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A price worth paying

February 25, 2010 by · 22 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

From the first day I was appointed to be Chief Executive of the RSA my over riding ambition for the Society has been to enable and support our amazing Fellowship to be a powerful force for good. Yesterday was an interesting day on that journey.

In the afternoon came the news that the Evening Standard had printed a diary piece, obviously briefed by a disgruntled Fellow, making a whole series of untrue allegations about me and about my relationship with RSA Chairman Luke Johnson. I had heard most of these allegations before as a different newspaper had approached me a few weeks earlier and I had been able to head them off. Unfortunately, the Standard didn’t check the facts. However, the paper has now agreed to remove the article from their web site and archive and we are discussing the best way to publicly recognise that almost all the content in the piece was inaccurate.

I can’t pretend it isn’t unsettling that many people now think I am paying myself a £160k salary or that Luke Johnson uses his excellent FT column to send me coded messages of disapproval, but fortunately there is more than enough good news to drown out the bad.

For example, I heard on Monday that a town centre initiative taken by a small group of Fellows in Chelmsford, and then backed up by the efforts of the Fellowship team in John Adam Street, has been so successful that it has just attracted funding from the district and county councils. This model of HQ backing Fellows’ projects so they can gain scale and momentum is exactly what we hope to see across the country, especially after we launch the Fellows’ Initiative Fund in a few weeks time.

I also heard yesterday that the latest in our Fellows’ social media workshops – in Sheffield – had been a great success. The always enthusiastic Vivs Long-Ferguson e-mailed the team to say

‘…the best yet….A full house from Yorkshire and East Mids, the Yorkshire committee enthused, recruited one new Fellow, a network forming in Sheffield and three possible community ideas that could benefit from an online presence’

Dating well back before my time, relations between London and Yorkshire have not always been as warm as they could have been (I’m sure lots of the blame lay with us), so it is great to hear this went so well     

Talking to former Trustees and senior staff from the RSA I have heard that there have been attempts in the past to develop a more outward looking, collaborative, model of Fellowship. These have foundered not because most Fellows didn’t support this model – they did – but because a much, much smaller group of determined people were willing to go to great lengths to maintain the status quo.

It’s not been easy, and we have had at times to learn from our mistakes, but I believe we are making great progress in backing the ideas and ambitions of our Fellows, and that we can achieve much more in the years ahead. Of course, I’d rather we could pursue this ambition together without the RSA, and me personally, being publicly vilified, but ultimately it has to be a price worth paying.


Localism – the way to save Whitehall

February 24, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

With OFSTED reporting that progress in primary schools has been hampered by too many central initiatives, and the the inquiry into events at Stafford Hospital in part blaming the ‘target culture’ of the NHS, today is going to be another bad day for centralism.

As I said last week, there is a debate going on at the heart of government over how far Gordon Brown should go before the election in showing real determination to decentralise. For a long time now I have been encouraging politicians to adapt one of Bill Clinton’s most famous phrases and assert that ‘the era of big central government is over’.

But I sense that the localists in Government are still having a hard time, especially in the face of the unwillingness of large service departments such as DCSF or DWP to give up any of their levers of control. If Labour doesn’t move on this, an  incoming Conservative Government probably would, offering local councils a non-negotiable deal: ‘you won’t get any more money for several years but you can have much more control over how you spend it, and by the way, the buck stops with you’.

But even after news like today’s, the way this argument is structured in Government makes the localist case difficult to sustain. It is up to the localists to ‘prove’ that devolving power would improve outcomes. But given its complexity and the confounding variables this is an impossible case to make.

Instead every presentation on this issue to ministers and officials should start with a slide headed ‘myths of centralism’, containing the following bullet points:

1. Centralism does not lead to uniform performance levels or outcomes

2. Every new central initiative/target reduces the salience of existing initiatives and targets

3. The messages sent by the centre (especially if there are lots of them) are very different to the messages eventually heard at the front line

4 There are systematic reasons why opt-in pilots are more likely to succeed than the same policy when it is made a mandatory national programme

There is a big opportunity here for new ways of thinking, but my recent discussions with insiders leave me with little confidence it will be grasped.

For many years now the Cabinet Office has been conducting capability reviews of Government departments. All well and good. But the question not asked is whether the capabilities these reviews are looking for – the ones currently expected of Whitehall departments – are those that will be needed in the future.

A radical devolution of power (and, of course, there need to be safeguards about how this is done and how the centre deals with demonstrable local failure) could be accompanied by an equally radical recasting of the way that Whitehall plies its trade.

Instead of a machine driven by the desire to maximise control, to compete with other departments for money, power and legislative time, and by silo accountability, a modern on-line Whitehall needs to be a place where people get what they want through thought leadership, trust, persuasion, innovation and collaboration.

Most local authorities and other public agencies have no desire for the centre simply to abandon them. But they want supportive and clever leadership rather than mechanical and oppressive interference. If Whitehall doesn’t learn these skills, then, when the inevitable shift of power away from the centre comes, it will not only lose an empire but find itself without the skills to perform a new role.

So, far from devolution being a threat to Whitehall, it can be the opportunity for it to become the kind of centre it needs to be in the 21st century. Most people who think hard about the medium and long term future of Government get this. Sadly, the combined nervousness of Number Ten, intransigence of service departments and limited vision at the top of the senior civil service suggest it may have to be a different administration that makes the shift.


Citizenship politics – part 3

February 23, 2010 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

I fear readers will approach the final instalment of my three-parter on citizenship politics with all the enthusiasm of a vegan starting work placement in a steak pie factory. I had my doubts as to both the intellectual and entertainment value of these posts and as the comments have dried up (not that I’m not enormously grateful for those who have posted) my worst fears have been confirmed. Tomorrow I will gather up the pieces of my shattered self esteem and return to more palatable fare; some jokes about dogs perhaps?

Anyway, let’s get it over with. I said yesterday that I would respond to the criticism that citizenship politics was not a politics at all (so now I am offering my own response to my own criticism of my own ideas – John Donne was wrong; I am an island and they’ve just cancelled the weekly ferry).

From the perspective of citizenship politics, how do we respond to the  the questions; ‘who are we?’, ‘who do we need to be?’ and ‘who should we be? Being mercifully brief here is my answer:

‘Who are we?’ Citizenship politics tends to emphasise the social nature of human beings and our species’ unique capacity for empathy and reciprocity. It argues that human beings are capable individually and collectively of functioning at a higher level and that this is the ultimate goal of human progress. But citizenship politics is not naively optimistic about human nature, indeed it recognises the frailties of individual judgement and the need to understand and to restrain our ‘animal spirits’.

‘Who do we need to be?’ Citizenship politics calls for a radical re framing of debate about production, consumption, and growth. A great challenge facing global humanity is how to continue to achieve economic progress within the ever more pressing limits of nature (climate change, biodiversity, finite resources). In relation to question of well-being, of the environment, of what David Halpern calls ‘the hidden wealth of nations’, citizenship politics means developing a more critical and holistic debate about the purposes and trade-offs of economic progress.

‘Who should we be?’ Citizenship politics returns to classical and enlightenment themes in urging an ambitious account of the good life well lived. This life is one in which we have freedoms and entitlements but where also full membership of society carries with the expectation of engagement in the public sphere, the aspiration to live as far as possible within the means available to all in a shrinking world, and a commitment to norms and behaviours which foster social reciprocity.

The practical question for citizenship politics is this: what are the ways of thinking, the circumstances and the policies which are most likely to promote sustainable and fulfilling ways of being for the 21st century. Which again calls to mind the criticism that citizenship politics is just a rather highfalutin way of describing what all politics ultimately is about.

But, as Will Davies reminded me in his comment yesterday, the way we present knowledge reflects the angle from which we look at the world. Citizenship politics is such an angle, one that involves stepping back, trying to make new connections between different ways of seeing, simultaneously trying to understand more deeply what is now going on for the human race while holding fast to the possibility of achieving something quite different. Maybe it is an angle that is better for looking than for doing – this is certainly the impression I get when I discuss these ideas with practical politicians. Then again, maybe the RSA can one day demonstrate what it means to apply these insights, values and ways of being across an organisation.

Now I’ve finished I find myself re-enthused. If only, dear reader, that was true of you too.


Citizenship politics – part 2

February 22, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Social brain 

I am grateful for the constructive comments on my citizenship politics post, although I fear I’m a long way still from getting the idea more widely discussed. Today and tomorrow I want to explore the idea a bit more, including confronting its most obvious problems.

One issue to work through is whether citizenship politics is an approach to thinking or a set of beliefs. I have tended to present it as the former. Citizenship politics involves exploring together three sets of questions.

First, ‘who are we?’ kinds of questions. This is predominantly the domain of scientific and social scientific thinking. Neuroscience, social psychology, behavioural economics, evolutionary psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, sociology all have insights to offer us about what drives human behaviour. There is talk of a new science of human behaviour which, by combining disciplines and calling on powerful new data sets, will fulfil the ambitions of the founding fathers of social science and enable us to predict human behaviour as easily as we can predict the behaviour of chemical compounds. I doubt this. The complexity and reflexivity of human behaviour mean it will never be entirely predictable. But citizenship politics does involve the attempt to base social analysis and policy prescription on a realistic, evidence-based, account of what makes us tick.                 

Second, ‘who do we need to be?’ kinds of questions. This is the domain of economic thinking (as long as we define ‘economic’ broadly). The question here is what kind of behaviour is necessary from us if we are to achieve the twin goals of increasing human welfare and managing finite resources. I wrote on Friday about how John Kay made a great impression on me by asking some fascinating questions about the relationship between GDP growth and human autonomy (more on this tomorrow).

Third, ‘who should we be?’ kinds of questions. This is the domain of philosophy and ethics: what is the good life well lived?

By asking ‘who do we need to be to create the future we want?’ citizenship politics attempts to bring these three sets of questions together, understanding both that they are conceptually distinct and that a rounded case for any policy strategy should have some way of answering each.      

I can think of at least three obvious ripostes to the case I have made so far. The first is that this is completely obvious; all I am doing is making explicit something which is implicit in all political arguments.

The converse criticism is that this is a counsel of perfection; we might aspire to a holistic, multi disciplinary way of thinking that moves debate to a higher level, but in the real world arguments and decisions have to be made on a more partial and tenuous basis.

Finally, it can be argued that arguing for a political case to meet certain analytical and explanatory criteria doesn’t qualify as ‘a politics’ at all. After all, on this basis, a rounded right wing argument might qualify while a limited left wing one wouldn’t and vice versa.

So tomorrow (if I can resist commenting on the Brown ‘bullying’ saga) I will describe what I see as the progressive stance in these three domains; who we are, who we need to be and who we should aspire to be.

I only hope that by then there is still someone out there reading.


Citizenship politics, citizenship economics

February 19, 2010 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

It boils down to this: policy and politics must start from the question of citizenship. This has been the core assertion running through my annual lectures, through this blog and through the strategy for the RSA. I am more and more convinced that this idea is the best basis for an intelligent, powerful, and urgently necessary debate about the choices society faces. But given that the demands of my job rule out finding the time and focus to write a book or even an extended pamphlet, how can I get this idea to the centre of current debate?

To recap – citizenship politics starts from the question ‘who do we need to be to create the kind of future we say we want’? When we look at this question we see a gap – what I have inelegantly called ‘the social aspiration gap’ – between our collective aspirations and our current trajectory.

This gap has three dimensions; three ways in which tomorrow’s citizens need, in aggregate, to be different to today’s. We need to be more engaged. It is only through mature engagement that we either give permission to our leaders to make right and responsible decisions for the long term and for the interests of all citizens, or that we accept that social progress rests, at least in part, on the decisions we make about our own lives.

We need to be more self reliant. We cannot help those who most need help, nor can we find fair and workable solutions to shared global and national challenges (such as climate change and international development) unless as many of us as possible, for as much of our lives as possible, meet our own needs as individuals and groups.

And we need to be pro-social, that is to say we need to behave in ways which strengthen the fabric of society and in particular the ties of reciprocity which underlie what David Halpern has recently called ‘the hidden wealth of nations’.

Importantly, citizenship politics has both a utilitarian and a normative rationale. The utilitarian case – made on grounds of economy, environment or mental well being – is that we simply cannot go on living like this. Debt (whether personal, corporate or public) is a powerful symbol of the unsustainable nature of contemporary lifestyles.

The normative case, which harkens back to the enlightenment origins of the RSA, is that to fulfil our potential as human begins we should be full members of society; which means we are engaged, self reliant and altruistic people.
The question for citizenship politics is this: ‘what decisions and what type of decision-making can best enable people to be the citizens they need to be to create the future to which we aspire?’

In answering this question there is plenty of scope for differences between left and right, concerning, for example, the role of the state and the importance of social equality. But both left and right should start, not from second order questions such as how can we maximise family income or economic growth, or even how can we achieve more equality, but with the first order question of future citizenship.

I have been inspired to return to these issues by hearing the economist and commentator John Kay speak at the Progressive Governance Conference in London this morning.

In a brilliant intervention he urged people to understand exactly what we should mean by economic growth. This, he said, is the process by which technological innovation and investment in physical and human capital create new choices for individuals and societies. But – and this is where the power of the argument lies – the route to more choices (for which we might more grandly say ‘freedom’ or ‘fulfilment’) lies not in ‘materialism’ – the producing and buying of more stuff – but in ‘lifestyle’. Quite apart from the way the crazed pursuit of more stuff has left us all indebted and our economy enfeebled, in aggregate as a society, what extra choices has most of the materialism of the last two decades really brought us? 

Instead, says Kay, if we want to think about how growth creates choice take the example of food. The quality of the food most people eat in this country has improved dramatically in the last two decades. But not because we are eating more (obesity is generally a disease of the poor not the middle class) but because we spend more on better quality food. Improvements in the way we cook, in our knowledge, and our skills (stretching from Jamie Oliver to our own culinary efforts), have expanded the market and given us new choices and pleasures without relying on us consuming more resources. Kay argues that we could develop a similar model of lifestyle-enhancing economic growth in almost all areas of the economy.

This seems to me to form the basis for adding citizenship economics to citizenship politics. That is to say, an economics which starts from the idea that growth is there to enable and enhance fuller citizenship not simply to consume more stuff. The question ‘what kind of economy are we trying to grow’ is inextricably linked to the question ‘what kinds of people do we want and need to be’.

And, of course, all these questions require us to have a sophisticated understanding of how human beings work – which is why the RSA spends so much time discussing what neuroscience, behavioural sciences and the study of evolution tell us about what makes us tick as human beings.

We need a new paradigm to replace the failed and contradictory combination of unfettered markets, social individualism, overbearing statism, political triangulation and technological determinism that have been the key features of the last two decades.

That model is to be found in citizenship politics and citizenship economics. 
What can I do to convince people?


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