Generally in this blog I have avoided complaining about the impact of austerity. I largely accept the inevitability of the overall scale of cuts. I find the third sector’s favourite sport of semi-competitive shroud waving not only unedifying but counter-productive. In more and more places and services, the cuts really are impacting now but the public has, I fear, become jaded by years of hearing stories of doom and alarm. Indeed some sectors have managed to cope pretty well. In heritage, for example, local cuts have actually been accompanied by an aggregate growth of activity as organisations have been forced to be more innovative and entrepreneurial.
But for some reason when I read about what is happening in our prisons my capacity for a measured response disappears. I’ll try to explain why that is, but first the evidence of our prison crisis. There is more detail to be found here, here and here but in essence the picture is this: prisoner numbers are up, overcrowding is up, self-harm and violence are up, the number of failing prisons is up, while the number of prison officers is down, along with educational, therapeutic or rehabilitative programmes. For more and more prisoners – many of them serving short sentences for non-violent offences – their sentence means being locked up in a small shared cell all day, only to be let out briefly into a violent and dangerous prison environment.
So far public opinion remains unmoved. The minister, unsurprisingly, says there is no crisis. The opposition, equally unsurprisingly, thinks there are many more vote winning examples of austerity to highlight – leaving the Observer and the Guardian to rail against, well, what we all expect bleeding heart liberals to rail against. Penal reform organisations like the Howard League do their best but they were complaining about prisons being inhumane and counter-productive even before the cuts impacted.
This is part of what makes me so despairing about what our prisons have become. In our work over several years the RSA has walked a difficult and sometimes rather lonely line arguing that prison can work, but only if we take education, personal development and rehabilitation seriously. Our impressive Transitions project (which is in urgent need of funds) has explored in great depth and in very practical terms with prisoners, prison officers, and a wide variety of local stakeholders in the Humber region what a rounded human capital approach to rehabilitation – starting on day one of a sentence – could mean.
Whilst I won’t blame the cuts on Coalition indifference, in the case of prisons there seems to be an abdication of all responsibility. In particular, there has been no attempt to stem the flow of prisoners into prison. It seems ministers would rather tolerate rising prison death rates, the collapse of meaningful rehabilitation and the ever present risk of riot than face hostile tabloid headlines if they called for fewer custodial sentences. Yet when it comes to public safety, surely releasing prisoners who have been traumatised and brutalised by prison is a greater threat than giving a few more non-violent offenders community sentences?
The author’s statement that “you can judge a society by how well it treats its prisoners” may sound like a cliché but it is one on we should reflect right now. Prisoners have been judged for their crimes but their punishment should be a loss of freedom not hopelessness, fear and squalor. On Dostoyevsky’s criterion it is ourselves we should be judging harshly.
As my colleague Adam Lent has argued, whether the result is disaster or near death experience for the UK the way the Scottish referendum campaign has unfolded is the most powerful indication yet of the enfeeblement of the Westminster political elite. Other consequential possibilities for humiliation loom large, including a strong showing for UKIP at the next General Election and a vote to leave the European Union. Whatever the virtues of Scottish independence, Mr Farage and national sovereignty there is no doubt each cause benefits hugely from our loss of faith in an establishment which has in one form or another held sway since the emergence of modern Parliamentary democracy in the mid nineteenth century.
People are angry about other people, about their own lives and about the state of their country. After first blaming each other the politicians promise to address the causes of our anger but virtually no one – including, one strongly suspects, themselves – believes a word of it. It is human to focus on the personalities but vital that we interpret the legitimacy crisis as more than a unfortunate coming together of events and poor leadership.
Think of it this way. For the overwhelming majority of human beings for nearly all of our evolution from nomads to particle physicists three conditions applied. First, we only knew much about, or engaged with, people much like ourselves. Those unlike us were assumed to be enemies or curiosities. Second, we lived under conditions of scarcity with relatively simple material expectations and needs. Third, we accepted and generally deferred to relatively fixed hierarchies of power and prestige based on religion, bloodline or more latterly class.
Since the Enlightenment, with occasional backtracks and by-ways, the West has been accelerating ever faster away from the conditions in which our social character and deep culture developed. Things cannot be reversed. Nor should they be because the progressive future involves transcending these conditions to reach a higher stage of human flourishing. This is the stage of cosmopolitan citizens inhabiting a cosmopolitan world. It is stage in which individual aspiration is focussed on the things that make life most enjoyable and fulfilling; friendship, generosity, autonomy, creativity. This is the stage where we govern ourselves identifying, discussing and solving problems together naturally and continuously in ways in which we only now occasionally do in the very best or very worst of circumstances.
But we now inhabit a disorientating and dark twilight world. Forced to live among strangers and in a shrinking world but not knowing how to understand, empathise and collaborate with those different to ourselves. Obsessed with an individualistic and materialistic account of success and achievement and then either finding it we can’t attain it or – almost as bad – that it is meaningless when we do. Unwilling to be governed but not yet willing or able to govern ourselves.
(Note that that each of these transitions concerns broadly one of the three main forms of social power; respectively solidarity, individual aspiration and authority. Each of the three cylinders which pump the engine of progress is cracked. This is why rich, technologically advanced, reasonably well educated societies seem unable to solve many of their biggest challenges; for example, tackling inequality, responding to population ageing, facing up to climate change.)
If this all seems too big and too abstract it can be brought back to topical concerns. The first painful transition from tribalism to cosmopolitanism is reflected in wars of religion and identity, the upsurge of anti-immigrant feeling or the inability of international governance to cope with international problems. The second, from scarcity to post materialism, is reflected in rage about living standards, in massive personal debt and in the various ailments of affluence. And the third, from tradition and deference to self-government in our current contempt for our leaders, only surpassed by the incoherence of our collective aspirations (as Ben Page from IPSOS Mori famously put it ‘the British people know what they want. It is very clear: American tax rates and Swedish public services’).
Thus the immediate crisis is a shallow and dispiriting manifestation of a shift which is more profound and difficult but which, hard though it is to believe, contains the possibility of a leap forward for humanity. Of course, huge generalisations are involved in this chronology: the future is already out there and the past clings on like burnt fat on a frying pan.
What then is to be done? First, progressives – however critical they are of the present – must never forget their belief in progress. Whilst the big picture still leaves lots of scope for debate about what to do next, we must keep always in view the vision of the cosmopolitan, post materialist, self-governing future. Indeed we should work harder to describe a practical utopia; what such a world might look and feel like.
Second, while the steps to transition will, in the main, be taken by us not for us, right now we need leadership like rarely before: Leaders who can confront us with the truth of the current crisis and inspire us with the possibility of transformative progress. Instead we have futile and dishonest promises to slash immigration, to extricate ourselves from global interdependency, cut taxes or energy bills, restore trust to politics by electing this career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party not that career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party. The sight of the Clegg, Miliband and Cameron postponing their enmities, defying convention and marching on Scotland shows both that it is possible to act differently and that it takes an emergency for political leaders to accept the need to question their stock responses.
When we as individuals face personal crisis, our first response may be to do differently but our eventual realisation may be the need to be differently. Trapped by our decaying democratic systems and the disastrous idea that politics is analogous to retail consumerism, our political elite run in circles trying to discover what they can do to address our rage. Instead we must encourage them to link social transformation to personal transformation by questioning deeply the very idea of what it is to be a leader – a creative leader - in these troubled times.
In some recent posts I have explored new ways of thinking about the pursuit of social change. I have also questioned the centrality in pursuing such change normally accorded by politicians and their advisors to traditional policy making.
There is no shortage of examples of unsuccessful policy making but there are many fewer of alternative approaches that have achieved success at any kind of scale. This is hardly surprising given that so many of our assumptions and systems are based on the existing paradigm. So when an ambitious example of a different method comes along it is worth noting and praising.
Today sees the launch by a coalition of organisations of Read on. Get on an initiative with the aim that by 2025 every child is reading well by the age of eleven. In the launch document Save the Children (which brought the coalition together) make a powerful, well-researched case for this to be a priority for social progress and justice. Reading well is a building block crucial to children’s personal development, educational attainment and life chances, yet one in four children do not read well at eleven, a figure that rises to two in five for poorer groups. The problem is particularly acute among white working class boys. Shamefully for the England, Romania is the only European country with a bigger socio-economic attainment gap in childhood reading.
Few would argue with the goal of every child reading well at eleven by 2025, but the most interesting aspect of this initiative is its method: it has many of the elements laid out by the exponents of the collective impact approach which is making much ground in the US.
First, there is a clear and inspiring mission which Save the Children has developed with a powerful and board based coalition: Among many others, the campaign is supported by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Teach First, publisher Harper Collins and the children’s communication charity ICAN.
Second, each partner to the Read on.Get on coalition has agreed a shared set of measurable targets and metrics on the road to delivering their mission. There are important milestones to be reached along the way to 2025 but if the initiative starts to fail there will be no way to hide that failure.
Third, and most important, the campaign is about mobilising civil society not depending primarily on the policy makers’ tool kit of new regulations, Government programmes or budget lines. As the launch document says:
‘We cannot afford to fall into the trap of thinking all children will read well simply as a result of decisions by Whitehall based policy makers….While Government has an essential and necessary role to play, so do we all’
The initiative’s plan contains actions for parents (especially fathers), volunteers, school leaders and teachers, businesses and local partnerships of schools. Rather than more money or legislation Government is asked to play its part through leading and convening. The freshness of this approach is well captured by the words of Russell Hobby the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers:
‘We ask a lot of schools. There is no end of standards, requirements, demands and expectations. What is different about this campaign is that schools are asking a lot of themselves. This is not a Government imposed target. This is the teaching profession working with parents and civil society to set our own aspirations’.
The other key aspects of the collective impact approach concern implementation; maintaining clear roles for the partners and good communication between them, and the need for a ‘backbone’ organisation to maintain critical mass at the heart of the effort. Whether these elements come together only time will tell.
Will it work? It is much harder for the collective impact methodology to succeed at the national level especially when so much to depends on local institutions and communities. Ultimately, unlike the linear predictability of the policy makers’ imaginary world, the exponents of collective impact accept uncertainty, knowing that everything depends on the hit and miss of building and maintaining civic momentum. The fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma may be a great example of ‘beyond policy’ leadership but when other US mayors tried to emulate him they fell flat on their chubby faces.
The Read on.Get on. coalition wants every major political party to sign up. If they do – and I hope they will – I hope they also notice they are being asked to play a supportive leadership role not a top down managerial one. If so this commendable initiative might just help our political class generally start thinking more realistically and progressively about social change.
Many years ago a phrase used by a friend stuck in my mind: Interrupting my attempt to criticise some aspect of his beliefs, he asked why we should waste time on ‘an already conversation’. Ever since, from time to time, I have spotted this habit of diminishing our lives by replaying in our thoughts, statements and interactions conversations we have already had with outcomes we already know.
Two recent examples concern my radio series Agree to Differ – which ended on Wednesady - while a third is currently headline news.
It has been encouraging to receive constructive feedback on the programme, but until earlier this week nobody had told me about the dismissive review by that doyen of radio critics, Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph. Here is what she said:
We say we long for reasoned exchange, cases set out clearly so we can make up our own minds. Yet when we get such a programme, as with Radio 4’s new series Agree to Differ (Radio 4, Wednesday, repeated Saturday) it just seems dull….. This journey didn’t go far. Snore score: four.
How terribly unfair! I have about thirty tweets, emails, blog comments from people who found the programme interesting, not to mention the kind things my friend and family said. As usual critics don’t care what the audience think, they are too busy grinding their various axes.
It was as this narrative was feverishly gripping me that a small very annoying voice said ‘listen to yourself; just like everyone who has a bad review’. I tried to shut it out but the voice went on to suggest that perhaps the programme was of interest only to a particular section of motivated listeners (including people loyal to me). Then – worst thought of all – wasn’t it true there had been some longueurs in the first episode from which we tried to learn lessons for the others?
Such moments of insight are not common for me. Generally I conform to the position outlined by Jeff Goldblum’s character in conversation with Tom Berenger’s character in the film The Big Chill:
Goldblum: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalisations. They’re more important than sex.
Berenger: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Goldblum: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalisation?
The good thing about interrupting an already conversation with myself was that I didn’t spurt out my indignation to friends only to see that awful moment when people’s mouths are saying ‘oh yes, I so agree’ while their eyes are saying ‘when will this poor deluded fool finally shut up’.
Anyway, we did learn from the first episode and I am confident that few people who listen to the final programme on ‘who should own Jerusalem’ will find it dull. Indeed you will hear me trying – with occasional success - to persuade my guests to abandon their already conversation.
In inviting a pro-Israeli rabbi and a Palestinian performance poet to agree what they disagree about, I try to make the conversation move somewhere new and interesting. But despite my entreaties the protagonists keep not only asserting the rightness of their own cause but seeking to rubbish the position of their opponent.
Then on Wednesday I listened to the summary on the Today programme of yesterday’s Parliamentary debate about the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. Yvette Copper used it as an opportunity to expose the failings of the system of Police and Crime Commissioners while Theresa May used it as an opportunity to attack the culture and performance of the local Labour Party.
Once again the Commons proves itself the academy of already conversations.
I wonder does anyone in Labour’s senior ranks hear a little voice in their heads. This might interrupts their narrative directing blame onto local individuals and the Government to say this:
‘What happened in Rotherham was extreme but in essence the combination of local authority incompetence, political cowardice and self-interest is typical of what has happened for decades in so many Labour rotten boroughs and is still happening in some. We must use this as an opportunity to examine ourselves as a Party and commit to destroying once and for all the culture that breeds such inhumanity and irresponsibility’.
This week, for the RSA Journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Theodore Zeldin, philosopher, historian and author, amongst many other works, of a wonderful book ‘Conversation – How Talk can Change our Lives’. He makes the point that for conversations to be powerful for us and for the world we inhabit we must enter them with the hope and expectation that we will emerge with our view of the world in some way altered: In other words the reverse of the intent of an already conversation.
The RSA’s new idea ‘The Power to Create’ argues that the potential now exists (but is not yet fulfilled) for every citizen to be the author of their own lives. A responsibility we have in pursuing the creative life is to resist the lure of already conversations with ourselves, with our friends and, perhaps most of all, with our competitors and opponents.
This isn’t easy. We could do with some high profile role models to show us the way: Which is a subtle but important reason why the general quality of our political and media discourse continues to impoverish our lives.
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA, Uncategorized
An exciting and progressive new paradigm for purposive social change is emerging*. For want of a more positive descriptor, this can be called ‘beyond policy’. It has many positive things to say, but its starting point comprises a number of related critiques – some quite new, some very old – of traditional legislative or quasi-legislative decision-making.
One relatively new strand focuses on the problems such decision-making has with the complexity and pace of change in the modern world. For example, in their recent book ‘Complexity and the art of Public Policy’ David Colander and Roland Kupers write ‘The current policy compass is rooted in assumptions necessary half a century ago….while social and economic theory has advanced, the policy model has not. It is this standard policy compass that is increasingly derailing the policy discussion’. Old linear processes cannot cope with the ‘wicked problems’ posed by a complex world.
A second strand – most often applied to public service reform – argues that the relational nature of such services means that change cannot be done to people but must be continually negotiated with them, leaving as much room as possible for local discretion at the interface between public commissioner/provider and citizen/service user. The RSA identifies the key criterion for public service success as ‘social productivity’; the degree to which interventions encourage and enable people better to be able to contribute to meeting their own needs.
Design thinking provides another, rather elegant, stick with which to beat traditional policy methods. Here the contrast is between the schematic, inflexible, risk averse and unresponsive methods of the policy maker versus the pragmatic, risk taking, fast learning, experimental method of the designer. Across the world Governments local and national – including the UK with its recently established Policy Lab - are trying to bring the design perspective into decision-making (generally it promises lots of possibility at the margins but has proven hard to bring anywhere near the centre of power).
Connected to the design critique the rise of what David Price and Dom Potter among others refer to as ‘open’ organisations challenges many aspects of the technocratic model of expert policy makers ensconced in Whitehall or Town Hall. When transparency is expected and secrecy ever harder to maintain and when innovation is vital but increasingly being seen to take place at the fuzzy margins of organisations, then we are all potential policy experts.
A final stand worth mentioning (I am sure the are others) is more ideological and idealistic. Following the civic republican tradition, beyonders want a model of change in which the public has the right and the responsibility to be the subject not the object. There is, for example, the distinction made many years ago by historian Peter Clarke between ‘moral’ and ‘mechanical’ traditions in the British labour movement. The former (favoured by ‘beyonders’) is concerned with embedding progressive values in the hearts and minds of citizens who will themselves build a better society, while the latter is focused on winning power so that those in authority can mould a fairer better world according to their grand plan.
The dictionary definition of policy is: ‘a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or individual’. So, echoing Bertrand Russell’s problem with the set that contains all sets, the most obvious objection to ‘beyond policy’ is that it is, well….a policy. ‘Beyonders’ are not anarchists. The issue here is not whether people in power should make decisions; after all, it is because they are judged to be likely to make good decisions that they have been vested with authority. The differences between the ‘traditional’ and ‘beyond’ policy camps are in practice ones of degree. Often the best traditional policy turns out to have used versions of the new methods. But that doesn’t meant the differences between the approaches aren’t important and often pretty obvious.
Beyonders put greater emphasis on citizens not only engaging with decisions but being part of their implementation. We recognise the importance of clear and explicit goals and shared metrics, but rather than setting these in stone at the outset see them emerging from a conversation authentically led and openly convened using a new style of dispersed and shared authority.
Beyonders are likely to see civic mobilisation as preceding and possibly being an alternative to legislative policy whereas traditionalists will tend to see mobilisation as something that happens after policy has been agreed by experts. Beyonders tend, at last at the outset, to be more pragmatic and flexible about the timeframe over which major change can occur – depending as it does on public engagement and consent – whereas traditionalists pride themselves (before a fall) on their demanding and fixed timetables. And, of course, beyonders tend to be decentralists seeking to devolve decision-making to the level at which the most constructive and responsive discourse between decision makers and citizens can occur.
Another reasonable challenge to the new paradigm is that it can’t be equally applied to all areas of policy. When it comes, for example, to military engagement or infrastructure investment, surely we need clear decisions made at the top and then imposed regardless?
Yes, even here the case is not clear-cut. One of the reasons we sometimes get infrastructure wrong in areas like transport and energy is that the policy making establishment (not just the law makers but those paid to advise and influence them) prefer big ticket schemes (which tend also to generate big ticket opposition) to more evolutionary, innovative or local solutions. And as the military and police know, without winning hearts and minds most martial solutions fail to sustain. A topical example is the way the terrorist threat in the UK is now less to do with organised conspiracy (requiring sophisticated and centralised surveillance) and more to do with disturbed and alienated youth who need to be identified and engaged with at a community level.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the beyond policy paradigm is that it requires fundamental changes not just in the way we do policy, but in how we think about politics, accountability and social responsibility. The solidity of traditional policy making is contained within a wider system which cannot easily contend with the much more fluid material of ‘beyond policy’. When, for example, I tell politicians there their most constructive power may lie not in passing laws, imposing regulations or even spending money but on convening new types of conversation, they react like body builders who have asked to train using only cuddly toys.
Reflecting the way we tend to think about the world, the beyonders’ revolution requires action on several levels. Innovation shows us a better way of making change that lasts. See for example the work of Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institute on the advances made by US metros, often based on the convening power of the city mayor. Included in the ranks of a new generation of beyond policy practitioners are community organisers, ethnographers, big data analysts and service designers – they can all tell you why traditional policy making is a problem and they rarely see it as the best way to find solutions. There are also more academics and respected former policy makers (like former Canadian cabinet secretary Jocelyne Bourgon) helping to provide conceptual clarity and professional credibility to the project.
‘Beyond policy is a movement in progress, but in recognising its flaws and gaps we mustn’t forget the traditional system’s glaring inadequacies or that the political class is still, on the whole, clinging tight to it: Over the next ten months our political parties will offer manifestos full of old style policy to be enacted through an increasingly unreal model of social change.
If the problem was simply that the policies and pledges were unlikely to be enacted it would be bad enough. It is worse. Politicians feel they pay a high price for broken promises so, if elected, they demand that the machine try to ‘deliver’ regardless of whether the policy makes any sense or of any learning that points to the need to change course. The result is often distorted priorities and perverse outcomes along with gaming, demoralisation and cynicism among public servants. No chief executive of a large corporation (and none are as a large as the UK government) would dream of tying themselves in detail to a plan that is supposed to last the best part of five years regardless of unpredictable events. But that is exactly what we will apparently command our politicians – facing much more complex tasks and challenges – to do in ten months time.
Surely now, before another Government is elected on a false and damaging prospectus, it’s time to move beyond convention and have a grown up conversation about how society changes for good and how politician can best make a positive difference.
* This is an edited version of an article I have written for the News South Wales Institute of Public Administration