Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change

August 24, 2014 by · 2 Comments
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

 

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Time to agree to differ?

August 20, 2014 by · 20 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I can’t hide my nervousness: broadcast for the first time tonight is a radio programme I have been trying to develop for several years (indeed I posted about it nearly four years ago!). Of course, I hope it sounds good and is reasonably entertaining but just as important that it helps to get across the idea that originally inspired me.

The programme is called Agree to Differ and the first edition – on Radio 4 at 8.00 pm – is on the topic of fracking. The format involves me chairing a discussion between two people who hold strongly opposing views. Our job, working together as much as the protagonists are willing, is to try to agree what their disagreement is about. We divide the issue into three segments and see whether at the end of each we can find a form of words that the guests will accept adequately summarises the basis of their differences.

Recording the programmes it has been fascinating to see how the debate has unfolded. Tonight, as I had envisaged, the two rivals  - George Monbiot against fracking and James Woudhuysen in favour – do indeed get under the surface of the issue, relegating some of the controversies that have received the most publicity and focussing on others which they both view as more significant.

Other programmes, however, have gone in a different direction. In one, the format led two high profile people who have been on opposite sides of a highly charged, sometimes even violently contested, issue ending up agreeing on almost everything. While in a third, despite me feeling there was quite a bit on which the protagonists might agree to differ, they found it very hard to get past their accumulated and mutual suspicion.

The inspiration for the programme was my frustration at the tendentious nature of most political and policy debates as they are reported or take place in the broadcast media. Put simply these are versions of ‘I believe in good sense and the public interest while my opponent is blinkered and self interested’ to which comes the reply ‘no, I believe in good sense and the public interest while it is my opponent who is blinkered and self interested’. The consequence is that very often the issue in question becomes more, not less, opaque to the average viewer or listener. ‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.

It’s a pretty simple idea but, as I hoped, it does cast new light on well-rehearsed arguments. From recording just three programmes I formed two conclusions.

The first is that we often fail to pay enough attention to the underlying structure of a debate; is it, for example, one in which matters of detail stand for much more fundamental differences of values, or one in which relatively small differences in starting points have somehow ballooned into what feels like a much more polarised debate than it needs to be?

Second, my original hunch has been confirmed: there is whole industry out there comprising most of party politics, large swathes of the media, lobbying and campaigning which is basically a disorganised, self serving conspiracy to convince the public that just about every issue is the site of deep and profound differences of opinion. About three quarters of the ground of every debate comprises the arid territory of one side’s distorted portrayal of the other side’s views.

Imagine a world where the organised effort of politics and communication was to make things clearer and, where possible, more consensual. Not only would we waste a lot less time and probably make wiser decisions, but we could focus our arguments on stuff that is genuinely important and on which we really do profoundly disagree.

I am incredibly grateful to the folks at Radio 4 for commissioning the first short run (and to its brilliant producer Phil Pegum). The BBC won’t look kindly on me hustling for a second series but if you do feel like listening and tweeting your approval I would be very grateful.  And if you don’t like it, well maybe we can agree why not.

 

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A formula for volunteering?

August 14, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

Volunteering is a vital resource for society and an important source of satisfaction and meaning in many people’s lives. Perhaps it is a reflection of the nature of volunteering but the way we think about it as a system tends to be rather ad hoc and under-conceptualised. Yet the modes, norms and values of volunteering also make up a system which can both challenge and enhance the working of the market and the state providing a more pluralistic and humanistic way of thinking about the good life and the good society.

A few weeks ago the Local Government Association made the suggestion that people who volunteer to help run and provide community services like libraries and leisure centres should get a £100 rebate from their council tax. The proposal can be criticised from opposite points of view – either that rewards go against the very idea of volunteering or that the incentive is far too small to make a difference to motivation and volunteer recruitment.

A United Nations paper published in 2001, largely based on work by Justin Davies Smith, then Director of the Institute for Volunteering Research, explored different criteria used to define a volunteer. The first is indeed reward with views ranging from the purist that there must be no material incentive to the view that any reward is OK as long as it is below the market rate.

Next is the issue of free will. Some examples of volunteering have a compulsory feel, for example, school based systems in the US where pupils have to clock up a certain number of hours. We don’t count mandatory unpaid work activity undertaken by benefit claimants as volunteering even though much of it is classic volunteer activity such as serving in charity shops. This is also one of the reasons for controversy about the growth of unpaid internships where the rewards – such as they are – look like volunteer rations but the discipline expected of interns is more or less the same as paid employees.

A third criterion concerns the beneficiary. We don’t generally consider an activity as volunteering if the main beneficiary is family or close friends. This is a key issue in relation to caring. Despite the huge aggregate savings to the public purse which result from it, unpaid familial caring is seen as a loving burden, not a civic act of volunteering. But wouldn’t it be good for the status of carers if we saw them as volunteers for the general good as well as loving relatives? And is the boundary clear or rational: does it make sense that a lifelong neighbour who cares is a volunteer but a nephew or niece who chooses to take on a caring responsibility for a previously remote aunt or uncle is just doing their duty?

A fourth criterion concerns organisational setting. We have long since passed the point at which volunteering was not considered appropriate in relation to core public services. Estimates suggest that getting on for 1 in 8 public libraries are now volunteer-run with the whole library service being largely a voluntary effort in some English counties  Volunteering for private sector organisations may seem counter intuitive and the idea that volunteers help make profits is frowned upon.  However more and more corporations sponsor volunteer activities from which, whatever their warm words about corporate responsibility, they presumably aim to boost their brand value.

A final and, in my view, increasingly important issue concerns the level of commitment (to which I would add responsibility). Here again there is huge diversity from virtually effortless clicktivism (deos this even count as voluteering?) to the huge often statutory responsibilities being the chair of a school governing body or major charitable organisation. People in the latter roles may, despite the voluntary nature of thier engagement, be considered fair game for public censure for underperformance, prejudice or negligence.

Typologies are all very well but what is to be done with this complex picture? I am not arguing for neatness, much less for regulation (as the aforementioned Davis Smith argued in response to the LGA initiative, the problem with organised schemes is the scope they create for red tape and disputation). But a more systematic approach to the way we think about volunteering activities might help all of us involved in promoting volunteering to ask better questions and be more consistent, fair and open in our approach. The failure to recognise the civic contribution of familial carers and the resistance to giving some kind of material recognition to the contribution made by people taking on activities with high degrees of public accountability are two examples, in my view, of unclear thinking.

This blog post aims to start not win a debate, but one idea worth considering might be a ready reckoner which puts the demands and expectations of volunteering on one side and the incentives, rewards and support on the other. The former might include time and difficulty, length of commitment and level of responsibility, while the latter would include scope for personal development, material rewards and social recognition. Such a formula might help encourage a more systematic approach to thinking through the structure of expectations and rewards for new forms of volunteering and would identify some existing forms which, on the face of it, seem to offer a ‘good’ deal and others that are less so.

From the perspective of the volunteer, volunteering always will and always should be driven by the heart as much as the head. The potential advantages of a more robust and broadly applied conceptual framework are not only help for those designing and managing volunteering schemes but, more importantly, that the social-economics of volunteering could provide a more powerful alternative paradigm to the highly developed market economics of paid employment.

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Can collective impact work here?

August 5, 2014 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

Like a reformed smoker I am lifetime policy wonk who has now turned against my former habit. This is how I put the argument in a recently co-authored review article on ippr’s recent Condition of Britain report:

This is not, of course, to say that policy is dead. The point is that most social policy goals involve what Jocelyn Bourgon, and her colleagues in the New Synthesis project on 21st century public administration, call ‘civic effects’, that is changing social norms and behaviours and increasing in the resilience and problem solving capacity of communities. But if this is the goal the success factors are as likely to be authentic leadership, convening new forms of dialogue and collaboration and creating varied platforms for local and individual initiative as policy codified in legislation. To put it another way, the centre left has tended to see social engagement as a facet of the transformative project of policy making but instead we should see policy as a facet (and sometimes even a relatively unimportant one) of the transformative task of social mobilisation.

One weakness of my argument has been a paucity of examples of purposive social change in which traditional policy played a small or subsidiary part (I have relied a little too much on the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma). So, I am relieved to rediscover the literature of collective impact.

In this piece from Stanford Social innovation Review, Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania and Mark Kramer build on earlier description of collective impact projects and their success factors. The original piece contained a table of five conditions for success which is so simple and convincing that I have it printed on to a card I carry around in my wallet.

MT-blog

In the second paper the authors provide more case studies of successful collective impact projects in areas ranging from tackling teenage binge drinking in a Massachusetts district to cutting homelessness in Calgary, Canada. These projects have a clear mission which the participants are willing to spend years working at, they are highly collaborative and combine expert agencies with community groups and concerned citizens.

Here are four extracts that help illustrate why collective impact is different than conventional policy making:

The most critical factor by far is an influential champion……. one who is passionately focused on solving a problem but willing to let the participants figure out the answers for themselves, rather than promoting his or her particular point of view     

Collective impact efforts are most effective when they build from what already exists; honoring current efforts and engaging established organizations, rather than creating an entirely new solution from scratch.

Strategic action frameworks are not static….They are working hypotheses of how the group believes it can achieve its goals, hypotheses that are constantly tested through a process of trial and error and updated to reflect new learnings, endless changes in the local context, and the arrival of new actors with new insights and priorities

One such intangible ingredient is, of all things, food. Ask Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, founder of the Elizabeth River Project, what the secret of her success was in building a common agenda among diverse and antagonistic stakeholders, including aggressive environmental activists and hard-nosed businessmen. She’ll answer, “Clam bakes and beer.”

Of course, national and local policy can facilitate collective impact projects (although on the whole it has been more likely to disrupt and deter them) and these projects may well end up identifying necessary policy reforms. However, the question posed by collective actors is ‘what can we do given the policy context we have’ much more than ‘how can we change that policy context’.

The Stanford piece doesn’t refer to a single UK project. After the original piece there was a flurry of interest in the UK,  including this post which kindly refers to the RSA but I can’t find much else. Am I missing something or is it that a combination of centralisation, austerity and short termism makes collective impact projects here just much harder to design and implement?

If so, I take that as a challenge to which we must try to rise.

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Francis Maude, Jack Dee – and the transformation of government

July 30, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

How’s this for an admission guaranteed to alienate old comrades and make me look like a geek? I am a really big fan of Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

Watching him speak last week at the Downing Street celebration of a hundred mutuals spun out form public services  I realised his ordinary bloke appearance and deadpan style are increasingly reminiscent of Jack Dee. At one point he told the admiring audience of mutual pioneers that he belonged to the ‘JFDI’ school of management (JDI stands for ‘just do it’).  Apparently, when he explained to Cabinet Office officials he wanted to see more mutuals they asked him whether he was asking for new regulations, new legislation or maybe a cabinet committee? ‘Tell you what, how about just setting up some mutuals?’ was his characteristic response.

Jack Dee

Jack Dee

Francis Maude

Francis Maude

Having achieved his target of a hundred – many of them like Hull City Health Care Partnership both substantial and successful and most of them, despite austerity, growing – Maude’s ambition has expanded. Following the excellent recent report by Chris Ham on the importance of engaging NHS employees, Maude has urged ministers in the health department to accelerate the development of employee mutuals in the NHS.

This is not the first time the Cabinet Office minister has tugged the tail of his colleagues running big service departments. The Government Digital Service – which Maude defends robustly from its Whitehall and industry detractors – has caused many a ripple by challenging the cosy relationship between departments and the major IT systems integrators and by asking tough questions about over-complicated, secretive and unrealistic delivery plans (in the case of the DWP and Universal Credit these questions reportedly ended with a Cabinet bust up). Maude has considerable credibility in these spats because of his own command of detail, as the IT firms that were called in early in his tenure to renegotiate contracts can attest.

Best of all, IMHO, Maude is a champion of radically different ways of thinking about policy making itself. As well as backing the successful mutualisation of the behaviour change unit, he sponsored the setting up of a design based Policy Lab in the Cabinet Office (still small but well led by Andrea Siodmok FRSA. He is also an enthusiast for open policy making of which I have written warmly on this site. I don’t want to be indiscreet about the conversation I had with him after the formalities of the mutuals event but it is safe to say that if there is a battle in Downing Street over whether the Conservative manifesto should focus on themes, methods and direction or on detailed policy promises he will be on the right – former – side.

The Labour Government elected in 1997 promised to change the way Government worked. It even published a long since forgotten white paper on modernising Government in 1999. But although there were innovations – like devolution to the nations and London, the Policy Action Teams and Public Service Agreements – in terms of rethinking the relationship between state and public, nothing Labour did matched the John Major’s Citizens Charter (much derided at the time). Maude’s innovations continue to be at the edges of Whitehall, but as his thinking grows in influence (partly because he JFDI) I suspect he too will be looked back on a as a genuine pioneer.

I think we have persuaded Francis Maude to speak at the RSA in the autumn reflecting on his experiences as Cabinet Office minister and speculating on what government’s operating system could and should be in five years’ time. Hopefully he will be in broad agreement with some of what I said in my recent annual lecture….

The values and analysis behind the Power to Create encourages a questioning of the very idea of traditional policy making.

The success of most social policy interventions – the interventions that could help foster mass creativity – rely on what academic and former Canadian cabinet secretary Jocelyne Bourgon calls ‘civic effects’ that is the public engagement, mobilisation and behaviour change. But civic effects are more likely to emerge from political leaders articulating a clear vision, convening new conversations and collaborations, leading by doing than through the slow, cumbersome process of developing and implementing policy. When it comes to social policy, politicians and managers need to replace the blunt tools of policy making with those of design, in which continuous experimentation, learning by failing, co-producing with consumers and users is the norm. This, of course has major implications for our systems of law making and accountability.

If he does confirm a date we must see if Jack Dee is free to be his warm-up.

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