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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Heritage for the future

July 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Can heritage help close the identity gap at the centre of place shaping?

Over the next two days I am chairing a conference hosted by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I will also be telling the conference about the findings of a small RSA project exploring heritage and its role in local strategic decision making.

It is seven years since Sir Michael Lyons used the phrase ‘place shaping’ as the central concept of his Government sponsored report on the future of local government. Now, a variety of factors, including austerity and some aspects of greater devolution to cities and city regions (with more promised by all parties), has made this concept dominant. Local leaders are recognising ever more explicitly that unless they can turn their localities into places that are economically dynamic and social engaged, the gap between needs and resources will become an unbridgeable chasm.

Looking at these issues from the perspective of the heritage sector it is auspicious that the first item in Lyons’ list of priorities for modern councils was ‘building and shaping identity’. Heritage is, of course, a central component of identity.

This would lead one to imagine that councils and other public agencies in the business of place shaping would see heritage as a set of assets of great significance. Based on field work by the excellent Clare Devaney, we explored this assumption through ‘deep dive’ research in three cities: Stoke on Trent, Manchester and Plymouth.

Heritage certainly matters to local leaders and other civic figures. Many talked passionately about local history both tangibly preserved in buildings and spaces and less tangibly in traditions and social mores.

However, the enthusiasm is much less evident in local strategic policy making. There is an inconsistent and incomplete view of what heritage assets comprise and it often isn’t clear where lead local responsibility for the sector lies (something which will have been exacerbated by the massive reduction in the number of conservation officers employed by councils). Conversely, the local heritage sector itself generally lacks cohesion and leadership, something which contributes to its low profile in strategic forums.

More significantly, the influence of heritage in the definition of place was not consistent. This is bad news for a sector which has already been badly hit by local austerity measures. But it also throws into doubt the whole place shaping project.

It is hard to appreciate local identity without appreciating local history.  Yet, without a compelling view of identity referencing the relationship in citizen’s minds between past, present and possible future, how can place be understood let alone shaped? To put it more simply there seems to be an identity gap at the heart of place shaping, one which could in part be filled by an appreciation of heritage as a tangible and intangible asset.

Place shaping involves identifying a place’s distinctive qualities and associations and deciding which of these to emphasise and seek to enhance. It involves mobilising local stakeholders behind an inspiring vision for their place. And it should involve engaging citizens themselves in identifying what they value about where they live and what they want to preserve even as the pace of change accelerates. Sometimes places bring the past into the future in ways which are thoughtful, specific and powerful, other times it is so superficial to be risible; one place we visited had a list of ‘fifty heritage high points’ which included the fact that the Beatles twice played a concert in the city!

Much of this is politically charged. The local public debate is often poised between two contrasting dynamics; on the one hand a sense of loss and often resentment in the face of change and particularly immigration and diversity (captured in the phrases like ‘there’s been a lot of change round here’ or ‘thing’s aren’t like they used to be’). On the other hand, it seems that people arriving new in places have a strong appetite to feel quickly part of their new community and to find routes for engagement.

Our report is in part a critique of the often thin and ahistorical way that place is conceptualised and applied in local strategy, but it is also a challenge to the heritage sector. Locally, organisations need to work better together showing they can recognise the need for hard choices and can bring something of value to conversations that go much wider than their sector. Nationally, peak heritage organisations – like the HLF – could play an important role in exploring the relationship between place shaping and heritage, and identify examples from the UK and around the world of where engaging the heritage sector and thinking more deeply and bravely about the relationship between past, people and progress has contributed to successful local economic and social strategy.

A few years ago it was often assumed that the growing mobility of information, population and capital would make place a less significant factor in our lives. This assumption has been belied by a growing focus on cities, their different performances and potential trajectories, and an emphasis on the local in patterns of engagement, innovation and consumption.

If, when it comes to social and economic policy, ‘place is the place’, this is a huge opportunity for heritage to move from the periphery to the centre of local strategic policy making. The question is whether the sector can raise its sights from the day to day grind of protecting old stuff and fighting for grants to take advantage of this opportunity.

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Ippr and Miliband – new direction, same engine?

June 19, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

It may not be immediately apparent from the news headlines, which were dominated this morning by Iraq and will tonight be fixated on En-ger-land, but today is a big day for British social democracy. Our leading left of centre think tank, ippr, has publishing a milestone report of its long and impressive Condition of Britain inquiry and it has been launched by Labour leader Ed Miliband.

The ippr report is comprehensive and contains many detailed policy recommendations, but most significant perhaps are some subtle shifts in the broader narrative about Britain’s challenges and the goals and methods of social democratic reform. In an article about the report ippr director Nick Pearce hints at a number of changes of emphasis.

There is a move from a simple redistributive economism. Pearce writes: ‘social equality and how we relate to each other as citizens matters as much as material equality in closing the gap between rich and poor’. Progressives need to focus more on power and accountability and this means ‘giving more power to counties and cities’ and ‘to ‘engage individuals and civil society in shaping what the state provides’. It seems that a critique of centralism is now just about universal on the centre left. Whether this conviction would survive the temptation of Labour having central power is an entirely different matter.

Another important theme can be seen as a return to ideas way back in ippr’s previous major report for Labour in opposition, the 1994 Commission on Social Justice. One the one hand, the legitimacy of the state must be rebuilt through greater conditionality and reciprocity. On the other hand, public spending must focus less on remedial interventions and more on those which enhance people’s opportunities to be self-reliant: ‘more fences at the top of the cliff, fewer ambulances at the bottom’ as the 1994 report put it, or ‘a hand up not a hand out’ as Tony Blair used to say.

Finally, there is a stronger emphasis on institutions; ‘social reforms embodied in shared institutions are more durable that those which rely on transactions’ Pearce writes. The report proposes volunteer-led neighbourhood justice panels, an Affordable Credit Trust and neighbourhood networks led by older people.

The ippr report deserves to widely debated. It demonstrates a genuine willingness to examine and address the weaknesses of the social democratic message and method in the modern world. This includes an important recognition of the need for a new form of ‘statecraft’. Yet, ultimately, apart from shifting power from Whitehall to town hall, it fails to provide a sufficiently bold account of what that new statecraft might involve, particularly the need for the centre left to reduce its reliance on its favourite fix – policy itself.

Evidence of the problem lies in Ed Miliband’s speech at the report launch, a response couched in terms of a set of new policy commitments. He wants us to know Labour has given up the idea that public spending is the answer to every problem but deos not seem ready to give up the idea that public policy is the answer to every problem.

‘Well, what do you expect from a putative Prime Minister’ he, or you, might reasonably respond. What if, as I have argued in previous posts, the whole apparatus of policy making and democratic scrutiny is increasingly incapable of achieving the impacts on society that it intends?

The point here is not that we don’t need policy, nor that it isn’t better to have good policies than bad ones (the ippr report contains many policies which are better than both the Coalition’s and the last Labour Government’s), but that we need to think of policy as fuel for a strategy of social renewal, not the engine of that renewal.

If I could insert a paragraph in to the Party leaders’ conference speeches this year it would be something like:

‘ In a fast changing world, facing ever more complex problems and with an ever more independently minded citizenry the right an election victory gives us is not to exercise power but to try to create it’

Power is created by – amongst other things – the authenticity and clarity of leadership, the ambition and integrity of the conversations and collaborations that leaders help to convene, the quality and scale of new and reformed institutions emerging from people solving problems together, and the degree to which civic culture animates individuals and communities to direct their energies towards social progress.

Good policy making (and there is precious little of that around) can reinforce and amplify these aspects of a dynamic society but in the modern world policy increasingly rarely generates positive social energy on its own. To give one obvious and rather tragic example, if Blair’s Labour has taken the time and effort to make the abolition of child poverty a broad based and deeply felt movement it might have persisted as a national goal. Instead it was presented as a set of technocratic national policies for which people felt little affection or responsibility, and now the goal has been abandoned. Ultimately for all its many strengths the ippr report, and even more Miliband’s response reaffirm a policy driven view of social change.

An alternative technology of change isn’t easy to get your head round if you have spent a life equating social change with policy change. To articulate it would be hard and risky – it would, for example, involve a manifesto which was much stronger on analysis and vision and much lighter on policy.

But if my argument seems detached from political reality, ask yourself this; what do the British people seem to want right now – better leadership, a clearer vision and more reason to hope…or more policies?

Watching ippr and Ed Miliband lay out their serious thinking it seems unfair that it is overshadowed in some newspapers by more evidence of the voters’ lack of affinity for Labour’s leader. Then again, perhaps voters implicitly grasp better than even the most intelligent parts of the centre left what really matters when it comes to the possibility of social progress.

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Careering into oblivion

May 28, 2014 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, Uncategorized 

How might the self-serving reminiscences of celebrities have helped kill an important public service for young people?

Last week I attended a dinner and discussion on the future of the careers service hosted by the Comino Foundation. To which the obvious question is ‘what future’? The service was already weakened when the Coalition came to office. By focussing the lion’s share of resources on disadvantaged young people, Labour’s Connexions service downgraded the idea of a universal careers provision. The Coalition government started out sounding positive about a lifetime careers service but, while the adult provision was to some extent enhanced, Michael Gove – who must have been fully aware of the likely consequences – made the decision to devolve careers advice to schools. This was a bad idea for two reasons. Most schools, obsessed as they are with exam results and OFSTED inspections, were bound to see careers as a low priority. Also schools can’t be expected to give objective advice when they have strong incentives to keep pupils on in their own sixth form.

So absolutely no one was surprised when last year’s OFSTED report on careers advice found that only one in four schools were fulfilling their duty to provide impartial, high quality careers advice. OFSTED is beefing up the inspection of careers and the greater use of pupil destination data may concentrate minds, but it is clear from the dismissive comments made recently by Michael Gove to the Education Select Committee, that the virtual demise of an independent professional careers service for young people is not leading to any shedding of tears at the DfE.

In essence the Secretary of State’s response to the Committee’s concerns was that, as the careers service had been rubbish before, it doesn’t really matter if it is abolished now. Apart from being a non-sequitur, the problem with this view is that the most authoritative analyses of the old council-funded careers service suggested it was a pretty good model.

How is it – apart from a series of unfortunate events – that a significant public service which seems broadly functional, and is surely even more important in a world of high youth unemployment and fast changing labour markets, simply disappears under the waves of political ignorance and indifference?

One reason lies in the difficulty of proving that careers advice works. You can of course measure pupil satisfaction but what policy makers really care about is whether careers advice leads to better decisions. But this is almost impossible to disentangle from the many other influences on young people’s decisions, not to mention wider changes in the economy and labour market. Also the impact of good careers advice may often be long term; youngsters may not follow the advice immediately but it could be important to subsequent choices.

But a less obvious reason lies in the musings of the famous. According to the Times diary last week Lynn Barber amused the audience at the Bloomsbury Institute by telling them that had she followed her careers advice she would have ended up a prison warden. I’m a huge fan of the writer and interviewer and I’m sure she meant no harm by what she said: The problem is the overall impact of throwaway comments such as this.

The people whose opinions are heard most loudly – the famous and powerful – are by definition unusually successful. Whilst good careers advisors would never discourage young people from being ambitious, it is their job to help young people understand the options they face if – as will be the experience of the vast majority – they don’t enjoy exceptional talent or good fortune. Therefore, it will almost always be the case that celebrities will have been given advice which will seem prosaic or ill-judged in view of their subsequent success. The most successful people also love to project a self-serving biography of overcoming adversity and discouragement to prove everyone wrong (how often do the rich and famous tell us they succeeded through a combination of privilege and luck?).

Therefore while we hear very little from the millions of young people who have had good advice which has helped them make wise choices, we are often regaled with the amusing failure of some poorly paid, corduroy jacket wearing, time serving careers advisor to see the obvious brilliance of future celebrity.

Thus – a vital service which might help address huge problems like youth unemployment, young people making poor educational choices and a mismatch between skills and labour market needs – withers away misunderstood and largely friendless.

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Look hard before you leap

May 7, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

The Guardian’s splash this morning focussed on the delayed launch of the Better Care Fund. The Fund aims to encourage improved coordination across health and social care but apparently the Cabinet Office has severe doubts about value for money. This may be embarrassing for ministers and officials but, if there is one thing worse than a bad policy being delayed, it is a bad policy being implemented.

Apart from general misgivings quoted in the Guardian, we don’t know the substance of the Cabinet Office’s concerns, but let me offer three reasons why what looks like a sensible response to an obvious problem might be running into difficulties.

First, the Fund was premised on one of the most commonly claimed, and also one of the least often proved, assertions made in public policy; namely, that spending money in one area will reduce expenditure in another. Hospitals are expensive, risky and anonymous environments and so it is surely in the interests of both public sector paymasters, on the one hand, and patients and carers, on the other, that people should stay in them for the minimum necessary time.

The problem is that cash strapped local authorities have always lacked incentives to help reduce bed blocking and now face eye watering budget cuts. The Fund will transfer money from the NHS to councils on the principle that better community provision for councils would reduce pressure on the NHS, both in long stay wards and in the A and E departments where badly cared-for vulnerable people often end up.

I have heard this kind of spend to save argument countless times not just from public sector officials but from people setting up a variety of social enterprises and charities. So I will let you into an open secret, everyone in the Treasury, and now it appears the Cabinet Office, treats such arguments with intense scepticism. Time and time again such promises evaporate as savings fail to materialise either because the policy doesn’t work or – more fundamentally – because the released capacity in one area is immediately filled with new demand. As what is ostensibly a spend to save scheme, the Better Care Fund would have immediately aroused the suspicions of any seasoned policy analyst and in this case those concerns would be loudly echoed by NHS commissioners and providers threatened with having to hand over money to their local council today in exchange for jam savings tomorrow.

Second, I suspect size matters. There are some structural ways one might address the health and social care divide, most obviously putting certain NHS services under the control of local authority social care departments or vice versa, and there are lots of smaller scale innovations which can and have made a difference in particular cases, but the £3.8 billion Fund may have suffered from reverse Goldilocks syndrome: too big and expensive to be genuinely innovative but too small and short term to achieve system change.

Third, when a problem is obvious, bad and persistent the tendency is to think that what is needed is simply more determination to solve it – in this case incentivised by cash. But when a problem is obvious, persistent and bad it also tends to indicate something else – we may be failing to grasp its nature and how difficult it is to solve.

The other day I came across an example of this in a different part of the social care jungle. I was being told that teenage children who fall into the care system (a system which is expensive and has poor outcomes for older children) have very often been seen multiple times by local authorities and other agencies. The obvious point, and one we often hear in tragic cases of neglect, is that none of these interventions grabbed the problem and solved it once and for all. The answer is surely concerted decisive interventions earlier on. So far, so obvious, but this view of the problem is conditioned by the starting point – those who have been failed. What about evidence as to the general efficacy of earlier interventions?

If, for example, we found out that 90% of youngsters subject to an earlier and cheaper intervention (some form of parenting support, for example) had not re-entered the system, we might deem this value for money even though 10% fall through the net. Also, if a system focusses on more intensive interventions the consequence might be that fewer youngsters get any kind of help and that we over-intervene with youngsters who only needed a small helping hand. Thus the case for what seems a more effective and economical solution (one big intervention rather than lots of smaller ones) may not be as open and shut as it seems.

I suspect that bed blocking may be a similar example where, perhaps, most frail people do successfully exit to the community while the few who don’t have particular characteristics such as complex conditions and needs, and a lack of informal support. If those who are bed blocking are the hardest cases then neither the projected savings nor the better outcomes of community care will be as clear cut as they first seem or as ministers – who are desperate to believe they can have a decisive impact – have been led to believe.

There are no doubt lots of bad reasons why the launch of the Better Care Fund has been delayed. There might also be some quite good ones.

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