Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: consumers

Confusopoly: Lessons for Social Change

I came across, thanks to Samantha Connor, a beautiful new word the other day – confusopoly.

After some searching around the internet I think I found the source of the word to be Scott Adams, the comic genius behind Dilbert. He defines confusopoly as “a group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price.”

Well we can all recognise the truth of that. Who has not been confused by the complex and mobile pricing structures used to disguise a crude choice between a handful suppliers of utilities, phone lines or TV services? We all know we are being bamboozled; we often accept it as a feature of modern life.

I may not have given this enough thought, but it seems to me that confusopolies must thrive when:

  • We have little choice but to accept one of the available options – e.g. we need to heat the house
  • There is little, other than price, to distinguish the actual choice in front of us – e.g. iOS or Android
  • There are few real competitors – e.g. BT, SKY or Virgin Media

Oligopolists would not risk a strategy of confusopoly if they though most people would just walk away, choose on the basis of some different criteria to price, or choose someone offering a simpler and clearer alternative price plan.

I’ve always found the behaviour of firms in competitive situations interesting to watch. Do you remember when cash machines were new? (I’m showing my age now). Originally you could only use your cash card at your own bank. Then banks started to club together to create greater advantage for their customers. Eventually the system became a kind of duopoly, where about half of all banks would take your card. At this point the Government intervened (from memory) and insisted banks agreed to accept all cards – without charging us for the privilege.

This was a case study in how diversity becomes duopoly – but how duopolies must be forced over the line into more useful forms of monopoly. There was no commercial advantage to the banks in organising a monopoly – it was just better for us, the customers.

The reality seems to me that free commercial enterprise is basically helpful, innovative and creative – but always in danger of becoming damaging, exploitative or absurd. I find it strange when some people think commerce is bad. I find it equally strange that some people think democracy shouldn’t try to discipline commerce into being better than it naturally would be.

I love a beautiful garden. I don’t make the plants grow. But it wouldn’t be much of a garden without weeding, pruning and some overall design.

The tension between commerce and democratic control is inevitable and we should not be persuaded by liberals or by Stalinists from wanting both free commercial activity and strong democratic discipline.

However, when Sam Jenkinson used the term, she was referring to Australia’s disability support system and I found the term also being cited by Australia’s Productivity Commission in its design of the National Disability Insurance Scheme to replace the previous complex system. So perhaps it is not just commerce that creates confusopoly.

Reflecting on my own field of endeavour I can see that systems can become unnecessarily complex for a number of reasons:

  1. We may create an innovation from within a largely static system. For example, Direct Payments were a good innovation, but they created greater complexity because they left the old social care system untouched. One system became two systems.
  2. Alternatively we may create an innovation which can only be fully integrated into the system over time. For example, Personal Budgets were progressively rolled out, but many systems protected older forms of practice either by excluding Personal Budgets from their domain or by corrupting the definition of Personal Budgets to include inflexible options.
  3. Or we can force an innovation to adapt to an unreasonable obstacle. For example, integrated Individual Budgets died when parts of the bureaucracy, like the civil servants running the ‘Supporting People’ programme successfully defended their own funding stream from integration into one coherent model.
In fact we can see that here bureaucracy mirrors commerce. Bureaucrats do not always prefer what is rational, clear or to the advantage of the citizen. Their first concern (as with business) is to safeguard their own roles, their own funding streams and their own patterns of thought and behaviour.
Bureaucracy is not bad, bureaucracy is necessary; but it is perhaps no more likely to choose to do the right thing than is commerce. This is what I take from my own experience. Just as you cannot give a good idea to commerce and expect all to be well, so with bureaucracy. Discipline and integrity are required and some of this will need to come through democratic processes that can exert pressure on both bureaucracy and commerce.
The lesson for advocates of social justice and true welfare reform is that to have a good idea is not enough. Giving good ideas away is not enough. We must also attend to the process of change itself and in particular to the public and political processes that create some of the necessary discipline for coherent change.

Customers or Citizens

I put up this little item on Facebook recently and it seemed to strike a chord with lots of people. So I thought I’d share it here.

The other day I received an email asking me to answer some questions about leadership in health and social care by a major service provider. I won’t say which organisation sent me this, as that would possibly be unfair and misrepresent their true intentions. However I did find their questions so peculiar,  and so unremittingly consumerist, that I felt moved to share the questions I was asked, along with my answers:

Dear John

I’m afraid my answers may not be as useful as you’d like, because I suspect I can’t quite see how to frame the challenge quite like that. But here are my answers to your 6 questions:

Q1: The overarching question we are seeking to address is: “How do we consistently lead and deliver high quality, high impact [services] for people that lives up to the brand?”

A1: If we are too concerned about ‘the brand’ then we should be worried about our underlying values. Moreover, largely brands in our sector are complex and contested. e.g. a brand like the ‘Mencap brand’ is not necessarily a ‘good brand’ to which we’d like people to live up.

Q2: How do effective leaders in health and social care ensure that their staff are customer focussed? (Thinking about all people issues, from recruitment, performance management etc..)

A2: Customer-focus in our sector is a deeply unhelpful way of conceptualising what we are doing and why we do it. People are citizens, not customers. People do not shop for human services and they certainly don’t shop for a life. We build a good life together.

Q3: How do effective leaders in health and social care identify what their customers want?

A3: We explore what we want to achieve in life through a process of internal and real world discovery. You are either on that journey with someone or you are not. There are few effective short-cuts and those there are can come at a high cost to your integrity (e.g. misusing person-centred planning).

Q4: How do effective leaders in health and social care measure their customer’s satisfaction?

QA: I suspect that measuring satisfaction is mostly done for effect. It can be useful as part of showing people the value of an innovation, but in normal circumstances it is fraudulent, as the underlying power relations distort the value of the data. True leaders listen and respond, but mostly they empower others to act. Ideally the last thing they want to do is appear as a ‘leader.’

Q5: How do effective leaders ensure consistent quality across an organisation which may span the country?

A5: Top-down control for quality in human services leads to bureaucracy, elitism and managerialism. Its impact is to rob power from the lives of disabled people and those working closely with them. An effective organisation ‘manages’ by liberating innovators, enabling good practice and dealing urgently with real problems when they arise – learning as transparently as possible as they go.

Q6: How would leadership in an organisation which delivers consistent high quality, high impact for people differ from one where this is not achieved?

A6: Such leaders would show humility, facilitate mature conversations and seek to explore how they can improve things further.

I hope that helps.

Best wishes

Simon John Duffy

I am not sure what else to say. However I think this divide, between seeing each other as citizens, or seeing each others as customers, is fundamental. The customer model obviously connects to many modern trends (positive and negative) but it seems such a fundamentally unhelpful way of thinking about disability and human services. The fact that something seems so obviously right to some, while it seems so obviously wrong to others, is indicative of the profoundly paradigmatic issues at stake. I suspect we won’t be able to just explain our way out of this problem. I think we will need to act as citizens in order to show others what citizenship means and what citizenship can do.

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