came from research. But design should be driven by a deeper understanding of the problems that need to be solved and the outcomes desired. This understanding is certainly informed by research, but it also needs to be informed by an understanding of human psychology and a commitment to basic ethical principles. Without this moral and social realism new designs will just be short-term fixes that will fall apart under the slightest pressure.

Having been responsible for designing several new systems for the organisation of welfare systems (individual budgets, self-directed support, resource allocation systems etc.) nothing is more depressing than to see people get enthusiastic about new ideas without making any real attempt to understand how and why they work. This is what then lead to such poor implementation. Without any deeper understanding people implement a process, e.g. the seven steps to self-directed support, as if it were a magical formula.

Sometimes it is better that people are sceptical and resistant than that they naively embrace innovations for the sake of novelty. Innovation must serve powerful moral purposes; it must right real wrongs. Otherwise it will be wasted effort and distraction.

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