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Move beyond this shallow election debate, says Phil Swann...
Move beyond this shallow election debate, says Phil Swann

At last the photograph at the top of this column is the person I recognise. The previous one was taken three pairs of glasses and two jobs ago. The person in it was no longer me.

In fact, LGC's photographer is a true and enthusiastic professional. He uses the camera to reveal something about the person he is photographing. It's for others to judge whether he has succeeded in my case, but his use of light, body angles, the position of the head and the line of vision was an attempt to probe deeper than a conventional mug shot.

The photographer's determination to get beyond the surface of his subjects stands in marked contrast to the shallowness of the political debate in the run-up to the election.

Everyone reading this will have been appalled by last week's Conservative-inspired shenanigans - can you believe I almost typed the word debate! - over the council tax, after the Tories ruled out revaluation.

The result was a series of statements from Labour politicians ruling out local income tax and a new upper band. This turned the long grass, in which the Lyons review on local government finance was quietly but conscientiously working, into a quagmire from which it may never escape. The real losers will be the tax payers over whose votes the politicians were fighting.

The same is true for what is being said about crime, about immigration, about the health service and about education. If facts can be ignored, what chance insightful analysis?

My sensitivity to the contrast between what the photographer was trying to do last week and the election skirmishes can be explained by the fact I've just emerged from the Tavistock Institute's fortnight-long experiential conference on authority, leadership and organisation.

The event, which first took place in 1957, is like a gigantic magnifying glass revealing what goes on in organisations and groups every day.

I am now convinced that effective reform and improvement in an organisation or service hinges on there being a deeper understanding of what is actually happening and why - of the things that are generally hidden - rather than relying on a superficial view of what appears to be happening or on what people say is happening.

I have worked closely with politicians for long enough to know it is naïve to expect high-quality debate in an election period. But my fear is the political high season will infect and degrade our capacity and enthusiasm for deeper analysis in the months and years after 5 May.

The difference between the new photographs in this magazine and a passport photo are immediately obvious. If society is to tackle many of the issues addressed in the party manifestos - such as education underperformance and health inequalities - we need a similar step-change in the quality of policy analysis and organisational development. But there's a doubt lurking at the back of my mind - are we up for it?

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