Man walks into a column, no.29: Change

If as recently as two months ago someone had told me that I would never again own a song or an album I would have been perplexed, concerned and disbelieving. But with a step change in technology – I’m talking here of course about Spotify – this bizarre personal shift looks almost certain to have happened, and I have no reason to think I’ll ever go back to the old model of ‘owning music’. I believe this gives us a metaphor for effective public service reform in times of shrinking resources. Wait, don’t go! Let me try and explain.

Anyone who has maintained even scant attention on policy, research and commentary about the reform agenda in recent months and years will know that a new orthodoxy has emerged; one might even call it a dogma. Instead of focusing on rearranging and improving existing services, everyone agrees that one should start with the needs, wants, aspirations and experiences of service users and build new services around them. In so doing, it is said, duplication and inefficiency is eliminated.

The problem is that before you even get to the ‘devil in the detail’ point (how best to actually undertake this redesign? is there really any evidence that such an approach is more efficient? is this kind of model at all realistic in light of the ingrained professional cultures and vested interests in the public sector?) there’s the political dimension. Whether it’s libraries, hospitals or play parks, change is usually too bitter a pill for local communities and the politicians who represent them to swallow if change means closing a service that people value.

And, frankly, who can blame them? No matter how convincingly someone conveys the benefits of a new service, change is uncomfortable and intimidating, and especially so when the service in question is not only well loved, but absolutely fundamental to a person’s or a family’s life.

This is where the Spotify Metaphor comes in. To give you the background: I have been an eager aficionado of popular music since my early teenage years, beginning really when the family home was burgled and the insurance money allowed me to replace my Pet Shop Boys (and much worse) with Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses. I amassed an enormous stash of CDs, compiled mix-tapes and then mini-discs (remember those?), and converted to MP3 as soon as I went to Warwick to study for a masters and discovered that the intranet allowed me free access to everyone else’s music collections.

But crucially, even with this latest transition – and more recently with the move to iTunes – I still owned everything I listened to, or if I hadn’t bought a song I possessed it in the sense I could copy at will, transfer from machine to machine etc. In the spirit of adventure I tried things like Last.fm only to find them wanting: they simply didn’t have the full functionality that I required.

When I started to see ads for Spotify and heard friends talking about it I naturally thought it was another botched job, and for some time I remained content to stick to what I knew. If I had been told my iTunes account would be disabled tomorrow in favour of Spotify, I would’ve howled in outrage, like the residents campaigning against the closure of a local library.

Then – and this is the crucial part – I actually tried it. I was able to see and feel, with my own eyes and ears, that not only did it provide the full functionality of iTunes (and indeed integrated with it), but it was actually better. Much, much better: you could listen to pretty much anything you wanted to, whenever you wanted to; pausing, skipping and replaying as much as you liked. Brand new releases piled up in my playlists like the stacks of CDs in my adolescent bedroom. In this context paying a tenner a month for the privilege of listening on my iPhone felt like a no-brainer: cheaper than forking out £7.99 several times over for the ‘ownership’ of various albums.

This is not a love letter to Spotify. My point is that no amount of cajoling or persuasion will get service users over the natural resistance to change if they can’t experience the benefits of a redesigned service themselves (and after all, we know most politicians are liars, as I’ve blogged before: why trust them?). It’s a version of the ‘if you build it, they will come’ argument. We may hate change, but it’s amazing how quickly and radically we do change if we find something better than we had before.

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