The “That’ll Do” philosophy

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Balancing Act

Aiming for perfection reduces risk and halts progress

By Jess Phillips MP | Read the argument by Micha Eversley

I have in the past joked that I am going to write a self-help book called That’ll Do. At work and at home I feel the most relief and happiness when, after obsessing forever over something, I think: “sod it, it’s good enough.” It is argued well in Micha Eversley’s article, using the idea of the “good enough mother”. In a time of polarising politics of left and right, pragmatism has become a dirty word akin to meaningless or unprincipled. “Good enough” or “That’ll do” is the exact opposite. “That’ll do” allows us to progress, take action, rather than talk of action, and to realise our principles rather than just allowing them to shroud us in warmth.

It is difficult to be uncertain. To make any decision, whether about policy or in life more generally, based on anything but total certainty and the pursuit of perfection is hard. In reality, we all do it all the time. When I was 22 and found myself in a new relationship and pregnant, I didn’t feel ready. My own “good enough mother” told me: “Bab, you will never be ready.” Each and every “That’ll do” moment in life and in policy carries risk. For all those in society, individuals, business and government itself, the ability to take risks is crucial and, I would argue, all benefit from improved progress and better outcomes.

The central thrust of this article argues the need for the centre left to strike a balance between the rights and needs of the individual versus protection of homogenous groups, defining needs and controlling outcomes. I agree but would extend it to argue that one of the creators of inequality in our society is the inability for many to take risks. This is an area where the centre left should work towards creating a state which acts as a risk-assessor and broker, able to offer not just individuals, but businesses, organisations, schools and the health services the security needed to innovate, and the freedom to adapt to changing needs thereafter.

Neither the left or right has ever tried to encourage risk-taking and creativity as it could and should.

Having worked for years in a third sector organisation in partnership with both local and national government I know that the state is not the body for creativity and innovation. I think the argument that the state is simply the best provider of everything is lost. The best outcomes I have seen in services for the most vulnerable were those developed with state finance and delivered with a mixture of state and external funding offering both freedoms and a “light touch” external involvement. We developed sexual exploitation services, which saved lives and female offender services which reduced reoffending. Our outcomes always outstripped those of similar state provision. Our services were not about doing things for those who used them, but about empowering them to act for themselves. None of these services would have happened without the initial spark of state finance and trust. Organisations like the women’s aid organisation where I worked could never take these risks alone.

Eversley’s article touches on the idea of the state acting as an insurance for risk-taking, citing federal support in the US for innovative businesses as the catalyst for their success and ability to sustain themselves. For individuals, it is also well known that a “hand up rather than a hand out” will better tackle inequality. I know that when I was pulling myself up by my bootstraps, state support in the shape of nursery provision, and tax credits created the cushion to allow me to fall. It took my risks while I volunteered, got work experience and took a low-paid job so I could work my way up. I no longer needed that cushion when I had my second child. By then I was older, more financially secure, and I could take my own risks.

Neither the left or right has ever tried to encourage risk-taking and creativity as it could and should. In education, creativity, innovation and risk is crowded out every day by narrowing syllabus and the push for standards and narrowly defined results above all else. In business, we offer little in the way of  seed funding for innovation, instead investing huge amounts of government time and energy into well-established industries of old.

The centre left must encourage the idea of risk as a good thing. It should lead with the idea of a state that acts like a “good enough mother”. As a parent, I take on my children’s risk until they can take it for themselves; their schools do the same. It allows them to grow and to develop. As a mum, I do all I can to give my kids opportunities, but their achievements and their failings in the future will be their own. I cannot and do not want to control them forever, but nor do I want them left alone at the whim of an invisible hand that might never want them.

Jess Phillips is member of parliament for Birmingham Yardley

Read the argument by Micha Eversley

Photo by Colin Harris, Flickr, Creative Commons license

5 Responses to "The “That’ll Do” philosophy"
  1. Anthony Collins says:

    So are you going to accept that the Labour Party has a “Good Enough” leader for now and see if you can find enough agreement with the majority of Labour supporters who elected him to unite and start campaigning against Tory Policies instead of internal sniping? Or perhaps you think that Labour supporters just aren’t good enough yet?

  2. Jess, I’d be completely with you about encouraging positive risk taking.

    Support for this would include a safety net in case of failure, which to some extent we have. Are you suggesting a more generous safety net? I am sceptical that there would be public support for this.

    It could involve building up the confidence of kids, many of whom who are currently adulthood without the confidence they need to become risk takers. But building confidence is not easy to do. Arguably, teachers could help with this, but they may already be overburdened with other objectives. A lot of kids get much of their confidence from supportive parents, but in a culture of long hours working, many parents struggle to make the time to provide that emotional support. How could we enable parents to free up time and energy for this?

    I’m unsure what other public policy options there are. Changing cultural attitudes is a big ask for the political class, especially when politicians are held in such low esteem.

    The only other option I can immediately think of is financial support for risk-taking. But that seems a fraught with problems. If we give grants to all young people, many will not use those grants effectively, and then public support for the initiative would collapse. If, instead, politicians set up mechanisms for the state to approve those grants, you get into the rats nest of politicians trying to do the job of banks, and pick winners.

    What kind of public policy initiatives can you think of that would encourage productive risk-taking?

  3. Richard Hancox says:

    Afraid this just sounds a bit lazy (sorry Jess). Not sure the postwar reforming Labour government, discussed so eloquently in Phillip Collins’ article on this site, would have settled for “good enough”. If it’s right to do something, its worth putting in the effort to get the response right. “Good enough” doesn’t cut it for me..

    • Paul says:

      I think Jess’s argument is not saying to knowingly do a bad job but to know when to stop tinkering. For instance, at the end of a long day’s hike, to find a good enough site to pitch tent before the downpour.

  4. Paul Martin says:

    “The centre left must encourage the idea of risk as a good thing” is a good point because The Next Labour Government will inherit a world in which many of the things we look back on wistfully will have been obliterated by the Tories.
    We won’t be “abolishing” or “restoring” but creating from scratch. However, that is precisely what our Illustrious Forebears, e.g. the Attllee government, had to do. If you want to see an awesome project, try the 1944 Education Act at http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/chapter05.html (many thanks to Derek Gillard).
    My point would be that “risk taking” has to be done by elected politicians through close engagement, not by leaving it to civil servants. The reason the Third Sector has been able to do a lot of good work is because the people with real discretionary power are closer to the problem, but you can have this through the state if you want it.
    What you can’t have is Ministers who will run for the hills when it goes a bit wrong. It remains a sad fact that, in my experience, the Ministers who were most transformative were those who were Mrs Thatcher’s favourites. They had the courage to tell their staff “as long as you do what I tell you, I will take the consequences”.

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