Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Story on Dumb Starbucks

Quick facts
Photo: Forbes

  1. A mystery coffee shop opened in Los Angeles this past weekend that looked like a real Starbucks - except it said Dumb Starbucks on the sign
  2. Customers were not charged for the coffee, which is perhaps in part why the lines were so long. There was a tip jar if anyone felt the urge.
  3. Dumb Starbucks claimed their “coffee shop” was really just an art gallery and the “coffee” should be therefore considered art.  Basically, the shop, or art gallery as they called it, had to be labeled a work of parody art for legal reasons  
  4. People were literally lining up down the block to get a cup of the hot brewed coffee, which one customer said tasted very watery and not exactly what she had been expecting
    Photo: Forbes
  5. Turns out that in the end it was all a stunt created by Comedy Central reality-TV-show host Nathan Fielder
  6. And now, the health department has shut down the 'art gallery' because it was operating without a health permit
  7. The comedian behind this, Nathan Fields, seems to be anything but funny in his video where he says he considers this to be a real business venture that he plans to get rich from
  8. The next Dumb Starbucks is set to open in Brooklyn, New York
  9. Dumb Starbucks has a Twitter account at @dumbstarbucks

Saturday, February 8, 2014

For Better or Worse, the 2014 Olympics Has Put Sochi on the Map

I don't know about you, but for me, Sochi has never been a household name. That is, until it became the host of the 2014 Olympics.  Now you can't get people to stop talking about this place.  So obviously this made me want to learn more about it.  And no, not because of what appears to have been a beautiful opening ceremony of the Olympics.  I honestly don't really care about the Olympics games much, it's very low on my priority list, probably below sewing that hole in my winter jacket pocket and doing my taxes.  But anyway, I do find it interesting that of all the places the Olympics could have been held this year, the coveted honor went to Sochi, Russia.  Now I'm no Russia expert, but from what I've picked up, it isn't held in the highest esteem by the international community: the country doesn't really follow the rules (see here) and it has a tendency not to play well with others (see here).  Not that this is much different than many other countries necessarily (ahem, U.S., anyone?), but from what I've read in the news, these are the aspects of Russia that have stood out and have therefore created a certain perception of the country.

Opening Ceremony 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia

First off, it's important to note (and this is something I didn't realize until I looked it up), Sochi was chosen to host the 2014 Olympic Games seven years ago.  Sochi is a resort town residing along the Black Sea, but unfortunately not the most safe of places.  Before the games began, the U.S. State Department felt it necessary to issue a statement about the city being in close vicinity to Volgograd, Russia, which has had recent suicide bombings as well as a 10 year conflict with Islamic terrorists.  These conflicts have led to bombings at various populated Russian areas such as airports and hotels.

I want to make it clear that I'm not in any way biased toward the choice of city or the actual city at all.  If I had looked up Sochi and found out that it was being wrongly perceived, I would have written about that.  Instead, I am just writing the facts as I have found them to be from the most reliable sources I could find.

Russian air defense system in front of the mountains where Olympics are being held

And also, I'm sure there other viewpoints on this situation. There are much smarter people than myself weighing the pros and cons when choosing the host city of the Olympic Games.  Perhaps they thought it would be a positive step for Russia, a way to promote the country's positive aspects.  This totally makes sense. But, and again this is just my humble opinion, it does seem like a big collateral damage risk.  Also, the mayor of Sochi has come straight out and said there are no gay people in the city, excuse the pun.  Apparently he has concocted some method of detecting where gay people are, and they are conveniently not within the territorial lines of Sochi.

All I'm saying is, I'm not jumping on a plane to go over there and put myself into a heavily populated venue in Sochi, Russia, the land of the anti-rainbow.  That seems too much like putting a big bulls eye on my forehead.  And I like rainbows and gay people.  It's cool, I'll just watch the games on my trusty television from the safety of my own room. Or maybe I'll just end up doing my taxes instead. Yeah, probably the latter.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Interview: APSA Director Steven Rathgeb Smith

SRSmithProfessor Steven Rathgeb Smith is the new Executive Director of the American Political Science Association (APSA), of which he has been a member for over 30 years. He holds a PhD in Political Science from MIT and has taught at a number of major American universities, including Duke andGeorgetown. Steven is a leading scholar on non-profit organisations, public management and social policy.
He is currently co-researching a comparative project into the welfare-state regimes of Canada, the US, the UK and Australia. Looking at the relationship between the voluntary sector and the state, Smith’s research asks to what extent there is convergence or change amongst these countries, in their provision of public services. He argues that there is convergence with regard to a move towards a more market-orientated approach to public service provision. On the other hand, Smith argues that the UK is distinct from the US in the emphasis that David Cameron has placed on the ‘Big Society’ meaning the provision of services by the voluntary sector is more pronounced in the UK than in the US.
During Smith’s visit to UCL, we asked him about the implications of his research and also to share with us some insights into his professional development, and as Executive Director of the APSA his ambitions for political science.
Q: Are there any experiences or reasons that you can highlight for your interest in public management, non-profits and the voluntary sector?
A: That’s an interesting question. Certainly my formative experience was working in the voluntary sector after university- in child welfare- and then got a Masters in social work. I initially thought I might work in direct services, but then I changed focus while I was in graduate school to policy administration and that led me to a research career in policy administration.
Q: Was that based at all on a feeling that you could have more impact by going into research and the policy side of things?
A: Well, it’s a different kind of impact. I got very interested in doing research and I was attracted to learning about different voluntary organisations and how they are managed. By writing on the topic, I did feel that I could have a broader impact on how people manage these organisations and manage their relationship with the government. I like the teaching part of being a faculty member, too. Certainly if you’re working in a direct service role you can have a profound influence on people’s lives, but it’s different kind of influence.
Q: What do you think the voluntary sectors’ future role will be, especially in the context of the economic crisis?
A: I think there will continue to be a role for community-based organizations, and if anything their role will grow as the public services continue to be restructured. But in certain policy areas that lend themselves to routinisation and standardisation, such as home-care for the elderly or disabled, across the world you’re seeing a growing role for for-profit organisations and a declining role for the voluntary sector. The remaining kind of voluntary organisations in those kind of services tend to be large. One of the big issues in Sweden these days is the growing role of for-profit healthcare companies. Sweden is a little different in that they have an important role for the state sector and a small role for the voluntary sector in the area of social health services, where service delivery which has mostly been controlled by local government.
So I think that the voluntary sector will remain important, particularly at the community level, but I do think that in some of the other service categories for-profits will continue to play a prominent role.
Q: You spoke about decentralisation of the provision of ‘human services’ in the US- if provision is based more on market demand, will there be less continuity in the kind of services provided?
A: I was just writing an article about this. I do think that the environment for the voluntary sector is more turbulent than it used to be. Before, some of these large voluntary organisations in the US and the UK could depend on government funding- they had a kind of market niche that was quite stable. Now it’s quite a turbulent environment, which is prone to disruptions- whether it’s budgetary disruptions that might be influenced by the economy, or political change.
The similarity that you have between the US and the UK is that the national government has historically provided some way of ensuring that there’s more equitable delivery of services around the country. To the extent that you get more decentralization and national government cuts back on its role, you’re going to get more variation at the local level. And it seems to me that’s what’s occurring in the UK as well.
Q: So access to services is becoming more of a post-code lottery?
A: Yes, for the users it’s very insecure absolutely, and in the US it also means that the voluntary organisation itself is in a more uncertain environment. There’s been a big discussion in the voluntary sector about the role of business models and how that affects the way you manage these organisations. The argument would be that voluntary sector organisations faced with uncertainty are more risk-averse, and so are more likely to adopt various kinds of business models or financial measures and financial management tools from the business sector. The interest in social enterprises and social innovation also means that it’s attractive to adopt these more commercial business-oriented models in the sector as well.
Colleague and friend Dr. Sarabajaya Kumar: You also get very high-profile business people who say they don’t think certain organisations should be funded if they’re not efficient and run in a business-like way, which has an influence.
Q: Do you think governments who encourage voluntarism as a replacement for public service provision are shirking their responsibilities?
A: I do think what’s happened in the UK and to a certain extent in the US as well, is that the public sector just cuts back and leaves it essentially to the local community by saying do it on your own without any money and on a volunteer basis. I don’t think that’s fair, and in this way I do think that the public sector is shirking their responsibilities. If the public sector said we’re not going to provide it through the public sector anymore, we’re going to shift it to the voluntary sector organizations, and we’re going to give them some money to do it, then that’s something different. You see some of that transfer in the U.S. [from the public sector to the voluntary sector], particularly with things like public parks and recreation. And it has had the effect of engaging a lot of community members in a kind of co-production activity and mobilizing community members in volunteering and donating money. And I think that it can work sometimes.
I think that the drawback in volunteering is there are also differences in class and education. Also, different communities and different service categories are more likely to have volunteers than others. Over the years I’ve done quite a bit on substance abuse and treatment services, which historically in the United States get very little philanthropy. It’s very difficult to generate donations and they get very few volunteers. Some of the services for the chronically mentally ill also have difficulty generating philanthropic dollars. So in those cases for the public sector to say we’re not going to provide these services, we’re going to depend on volunteers, even with some public funding, seems like an abdication of responsibility because you know they are going to have great difficulty generating philanthropy.
Q: Do you think there are weaknesses in the field of political science that need strengthening? And how do you think APSA could help with this right now?
A: Well, political science is a very diverse field. You have people with very different approaches to the study of political science; they have very different substantive interests. Some are interested in theory, some are interested in comparative politics, some in international relations or in citizenship. Political science as an association has responded by saying, well, we’re an association that any political scientist can join but we have subfields that people with similar interests can join. I think in many ways it reflects the dynamics of any large membership association as it evolves and changes. But the challenge of course, and I think that this is something that the APSA faces today, is to say what the relationship between these subfields is to the larger association.
I think that academic associations are facing many of the same challenges that are affecting other institutions in society. There’s a disaggregating impulse going on. Academic associations used to have to join academic associations because you needed the journal and you had to go to the conference. But now you can get the journal online. So now people individually become more powerful in terms of the kind of information they have access to and have control over. It’s changed the role of academic associations.
I think political science is facing more questions about the value of political science, such as how do you become a better person by studying political science in a university, or do you become a better citizen if you study political science? And then it’s a question about the value of political science research, which I think we’re delving into in the United States. APSA is a part of that conversation. A lot of political scientists study elections, and you can kind of see where that might have some important impact in terms of promoting transparency and good elections, and less corruption and fairness and things like that. But I think for some things in political science it’s a little more complicated to see what the point is. I think that’s going to be a big challenge for us, to communicate the value of political science.
-This was co-written with my journalist colleague Harriet Bradley