Telling tales

No-one says they believe in magic bullets – those apparently simple prescriptions to previously intractable problems – anymore than anyone claims to be in favour of ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions. And yet think tank reports are full of them – from privatisation and co-payments, to shared services and mutualisation. Indeed, think tanks are often founded on a ‘big idea’ that everyone else, in their apparent stupidity, has overlooked (I’m still not sure what the ‘associative society’ actually means).

Big answers can feel like the right response to big problems, but they rarely are. Just as today’s major medical challenges such as heart disease are typically related to myriad lifestyle factors and so are ill-suited to a single cure, so today’s social problems often derive from a range of sources. There’s no single way to reduce poverty, improve health, cut crime or improve public services, and there never was.

That’s not a prescription for pessimism. Shaking off our addiction to big technocratic fixes instead opens up many more possibilities for action. We might already have the answer, or rather the answers. Instead of distracting ourselves with the ‘next big thing’, we might more productively focus on the hard work of better implementing what we already know, making practices and procedures stick, refining and improving them, and giving them enough time to make an impact.

It might not help you get stories in tomorrow’s papers. But then again, the idea that magic bullets exist derives from folklore. Time to stop telling tales.

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