Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change

August 24, 2014 by · 1 Comment
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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Can collective impact work here?

August 5, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

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

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

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

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

MT-blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Francis Maude, Jack Dee – and the transformation of government

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

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

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

Jack Dee

Jack Dee

Francis Maude

Francis Maude

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Power to Create (in about 5 minutes)

July 21, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

It is now ten days since my annual lecture on the Power to Create. Writing a set piece speech can be a bit like preparing a big meal. You spend ages on it but it is consumed very quickly with little but some temporarily satiated appetite to show for your efforts. So I am very grateful for the positive feedback I am still receiving.

The full lecture is on the RSA website. But if twenty five minutes viewing is too big an ask, here – thanks in large part to my excellent researcher Carys Roberts – is a reduced and amended version of the speech which you should be able to speed read in five.

The Power to Create

Creativity is often seen as an attribute of certain activities and industries. Fourteen industries such as architecture, fashion and publishing comprise a creative sector that in 2012 contributed £71.4billion to the UK economy and employed 1.68 million British people. This sector has achieved the fastest growth of any UK sector in 2012. Our status as world-leaders in design, arts and television formats brings clear economic benefits as well as being a cause for celebration in its own right. Indeed, the RSA argues strongly for the links between cultural flourishing and social and economic progress.

Yet by focusing on creativity in a growing but discrete section of the economy, we can lose sight of another account of creativity – one that is more universal and democratic. The RSA is starting to explore how the creative life, too often confined to an elite or a sector, should be fostered throughout the economy and society. We are striving to realise the promise of mass creativity. We refer to this idea as the ‘Power to Create’.

At the heart of the Power to Create is a philosophical commitment to the ideal that everyone should be the author of their own lives. As Amartya Sen has put it, ‘the freedom to determine the nature of our lives is one of the valued aspects of living that we have reason to treasure’. While the first aspect of a creative life is individual freedom to think our own thoughts and make our own decisions, it also requires positive freedom and resources to pursue our choices; not just hard resources, but the capabilities and knowledge to be free.

The aspiration of a creative life also requires recognition of our inherently social nature. Our creations, whether performances, products or ideas, are grounded in and find meaning in the social relationships of which we are a part. Thus to prize creativity as a substantive virtue urges our commitment to a society in which this prize is realistically attainable not just for ourselves but for our fellow citizens. The progressive mission is for what Roberto Unger describes as a ‘larger life’ to be available for all.

A creativity tipping point?

Is there any reason to believe the Power to Create is anything other than a distant aspiration? I believe there is. We are reaching a point at which the possibility of, and the need for, a creative citizenry looms before us and presents us with urgent choices.

An increasing supply of creativity

The first changes are around human capability and appetite. In less than two generations we have gone from under 10% to almost half of young people experiencing higher education. While we might lag behind other countries in some areas, our young people are in the top quartile of developed nations when it comes to problem solving ability. RSA research shows more young people than ever before wanting the autonomy of owning their own business even though the returns and security are often lower than a traditional job, and among those opting for employment a growing proportion say they make decisions influenced by the values and ethical practices of employers. Around the developed world more people are making their life goal what the Word Values Survey calls ‘self-expression’.

Technology is the second great engine of change. The internet has led to a step change in affordable easy access to key tools of creativity: learning, communicating, trading and collaborating. In music, films, photographs, blogs, apps and social networks hundreds of millions of people have generated content. Inexpensive platforms such as Etsy and Kickstarter have released waves of human creativity, entrepreneurial aspiration and collaborative endeavour. Peer to peer and sharing economy platforms whether social enterprises like Streetbank or commercial like AirBnB enable anyone to trade, blurring the boundaries between buyer and seller. Human trust and reciprocity are as important as digital algorithms to the success of these platforms.

Technology can reduce autonomy and dull creativity and as it becomes ever more central to our identities we need to have an explicitly political debate about who controls it and for what purpose. Nevertheless, in aggregate, across a wide spectrum of human activity, greater creativity is being enabled and encouraged. And as the rise of music festivals and the makers’ movement show, while the relationship between creativity on and off line is unpredictable, it is also largely positive.

An increasing demand for creativity

The third trend is the increasing demand for a creative citizenry in all sectors. Various factors including the accelerating pace of change in markets, the need for continuous innovation, the expectation of more personalised service and the growing appetite for authenticity and emotional connection in products and services, all increase the premium on the capacity of employees to be creative and self-motivated.

Increasingly the Government too wants creative citizens. In the face of complex problems and the impact of austerity forward thinking public agencies are recognising that their citizens and communities need to be seen as potential assets not just bundles of needs. As Simon Stevens head of NHS England said in June ‘achieving change in the NHS is not merely a techno-rationalist activity, it’s health as a social movement’. Methods of service co-design and co-delivery are being pursued, again blurring the boundary between producer and consumer. Initiatives like Homeshare are modern examples of an old ideal – reciprocal civic relationships offering an alternative or adjunct to public services. Of course, huge challenges like caring for an ageing population, tackling inequality or responding to climate change require concerted action at national, local and international level, but our strategies will also require an adaptive and creative citizenry with the skills and confidence to develop its own solutions.

The barriers to a creative society

Culture

In our culture the idea that everyone can and should live creatively is not yet accepted as an aspiration let alone a practical imperative. 43% of the workforce, thirteen million people in the UK report that they are not using their skills at work. In assessing the value of education and employment we still give a relatively low priority to autonomy, engagement and motivation.

A concrete symbol of limited commitment toward the ideal of creative lives for all is the persistence of educational privilege and inter-generational inequality (‘the past devouring the future’ in Thomas Piketty’s memorable phrase). The point is not inequality per se, but that the concentration of wealth and opportunity means key resources that foster creative aspirations and choices are not distributed in the way most likely to maximise the benefits to society as a whole. If we judge social progress by the scale of human creativity extreme inequality is deeply inefficient.

Not only is capital concentrated in certain strata of the population, it is concentrated in assets – like London house values – that do little to expand people’s creative possibilities. Access to relatively small amounts of capital can have a much greater impact on people’s sense of efficacy and opportunity than increases in income, yet a quarter of our adult population effectively have no capital. Some of the first casualties of austerity were initiatives – the child trust fund and the savings gateway – explicitly designed to address this deficit.

Institutions

The idea that one class is simply by its nature bound to rule another is seen as reactionary and even offensive but the assumption that only a certain strata of people, of learners, of workers, of places can be expected to be creative endures. So long and so deep has that assumption held sway it is deeply inscribed into our society’s institutions.

In the workplace, we assume that only a certain number of roles within the institution can be creative and that an essential role of management systems is to sort posts and people into a pyramidal structure with the most creative jobs at or near the top. Institutions often allocate each individual a role and separate this from the other multiple roles they occupy. We talk about the different interests of teachers, health workers and police officers on the one hand and parents, patients and citizens on the other, but most teachers are parents, all of us will need care at some time and we are all citizens. And institutions too often lose sight of substantive and ethical goals instead prioritising organisational self-interest or – in the public sector – risk avoidance. As John Kay argues, when companies replace the goal of producing great products with maximising share value they easily lose their way. When the only way to cope at work is to leave your identity, values and human sympathies at home in the morning it is not surprising that many people feel demoralised and jaded.

Most large organisations are trying to grapple with these institutional habits and their impact on their capacity to recruit, retain and motivate creative employees. Frederick Laloux cites Morning Star, the world’s largest tomato processing company, as an example of how these barriers can be overcome even in a capital-intensive business working to exacting standards in a traditional industry. Up to 2,400 employees each year run the company entirely on self-managing principles, according to which any ‘colleague’ can make creative decisions, and rather than operating within a hierarchical pyramid colleagues agree to honour commitments to each other. The best schools aren’t just good at getting children through exams, they are intelligent communities.

The role of the state

As a goal, democratic creativity leads to a profound reconsideration of the role and working methods of the state. In some areas the state would do more than at present, in others less.

Greater activism is needed in shaping the market and its outcomes. The creative state would ensure open markets with low barriers of entry and diverse forms of ownership: encourage and enforce permissive intellectual property regimes, demand that utilities and essential services – including the global internet giants – are run to with the public interest at heart, invest in tomorrow’s infrastructure (including new institutions which foster and grow innovation). As Eric Beinhocker and Nick Hanauer have recently argued, the greatest achievements of capitalism lie less in economic growth or profit but in helping find solutions to problems that matter to us. The answer is not reams of flawed regulation (which tends to become outdated as soon as it is implemented) but a new partnership between modern Government and enlightened business based on a shared commitment to a creative economy.

But as well as being more active in markets, the governors of the state – particularly the central state – need to be aware that its scale, complexity and accountability often make it badly suited to human scale interventions. Today’s citizens, aspiring to greater self-determination, want a government that enables them to feel self-reliant not one which creates and reinforces dependency. The creative society would seek to devolve power to the lowest effective level not just because the centre is too distant but because we would encourage different places to do things in substantively different ways, not just experiments in service delivery but experiments in place shaping, indeed experiments in living.

More profoundly the values and analysis behind the Power to Create encourages a questioning of the very idea of traditional policy making. A new policy-making process that fostered mass creativity would see leaders articulating a clear vision as teachers and convenors, not as people who make decisions on our behalf. When it comes to social policy, politicians and managers need to replace the blunt tools of policy making with those of design, in which continuous experimentation, learning by failing, co-producing with consumers and users is the norm.

Conclusion

In the face of the economic stagnation and crises of the 1970s a powerful neo-liberal critique seemed to win the argument that state intervention and the pursuit of social justice and expanding public provision were incompatible with economic dynamism. In response, in the nineties, modernisers like Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Gerhardt Schroeder developed the argument the goals of social justice were compatible with, indeed complementary to, a successful market economy and that, in turn, a dynamic economy enabled investment in measures to promote justice. Although intellectually more subtle, in practice this approach encouraged a view that as long as the economy was delivering growth the method by which it did so and consequences of that method were largely irrelevant. Thus the rise of speculative finance and the growth of market generated inequality were largely ignored as long as the tax receipts kept rolling in.

Following the 2008 credit crunch there was strong feeling that the nature of the economy itself required re-examining. The power of financial capitalism and the scale of extreme inequality were seen although critical problems although not ones with ready solutions. The big question is whether it is possible to envisage an inclusive, sustainable, economy which contributes to progressive values not just through generating taxable surpluses but through its very mode of operation. Partly spurred by austerity there is also a recognition that social programmes cannot succeed unless in they too – built in to their operating system – enable citizens to grow their individual and collective resilience and problem solving capacity. Furthermore our traditional ways of thinking about politics, policy and social change are proving increasingly inadequate in the face of an ever faster moving and more complex world.

The ‘Power to Create’ moves beyond an instrumental view of the economy, a paternalistic view of social policy and a mechanical model of policy. The radical reform of our economic, social and political institutions must be premised on the historical possibility, and the ethical imperative, of creative lives for all.

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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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