On the snail’s trail

    Nearly 400 years ago, an Italian named Francesco d’Angelita
    wrote a book about snails in which he claimed there was much that
    humans could learn from his subject. The snail could teach us, he
    said that being fast made people “inconsiderate and foolish”.
    Slowness, meaning prudence and solemnity, was an essential virtue,
    reflecting the “wit of the philosopher and the moderation of the
    authoritative governor”.

    More recently, the snail has been adopted as the logo of the
    “slow food movement”. This was founded in 1986 to promote food that
    is produced with care, prepared with pleasure and eaten at leisure.
    It was seen as a corrective to the quick-fix, profit-driven ethos
    of fast food.

    I have mixed feelings about this. There is nothing better than
    eating someone else’s slow food – whether it is in an Italian
    osteria or in a friend’s kitchen. But the last thing a busy working
    parent needs is to feel guilty about not spending enough time
    cooking at the end of the day. I note that a couple of Danish
    artists have been staging a fight-back by giving away 1,000
    original artworks in London, each one bearing the slogan “Keep life
    complicated!” This followed a fly-posting campaign in Copenhagen,
    in which they urged people to “Overbook your calendar!” and “Stress
    up!”. Their point is to acknowledge and celebrate the fast and
    furious nature of modern life.

    I would agree with the Danes that there is little point in
    yearning for the gentle pace of life of the “good old days”.
    However, just as we are learning that greater wealth does not
    necessarily bring more happiness, so we may reflect that doing
    things faster does not necessarily mean they will be done
    better.

    Take politics, for instance. Some modern governments, including
    our own, are doing for political decision-making what McDonald’s
    has done for the family meal. You want a policy? Here it is! A new
    national programme, a new local scheme, a new restructuring of
    services – to end social exclusion, to improve schools, to cut
    hospital waiting times…zap, zap, zap. Not just in one
    neighbourhood, but right across the country! And so it has gone on
    since 1997, with initiatives leaping out like greyhounds from a
    trap. The race is “modernisation”; the prizes are “quick wins”.

    It is all very admirable in one sense. No one wants a government
    that sits on its hands, especially when there is so much to do. But
    is fast politics getting us anywhere we want to be?

    Take, for example, the move to integrate children’s services.
    Local authorities are appointing new directors to take charge of
    children and families, child protection, the care system, family
    support and children’s centres, as well as taking nominal
    responsibility for all schools and colleges in their patch. But how
    many individuals yet have the right mix of skills and experience to
    take on this integrated role? Is there a danger that the initiative
    is being rushed into place before there has been time to develop
    the human resources capable of putting it into practice
    successfully?

    Similarly, Sure Start is being morphed into a different scheme,
    leaving no time for its £20m evaluation to discover whether or
    not the scheme as originally devised was effective.

    Nowhere has fast politics been more in evidence than in the
    health sector. Clinicians, managers and patients have been buffeted
    by eight years of continuous change, as new structures, new
    targets, even new philosophies come crashing through the system at
    them.

    A charitable interpretation would have it that ministers just
    never give up trying to do things better. But suppose they took a
    lesson from the humble mollusc. Francesco d’Angelita said the
    snail’s pace reflected “the moderation of the authoritative
    governor”. Not many of us would recognise that as a description of
    the people who govern us today.

    So with prudence, if not solemnity, I suggest a “slow politics
    movement” as a corrective to the hyperactive, media-driven ethos of
    21st century government. Taking time to develop and implement a
    policy might make it easier to learn from what has happened in the
    past. It might ensure that everyone involved understands why change
    is needed and can contribute their ideas and experience. It might
    give practitioners an opportunity to build the necessary knowledge
    and skills. We might even enjoy better results in the longer
    term.

    Anna Coote is head of engaging patients at the
    Healthcare Commission. She is writing in a personal capacity.

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