Competition – the new theology

One belief that is held by our politicians (or both sides, lamentably) and the newspaper columnists in the heavier press is a theological belief in the benefits of competition.  Recent contributions by apparently bright and otherwise sensible people – Dominic Lawson in the Times (arguing that it was right to tender Olympic security out to a private provider who made a pig’s ear of it) and Matthew Parris.  To argue that competition and choice is somehow not the answer to all life’s problems seems a very minority activity.  But here goes.

Life as a whole does not exist in a froth of competition.  People’s home and social life involves little competition apart from the odd pub quiz.  Thinking about it, most people’s experience at work does not involve competition.  I am not just talking of the wicked public sector, where police officers, teachers and nurses knowingly connive to collaborate with their colleagues.  It’s also true of much of commercial life.  Of course there are competitive elements – but once (for example) a civil engineering company has won the contract to build a bridge, the actual work involves collaboration and teamwork between a large group, and often with other commercial entities – the firm that supplies the steel or cement or local labour.  Such collaboration is common in the business world.  My Jaguar car has a floor pan that comes from a Ford.  In fact there are a large number of employees whose work life involves no competition at all.  Backroom staff in the private sector – personnel officers or accountants, cleaners or safety officers – are not in daily competition, nor (whatever the market position  of their industry) are the actual production staff making paint, or bread, or shoes, designing computer chips, driving lorries or piloting planes, digging trenches and so on.  The actual proportion of the workforce out there facing the opposition that is felt to be needed to sharpen up their performance is actually quite small.

This is just as well for most people do not like being in competition.  Orwell noted this when reviewing Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom”:

“He does not see, or will not admit, that … ‘free competition’ means for the mass of people a tyranny far worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the State.  The trouble with competitions is that somebody wins them[1]

People are not dolts or cowards for preferring friendship, cooperation and team work.  I don’t like competition.  This did not lead to inferior performance in my career.  I led a successful enough life as a college lecturer and manager.  But my motivation was not to beat other schools and colleges, but to work with colleagues to get the best outcome for the students and communities and employers I worked with.  In education, competition with other schools and colleges generally ends up with unprincipled admissions practice: expanding by recruiting students onto courses that don’t suit them (let’s see what happens to universities now they depend on fee income), or “raising standards” by making a play for the able youngsters who make your league table results look good.  One should not simply assert that competition is good, but subject that assertion to evidence.  It has been done.  The LSE looked at every primary school in London, and found no evidence to support the idea that competition raises standards: the study quoted pages of research that had come to the same conclusion.  Again, a look at inspection reports shows how well isolated schools and colleges often do[2].  Some of the most outstanding colleges in England have no rival in commuting distance.  I guess this is because, freed of the nonsense of marketing and manoeuvring, they can get on with providing a great education for a community they know.  They teach the whole ability range, and, in passing, offer those students real choice.  Where there is institutional rivalry, where you can study English and History “A” level everywhere, numbers are diluted and so you will be able to study Latin and Music nowhere[3].

In sport, we are told that competition will make our young people “winners”. Lord knows what that means: sport is the original zero-sum game, with as many losers as winners: in golf and tennis, athletics and motor sport, far more.  In fact, teamwork in sport matters more than competition.  Listen to the testimony of the World Cup winning 2003 England Rugby team – they look back on their achievement not as dishing the Aussies, but as being part of a remarkable group of men with an extraordinary leader.  I recently met the sixth formers of my old school, 50 years later. Some were successes, others less so: there was no correlation between sporting success and life success at all.

Politics suffers from being seen as a competitive activity.  Ministers do not build on the ideas and achievements of their predecessors, do not create continuity with their opponents.  They have to create their own brand, which leads to nursery vouchers being launched and then trashed, to City Technology Colleges being attacked then mimicked.  You could argue that Gordon Brown did not lose his job because of Tory rivalry, but because he was unable to orchestrate[4] a group of collaborative colleagues, to create the image of a successful team player.  His outlook was one of competition, briefing against colleagues and hectoring opponents: it led reasonably rapidly to his being an ex-Prime Minister.

The government’s enthusiasm for competition and markets – which work in many commercial settings – has been extended to areas where it is plainly inappropriate.  Competitive markets are splendid ways to produce many goods, but not all.  If they are to work, they need clear information, real choices, ethical businesses unable to rig prices, and to be part of a process where consumers can assess value because they make regular purchases.  Not true in railways (one company for most journeys); not true in healthcare (consumers don’t know best treatment, and competitive systems require excessive administrative expenditures); not true in pensions or mortgages (financiers rip off locked-in savers); not true in schools (where competition creates sink schools for less able); not true for exam boards (where competition lowers standards); not true in food (where profit maximising companies conspire to avoid reform of their fatty, salty, sugary products).   Yet over the past thirty years, politicians have been trying to introduce the market to education: as far as I am aware (I am now senior visiting fellow at a respectable university, so this is not an un-evidenced rant) there is no real evidence that competition and choice raise standards – and, Lord knows, people have looked. It is truly extraordinary that journalists and commentators have not been told, or have not listened to, the evidence of researchers on these issues (though, to be fair, The Economist does usually admit the data is flaky as it pens yet another bloody article espousing competition and independence for schools).

Curiously, during this period the politicians have gone easy on commercial competition.  Can you remember a large commercial merger being declined on competition grounds in the past five, ten, fifteen years ?  Hospitals and schools were given lectures on the benefits of choice and competition whilst all five London airports were run by the same firm, rail firms acted with no rivals and the banking sector became ever more cartel-like.  Aware that they are not working in a real competitive position, Government agencies try to create shadow markets, letting contracts for training the young unemployed or preparing educational material or undergoing research or policing the Olympics to private companies, who often take a slice of the money for ‘management’ before sub-contracting to someone who subcontracts to someone who knows somebody who knows what they are doing.  I have a friend who is at the fifth level of sub-contracting for a Department of Education research contract: my wife works for a media company which is at the fourth level of such a contract.  Local authorities recruit well-paid managers to manage out-sourced contracts with vast performance specification documents and reviews that never seem to involve genuine excellence.  The alternative (see the NHS) is for market driven companies to do the easy work (hips and knees) and hand problematic patients back to the real NHS when things go wrong.

This is not a religious belief –  some things need market (food, manufactures), others we don’t know (education), things that don’t (banking – see Canada – health care (US costs and life expectancy), energy (where alleged competition has not brought down prices at all) and things where it can work with regulation (phones). I will return to this.

[1]  It is easy for clever rich people to support competition.  They usually win, and don’t suffer if they lose.  Compare (for example) the experience of local authority cleaners when their work is put out to contract.

[2]  This assertion is based on a project in which I read every single college inspection report for England.  Nearly 400 of ‘em.  Sad man.

[3]  Example: you cannot study three languages at “A” level in any South London public sector school or college.

[4]  The word ‘orchestrate’ is itself a tribute to the importance of teamwork.  Does Simon Rattle walk into a rehearsal thinking “today I have to beat the Los Angeles Philharmonic” ?

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