If we want to survive austerity, let alone improve places and lives, we must attend to the human dimensions of public service leadership.
During 2014 I have attended, chaired, or spoken at, countless meetings on public service reform strategy. Yet two of the most powerful examples of the possibilities of reform were spontaneous and personal.
The first was in a working group on reducing unemployment in an inner London borough. As facilitator of the group, I had insisted at an earlier meeting that the local providers of the Work Programme be invited to join our deliberations. This was rather against the instinct of the local authority whose members had a tendency to see the providers as untrustworthy and unhelpful private sector profiteers.
With the meeting trundling on and the various agencies staying within their comfort zones, out of sheer frustration I tried something new. I invited everyone in the room to speak directly to another person: ‘Tell them’, I suggested, ‘something they could do differently which would help you do your job of tackling unemployment’. After an uncomfortable silence it was one of the Work Programme providers who piped up. She described how several of her customers had received advice from the council’s welfare rights team and, as a consequence, had been able to secure a bit more money or to avoid having to join the Programme. ‘It’s not that I don’t want them to exercise their rights or get their entitlements’, she said ‘it’s just there doesn’t seem to be any message about the value of trying to get a job’.
All eyes turned to the rather fierce senior council officer. Her reply was powerful, something along the lines of ‘You are absolutely right. I am really glad you’ve raised it. I am going to go back and look at how we can change the remit of the team and the job descriptions of staff to put a much stronger emphasis on promoting routes to work’. This brief interaction released the whole room to start being a lot more open about their frustrations and aspirations. At last we started to move beyond the lazy, generic bleating about things ‘not joining up’ or ‘everyone working in silos’ into concrete issues, requests and commitments.
Then earlier this week I was invited to speak to and facilitate a meeting of the Essex Partnership Board (made up of public and voluntary sector agencies from across the county), chaired by the very direct and thoughtful council leader David Finch. In the first part of the meeting I spoke about collective impact methodologies; identifying a shared mission, agreeing key metrics, sharing out clearly differentiated roles and responsibilities, committing to high levels of communication and having a backbone organisation to hold the process together and maintain momentum. Everyone seemed keen, although perhaps more in principle than practice.
Then something startling happened. A leading officer of a local NHS Clinical Commissioning Group premised his/her comments (I have to be careful here as telling the truth about the growing winter crisis can be a career-ending move in the NHS) by describing the week he/she is having. In essence with norovirus on the move and flu figures starting to rise, the NHS is already at breaking point with long and growing waits for ambulances and in A and E, and a chronic shortage of staff and beds. One consequence is frail people being discharged to return to empty homes at midnight.
The officer was about to move on to the presentation when I merely expressed the palpable mood in the room: ‘how can we talk about the ambitious, collaborative principles of collective impact and then not apply them in the face of a challenge like this?’
Within a few minutes the CCG manager was surrounded by a gaggle of fellow leaders discussing what they could all do to help. One promised to co-ordinate a communication to all their staff about getting the flu jab and looking after the health of family and neighbours, while someone from the voluntary sector committed to directing more volunteers to A and E departments to accompany people home when they are discharged at night. The room was full of energy as the managers were powerfully reminded of the very reason they joined the public and voluntary sector in the first place.
Public service reform can often seem like a very dry and technocratic process. Of course, it is important to be systematic, to prioritise, to apply the best evidence of what works etc but, as I argued in a recent post, if our aim really is transformation (anything less will mean a declining public sphere) we will also need a different quality of leadership: seeing the whole system, creating genuine conversation and moving from reaction to co-creation.
Even beyond that there is, it seems, a vital emotional dimension. We live in a world of competition, public relations and 24 hour media; a world where expressing fear or vulnerability as a leader can feel very dangerous. In this world the most powerful way to turn a group of people guarding their organisations into a team passionately committed to shared action isn’t offering help, but asking for it.
The importance of today’s OECD report showing that rising inequality slows economic growth can hardly be over-stated. It fatally undermines free market ideology. While social democrats have in the past relied upon philosophical and ethical arguments for greater fairness, the world’s most respected independent think tank has now conclusively proven the instrumental argument: had inequality not risen over the last thirty years our GDP would be a whacking 8.5% higher and almost everybody in society (outside the top ten to twenty percent) would be better off. If they had any sense of shame the employees of free market think tanks and most university economics departments would surely be offering to perform hundreds of hours of community service for the poor in penance for their sins.
Will this research usher in a new era of social democratic hegemony analogous to the Bustskelite consensus of the fifties and sixties? More immediately isn’t this powerful ammunition for Ed Miliband, coming as it does soon after an autumn statement which was regressive (albeit marginally regressive) in its impact?
Things aren’t nearly that simple. If statistics determined the public mood we would be a lot less worried about crime and a lot more enthusiastic about Eastern European immigration. Instead when working class voters talk about a lack of fairness in society it is migrants and benefit claimants not millionaires or the Government that are most likely to be the target of their ire.
Anyway, it is all very well signing up to an outcome such as reduced inequality but something else entirely agreeing the measures to achieve that goal. For example, two obvious and relatively straightforward steps that would help – a higher and more progressive property levy and a set of measures to increase taxes on well off pensioners – would both probably be wildly unpopular.
The political problem for the left of centre is that when it talks about addressing inequality it always seems to involve the Government assuming more power in the form of spending or passing laws; what I call ‘the policy presumption’. This impression is reinforced by the sense that social democrats see a bigger state as inherently good thing and when we hear Ed Miliband (in his recent Party conference speech) tell us exactly how many extra new homes, new nurses and new doctors he would mandate from the centre.
Given the strength of the policy presumption it might be assumed that it must have served a useful purpose in the past. Looking across the last twenty or thirty years it is possible to put together a strong case for the opposite. This starts with individual policy disasters vividly described by Ivor Crewe and Anthony King in their book ‘The blunders of our Governments’, the poll tax, the child support agency, individual learning accounts and the private finance initiative are among the most well-known and expensive examples.
Then there is the overall record in the single area which has been most subject to the application of the policy presumption; public service reform. Since the mid eighties there has been almost constant top down reform of our education, health and criminal justice systems yet public service performance continues to be disappointing and productivity sluggish. Even when the last Labour Government was pouring new funds into public services, managers and front line workers were demoralised by the continuous stream of ever-changing instructions from Whitehall.
Finally, while most of this policy was said to be responding to public concern and demand, its implementation has been accompanied by a deepening and damaging loss of confidence in central Government and the politicians who vie to run it.
So, although it may seem trite, all these impediments to a commitment to act on inequality demand the same broad strategy.
In an influential piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania and Mark Kramer define the basic premise of collective impact:
That large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations
Almost as simple as the definition is the five step method they describe as characterising schemes in contexts as a varied as a city alliance to reduce childhood obesity and a major corporate social responsibility initiative to improve the lives of cocoa farmers in the developing world.
Collective impact relies on a shared mission between the private, public, voluntary and community sector participants. The mission then needs to be translated into a set of smart targets to which all the partners commit and which they then closely monitor. The partners need to agree clearly defined and differentiated roles and to commit to high levels of communication between them. Finally, there needs to a ‘back bone’ or ‘anchor’ organisation which focuses on maintaining the partnership and keeping it on track.
While collective impact schemes may look easier to develop locally, there is no reason why this approach can’t be adopted by a central Government; as long as that Government is willing to look beyond the policy presumption.
With the benefit of hindsight, Labour’s bold 1999 pledge (now effectively abandoned) to abolish child poverty is a good example of an important and radical initiative which would surely have been have been well suited to a collective impact methodology. Blair’s Government should have sought prior public support for the goal (it wasn’t even in the Party’s 1997 manifesto) and garnered commitments from all parts of society including disadvantaged people themselves. Instead the policy presumption turned what could have been an inspiring national crusade largely into a technocratic and unloved process of welfare reform designed by Treasury experts.
It is not that spending and rule changing are unnecessary, but social democrats too often see civic engagement as an optional add on to the transformative task of enacting policy. Instead progressives should see traditional policy tools as a supplement to the transformative work of civic mobilisation.
The OECD report offers a strong guide to the direction we should travel if we want to combine social and economic progress. What is needed is a new type of leadership – one that is adamantine in its commitment to an optimistic and progressive vision for Britain but open, inquiring, humble and adaptive in discovering how to mobilise the country behind that vision. I believe modern citizens are ready to respond to such leadership, but is anyone ready to provide it?
George Osborne’s autumn statement appears to be is a sophisticated package; written to maximise advantage to the Conservatives with a strong ideological undertow, but also containing a popular top line policy – on stamp duty – that has already commanded cross-party support.
Although, along with just about every other commentator, I don’t think the Chancellor can actually deliver the targets of spending reduction he published yesterday, the statement confirms what we already knew: unless we start very soon to see a substantial fiscal dividend from economic growth, public services face many more years of trying to meet growing demands and rising expectations with frozen or falling budgets. Indeed the statement adds an extra year to the austerity horizon meaning major cuts will still be being implemented in the immediate run up to the election after next. Bu already, for local services in particular, the fat has long gone, the flesh has been sliced and the vital organs are starting to fail.
Mr Osborne’s unwillingness to recognise this or to accept any responsibility for how his strategy will impact on public servants and citizens is an abnegation of his responsibility as a public servant, albeit one that will be echoed by other political leaders with no desire to disturb voters with difficult truths. The survival of the public domain relies on a further significant shift of responsibility from the state to the citizen. Political expediency and the failure of the Big Society means no national leader will be inclined to ‘fess up to that before next May. If we need a different order of public leadership in these challenging times we will have to focus elsewhere.
Over recent days I have looked at public service reform from a bewildering number of angles. I attended the first national conference for the Government-funded ‘What works centres‘. I chaired a Parliamentary roundtable event on design for policy. I also chaired the launch of the Public Service Transformation Challenge Panel report, sponsored by DCLG.
On top of this I was MC of an event to publish the final report of Islington Employment Commission and the keynote speaker at the launch of the Croydon Fairness Commission. Finally, I chaired the second in our series of seminars held in conjunction with the global education services provider Pearson to discuss the idea of efficacy, this time in the context of school improvement.
Normally this would provide material for several blog posts. For while there was value in all these initiatives I have misgivings about each. The general approach of the What Works centres is overly technocratic (which is perhaps inevitable) and lacking a convincing model of change (which is less excusable).
The design for policy approach is fascinating and progressive but can feel overblown given the paucity of powerful examples of impact at scale and that, on closer inspection, design for policy isn’t all that different from the best examples of traditional policy making.
The recommendations of the Public Service Transformation Panel were hard to dispute but the report didn’t really get to grips with why implementing them seems so hard and, anyway, the idea of ‘transformation’ is surely a misnomer for a set of practices – a focus on citizens and more effective inter agency collaboration, for example – which need to be seen not as one-off changes but as a continuous discipline.
It is heartening that local authorities like Islington and Croydon are looking to provide a broader convening role focussed around the needs of citizens. However, in practice (and it is too early to speak for Croydon) I find that councils have rarely thought deeply enough about how to provide a qualitatively different kind of leadership, one that is based on influence and generosity, not control.
And while I continue to be impressed by Pearson’s commitment to ensuring that their products and services improve people’s lives through learning, it is clear that efficacy is a more powerful tool for asking questions than providing definitive answers. (Indeed, Pearson’s growing awareness that efficacy is not about imposing a single ‘one best way’ perspective on complex challenges contrasts with the rather reductive world view of the What Works initiatives.)
As I rushed from initiative to initiative the sense that something fundamental is lacking in them all grew and grew. The length of time since my last post is witness to my inability to put my finger on what that something is. Now I think I may have found it. My colleague Anthony Painter (who leads the RSA’s growing portfolio of work on institutional reform) directed me to a new paper published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. ‘The Dawn of System Leadership’ is by the impressive team of Peter Senge (recently interviewed in the RSA Journal), Hal Hamilton and John Kania.
The article helped me identify that missing ingredient. In short, the need for a different order of leadership, something to which reformers often pay lip service but which I see little sign of being fully appreciated. There are two contrasting problems with a focus on leadership: first is that it reinforces a hierarchical model of change, second that ‘leadership’ is a proxy for an ill-defined bundle of virtues – commitment, wisdom, authority. The value of the Stanford Review paper is that it provides a compelling and concrete account of the components of the kind of leadership needed to solve tough problems; problems like reforming public services in a context of shrinking budgets and rising demands.
Senge et al identify three core capabilities:
• The ability to see the larger system
• An ability to foster reflection and more generative conversation
• A capacity to shift the conversation from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.
Exhorting a new paradigm is all very well but why might we hope for new leadership? Through their own experience and the many case studies they cite the Stanford authors argue that the hunger for system leadership and the human capacity to provide such leadership is growing. This perspective chimes with the progressive human development theories of figures like Robert Kegan and Ken Wilbur.
The problem is not our receptivity or capacity: it is the organisational forms and norms that put huge barriers in the way of system leadership and, more profoundly, blind us even to its possibility.
Senge et al summarise their argument in one sentence:
The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader – the system leader, a person who catalyses collective leadership.
Although this insight is negatively articulated in the ever growing disdain of citizens towards the political establishment I don’t expect it to be acknowledged anytime soon in the actions and rhetoric of national politics. Yet, without system leadership in our services and localities the next few years will see the public domain hollowed out ever further.
Of the many unflattering comments I received on school reports one of the most memorable was: ‘O Levels are for the mediocre and accordingly he passed’. An echoing phrase came to mind when listening to the coverage of yesterday’s by-election: ‘politics is for those seeking to recreate the past, accordingly UKIP won’.
As regular readers will know, the RSA has a new worldview (if you like pictures here’s the animated version). We call it the Power to Create and it is necessary for my argument to recap its main points.
…..Today we have unprecedented opportunity to fulfil the ideal of every citizen living a creative life. This is possible because citizens are becoming better educated and more cosmopolitan and because they increasingly aspire to greater autonomy and self- expression. It is possible also because public, private and civic organisations are beginning to understand that their survival and success depends on tapping into the creativity of citizens, clients and customers. Both of these processes are hugely facilitated by technology, particularly the social web; the greatest accelerator of mass human creativity in world history.
But there are barriers too: Inequality and elitism which deny people the tools of autonomy, meaning and creativity – basic financial assets, data and intellectual property, social networks; the logic of educational institutions and hierarchical organisations which too often treat creativity as the exclusive domain of the few; and a politico-technocratic model which sees citizens as the objects not the subjects of social change.
I try to talk about the Power to Create in any speech I give. While I find it goes down pretty well with young people and the open minded, progressive folk who make up the RSA Fellowship I observe another response when I am speaking to politicians or those who work for them in local or national government.
Whether or not they agree they don’t see the RSA’s analysis as relevant. This may be partly because the critique of hierarchical organisations and traditional policy making is too radical, but there is a stronger source of resistance: Our political class and those who serve them have largely given up talking about the future.
As a former Labour representative and official I find this particularly depressing. Whenever Labour wins power – 1945, 1964, 1997 – it is in part because it has articulated a story of the possibilities ahead. It has described an exciting future and has successfully argued that social democratic values and methods are best placed to seize the opportunities (and address the threats) of that future. Yet today’s Labour Party seems remarkably incurious and unenthusiastic about the 21st century and the deep trends in technology and in human capability and aspiration that could define that century. Tellingly, the most developed critique of Miliband’s direction comes not from future gazers but in the nostalgic nostrums of ‘blue Labour’. (The craven abandonment of progressivism by mainstream and reforming Conservatives is powerfully condemned by Philip Collins in today’s Times).
This is not an argument for blind optimism. From Vladimir Putin to antibiotic resistance, from climate change to the polarising tendencies of financial capitalism, there are many things to worry about, many things we need strong leadership to help us tackle. But you don’t inspire a team only by talking about the fear of defeat. It is through painting a vivid picture of possibility that we gird people’s loins for the hard choices necessary to make that future possible.
As any strategist worth her salt knows, the most important skill in politics is defining the battleground. Most people are uninterested and unaware of policy – except when it goes badly wrong. What matters much more is who defines the problem and thus steals a march in claiming to have the solution. But if the problem is defined as the modern world the winners are those who seem most determined to abandon it.
While politicians are often rather vague about technology and out of touch with the young, I have never known a political class so uninterested in the medium term future as the current crop. Sure, politicians occasionally visit silicon roundabout and genuflect to the billionaire internet whizz kids, but this is tourism not proper exploration or analysis.
And so politics, rather than a fight for that future, is fought on a different terrain – a battle to recreate the past, a past moreover that never really existed.
Who knows how successful UKIP will be in the next election, but if politics continues to descend into a nostalgia competition all bets, indeed, are off.
It’s a funny old world. It’s already been a long week and I wasn’t really looking forward to chairing a round-table discussion on ‘Ensuring an entitlement to a cultural education for all in London’ at Whole Education’s annual conference.
But an interesting argument is all that is needed to revive a jaded intellectual palate. We got that with a presentation from the always clear thinking Holly Donagh, Partnerships Director at the cultural think tank and catalyst A New Direction. Holly described research on the deficit gap in participation between disadvantaged and other young people, and also between teenage boys and girls.
She went on to identify three arguments that might be marshalled for greater school (particularly secondary school) investment in arts and culture: The contribution to attainment; the contribution to the broader development of young people’s character; and growing the ‘cultural capital’ of young people, especially the disadvantaged.
But Holly also freely accepted the problems with each of these arguments. The first lacks conclusive evidence showing that arts participation boosts results. In relation to character, what seems to matter is engagement in any kind of sustained, disciplined activity so arts is no better than sports (more popular with boys), scouts, volunteering or, come to that, stamp collecting. And, as for cultural capital, there is little or no evidence that cultural engagement in schools carries over into a predisposition among disadvantaged groups for cultural participation in later life.
The evidence, such that it is, will not move us from where we are. If school leaders believe in the intrinsic and knock-on effects of cultural engagement they will take it seriously and do great stuff. But those who are sceptical will remain unconvinced. Meanwhile the message from policy makers is that it is STEM alone that ensures a good career, while arts subjects (apart from English) are ever more marginalised in the curriculum.
For those of us who simply believe that participation in arts and culture can play a powerful role in education and social justice the answer lies not in evidence but in an effective combination of pressure, support and incentives. In this way more schools which are open to the idea that arts and culture can help engage and develop pupils and close the attainment can be convinced to do something.
Thus my idea:
10PP would be an initiative combining pressure on schools and cultural providers with a clever, easy, flexible mechanism to build the relationship between the two. This is how it would work:
A cultural institution (let’s say A New Direction for the sake of the argument) would calculate/publish the pupil premium for every secondary school in London. It would advocate for the case (which could be powerful albeit not conclusive) that schools should spend a minimum of 10% of their Pupil Premium on arts and culture.
At the same time it would approach arts and cultural institutions (particularly publicly subsided ones) and encourage them to offer something of proven worth equivalent to that 10% figure. The schools that didn’t meet the 10% target and the arts institutions that were unable to make a worthwhile offer at that level would at least have to explain why they had decided not to be part of the 10PP programme. The impressive campaigning organisation What’s Next might apply some subtle grassroots pressure.
The offer could, of course, be flexible. Schools might choose to spend their 10PP on a number of offers. As some schools would want to spend more than 10PP and have something for all pupils the arts offer might be made in terms of ‘10PP from your school would be enough to buy two thirds of x’. Or to encourage greater ambition and collaboration, an arts institution might say it could do something for a cost equivalent to two or three schools combining their 10PP.
The organisations advocating 10PP and creating the virtual market place could also develop a kind of cultural Trip Advisor so that participating schools share their experiences and talk about what worked and was good value (and what didn’t and wasn’t).
My idea won’t melt the hearts of those who think arts and culture is of marginal value to young people’s attainment and development but it might just nudge a whole lot of schools who are receptive but not active to make the leap.
The idea might have some obvious flaw but in case it doesn’t my offer is that if any organisations in London think it’s got legs, I will host a meeting here at the RSA to discuss its viability and even chair it myself (I am normally very, very expensive …).