The daily manoeuvring we are already seeing ahead of next year’s General Election can seem rather pointless. What has really changed in the polls in the last two years? Aren’t we continuing to meander towards another hung Parliament with the only unanswered question - which is to be the biggest Party – being ultimately resolved by a few thousand votes in a short list of marginal seats? Probably: but more in hope than expectation I’ll offer a way for things to become more interesting.
General Elections tend to be fought on three primary terrains: values, competence and future. Arguments about record and specific policies matter less for themselves than the degree to which they symbolise and reinforce these themes.
Labour is ahead on values, its traditional strong point; the Party scores relatively well on measures such as ‘speaks up for ordinary people’. The Conservative response is a sometimes uneasy mixture of appeal to people’s grievances about immigrants and those on benefits plus a quieter insistence that the Party continues to care about social mobility and poverty. Labour has tried to neutralise the first set of issues by sounding tough on claimants and immigration while choosing issues such as the bedroom tax to assert a value choice between the two largest Parties. The Lib Dems’ favoured position is to share Labour’s critique of ‘uncaring’ Conservatives but also to claim to be free of the less popular baggage of the labour movement.
The Conservatives are ahead on competence. They will be disappointed that the economic pick-up does not yet seem to have turned this advantage into a deal-clincher with the electorate. Sooner or later the Tories will launch a huge attack on the ‘riskiness’ of a Miliband Government’. They will be hoping this has an effect as powerful as the 1991/2 attack on Neil Kinnock (they may even be tempted to update the famous ‘L’ plate poster).
Labour has being trying to improve its competence rating. Thus there have been pledges on spending and borrowing and steps to improve the quality of Labour’s front bench. One of the reasons Nick Clegg entered Government was to establish the Lib Dems as a serious Party of Government. So far this hasn’t worked out well in terms of popularity but I suspect Clegg and his team will be in a stronger position come election time, albeit having to deal with insistent questions about who their favoured post-election partner would be.
While on values or competence we are dealing with fairly predictable game plans, when it comes to ‘future’ we are still largely in the dark. The future pitch is not just, or even mainly, about promises or aspirations. To win ‘future’ a party has to predict tomorrow in a credible way which lodges the idea that only that party understands and is prepared for that future.
The lack of future narrative may partly betray the limited time horizons and ambitions of the parties but it is also a reflection of the tough period we have been living through. Until recently any attempt to mobilise a positive future vision would have been seen as irrelevant, complacent or both. But that is changing. ‘Future’ is now up for grabs, and unlike values and competence it is far from clear who will wrestle control.
Much though it interests me, it’s not my job as RSA CEO to speculate on political strategy or election outcomes. However, my analysis does offer an opportunity to wider civic society. Whilst there is little most of us can usefully do on values and competence other than reinforce various existing positions, when it comes to ‘future’ there is room for creativity, agenda-setting and new alliances.
To repeat, future is not just about aspirations. More interesting are scenarios; what do we think are the likely major trends that will shape the next ten years? And can we press the parties to start showing us they understand these trends, are prepared for them, and how they would seek to shape them? In short, which party seems to ‘get the future’ most convincingly.
For example, I have been writing quite a lot (here and here) about the trends making central Government less effective and blunting the tools of traditional policy making. Who has the best plan to deal with the decline of the centre? Population ageing is another key trend. We talk about the specifics of health and social care and universal benefits but what about the deeper demographic trend towards a society where there are many more older people, some more younger people and fewer in-between? What kind of society will and should this be? As long as a different hollowing out – of the middle of the labour market – continues tinkering with minimum wages and tax credits it is not likely to make any significant difference. Is this something we simply live with or is any party willing credibly to commit to restructure the labour market?
The widespread assumption a few decades ago that globalisation would lead to a homogenisation of domestic economic and social policy has been largely confounded. There are significant differences between countries and different routes to success and to ruin.
Let’s hope that, amidst the attacks and retail policy offers, the next few months also sees the emergence of something that resembles a debate about alternative strategies for Britain (assuming, that is, there still is a Britain). Even better would be if this was a debate (unlike 99% of party politics) where the parties might in some areas agree to differ and let voters make an informed choice from the futures on offer. If the RSA could play a part in hosting such a debate I’m sure we’d be up for it.
The think tank, ippr, has an unconditional place in my heart matched only by West Bromwich Albion and the RSA so I have been trying to work out why the Institute’s recent pamphlet ‘Many to many – how the relational state will transform public services’ didn’t grab me in the way its reports usually do.
The report (which follows two others in similar vein) is in essence an appeal to the centre left to abandon its centralist assumptions and adopt a set of ideas about devolved, joined up, empowering public services; ideas which have in truth been around for decades. The spur is not so much state failure – indeed, the report is at pains to list policies the state has successfully implemented – but that modern policy challenges – like managing chronic health conditions or reducing long term unemployment – are ‘complex’ requiring the state to use its power in different ways.
Thus the report seeks to adapt the social democratic political economy of the state. But what if the starting point for that political economy is wrong? Might that wrong starting point help to explain why ideas like the relational state are so often talked about on the left but so rarely amount to anything much when Labour runs central or local government?
The key issue concerns the location of power and definition of value. In the conventional social democratic model – implicit in this report – power resides in the state and value in the capacity of the state to achieve its political and policy objectives. The source and nature of these policy objectives is assumed to be relatively unproblematic, being seen as an expression of a Government’s democratic mandate and progressive purpose.
However, an alternative model sees power residing in society and the evidence of Government’s value lying not in its capacity to achieve its goals but in the degree to which it is able to to mobilise social power towards aims to which citizens explicitly aspire. A successful Government is not merely one that has implemented is objectives (indeed the relationship between policy implementation and social capacity may be inverse) but one which has increased the capacity of society to improve itself.
In my annual lecture, for example, I suggested ,firstly, that social power had three forms (the individualistic, solidaristic and hierarchical); secondly, that the most powerful societies, organisations and policies mobilised all three sources; and thirdly, that the UK is currently suffering from a deficit of solidaristic and hierarchical power. From this perspective the way the central state operates as a dysfunctional and mistrusted hierarchy is as likely to sap as enhance social power.
To look at a more specific dimension: levels of social trust and trust of institutions appears to be a better predictor of a nation’s future economic dynamism than levels of human capital (defined primarily in terms of education and skills). Yet the very way the state operates can undermine social trust. Bo Rothstein is not alone in arguing that welfare means-testing reduces trust by making state bureaucrats intrusive and often arbitrary judges of claimants, by encouraging claimants to game the system and also because claimants are seen to game by non-claimants. This is now a suppurating wound in the UK social body: we are simultaneously experiencing unprecedentedly high levels of sanctioning of benefit claimants and of public hostility to claimants.
In work on reintroducing the contributory principle to welfare, ippr has recognised this issue, but it also intrudes into public services. ‘Many to many’ explores how a more relational state might better encourage people to be active in managing their own health and social care needs but – as a carers’ representative pointed out at a recent RSA seminar – the needs testing of social care eligibility continues to provide an incentive for people to focus on their incapacity.
In a blog post I can only offer a highly truncated exposition of a bigger argument but to get to the core of it: if the goal is a state which has good relationships with citizens which in turn generates capacity for social progress there are several profound and inter-related problems:
The increasingly problematic idea of policy-driven change (as laid out in my last post).
The oppressive logic of bureaucratic working (identified by the ippr report but in rather technocratic terms)
The frequent lack of alignment between the interests of political decision makers (with their increasingly weak mandate) and the public good
There are no easy answers. Replacing a statist with a social political economy is only the starting point for a long iterative journey to an as yet only hazy reform agenda, an agenda which is likely in many ways to be more radical than anything currently on offer. My concern is that this report, like recent speeches from Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas, doesn’t recognise the deep, endemic, structural failings of the modern state. Thus while the principles and reforms it proposes are largely sensible (albeit not that different from the aspirations espoused by Coalition ministers) the reasons they have proved so very hard to act upon is left largely unexamined.
This morning at an RSA seminar on demand management the inspirational chief executive of a genuinely reforming and innovative local authority shared her experience of spending sustained time looking at services from the point of view of citizens and front line workers. ‘We talk about troubled and chaotic families’ she said ‘but what about troubled and chaotic public services?’. It reminded me of something once said by Professor Stephen Coleman: ‘the problem of civic engagement is hard to reach groups, and there is no harder to reach group than politicians’.
The vehicle of state is not working; its engine unreliable, its steering awry. Most social democrats seem still to hope we can get away with replacing parts of the body work.
It’s strange how ideas that have simmered in the policy undergrowth, sometimes seeming to have been totally extinguished, suddenly burst out like bush fire. A dedicated group of academics, policy makers, charities and educational practitioners have long argued for the importance of character development in children’s life chances. Over the last twenty years, as evidence suggesting the importance and teach-ability of character has grown, there have been flurries of interest from the political and media mainstream, but the respective reform models pushed by the last Labour Government and Michael Gove either side-lined this agenda or positively worked against it.
We may look back on this week as unexpected tipping point with first the All Party Parliamentary Group report on social mobility and now, today, a speech on character by Labour’s thoughtful and self-assured education spokesperson Tristram Hunt. I welcome this shift and if it does mark the beginning of a genuine change in the direction of debate and policy the people who have ploughing this furrow for many years, often with little official encouragement (Anthony Seldon and Yvonne Roberts for example), deserve recognition for their efforts.
But there are both gaps in the evidence and weaknesses in the argument which need to be addressed if its current prominence is to be sustained. One weakness lies in relying too heavily on poor quality or contested evidence. As outlined by the all-Party Group and Hunt there are plenty of studies that support both the value of character and the idea that there are certain educational practices that help to instil it.
But despite some areas of promise, the gaps in the evidence base here are substantial: research shows strong associations between pupil attainment and certain character traits (such as self-control or positive attitudes towards schooling), but robust, causal evidence of impact is much more limited. Most studies look at single non-cognitive skills in isolation, and over relatively short timeframes, whereas the evidence is much weaker on the long-term impact of such programmes. As a recent review for the Education Endowment Foundation concludes, the evidence shows that no single non-cognitive skill is the crucial ingredient or “silver bullet” that predicts positive outcomes for young people.
Furthermore, as Professor Robert Coe patiently explains in this brilliant lecture the biggest thing we know about new educational practice is that little or nothing is proven to have the kind of major, consistent, system-wide effect we might hope for. If a dedicated team of researchers and practitioners try something out in a context in which they are motivated and focussed there is a pretty good chance it will have an effect. Roll that same idea out across a whole system made up of people with different levels of talent and motivation, and against the backdrop of varying contexts and competing pressures, and the clear and hopeful findings from the pilots turn into contested and marginal evidence of change at scale.
Also, even if the argument for character is won, there will still be fierce argument about what it comprises and how it should be instilled. [LB1] For traditionalists the emphasis will be on hard work, responsibility and respect for authority, all of which they will say can be transmitted through a fairly conventional pedagogy, while for progressives the emphasis will be more on emotional resilience, self-confidence and creativity which requires children to have space for self-expression and to feel engaged as partners in learning.
The evidence problem is exacerbated by the tendency in both the All Party paper and, from what I can see, the Hunt speech to treat character development as a means to an end – greater social mobility and better life chances for the individual (usually defined as earning power). But with both the evidence and the concept itself contested, the advocates of character development need to admit to their normative starting bias. Surely part of the reason we want a particular idea of character instilled is because we have an underlying view of what it is to be a good citizen and live a full life. Politicians and researchers tend to fight shy of value based arguments, worrying that they will seem ideological or arrogant, but to hide our beliefs behind instrumentality and weak evidence is ultimately self-defeating.
Finally, I freely admit there is no evidence either for a hunch I have about a missing element of most lists of measures to instil character in the young. What about the nature of educational institutions themselves? On the whole, character is not something we consciously learn, it is imbibed from our experiences and relationships, which take place in the context of formal (schools, colleges, sports clubs) and informal (families, close knit friendship networks) organisations. Surely, therefore, the character of those organisations and institutions is an important part of the story?
Take just one dimension of this: the RSA has often worked with school leaders in areas experiencing low standards. Speaking to them a difference is often immediately observable, between those whose attitude to challenge it to take personal responsibility and to be optimistic and those who have a well-developed script of self-pity, impotence and blaming others. How likely is a school, which is led by someone who exudes a mixture of self-pity and complacency, to be the kind of place that – whatever its curricular or extra-curricular offer – teaches characteristics like self–confidence and initiative? Similarly, too few teachers seem confident either constructively to challenge or be constructively challenged by their colleagues. We know a big issue for teenage boys men is brittle self-esteem, I wonder how often they sense the same fragility in those supposed to be their elders and betters?
Unlike one-off policies which often fail when taken out of their experimental setting, aiming for whole schools to be intelligent, character-forming communities focusses on the institutional context itself.
The renewed interest in character is welcome but we need to understand why it has proved a short term enthusiasm in the past and take this opportunity to build a more powerful case.
Many thanks to my colleague, Louise Bamfield, of the RSA’s education team for helping me write this blog.
[LB1]The evidence on the potential impact of the early years is strong, it’s just that the current set of policies aren’t delivering. The evidence shows that extra-curricular activities are most beneficial when focused on academic learning. I suggest taking the first part of the sentence out.
A global corporation’s new strategy has broken down my wall of scepticism….
Big business can be a force for social good as well as a generator of economic value. Indeed, arguably, some of our big corporations take a more robust and consistent approach to issues like environmental sustainability and international human rights than many governments. Jon Miller and Lucy Parker championed corporate good deeds in their recent book and talk ‘Everybody’s business’. As they report, the spur for a company’s serious focus on social value is often soul searching following some kind of reputational disaster.
Over the longer term, as Michael Porter and Mark Kramer and many others argue, the most powerful and resilient approach to corporate responsibility is to build it into the core business model (Porter and Kramer call this approach ’shared value’).
Before the credit crunch banks gave away hundreds of millions of pounds in sponsorship and charitable schemes, while at the same time enriching their senior employees by shortchanging both their customers and the global economy, thus providing a classic example of tokenistic corporate responsibility. Various people now working with banks as they seek to salvage their reputation tell me the financial sector still finds it almost impossible to accept there is no future in selling profitable products which are bad for people and society.
Any robust strategy has to recognise and candidly confront the inevitable tensions between profit maximisation and social impact. I recently gave a talk to an energy company whose mission statement asserted its top goal was giving customers a great service. In reality, of course, the company’s goal is to make a profit while – one hopes – giving customers the best service possible. To fail to recognise and face up to that tension creates a barrier to the kind of robust self-examination corporations should welcome and encourage.
This is one reason I was so impressed by the strategic turn taken by the global education corporate Pearson – an initiative led by my former Number Ten colleague Sir Michael Barber and his colleague Saad Rizvi. Pearson has committed to a big goal and to a thoroughgoing long term process of organisational change involved in delivering it. The goal is ‘efficacy’: by the end of the change process every Pearson product and service must have ‘a measurable impact on improving peoples’ lives through learning’.
Unlike the energy company with its vacuous mission, Pearson recognises explicitly the challenge of combining the ultimate aim of efficacy with providing a return to investors. The issue is not so much whether or nor to be self-interested. The strategy is based on a calculation that long term it will be efficacy that matters most and this goal has to drive out short term pressures to design and sell stuff that makes a profit but doesn’t work for learners.
Pearson’s commitment is not simply a vague goal declared by company bosses. A very thorough project – laid out in the report – has been undertaken to develop an efficacy framework and then to roll this out to tens of thousands of staff in every division worldwide.
It is well worth reading Pearson’s own account of their journey, an account whose credibility is enhanced by a recognition that it is far from complete and an invitation to educationalists, the company’s partners and clients to comment on the goal and the process behind it.
There are many challenges ahead, not the least of which is the lack of strong evidence for the efficacy of almost all existing educational interventions, but I genuinely think that what Pearson is trying to do marks a new frontier in responsible corporate strategy. Unlike so much other well-meaning CSR, this is the risk-taking institutional innovation to which businesses should aspire.
I was saying as much to a friend last night who is a senior executive in a company that provides major services to Government and who is – in the face of his own company’s reputational challenges – recognising the need for new ways of doing things.
He was intrigued by the Pearson approach and while he didn’t rule out simply copying it he asked whether his own company might develop an alternative mission to efficacy. My suggestion was trust:-
‘How would it be’ I asked ‘if you committed not to provide a service or product unless you had strong evidence-based and publicly-declared reasons for believing that to do so would enhance trust in your company, the service and the agency paying for the service’?
‘It’s a great idea’ he said ‘but there’s one problem; if we were serious we would have to stop bidding for most Government contracts’.
BTW -in case you are wondering, Pearson is not currently funding the RSA.
Call it a tragic irony or, more prosaically, another example of human cognitive frailty, but while we nearly always notice fast occurring defeats and victories we rarely appreciate outcomes of equal or greater significance that take years to unfold. So, however long it has taken to acheive, it is well worth marking a seachange in the methodology of policy making.
For more than twenty-five years I have been advocating an approach from Government that demands more from the public while also treating citizens with greater respect. On Friday, while chairing a Cabinet Office conference on Open Policy Making it occurred to me this argument has reached a turning point; it is a matter now of how, not whether, it will be won.
My own journey began in the mid-nineties when a Research Fellow at Warwick University working on a Joseph Rowntree-funded project designed by David Blunkett (often ahead of the curve in his thinking). The project explored the degree to which public service interventions rely upon, and might potentially foster, civic effort. At a time when the idea of a ‘demographic time bomb’ was just coming to public prominence, my research looked at the mix of public sector, familial and voluntary effort involved in providing care to older people.
I came up with some pretty big figures for the contribution made beyond the state and reached the obvious conclusion that policy should seek to supplement and encourage that effort rather than ignoring it or crowding it out. But when I presented the paper at a departmental seminar I met a response that, over the years, I have come to expect: No one exactly disagreed but neither did any one seem terrible excited.
Partly, this is ideological. Those on the left traditionally haven’t really seen a problem with the state doing everything and are suspicious of the inequalities lurking in families and wider civil society. The right is sceptical that the state could ever do anything but suffocate civic effort and increase dependency. More generally, the indifference reflects a view that while it is obvious public service outcomes are a joint effort of the state and civil society, and while there may be many small interventions which might demonstrate this idea in practice, it is far less clear what it means for the kind of large scale policy debates that dominate national politics.
As Director of IPPR and a Number Ten policy advisor I kept banging on the same drum with more or less the same response. Tony Blair, for example, would politely but unenthusiastically listen to my rather vague thesis before turning his rapt attention to more thrusting colleagues as they made the sinuous case for quasi-markets, huge technological solutions and greater consumer choice. The case for reform might be made in terms of people power but public service users were seen as consumers not citizens.
My first RSA annual lecture, in similar vein, focussed on the idea of moving from a Government-centric to a more citizen-centric model of social change: How could new forms of politics and policy help us close gap between our collective aspirations and the trajectory on which current attitudes and behaviours place us?
Of course, I haven’t been the only voice; not the loudest and certainly not the most coherent. From ideas of public service co-design and co-production to the concept of the ‘relational state’ many others have made the case and promoted examples of different policies and forms of delivery.
When David Cameron first expounded the idea of the Big Society I saw an attempt to put the notion of a renewed relationship between state and citizens at the heart of a political project. I was a great enthusiast. But, as it turned out most of the big beasts of the Tory Party and Whitehall reacted to the Big Society with that same old polite disdain.
Yet in the idea of ‘open policy-making’ (OPM) I hope we have at last reached a tipping point beyond which a more ambitious model of citizen engagement gradually becomes the norm. To use the jargon, after thirty years of dominance it may at last be that the nostrums of New Public Managment are being superceded by those of OPM.
OPM is a broad term and suffers from being erroneously reduced to only one of its components; for example, opening up data to citizens or adopting a more design-based trial and error approach to policy development. But the core elements, it seems to me, are that Government can only be effective if it is able to mobilise the efforts of citizens as service users, carers and community members, that it should share problems and the analytical tools (especially data) it has to solve them, should prefer small incremental to large expensive solutions, be willing to experiment and be tolerant of failure and should listen hard to the views and experiences of service users as well as providing multiple channels for those to be expressed. To turn those principles into action there is a large and growing tool kit ranging from ethnographic research methods to design based decision-making and data visualisation.
At the conference last Friday, as well as a mix of senior civil servants and external practitioners from outfits such as NESTA, the Design Council and the Denmark’s MindLab, the impressive line-up of speakers included Cabinet Officer minister Francis Maude, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Haywood and Chris Warmald who combines being Perm Sec at Education with leading the policy profession across Whitehall.
Amidst the enthusiasm there was recognition of the various pitfalls facing the advocates of OPM. These include tendencies to overstate the degree to which it departs from existing good practice or to fall into jargon and a technocratic worldview (all problems can be solved with the right data). But by far the biggest challenge remains the one I identified here – reconciling the scale of innovation in policy making with the unedifying and unreconstructed reality of political manoeuvring.
An example was provided by Francis Maude who contrasted the evidence-based and collaborative nature of OPM with his largely vain attempts every year to stop his ministerial colleagues unveiling headline-grabbing but often ill-prepared policy initiatives at Party conference. Equally, I have very little sense that Labour is aware of much of this work, let alone that the Opposition appreciates its potential to underpin a more progressive and popular model of government. One of the senior civil servants extolling the virtues of OPM told me that rational decision making on big issues has almost ground to a halt in Government as the Coalition ‘partners’ retreat to build up their supply of arms for the General Election battle. The small scale of most OPM at least means it will be less impacted by this abandonment of public interest considerations by our elected representatives.
Still, I am confident. However much I would like it say it was voices like mine that have wrought the shift of OPM from the left field margins to the edge of the mainstream, it is in fact bigger forces; changing public attitudes and expectations, new computing power, the ubiquity of social media, and the inevitability of continuing constraints on public expenditure.
Open policy-making is the future. Politics will simply have to catch up. I wonder who will get the credit when it does.