This article was originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Scotregen Journal (p12).

A year ago, xx-SURF chair Pat Ritchie, from the regional development agency One NorthEast, led a SURF discussion on regeneration policy and practice in Scotland and England. What has changed since then?
We were just about to have an election in Scotland and were preparing for another, possibly different, coalition government. Now we have a different party in power and we have a different way of governing through a minority administration. John Swinney has suggested that the Concordat will be as important in the long run as the initial devolution settlement and for regeneration the switch is important because it implicitly accepts that there will be a postcode lottery for certain services, but one driven by local choice rather than the centre.  I think that few of us would have foreseen this at the time.

Even short-term predictions are difficult at the moment especially in regeneration. The moral is that we will always have to make decisions with imperfect information and in less than ideal circumstances.  However, the ability to solve problems and to put things right usually depends on looking in the right place. With regeneration we are often looking at problems in the wrong way, which can explain why we get the answers wrong or at least get the wrong answers.

jigThe American security expert George Treverton makes an interesting distinction between a puzzle and a mystery. The question ‘Where is Osama Bin Laden?’ is a puzzle. What we lack to solve this puzzle is accurate information and if Bin Laden is ever found it will almost certainly because someone gives away this information to those pursuing him.

The question ‘What will happen in post Saddam Iraq?’ is, on the other hand, a mystery. What we lack isn’t information but a different range of things which require assessment, judgement, collaboration, skill in negotiation and so on. Information may be part of this, but it is not an information driven problem with an information based solution.

Hidden in plain sight

Malcolm Gladwell expands this point whilst looking at Enron. Most people complained that Enron had not disclosed enough information about its operations (a classic puzzle) but Gladwell argues that all the relevant information was already in the public domain but that investors couldn’t (or didn’t want to) see it (a classic mystery). The problems of Enron were ‘hidden in plain sight’.

So you can see where this is going. I think that we often treat regeneration as if it is a puzzle, which leads us to focus on collecting more and more information, whereas it is actually a mystery which requires a different way of thinking about things, especially the willingness to exercise judgement, take decisions and turn ‘information into intelligence’. Crucially, the institutions we previously set up to tackle regeneration, for example Communities Scotland (CS), were wedded to seeing it as a puzzle and their failure was not especially surprising.

downloadA small example of this is the way in which CS got very excited over the fact that data could map the worst areas in groups as small as 750 households. But this misses the point in two important ways. First of all even at this level of detail you are still left with the uncomfortable fact that most deprived people don’t live in deprived areas and most people in deprived areas are not deprived, allied to the fact that the solutions to deprivation (especially employment) will largely lie outside of those areas.  Second, if we consider some of the things that we want regeneration policy to achieve – greater empowerment, increased confidence and well being, stronger communities, more self-esteem or whatever, then we can see that these require judgement and choice rather than more information.

Wicked elves cleared

It might be argued that this is unfair and that CS did see regeneration as a mystery and not a puzzle in my sense of the term. All I can say is that for four years on the Board it didn’t seem like that. Mystery yes, but not in a good way. And as a Board member I would want to take my share of the blame for this. Wicked elves were not responsible for failure here, the Board and mangers were jointly responsible. I think that many of the organisational failures within CS were due to the fact that it remained a housing agency looking at regeneration, rather than a regeneration agency with a role in housing and certainly it never consistently engaged with those experts, communities and agencies who could have helped it make a better fist of regeneration. The new English Homes and Communities Agency has much to learn from this.

The challenge for the future in regeneration lies then, in seeing if the new set up in Scotland with local authorities having a bigger role and central government setting a framework will enable us to tap more effectively into the judgement intelligence of those who are practitioners rather than relying on information, and the resulting policies, generated at the centre.