Whatever happened to Faceless Britain, I wonder? It was a theme in Clegg’s closing speech at Liverpool spring conference:

What will it look like, this new Britain?

First the great monoliths of centrally-run bureaucracies must be opened up – and run for the sake of the people, the patients, the pupils. These days individuals are powerless in the face of the rules and regulations that run everything. Every sensible request is met with a mindless “Computer Says No”.

Who hasn’t got stuck in the nightmarish world of an automatic phone service they laughably call a “helpline”? The lift music. The menus. The mechanical voice that tells you “your call is important to us”.

It’s frustrating when you’re trying to sort out your gas bill. But what if that helpline’s your only route to getting money for food, heating, clothes for your kids?

We want services that are human-sized, personal in nature, and designed for real people. We don’t want these services handed down by the faceless state. Gordon Brown is obsessed with building bigger and bigger database systems. I sometimes wonder if it’s a mid-life crisis thing…

And it was (still is notionally) the subject of a consultation paper which was supposed give rise to a motion at this year’s autumn conference. It didn’t, I suspect because it’s hard enough to articulate what is so awful about Faceless Britain, let alone articulate a meaningful motion by way of response. The consultation paper tries to nail it, but sounds a little too worked-on to convince:

Faceless Britain quite simply refers to the challenges experienced by millions of ordinary people every day in accessing public services. With every year that goes by, more and more services that used to offer face to face contact are being replaced by systems that are centralised, remote and inhuman. We are seeing the progression of an unaccountable state, creating increasingly remote systems that are divorced from the people they are supposed to serve.

It provides the specific examples of terrible benefit helplines, post office closures, ID cards and the maladministration of the social fund. All concrete examples of the abstract awfulness, but how do you come up with a single motion, a single response, the silver bullet that blows that all away, without being either too detail-focussed (scrap ID cards and keep post offices open) or too broadbrush (devolution). If you have to explain how your solution hangs together and how it resolves whatever you think the problem is, your silver bullet doesn’t work properly. So facelessness as a narrative theme disappeared from view.

The time might be ripe to bring it back, because the facelessness idea bears importantly on the banking crisis. It was the facelessness of the banking system which triggered the information problem which caused the sub-prime bubble. Someone somewhere knew those debts were bad, or rather had access to all the information that would show them the debts were bad. Someone somewhere else knew the values of houses would not go on rising forever. Why didn’t those two pieces of information ever cross paths and flag up a warning sign in the assessment process that rated those debts as triple-A stock? I’m guessing it was because human sanity checks were omitted at various key stages in the process. A spreadsheet is only as good as the data entered into it, and if those two key facts are not analysed together and introduced in numerical form then your spreadsheet is going to give you the wrong answer. Faceless processes that involve 1s and 0s can’t always transmit all the key information. They should be able to, by detecting correlations and cross-references, but there’ll be one quirky piece of information in ten thousand that they miss.

The faceless bank system also promoted the growth of the debt bubble, by making debt easy, by removing the physical human element that made it troublesome (and thus expensive for the bank). You fill in some figures and letters on a screen and press “Send” and if the computer likes the answers you have £80,000. The FT puts it as follows:

Amid the bail-outs and recapitalisations, let us not forget how the Great Meltdown of 2008 started: with the little people at the bottom, the ones with the Ninja mortgages (no income, no job or assets). The brokers and banks who lent them the money were not bothered whether they could pay it back. The bankers thought the value of the houses purchased with the mortgages would rise forever and, anyway, they were planning to package those loans and sell them.

Underneath the great meltdown lay the great disconnection between banks and their customers.

The UK may not have gone for Ninja loans, but it did have its cousins, the self-certified mortgages.

Banks once knew their borrowers. When I took out my first mortgage in the mid-1980s, I was called into the branch manager’s office for an interview. The letter from my employer detailing my salary was on his desk. No self-certification then.

Now, obviously I’m not in the slightest misty-eyed about the bad old days of shining your shoes to go and see your bank manager. It was and would be now hideously subject to personal prejudice. But it did have the merit of elevating the procuring of credit to the status of a social transaction. Human beings behave in a certain way in social transactions. In dealing with another individual, a person has certain social obligations to fulfil, pitfalls to avoid – not looking like too much of a credulous idiot, for example. You can see it dawning on the faces of those people in money programmes, when the guru confronts them with their £400 a month taxi habit or their thirty-seven identical pairs of black trousers. What was I doing? How can I defend that? I can’t. In dealing with an individual with some potential power over them, such as a bank manager with a wadful of cash, a person will analyse their own particular case for its strengths and weaknesses, a process the computer screen simply doesn’t call for.

The facelessness problem hasn’t been expunged for the banking system, of course. It has just been offered a new set of data to wreak its havoc on. And it’s certainly not a problem the shiny new governmental board members are likely to so much as recognise, being from the party and the government that wrote the  multi-lingual help and information leaflet on faceless bureaucratic systems.

I very much get the impression that Faceless Britain, for all that it’s sitting on the backburner, is one of Clegg’s own personal hobbyhorses. I hope it finds a way back in some more mature form soon, and possibly extended beyond the public services sphere. Its narrative opposite – that we are the party with a face – has decent groundwork to build on. Liberal Democrat MPs as a group recently emerged from a poll with high scores on being “approachable” and “helpful”. Facelessness as a cultural trend is appropriate for an “age of irresponsibility” and its opposite might be just the thing for an age of austerity.

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