Practical Wisdom: Revising the Janitor’s list

Since researching and learning about co production and innovation I find myself having to constantly ground myself in the complex reality of public services. As Paul Clarke mentions in his blog lack of talent and creative ideas are not a problem. How do we get these ideas used? How do you convince people to take a risk?

By happy chance I stumbled acrosee this video of Barry Schwartz speaking at last years TED. He explored the importance of practical wisdom, and my attention was caught when he made the case:

“A wise person is made, not born. You need time to get to know the people you are serving.
Permission to be allowed to improvise.
To try new things.
Occassionally to fail and to learn from your failings.”

So, if we can improve services through wisdom why are we all not very, very wise? Do pubic services need to take more risks, to give flourishing ideas the chance to improvise and improve? According to Schwartz it is due to our commitment to rules, and the fear of stepping out of line that halts this wisdom, and distracts our priorities. Of course, rules are needed- but are they replacing our instincts to want things to be better? Are they compromising our ability to improvise?

Schwartz goes on to illuminate this, by discussing a hospital janitor’s job. The job description- to mop the floors, to make the beds indicates no human relationships- however when intervewed it was evident that the janitor took a different view. Many aspects of the job were embedded in understanding and empathy which tied in directly with the reasons for breaking, and going beyond the rules. Someone didn’t want to hoover whilst a devoted family slept in the visitors loungue. Another skipped mopping a patch of hallway so Mr Jones could do a little bedside exercise. In short to trust our wisdom, through experience when a rule needs to be broken. If done correctly improves compassion, understanding and of course service quality.

This got me thinking. easyCouncil has just launched, headed by Conservative Parliamentary candidate Mike Freer who describes the programme as “a relentless drive for efficiency” getting what needs to be done ‘done’. To me, I see that original janitors list- mop the floors, make the bed. All vital. But by no means everything.

What I would of liked to seen is an aim more broader, and all together greater- effectivness, against efficiency.  A focus on the broader outcomes. An appeal to our practical wisdom. To try things out and to learn.

Perhaps a case for co production could be made here. If we take wisdom seriously, we can use it to streatch the rules, colloborate and perhaps develop within as oppose to outside. It’s a tough ask to appreciate- and the outcomes tough to measure. Do we note everytime the janitor does something not strictly on his ‘list?’ No. But it should be considered, as it appeals to the suprisingly giving nature of people.

Building on the lessons from Gift Economies– strict market rules and incentives based in efficiency sometimes just don’t quite cut it. Problems in services are often ambigous and ill defined, within an ever changing context. A wise person has the ability to appreciate this, and an insight to suggest new stuff that fits better. To me, that’s the biggest reason of all to encourage it.


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