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Gearing up by using intermediary organisations 18 March 2010

Posted by cooperatoby in EU, social economy.
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I’ve been coming across repeated instances of official scepticism of the role of intermediaries in delivering services and benefits to citizens.

It was suggested to me that it is more than a theory of perfect markets. This holds that the problem is an assymetry of information – poor or excluded people don’t benefit from the same quality of information as those they deal with – and so they get exploited. The solution according to this paradigm is better information, training, education. This will supposedly allow everyone to compete under fair conditions. Cf. “There is no such thing as society” (Margaret Thatcher), now toned down to “There is such a thing as society, but it isn’t the state” (David Cameron).

The trouble with this bland worldview is that it minimises the possibility of prejudice, discrimination, , the old boys’ club, class interest… It objectifies needs and believes that they are expressed as demands that can be met by products and services. It leaves out the way that what we desire is a social and cultural construct – and in fact that many of our desires are relative: we desire not the thing itself but a fair distribution of things among us and our neighbours. (This is why ‘poverty’ is defined as an income of less than 60% of mean income, making it a meaure of inequality not absolute deprivation).

Three fears or arguments may underlie this blinkered view:

1) Bureaucrats aim to be impartial. If you think of individuals as exercising their rights through organising, then you run the risk of being partial, through regulatory capture. (Tools like the register of lobbyists are tinkering with this issue.) Which perversely means you have regulatory capture by deregulators.

2) Desire for efficiency. Intermediaries are accused of “rent-seeking” i.e. trying to take a cut to make the relationship. I think that is clearly contradicted by the facts: most intermediaries are public-spirited and are vastly under-rewarded compared to officials. Who are the real rent-seekers?

3) A recognition of the impossibility of micromanagement. This one I think is perverse. Administrators

    need

intermediary organisations – civil society – to aggregate demands and translate them into policy-friendly terms, and to deliver services and benefits. They are not an overhead – they are a gearing mechanism. To disregard or disrespect them simply adds to the workload and leads to ineffective, badly targeted policy to boot.

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