2014 thinkers neilstott change 883x432 1

Why change isn’t always for the better

17 October 2014

The article at a glance

When it comes to public services, reform is often in the eye of the beholder, says Dr Neil Stott, Chief Executive of …


When it comes to public services, reform is often in the eye of the beholder, says Dr Neil Stott, Chief Executive of Keystone Development Trust and Executive Director, Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Neil Stott
Dr Neil Stott

Are you a “change is good” or an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” type of person? Reformers and innovators invariably stress the sins of the old and virtues of the new, but I would argue that the grass isn’t always greener. In fact, in many cases, strong leadership is needed to maintain the status quo against the forces of change.

I would argue that this is often the case when it comes to public services. Why? Because they deliver essential services (change is of higher risk than typical of the commercial world) to a huge number of people (sometimes an entire nation) and because they are perhaps more vulnerable to sweeping change in the name of ideology than most commercial organisations – that after all, is what politics is for.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association in the US, has direct experience of this. Madeloni’s main cause for concern relates to the increasing burden of assessment for teachers and students, as well as what she perceives as the “racism and greed” at the core of public education reform in the state. For her, “the joy in human relationships and the possibilities of teaching have been foreclosed by the ‘education deform’ project”.

It’s an interesting stance in itself, but I was particularly struck by the use of the word “deform”. Madeloni is presenting a challenge to the idea that applying the word reform to something makes it automatically a good thing.

Of course, any proposed reform or innovation is underpinned by a set of ideas, ideology or motivations that may or may not stand up to scrutiny or serve the wider good. Implementation of those ideas invariably has intended and unintended consequences – for better or worse.

Take an example closer to home. In reforming a waste collection service, the local council decides to charge for bulky waste collections, principally to provide a more efficient service and increase income. However, an unintended (although arguably foreseeable) outcome is an increase in fly tipping, of mattresses in particular. As a result, not only does unsightly and unhygienic fly tipping sites lead to the wrath of residents, but it also attracts young people for whom the temptation to commit arson became too much to bear. Result: the council suffers reputational damage as well as additional costs to the public purse to cover the repeated call out of the Fire Brigade. Ultimately, the reform has to be reformed.

Similarly, a much lauded and innovative campaign to remove child labour from the production of footballs in rural Pakistan by the industry and NGOs seemed, on the surface, to have been a great success, eliminating the practice by 95 per cent. But as Cambridge Judge’s Dr Kamal Munir and colleagues report, there were unintended consequences.

While a tainted product seemed to have been purified and profits sustained, the knock-on effect for the local population was devastating. The imposed shift from home labour to monitored centres caused the female workforce – rural women who balanced childcare, agricultural (sustenance) and labour with football stitching – to drop significantly, increasing family poverty and disrupting home lives.

For them, the new regime became much less attractive and humiliating, not least as female factory workers attracted abuse from men. For the villagers the actual issue was about a living wage for adults (removing the pressure to produce high volumes at low rates) and the right to work in safety and privacy.

So while the battle cry of politicians, organisational leaders and social innovators is often “reform, innovate or move out the way”, I do have a nagging worry that like many other things in life, change is often in the eye of the beholder. Even social innovators with the best intentions should be wary of what they wish for.