Monthly Archives: November 2011

“Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?”

Few weeks ago I heard Louis Blom-Cooper give a talk entitled “Whatever Happened to the Fourth Estate?” I was reminded of this by the ongoing (and frankly surreal testimony from the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics. Blom-Cooper was chair of the Press Council, the forerunner to the Press Complaints Commission.

He didn’t really answer his own question: instead, this was a kicking off point for a discussion about the press and society – and which feeds which.

The fourth estate – which Blom-Cooper said Fielding originally applied to “the mob”, and only later became attached to the press by Carlyle – demonstrated power without responsibility; but whilst irresponsible, they were not too irresponsible. (Milly Dowler’s parents and the McCanns, together with more celebrated witness to Leveson, may disagree.)

He discussed the problem of regulating the press in the age of electronic media. Broadcasters are regulated by OfCom; the press by the PCC (regarded by many as toothless); the internet not at all. Perhaps, Blom-Cooper suggested, a single media regulator was needed. (It wasn’t clear that Blom-Cooper fully understood new media such as blogs, let alone Twitter, and how these interact with more traditional media.)

For Blom-Cooper, it wasn’t news-gathering and reporters apparently errant methods, but publication that was the real issue: breach of privacy, he felt, came with publication. I think he is wrong on this: in phone-hacking (albeit an extreme example), the breach of privacy surely came with the intrusion? Blom-Cooper’s point was that it was papers’ editors who were responsible, not reporters, and editors who needed a code of ethics – and to manage their reporters. (Paul McMullan’s claim that editors at News of the World knew that voicemails were being intercepted puts a different light on this: clearly they were responsible, and didn’t act.) For Blom-Cooper, what isn’t reported – the information and knowledge that the press “sit on” and withhold – is as important as what is.

He expressed the view that “journalism is the best medicine for the truth” – that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, perhaps: a free press is needed within society to hold others – those with power – to account. Knowledge that wrong-doing may become public leads to self-censorship of action. (This again leaves press “stings” like those carried out by the “fake sheikh”, including those that are clearly designed to expose wrong-doing like corruption in sport in a hard-to-justify swamp.)

The difficulty with the PCC is that it can only act after the event – the Press Complaints Commission needs a complaint to act. A code of conduct would be better than statutory regulation, he thought, but clearly it would need to have teeth. A widespread change in the culture of the press – its ethics, perhaps – would also be needed for editors to comply with a code of conduct.

With the development of electronic media and the internet, the fourth estate is returning to the mob: anyone can become a citizen-journalist and, despite the concentration of media in few hands (and, Blom-Cooper pointed out, this concentration is not new – Murdoch and Desmond today were more than matched by Beaverbrook and Rothermere, thought little of flexing their power to influence governments), anyone can now become a publisher, too. The role of the press in a civil society requires the freedom criticise society – but also the freedom to criticise the press. Educating readers into the ways of the press may be as important as educating the press itself – its editors and reporters.

I think the exposure – the disinfectant of sunlight – press methods have received in the Leveson inquiry is probably a good start.

Pensions, the public sector and tomorrow’s strike

Wednesday sees a strike by public sector employees. There seems to be a lot of spin by both Government and unions over the strike, which may affect public services in many different areas.

One of the unions, Unison, explains they are striking “to defend their pensions, after they voted overwhelmingly to join the TUC co-ordinated day of action”.

The Government proposals – and it isn’t easy to find them (I have tried: they are pretty well hidden) – stem from the Hutton Report, published last year.

Hutton’s recommendations included (taken directly from the executive summary of the report [pdf])

  • pensions will continue to be an important element of remuneration
  • public service schemes, along with a full state pension, deliver at least adequate levels of income
  • Government must honour in full the pension promises that have been accrued by scheme members: their accrued rights
  • members of the current defined benefit public service pension schemes should be moved to the new schemes for future service, but the Government should continue to provide a form of defined benefit pension as the core design
  • a new career average revalued earnings (CARE) scheme should be adopted for general use in the public service schemes
  • Government should increase the member’s Normal Pension Age in the new schemes so that it is in line with their State Pension Age

There are also several recommendations about the administration of public sector pension schemes and the transparency and publication of data about them.

Basically, then, the Hutton report recommends that members of public sector pension schemes get to keep what they’ve got – their accrued rights – but will be moved to new schemes for future rights.

The HM Teasury website sets out the Government’s proposals:

If you are currently in a final salary scheme, when the changes come into effect in 2015 your pension will be worked out differently. Your pension will be worked out using the salary you earn in each year during your career rather than your salary at retirement.

Your retirement date will be changed so that it is the same as the date you take your state pension.

You will be able to retire earlier than this and no one will be forced to work longer. Current public service workers can draw the full pension benefits they have earned under their current pension scheme at their current normal pension age. For many people who are near retirement, this will be 60. However, you may choose to work longer and earn more pension benefits under the new scheme.

(This webpage isn’t dated; I assume it sets out the earliest proposals from June 2011, rather than the amended proposals set out in November 2011.)

The first paragraph quoted sets out the new pension schemes, the second changing the usual retirement age in line with the state pension, the third assuring accrued pension rights: what was set out in Hutton.

This is a similar situation to that faced by many employees in private sector pension schemes: you keep the pot you’ve built up so far, but the scheme is changing for future pension accruals.

This is of course a change to terms and conditions; but it strikes me as different to the rhetoric being laid out by the unions. It does represent a decrease in remuneration – pension rights are effectively deferred salary, and by increasing the age at which a pension can be taken, the Government is reducing the total value of the pension. But the protection given to accrued rights means it is only future rights that are being changed.

Dave Prentis of Unision is quoted as saying “This is a fight not just about whether it is right to increase contributions, but it’s a fight for the survival of public service pension schemes.” Not according to Hutton or the Government it isn’t – it is a change to the schemes.

Jonathon Ledger of Napo said “[Government’s] attack on their pension entitlement is not fair, not reasonable and not necessary. They have joined the hundreds of thousands of hard-working public sector workers who are uniting in defence of their pensions – pensions earned after years of demanding work on behalf of our communities.” This is ambiguous, but I think wrong – the pensions earned so far – the accrued rights – are protected.

And so on and so forth.

I started writing this post to support my view that public sector workers were right to strike. I have changed my mind: I had the misconception that the Government policy threatened the pension rights earned to date. It clearly doesn’t. What is being changed are the future benefits. Public sector workers are indeed being asked to work longer and pay more into their (new) pension schemes – and if that happened to me, I’d probably want to strike, too. But they are not losing any of their earned rights to date.

Any worker is free to strike; any worker is free to move to another employer. In the current economic circumstances (and I write this as they are debating the Chancellor’s autumn statement on the radio: it doesn’t look pretty), that right to move to another employer is probably fanciful.

But I can’t help thinking the public sector workers – whether they strike or not – are on a hiding to nothing. And I no longer support their strike.

[Many of the links in this post came from the Guardian. This is because the Guardian had the easiest to navigate archive of articles relating to the public sector pensions proposals and Wednesday’s strike. I was shocked how hard it was to tease out the issues from all media sources, including the Guardian.]

What Is The Future of Work?

My one criticism of ConnectingHR Unconference3 was that no one really talked about “the future of work”, which I thought was the theme: it was a bit like we talked around the edges, leaving a theme-shaped hole in the middle…

In the spirit of the unconference, then, I thought I would put down my own thoughts on what work might look like in the future. I say my own thoughts, but frankly they probably all come from other people – not least The Economist, which recently had a special survey on the future of jobs – and people like Charles Handy have been writing about changing working structures for decades. None of this will be new. Most of it will probably be a bit random…

Of course, there will probably be many different futures for different people in different careers, and at different times. All futures are contingent. Some of these futures may even be reality now.

Here are two videos which aim to show two remarkably similar visions of a connected future at work and at home, by Microsoft and Ericsonn respectively:

These things may come true – they even be working as portrayed for a very few early adopters – but I believe that for most people in the world – probably even most people in the rich nations – these realities will never happen. (Please don’t get back to me in ten years’ time when it turns out this is exactly how we all live our lives…)

One of the many the futures of work may be no future at all: economist Chris Dillow has looked at the numbers, and reckons mass unemployment may be with us for a very long time. He reaches this conclusion on the basis of forecast of economic growth, which is way below the growth needed to reduce unemployment significantly. Thus, under- and unemployment are likely to be features of the work environment for a long time to come.

This may have major social implications, making competition for (some) jobs intense, perhaps reducing the income generated by work, and severely restricting applicants and employees expectations.

Another possible future may be an increase in the freelancing. Since I started freelancing a few years ago, the number of freelancers I know has increased dramatically. The use of job-websites such a elance and oDesk makes connecting freelancers or contract workers with their clients easier, and – for tasks that can be done anywhere – can cut costs. Why pay a freelancer in New York if you can pay one in Islamabad a tenth of the cost? Social networking sites like LinkedIn will play a part in this pattern too, oiling networking and building a contact base – maybe everyone will need their own CRM system to keep up with all their contacts (and potential clients and customers), too.

The Economist survey describes a world of micro-freelancers, in which tasks are broken down and bid (and paid) for in terms of minutes rather than hours or days – Amazon’s Mechanical Turk does this already, and yesterday I learned of two sites – TaskRabbit, which enables those with time on their hands (be they un- or underemployed) to do tasks that the rich, but time-poor, haven’t time to do, and CloudStaff, which provides virtual PAs based in the Philippines to anyone online anywhere. The Economist sees this as leading to a polarisation of work between “good jobs and commoditised ones in America and many other rich countries”, and describes a world in which

One strategy could be [for the unskilled] to find a high-flyer and stick close. Even if joining their posse is out of reach, there are still horses to be fed and watered. The time-poor new rich are generating demand for household staff, and this sort of work can be very well paid. A private secretary and general factotum can earn up to $150,000 a year nowadays. Salaries for standard butlers range from $60,000 to $125,000 and a head butler can make as much as $250,000, according to the website of the Butler Bureau.

This sounds like a return to a feudal society, with a increasing inequality across many measures.

Coupled with this is the flattening of organisations to the extent that they may become virtual – all the functions outsourced. I heard of a company yesterday that has only two people running it – a managing director and a sales manager, all the other functions being outsourced or bought in. This company was spun out of a university to capitalise on intellectual property created by academics, but other organisations can now do the same. Nike is seen as a popular manufacturer of training shoes and sports equipment, but it can also be envisaged as a specialised design company, with its other functions outsourced – notably manufacturing and distribution.

Much has been written about “portfolio careers” – I have certainly changed direction several times, and I reckon many freelancers would view that they have portfolio careers. It can be a very flexible lifestyle, but the freedom to do lots of different things is balanced by a lack of stability and security which would not suit everyone. (Not having responsibilities like a mortgage or children helps…) Many might view this new world as a frightening place, full of rapid change and lacking in security.

I remember a discussion I had twenty years ago with my then-boss in a consultancy. (I wasn’t a consultant – I was working in the finance function.) He described how he wanted to move the firm to a “donut” structure: a core of full-time employees, with associates to call on outside that, and freelancers to help on specific tasks: this was a variable resourcing model, where the firm didn’t have to pay for people to hang around (or to learn, or help others learn…) in slack periods. I don’t know if that company moved that way, but it seems to me that whilst the donut model would work well, not many organisations have adopted it. (What would you call a flat donut model? A pancake? The pitta end?)

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I’m not quite sure where this leaves us: a myriad of future working patterns, with everyone someone on the spectrum of work from fulltime at one end through parttime to freelancing to unemployed at the other. Some people may just opt out altogether – my guess is that the black economy would prosper at a time of high unemployment and uncertainty. It sounds as if it will be a time of growing inequality. Alternatives might be sought – perhaps the “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy LSX” movements are a symptom of that.

The internet may enable some people to prosper – putting buyers and sellers of services together, for instance – and may commoditise others’ skills. Maybe there will be a premium on those with social media skills. Anyone for blogging…?