The biggest deficit – leadership

December 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

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.

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And the winner of the nostalgia contest is…..

November 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

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.

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High inequality, low integration – two sides of the same coin?

October 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Today sees the second report of the Social Integration Commission, which I chair. It has been published on the same day as the 2014 State of the Nation report of the Social Mobility Commission and there are important overlaps between the reports: Inequality and segregation go together and fuel each other…….

The Social Integration Commission’s first report – which received extensive coverage earlier this year – revealed the degree of poor integration which persists alongside the growing diversity of the British population.  We highlighted that a lack of integration is an issue for all groups. White Britons are as likely to have unrepresentative social networks as people from other ethnic backgrounds, and Londoners’ networks are amongst the furthest away from reflecting the make-up of the communities in which they live.

We also found that one of the most significant areas of poor integration is between people from different social classes. This lack of integration has important and worrying implications for cohesion and economic inclusion.

It is poignant that the Commission’s second report is published on the same day as Alan Milburn’s damning assessment of the UK’s faltering anti-poverty strategy. Our willingness to tolerate poverty and the diminished life chances of poorer citizens is surely not unrelated to the lack of interaction and friendship between our social elite and the disadvantaged. Indeed there is international evidence that inequality levels and mean policies towards the poor go hand in hand with levels of prejudice. The more we think of the disadvantaged as different people to ourselves the less sympathy we have for them and the less support we are liable to give to measures to tackle exclusion.

Milburn’s report makes a number of powerful recommendations, but as I pointed out in my 2011 annual lecture the philosophical and political arguments for greater social justice need to be underpinned by a culture of empathy for those different to ourselves.

Today’s Social Integration Commission’s report provides evidence of the consequences and costs of poor integration for individuals and society. The figures we give in relation to employment, recruitment and career progression, and community health and well-being are estimates; however, using the most robust methodology available and erring on the side of caution, the evidence suggests an overall financial cost to the UK of approximately 0.5 per cent of GDP.

Equally importantly, the report contains important new research showing that people gain from better integration and that the small steps taken to help people mix lead to significant benefits in the future.

UK society is a tolerant society that has coped pretty well with some of the potential tensions of increasing diversity; despite some of headlines we have garnered this morning, it is not the Commission’s intention to spread doom and gloom or to be alarmist. I would summarise our argument as follows: tolerance is not enough, but it need not be hard to do more. Exactly what that ‘do more’ might involve will be the focus of our final report.

Our final recommendations will focus not only, or even mainly, on the role of government but on the things that other sectors, agencies, communities and individuals can do to make sure that the UK’s trajectory towards better integration more closely matches its trajectory towards greater diversity.

In all these debates we should ask what we can do ourselves. Of course, a great deal of the RSA’s research and development  seeks to address aspects on social justice, but as CEO of an organisation with a funding model which relies on Fellows who can afford to make an annual donation I am acutely aware that the Society is just the kind of place to which recommendations from the Social Integration Commission’s final report will be addressed. Fortunately we have at least one bit of good practice to celebrate.

I was in Wales on Saturday for the RSA. It was positive event with a very impressive range of Fellows in attendance. Part of what made it good was the role played by two young people recruited as part of the RSA’s Centenary Young Fellows appeal. I hope we can build on the success of CYF to open up a continuous route for younger people to the Fellowship and that we can also explore how we might use other mechanisms to increase the Fellowship’s diversity.

It is also vital to recognise that even if our annual donation and joining criteria are somewhat restrictive that doesn’t mean we can’t engage a more diverse group of non-Fellows as partners in our work, as many of our best regions and networks already do.

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It’s their party and I’ll cry if I want to

October 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Two articles in today’s newspapers are a reminder of the unreconstructed state of our political parties….

In 2003 I spent my downtime over Christmas writing an article for the journal Renewal. I was asked to look back over the ten years of the journal’s history and assess different arguments that had been made for the reform of the Labour Party.

I drew various conclusions but one stood out: not once in any of those articles – many of which were by bright people whom I like and respect – had any author considered the issue of Party reform from the perspective of the public interest. It was simply assumed that the only criterion by which to judge Labour reform was what was in the interests of the Party. This revealed a deeper assumption: what is in the interests of the Party must be inherently in the interests of the public.

The RSA has a growing portfolio of completed or current projects exploring institutional reform. A recurrent issue in our work is how organisations – especially those which claim to be acting for social good – align their organisational interests with the public interest. Alignment isn’t an easy thing to do but it is a challenge organisations should continuously and openly confront. Our political parties generally don’t understand the question, let alone seriously try to answer it.

In his article for The Times, Damian McBride adds to the gathering storm clouds hovering over Ed Miliband. McBride, Gordon Brown’s former attack dog and author of one of the very best insider accounts of being a political aide in Government, upbraids the Miliband operation for failing to promote proper dialogue within the shadow cabinet and for refusing to draw on the expertise of anyone associated in their mind with the Blair-Brown years.

In The Guardian Jeremy Cliffe, politics correspondent of The Economist, writes about Labour’s knee jerk response to UKIP. Rather than imagining that the working class is an homogenous whole obsessed by immigration alone, Cliffe urges Labour to see the deeper problem as the negligent and cavalier way the Party has often treated its core supporters. He cites one example of how to do things differently:

If Labour takes UKIP-friendly seats like Great Yarmouth next year it will be because candidates like Lara Norris, its fizzy candidate there, have spent the past years campaigning on local issues and sorting out local problems – not because her party has made a last-minute lurch to the right on immigration 

I don’t know Ms Norris and I’m sure there are other good candidates in her seat. I suspect I have little sympathy with the Brownite model of Party management. Nevertheless Cliffe and McBride are both touching on a huge and largely ignored problem: in essence the established political parties are failing organisations. Their governance, style of management and ethos are miles behind what would pass as bog standard practice in a half decent large charity or a socially responsible private company.

For instance….Parties are very hierarchical with power wielded indiscriminately and often arbitrarily. The relationship between the formal model of Party governance and internal democracy and the reality of decision making is tangential at best and often non-existent. People at all levels can be treated appallingly, with advancement and demotion based on prejudice, nepotism and panic rather than any proper consistent assessment of performance or individual qualities. Rank and file members are viewed with a mixture of fear and contempt and largely used as fodder for fund raising or rather mundane forms of campaigning. And, to repeat, the question of whether Parties are aligning their own interests as organisations with some articulation of public duty simply doesn’t compute.

There have been sporadic attempts to change things. Before he was dumped by team Brown, pioneering Labour General Secretary Peter Watt tried to turn the membership into an on-line community free to discuss and develop their own ideas. The Conservatives insisted that their candidates at the last election create social programmes but some were later found to be using these as routes to direct people and money back into electioneering. Labour flirted with trying to turn its field workers into community organisers and then started to pull back when officers realised this might involve some letting go from the centre. The flaw in these schemes is the one I painfully discovered in my early years trying to reform the RSA Fellowship; you can’t change a long established organisational culture with one off initiatives (but with time commitment and imagination you can as evidenced by the incredibly constructive meeting of the RSA Fellowship Council taking place as I write).

Please understand, this is not just another rant against politicians. Many MPs – mainly women in my experience – do fantastic work to improve the quality of life in their constituencies; not because they think it will directly help them win elections but because they find it intensely satisfying and see it as their public duty. I knew my time as days as a Labour party official were numbered back in 1997. Along with colleagues (by the way, many mid ranking officials in Parties also wish they worked for less messed up organisations), I prepared a paper for a meeting of the two hundred of so newly elected Labour MPs. In it I encouraged them to use their role to act as social innovators and entrepreneurs. ‘Great MP’s can be a powerful catalyst for local change’ I wrote. My paper was replaced by one promoting ingenious ways for MPs to channel their office allowances into traditional Party campaigning.

Party leaders say they value constiutuency work but MPs know it is given much, much (let’s add a third ‘much’) less importance than loyalty and an ability to parrot the Party line while looking like you mean it.

Which leaves us with a conundrum: What is more alarming? That the people who run these dysfunctional, distressed and declining organisations are genuinely confused as to why the public isn’t too keen on them, or that it is from between them that we will have to choose our next Government.

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Clegg and the meaning of my life

October 9, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

Whatever my own increasingly non-aligned sympathies, I can’t helping wanting political strategy to make a difference….

Adapting a gag of Stephen Fry’s, I sometimes tell audiences that the world is precisely and equally split into people who assert false dichotomies and those who don’t. When it comes to election predictions and explanations it also possible – albeit inexactly – to identify two camps.

In one camp there are the determinists, those who argue that election results are the result of big underlying factors and issues that don’t quickly change. Different determinists will focus on different things; demography, electoral geography, the paramount importance of leadership perception or economic trust. They tend to share a scepticism about established leaders being able to do much in the short term to overcome these factors.

When it comes to next year’s election the determinists are in quandary, for, while one set of factors – electoral geography and living standards – are good for Labour, another set – leadership standing and perceived economic competence strongly favour the Conservatives.

As a one time political strategist I am in the other camp. We are less interested in a static picture of current factors and more in momentum and possibility. We believe that strategies, and the narratives, stunts and policy ideas they involve, can make a difference. We live on tales of sudden shifts in voting intentions resulting from brilliant or disastrous strategy, conveniently ignoring how rare these unexpected turnarounds are. We never completely lose hope. I remember a Labour activist telling me with complete sincerity on polling day in 1992 that Labour was running the Conservatives close in Stratford upon Avon. Danny Finklestein has written wryly about how necessary self-delusion was for him to motivate his efforts for William Hague’s 2001 campaign.

Rather than any particularly strong political conviction, wanting to believe my life as a political strategist had some value makes me think it would be interesting if Nick Clegg were to get some kind of conference bounce (although this week’s by-election results are hardly encouraging). Also,  aggregating various criteria including platform performance, clarity of strategy, courage and candour – the LibDem leader’s speech was just about the best creation, and we at the RSA like to believe that human creativity can move mountains.

As I am a soggy centrist and an admirer of leaders who resist the temptation to pander to their Party’s prejudices, it was not going to be hard for anyone to beat my assessment of Miliband or Cameron. Even before his speech many commentators spotted that the two main parties by reverting to ideological type had left a nice big space for the LibDems to try to occupy. Taking advantage of that opportunity Clegg duly and reasonably skilfully pitched his tent.

But to the determinists my or anyone else’s appraisal of Clegg’s performance is of limited salience: Indeed Conservative pollster Andrew Cooper was among those who tweeted to that effect. Their view is that voters made up their minds about the LibDem leader a long time ago. Short of Miliband, Cameron and Farage being found in bed together in a luxury hotel paid for on MPs expenses little will change Clegg’s gloomy destiny.

Beyond my insatiable need for self justification there may be one reason – a determinist reason indeed – for Clegg to have hope.

Even though vote loyalty is much less of factor nowadays the major parties can still rely on about 25% of voters to stick with them almost come what may. But as the polls have told us over the last three years, the LibDem hard core is tiny. Most LibDem voters are either Lab/Lib waverers or Tory/Lib waverers.

From the LibDem perspective the pessimistic view is that the former have gone determinedly red in disgust at the Coalition while the latter will be easily swayed by the inevitable Conservative election slogan ‘vote Clegg, get Miliband’.

All of which is true. But there is another scenario. Unless things change (and judged by the main Parties’ strategies I think this unlikely), voters in the next election will be more powerfully motivated by the result they want to stop than the result they want to see. The respective ‘anyone but Miliband’ and ‘anyone but Cameron’ camps are certainly bigger than either Parties’ stock of faithful followers. If this is the case Clegg may not need the LibDems to be popular, much less loved. That they are at least partially detoxified may be enough to convince enough people in the seats the LibDems hold and target to vote unenthusiastically for the third party to stop the first or second.

Time will tell whether Nick Clegg started the process of detoxification this week. In politics I believe anything is possible. Which to the determinists is exactly my problem.

 

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