We had an excellent seminar this morning exploring the idea of ‘community retail’ with a range of experts and also colleagues from ASDA. The supermarket chain tells a powerful story about its intention to make stores community hubs, a story given weight by the employment of part time community life champions in every store and its commitment to open up its property to free community use. ASDA HQ had expected the free space offer to lead to about 7,000 community uses over the first few months. In fact, and perhaps reflecting the closure of many publicly funded facilities, over 21,000 community groups – from bee keepers to the victims of domestic violence -have availed themselves of free spaces.
Also, to ASDA’s credit is their willingness to work with the RSA to undertake a robust evaluation of their work and to identify the challenges involved in taking their approach to the point of redefining the relationship between supermarkets and communities.
In the discussion this morning there was praise for ASDA – including from Civil Society Minister Nick Hurd (who has kindly agreed to be on the advisory group for the project) – but also the Minister and several others weren’t afraid to ask tough questions about the impact of supermarkets on local traders and the distinctiveness of town centres.
ASDA don’t operate neighbourhood supermarkets but the conversation put me in mind of a point I have meaning to make for some time.
In my neighbourhood in Clapham the long running attempt to stop Sainsbury from locating a store in the local shopping parade was recently defeated. Predictably, the new shop is having a demonstrable effect on the competing local businesses including a newsagent, an off licence and a corner shop grocer. The last of these is making a small but unconvincing attempt to diversify by expanding its range of flowers and plants. Judging by their quality and cost, I suspect it will not succeed.
There is no need for local supermarkets to kill off other business. Indeed, the latest data suggests quite a lot of the local trade is redirected from larger supermarkets as people plump for just in time shopping and avoid expensive car use. But for those shops competing directly on basic groceries, the prospects after Tesco or Sainsbury have landed are bleak. Moreover just a couple of empty shop fronts can have a cooling effect on other businesses.
Yet – and this is my point – Sainsbury and Tesco (and other chains that do local supermarkets) must by now have a very good idea of which local businesses suffer, and which thrive, after the nationals have landed. So, why don’t the stores soften the blow and also potentially reduce local opposition by offering a consultancy and investment service to local businesses? In the case of the failing grocer near me, Sainsbury could, as soon as they got planning permission, advises the owner that while no grocer can compete on the basics, they could grow their business by attracting new footfall to a more specialist offer such as a florist, bakery, cake shop or butcher.
I am not suggesting that all grocers would want to adapt or have the capacity to do so, but the national chain could make a very significant offer comprising:
- Advice and training
- An interest free loan or investment
- Some joint local marketing
- A promise not to expand its own local offering in the chosen area of specialism
With all this, surely. from what might have appeared a threat, many new opportunities for retailers and offers for shoppers might emerge?
It is possible that something like this exists already but I have never heard of it and there is no sign of it in my localities. Indeed, I suspect that apart from simple lack of concern and imagination, the stumbling block might be that the nationals don’t want even implicitly to admit that their arrival has a terminal impact on directly competing outlets.
So, tell me, is this a crazy idea? If not, I might just drop Tesco and Sainsbury a line.
Local authorities are forever saying they want more powers and more freedom. They often turn out to be less good at explaining what exciting things they would like to do but which they are unable to pursue at present. In a similar vein, a reason for lack of enthusiasm for Mayors is the absence of a story about the kind of transformational change that only someone with the personal mandate of a Mayor would be able to achieve.
Consider these points:
- Places have different assets and needs and therefore require different policies to thrive
- People are attracted to, and excited by, places which feel like they have a distinctive identity (unless the distinction is obviously negative)
- Diverse practices are good for systems as they foster learning and innovation and also provide signals which direct people with particular strengths and enthusiasms to the right destination
- In many ways, despite social progress, current ways of living are dysfunctional both in terms of social good and individual life satisfaction.
Then add some context
- Public sector austerity
- Continued support for devolving more power from the national centre
- In most areas outside the South East little faith that a rising national economic tide, if and when it comes, will be enough to turn their places around.
Put these together and the case grows for what might be called ‘experiments in living’. The idea is that local leaders float inspired ideas for how their place might choose to be very different from other places, not just in the policies they pursue, but the goals they set.
Two small examples are the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma who decided his city would lead American in losing weight and Transition Town Totnes, which is exploring alternative economic models with widespread community engagement and commitment. In both cases the model of change relies on a high level of public commitment to the goal and its delivery; there is no question of politicians being able to do it on their own.
Writing in the week of local elections I am aware that every Party claims to have a local vision but generally when these are big they are vague and when they are specific, they are small (all three major Party leaders’ speeches at their conference this year will be characterised by this dispiriting big/vague concrete/small dichotomy).
Instead we need local leaders to start to challenge their communities with big, concrete, long term aims. Here is the kind of thing that might cut the mustard:
- This place aims over the next ten years to move to a standard 32 hour week along with a commitment to genuinely full employment.
- This place aims to reduce residential care to a bare minimum and to make caring for our vulnerable neighbours something to which all residents commit and in which all residents play a role.
- This place aims to make art and creativity a specialism for all our public services and the core of our local economy.
- This place will abolish child poverty.
Just imagine how much more interesting and creative England would be if every major town and city had set itself a significant and ambitious goal of this kind.
Actually, I don’t think these are the most exciting of ideas so I challenge my reader to come up with her own.
This is non-expert post on a topic about which many people have very deep knowledge and very strong opinions. So, please, feel free to tell me why I’ve got it wrong.
Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt may feel that the tough questioning he got yesterday on corporate tax was a price worth paying for promoting his company and book. But the news headlines focussed on tax, confirming Google’s reputation is now a great deal more mixed than a few years ago, when politicians of all varieties were queuing up to bask in its glow.
I wrote some time ago about the corporate tax issue and can only wish George Osborne luck as he seeks to agree an international approach to making multinational companies pay their fair share, something which will, one suspects, be made harder by the Coalition’s general antipathy to international co-operation in areas of tax and regulatory policy.
But tax is the least of my three concerns. The second is the potential for Google free riding, especially on non-profits. I recently saw the deeply impressive Salman Kahn, founder of the amazing Khan Academy, talk at the LSE. The Academy is currently running at six million students watching lectures every month and this is certain to rise rapidly in the years to come. Now, I have no idea what the information gleaned from these six million users is worth to Google in terms of revenue gained from advertising text books, on-line courses and other education related goods. Nevertheless, and notwithstanding Google’s good works such as its free ad words for non-profits, there is surely something problematic about a massive corporation making money from content generated entirely for charitable purposes. By the way, the same thing applies to the information gleaned from the ninety million on-line views of RSA Animate. Surely it is not beyond the wit of Google’s creative team to find a way of returning to non-profits the money which their content has made for Google and their commercial partners.
Third, Google is effectively a monopoly. We are so used to the idea that the internet opens up possibilities and disperses power we can fail to see another characteristic – the way single platforms tend to dominate core markets: Facebook and Twitter for social media, Amazon for retail, YouTube for free content, eBay for peer to peer sales, even Wikipedia for reference. Having had a tiny dip to 89%, Google is once again providing the engine for more than nine in ten on-line searches in the UK. The rise of the monopoly platform is partly due to network effects (platforms have more utility the more people use them) but also the use of big data to create algorithms which enable big players to continuously refine their product and maintain or expand the distance between them and any new entrant.
All these organisations will say that their market domination is deserved and that they use their power responsibly to the benefit of mankind (an argument I am willing to accept from Jimmy Wales), but these have always been the defences of monopoly and they don’t change the well attested theory that sooner or later monopolies lead to an abuse of position and dysfunctional outcomes.
Which brings me back to Eric Schmidt – his defence yesterday had two parts: the first was ‘everyone else does it’, which is basically an abdication of ethical responsibility; the second was, ‘we shouldn’t pay tax because we provide a service which helps the economy’. On this basis car manufacturers shouldn’t pay tax because people use their cars to drive to their jobs, nor should Greggs the baker because people need pasties and sausage rolls to give them energy to work and so on. Who in this world of collective irresponsibility pays for the social provision (education, infrastructure, policing, etc) which is integral to the reasonably peaceful social context in which companies can operate and prosper?
We have created an implicit pact with Google. Because we find its services so useful we accept not only that a massive global corporation knows more about us than we know about ourselves (imagine for a moment how you would react if a stranger came up to you in the street and said ‘I know more about you, what you like, what you do and what you are likely to do next than you know yourself’), but that it can use that information to gently manipulate us for its own enrichment. This is probably more power than the human race has ever given to any private organisation.
If this relationship is to endure and develop to our mutual benefit and if Google is to survive further challenges to its reputation, then the corporation needs to be seen to be taking its responsibilities incredibly seriously. The intellectually threadbare arguments mustered yesterday by Mr Schmidt do not augur well.
In my annual lecture last year I argued that a decline in the performance and legitimacy of institutions along side a weakening of social solidarity had led to individualism being the dominant way in which we think about and pursue change. The problem is not so much individualism per se (like hierarchical authority and social solidarity, it has its weaknesses and strengths as a mode of operation) but that it is required to do too much work in terms of resolving hard problems. For example, as I have also argued, the political establishment continuously and erroneously maintains that the individualistic idea of social mobility is the most appropriate and effective way of addressing social injustice.
The dominance of individualism (which is accompanied by a muted but powerful social fatalism) influences the way we see the world. It becomes hard to know whether individualistic solutions are best or we have simply become more receptive to those solutions.
A few weeks ago David Halpern, head of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team spoke at an RSA seminar on social networks and values. He said he had gone into his job being interested both in ‘nudge’ based interventions which target individual behaviour – things like asking people to sign a commitment to look for work when they register with a job centre – and asset-based interventions which focussed on understanding and mobilising communities. However, as went on to say, the former had both been easier to measure – using the preferred methodology of randomised control trials – and more productive in terms of generating proven interventions.
I was reminded of David’s comments when listening yesterday to Evgeny Morozov delivering an RSA lecture about his new book ‘To save everything, click here’. For Morozov the capability offered by big data, used in combination with insights drawn from behavioural economics, social psychology and neuroscience, to offer individualistic solutions to problems ranging from obesity to criminality brings with it two major dangers.
The first concerns privacy and intrusion, do we really want Google to be using our smart phones and embedded sensors in day to day objects to learn a huge amount about our behaviour, including our various cognitive and behavioural quirks. By the way, I find it odd that while we would object strongly if a stranger came up to us and told they knew more about us than we know ourselves, most people seem relaxed about a private corporation having such an advantage.
Morozov’s second objection chimes with Halpern’s experience. He argues that the ability to analyse individual behaviour in granular detail and the enthusiasm of the tech community for behaviour-changing interventions based on incentives and ‘gamification‘ leads policy makers to view all social problems as problems of individual modification not social change.
So the capacity of technology, the insights of behavioural science and the weakness of alternative world views interact to drive an ever more individualistic paradigm.
Another example is the tendency to blame the poor for being poor. The myth - peddled by politicians who should and do know better – that a high proportion of the millions who are out of work are inter-generationally long term unemployed and that by implication their problems are ones of character (maybe even genetics?) is not only objectionable but hampers sensible policy making.
On refection, we know that social problem are not all about the decisions and capabilities of individuals and we remain responsive to hierarchical and solidaristic analysis and solutions. Indeed there may be a connection here to the rise of so-called populist parties. As conventional leaders fail to reform institutions and provide new forms of authority, and as policy makers lose faith in social remedies, nationalist and extremist parties seem to offer the only route for our desire for visionary leadership and shared identity.
‘It’s not about you, it’s about us’ may sound like a terrible managerial cliche but it seem to be something we are finding it ever harder to believe about social problems. To tap the full scope for social power and to achieve progressives ends, means not only focussing on the future we might want but on the means we need to get there.
The future health of our society will be significantly influenced by whether ordinary citizens demonstrate greater altruism through volunteering and philanthropy. We need such kindness to increase the resources available to meet social need but also because research suggests that a society that collectively gives more back is likely to be more cohesive and contented. The last Labour Government took various initiatives to boost giving time and money and such signs of social responsibility are central to what the Coalition Government used to refer to as the Big Society. But two recent reports show just how far we have still to go to create a culture of altruism.
There are two key headlines from a fascinating research report on giving produced by New Philanthropy Capital:
- Even among those who regularly donate money only a minority think there should be an expectation that everyone who has the means should give.
- A major impediment to giving is a lack of rigor and communication from charities on the impact of their work and thus the impact of giving.
(If I have read it correctly, the report also confirms that proportionately the rich give much less of their income than the less well-off. This fact is supressed in favour of the much less illuminating one that the rich give more in absolute terms. Presumably the authors didn’t particularly want the headline to be ‘NPC bomb shell: UK rich as tight as camel’s arse in a sandstorm’).
As I have argued in a series of posts on the care crisis in Britain, expanding society’s voluntary contribution is vital to meeting future needs as this is the only source of care which could be grown without significant drawbacks. Last week saw a substantial and well researched report from The Kings Fund on volunteering in health and social care. I say ‘well researched’ but even after all the fine words from various Governments it still turns out that getting a handle on the scale of volunteering is like trying to locate a black cat in a coal hole. Based on simple extrapolation from the last National Citizenship Survey (now replaced by a much less robust set of measures), the authors estimate that three million people regularly volunteer in the health and social care domain, which is roughly equivalent to the work force and about two thirds as many people as provide informal care to family members.
The three key points from Kings Fund document are:
- Overall, and particularly in those institutions which take it seriously, volunteering can make a significant impact on the quality and effectiveness of care, indeed in some areas volunteers add something which is unlikely to be available from paid professionals.
- Yet, in most policies, sectors and institutions there continues to be a failure to develop a strategic approach to volunteering.
- This lack of grip is particularly problematic now as the combination of health reform and the public sector spending squeeze – while making volunteering more important and possibly attractive – also poses major threats to volunteer motivation (for example, volunteers do not want to feel they are being used to fill gaps created by cuts and they are ambivalent about volunteering in the private sector). Government ministers may bang on about volunteering (perhaps in the hope of a nice ‘phone call from Downing Street) but there is little evidence of a concern for it informing their core reform agenda.
While the report’s recommendations are somewhat predictable and technocratic (more strategy, more data, more co-ordination), my eye was caught by this short section hidden away in the middle of the paper:
The complexity of the debate about role substitution is heightened further by the fact that in some areas of care, there is a case for questioning whether professionally led services always deliver the best outcomes for service users and their communities. For example, there is increasing evidence on the effectiveness of peer support in mental health, long-term conditions such as diabetes and for promoting healthy behaviours. Some of our research participants argued that what is needed is a process of radical de-professionalisation, with a central role for volunteers…Changing the composition of the health and social care workforce in this way would be a long-term undertaking and would at times be a source of contention.
The last clause is almost certainly an under-statement, but the question hovers: can volunteering ever fulfil its potential to bring a step change to the ethos and quality of care as long as it is not only marginalised but also seen – almost by definition – as having a subordinate role and status in comparison to the contribution of paid professionals?
Greater altruism is vital and would help build better lives in a better society. But to achieve the necessary step change means profound changes in social norms (starting with the rich), a transformation in the effectiveness and candour of the third sector, and a radical departure from the bureaucratic/professional/commercial culture of our public services.
Such a manifesto poses challenges to all ideological starting points which is probably why the debate sponsored by ministers managers and third sector leaders generally stays in the safe territory of one-off initiatives and warm words.
PS The RSA is encouraging philanthropy among our own Fellows (although you don’t need to be a Fellow to give). We are acting on the advice that donors want to know where there money is going and for what purpose. If you want to know more about our student enrichment fund you can find out here.