Thursday, September 22, 2011

Why we need Worst Value Guidance

CLG's recently-published Best Value Guidance (2 page PDF) is a fascinating subject, all wrapped up in some fairly dry linguistics. At its heart is the question "How can we get most bang for our buck, without screwing up communities and the environment?"

(For further background, go and read Toby Blume's piece "Planning for people or for profit?" and Jo Ivens' piece on the risks of open data being used primarily by the private sector. Done? Good.)

Muffin Tops
Photo: karlfrankowski
It's fascinating because this is the big question that we (as a whole, interconnected society - even if we don't know it) are grappling with today. On the one hand, we've come to define "efficiency" as money spent vs money gained - or rather, in today's new landscape of austerity, money spent vs money saved. Headlines dealing in rhetoric proclaiming "£100,000 OF TAXPAYER'S MONEY SPENT ON STATIONERY/MUFFINS/HOOKERS" are a stab at inefficiency - and the idea that we can get the same thing for less, or even do without it.

On the other hand, we all know that Money Isn't Everything (although you wouldn't think anyone actually believed that schmaltzy crap, given recent doom-mongering, market-crumbling headlines). It's easy to see what happens once we f--k the environment enough - it goes from not having green space to "enjoy", to pollution, health problems, food supply issues and a generally over-industrialised future which people love to see in movies, but not on their holidays.

Community is a funny one though. We've kind of divided up and lived without "community" for a while now. We have TV and the Internet to hold our hands, and large-scale institutions that we pay up front for to catch us when we're ill/depressed/untrained. Is "Community" too often seen as something that fills in the gaps where both the market and the state fail?

But intriguingly, it's when it's clear that economics alone isn't going to get us out of our current troubles that the impetus to reach out to alternative lines gets stronger. We expand our idea of "measurement" to include the stuff which we don't normally measure - and/or that we might consider important. We start looking at things like crime stats to get an idea of how "nice" we all are. Or community perception stats to see what we think of each other.

Worse Value

Is this enough though? In fact, let's go crazy for a minute - is the "Best Value" approach enough any more? When does "Best Value" turn into "GREAT VALUE BARGIAN BASEMENT"?

A digression. Years ago I realised the need to become, at least partially, an "irrational consumer" - that is, to disregard the assumption that you want to spend as little as possible and get as much as possible. Over the years, this has kind of happened. Freed from needing to find the next bargain (assuming that "rationality" is defined fairly narrowly), I feel more able to focus on some other hugely important factors:

  1. Long term quality. An item might look and act the same as another, but the old phrase "you get what you pay for" often stands up. Pay 50% more to get 5% better now, but with the hope/expectation that you won't have to replace what you're buying in the next week.
  2. Funding values I agree with. Sometimes it's not just about what I get. It's what I give. And what I give can support some hugely talented people to create some amazing, inspirational things - things of real value (at least to me). In-advance music pledges are a great example - I don't buy anything immediately, and I may even pay more than latecomers, but at the end of the day, I feel happy to put money into something I like to exist.
  3. Buying The Unknown. Some time back, I went through a phase of buying random music albums. Often they'd be dire. Every now and then I'd be in awe. But it kept me on my toes. It introduced me to things I didn't know I liked, and it introduced me to things I didn't like, but glad I know are out there. That's pretty huge in terms of staying flexible, staying creative. Don't just stick to what you know.
If I'd have stuck to the idea of "Best Value" then I'd probably only buy the stuff I was sure I wanted, and I'd probably only get it if/when someone offered it to me at half-price. This is the world of Christmas sales. A world of bargain basements. But it does nothing to help me grow into new ideas.

So what is value then?

Photo: Robert Couse-Baker

Sure, not spending all your cash on crap is important too. I don't go buying luxury food because I don't have that much money. But there is more to life than money, so nor do I try to buy crap, industrialised food - which would probably, under a few definitions at least, count as "Best Value".

Remember that the "Value" range in supermarkets is always the cheapest. "Value" is a weird, indefinable quality. "True value" is something else. "Beyond value" is probably just a dodgy marketing device. But "Value" - what is valuable to you - isn't necessarily something that we can purely base on measurements. It's a gut feeling. An unexpressed response. An imagination.

There are things we can measure, beyond the realms of economics. We should do this. We should make it open.

But measurabilityness isn't everything. Money isn't everything because money is just a measure of life. Money is not a "thing", in the same way that a survey about emotions is not a "thing". The emotions are the "thing". People feeling those emotions is a "thing".

Numbers have a value. But it's these "things" which are valuable.