The nature of the present crisis

September 9, 2014 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

As my colleague Adam Lent has argued, whether the result is disaster or near death experience for the UK the way the Scottish referendum campaign has unfolded is the most powerful indication yet of the enfeeblement of the Westminster political elite. Other consequential possibilities for humiliation loom large, including a strong showing for UKIP at the next General Election and a vote to leave the European Union. Whatever the virtues of Scottish independence, Mr Farage and national sovereignty there is no doubt each cause benefits hugely from our loss of faith in an establishment which has in one form or another held sway since the emergence of modern Parliamentary democracy in the mid nineteenth century.

People are angry about other people, about their own lives and about the state of their country. After first blaming each other the politicians promise to address the causes of our anger but virtually no one – including, one strongly suspects, themselves – believes a word of it. It is human to focus on the personalities but vital that we interpret the legitimacy crisis as more than a unfortunate coming together of events and poor leadership.

Think of it this way. For the overwhelming majority of human beings for nearly all of our evolution from nomads to particle physicists three conditions applied. First, we only knew much about, or engaged with, people much like ourselves. Those unlike us were assumed to be enemies or curiosities. Second, we lived under conditions of scarcity with relatively simple material expectations and needs. Third, we accepted and generally deferred to relatively fixed hierarchies of power and prestige based on religion, bloodline or more latterly class.

Since the Enlightenment, with occasional backtracks and by-ways, the West has been accelerating ever faster away from the conditions in which our social character and deep culture developed. Things cannot be reversed. Nor should they be because the progressive future involves transcending these conditions to reach a higher stage of human flourishing. This is the stage of cosmopolitan citizens inhabiting a cosmopolitan world. It is stage in which individual aspiration is focussed on the things that make life most enjoyable and fulfilling; friendship, generosity, autonomy, creativity. This is the stage where we govern ourselves identifying, discussing and solving problems together naturally and continuously in ways in which we only now occasionally do in the very best or very worst of circumstances.

But we now inhabit a disorientating and dark twilight world. Forced to live among strangers and in a shrinking world but not knowing how to understand, empathise and collaborate with those different to ourselves. Obsessed with an individualistic and materialistic account of success and achievement and then either finding it we can’t attain it or – almost as bad – that it is meaningless when we do. Unwilling to be governed but not yet willing or able to govern ourselves.

(Note that that each of these transitions concerns broadly one of the three main forms of social power; respectively solidarity, individual aspiration and authority. Each of the three cylinders which pump the engine of progress is cracked. This is why rich, technologically advanced, reasonably well educated societies seem unable to solve many of their biggest challenges; for example, tackling inequality, responding to population ageing, facing up to climate change.)

If this all seems too big and too abstract it can be brought back to topical concerns. The first painful transition from tribalism to cosmopolitanism is reflected in wars of religion and identity, the upsurge of anti-immigrant feeling or the inability of international governance to cope with international problems. The second, from scarcity to post materialism, is reflected in rage about living standards, in massive personal debt and in the various ailments of affluence. And the third, from tradition and deference to self-government in our current contempt for our leaders, only surpassed by the incoherence of our collective aspirations (as Ben Page from IPSOS Mori famously put it ‘the British people know what they want. It is very clear: American tax rates and Swedish public services’).

Thus the immediate crisis is a shallow and dispiriting manifestation of a shift which is more profound and difficult but which, hard though it is to believe, contains the possibility of a leap forward for humanity. Of course, huge generalisations are involved in this chronology: the future is already out there and the past clings on like burnt fat on a frying pan.

What then is to be done? First, progressives – however critical they are of the present – must never forget their belief in progress. Whilst the big picture still leaves lots of scope for debate about what to do next, we must keep always in view the vision of the cosmopolitan, post materialist, self-governing future. Indeed we should work harder to describe a practical utopia; what such a world might look and feel like.

Second, while the steps to transition will, in the main, be taken by us not for us, right now we need leadership like rarely before: Leaders who can confront us with the truth of the current crisis and inspire us with the possibility of transformative progress. Instead we have futile and dishonest promises to slash immigration, to extricate ourselves from global interdependency, cut taxes or energy bills, restore trust to politics by electing this career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party not that career politician in hoc to his increasingly unrepresentative party. The sight of the Clegg, Miliband and Cameron postponing their enmities, defying convention and marching on Scotland shows both that it is possible to act differently and that it takes an emergency for political leaders  to accept the need to question their stock responses.

When we as individuals face personal crisis, our first response may be to do differently but our eventual realisation may be the need to be differently. Trapped by our decaying democratic systems and the disastrous idea that politics is analogous to retail consumerism, our political elite run in circles trying to discover what they can do to address our rage. Instead we must encourage them to link social transformation to personal transformation by questioning deeply the very idea of what it is to be a leader – a creative leader - in these troubled times.

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Reading change differently

September 8, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

In some recent posts I have explored new ways of thinking about the pursuit of social change. I have also questioned the centrality in pursuing such change normally accorded by politicians and their advisors to traditional policy making.

There is no shortage of examples of unsuccessful policy making but there are many fewer of alternative approaches that have achieved success at any kind of scale. This is hardly surprising given that so many of our assumptions and systems are based on the existing paradigm. So when an ambitious example of a different method comes along it is worth noting and praising.

Today sees the launch by a coalition of organisations of Read on. Get on an initiative with the aim that by 2025 every child is reading well by the age of eleven. In the launch document Save the Children (which brought the coalition together) make a powerful, well-researched case for this to be a priority for social progress and justice. Reading well is a building block crucial to children’s personal development, educational attainment and life chances, yet one in four children do not read well at eleven, a figure that rises to two in five for poorer groups. The problem is particularly acute among white working class boys. Shamefully for the England, Romania is the only European country with a bigger socio-economic attainment gap in childhood reading.

Few would argue with the goal of every child reading well at eleven by 2025, but the most interesting aspect of this initiative is its method: it has many of the elements laid out by the exponents of the collective impact approach which is making much ground in the US.

First, there is a clear and inspiring mission which Save the Children has developed with a powerful and board based coalition: Among many others, the campaign is supported by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), Teach First, publisher Harper Collins and the children’s communication charity ICAN.

Second, each partner to the Read on.Get on coalition has agreed a shared set of measurable targets and metrics on the road to delivering their mission. There are important milestones to be reached along the way to 2025 but if the initiative starts to fail there will be no way to hide that failure.

Third, and most important, the campaign is about mobilising civil society not depending primarily on the policy makers’ tool kit of new regulations, Government programmes or budget lines. As the launch document says:

‘We cannot afford to fall into the trap of thinking all children will read well simply as a result of decisions by Whitehall based policy makers….While Government has an essential and necessary role to play, so do we all’

The initiative’s plan contains actions for parents (especially fathers), volunteers, school leaders and teachers, businesses and local partnerships of schools. Rather than more money or legislation Government is asked to play its part through leading and convening. The freshness of this approach is well captured by the words of Russell Hobby the General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers:

‘We ask a lot of schools. There is no end of standards, requirements, demands and expectations. What is different about this campaign is that schools are asking a lot of themselves. This is not a Government imposed target. This is the teaching profession working with parents and civil society to set our own aspirations’.

The other key aspects of the collective impact approach concern implementation; maintaining clear roles for the partners and good communication between them, and the need for a ‘backbone’ organisation to maintain critical mass at the heart of the effort. Whether these elements come together only time will tell.

Will it work? It is much harder for the collective impact methodology to succeed at the national level especially when so much to depends on local institutions and communities. Ultimately, unlike the linear predictability of the policy makers’ imaginary world, the exponents of collective impact accept uncertainty, knowing that everything depends on the hit and miss of building and maintaining civic momentum. The fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma may be a great example of ‘beyond policy’ leadership but when other US mayors tried to emulate him they fell flat on their chubby faces.

The Read on.Get on. coalition wants every major political party to sign up. If they do – and I hope they will – I hope they also notice they are being asked to play a supportive leadership role not a top down managerial one. If so this commendable initiative might just help our political class generally start thinking more realistically and progressively about social change.

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Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change

August 24, 2014 by · 3 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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