Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA, Uncategorized
The RSA has a new way of thinking about the world and the impact we want to achieve. We call it the Power to Create. It was the subject of my annual lecture, of this RSA Short and of many blogs by my colleagues, for example this excellent recent post by Adam Lent (which prompted me to contribute to his crowd funding campaign). As we had hoped, when people approach a set of ideas positively but with different perspectives those ideas can develop in many interesting ways.
Over the last couple of days, speaking to various people now back from Manchester, I have questioned the tone and content of Labour’s conference, particularly the assumption that most people are victims who can only be saved by the benign power of the central state. In defending the conference and critiquing the Power to Create my Labour friends’ key argument can be summed up as; ‘that’s all very well, but what does it mean to a constituent with a badly paid insecure job or to an exhausted carer relying on ever more meager state support?’
Their issue is not with the idea that everyone can and should live creative lives but with the gap between this idea and the practical reality faced by millions of hard pressed people. How can Government help people live creatively when it is hard enough helping people survive? This is a serious point but I think it can be addressed.
As I have argued, the Power to Create takes a somewhat wary view of central Government interventions: social policy needs to be less about trying to change people or achieve particular outcomes for them and more about enabling more people to be able to take control of their lives. Civic engagement and mobilisation, often starting from the ground up tend to be more powerful tools for enduring change than merely pulling policy levers. Power should be decentralised to the lowest practical level. The experimental, iterative, user-centred approach of designers is more suited than traditional policy making to solving problems in today’s ever faster changing, ever more complex world.
To take three examples from the Miliband speech; more new homes, a higher minimum wage and more apprentices all sound like good things, but experience tells us the pursuit of the specific goals of 200,000 more houses, £8 an hour and equivalence with graduates may also have unwanted side effects. Might it be better to aim for greater parity between housing tenures, to focus on choice and quality in young people’s education rather than a quantitative target (other similar educational targets have had at best a mixed record of success), and to work with business and localities to develop a more flexible minimum wage reflecting industrial and regional differences?
None of this means we don’t need national policy, nor that it doesn’t matter what that policy is. For example, on the deficit I tend to agree with Labour that the Treasury should set a slightly less demanding target (excluding capital investment from the deficit measure), partly because the NHS and social care are close to collapse (although here again it is not clear why the Labour leader found it necessary to specify exactly how many jobs and of what types are going to be centrally mandated for the extra funds).
The Power to Create recognises that we need some big change to facilitate a world of many smaller changes. As Adam argues, the ideal of Power to Create demands a comprehensive policy for wealth and assets, redistributing hoarded and often unproductive assets at the top and using the receipts to help the third of people who effectively have no savings and thus too little opportunity to change the direction of their life. Equally, we need elected Government to use its mandate to tackle concentrations of corporate power.
So the right type of policy, directed particularly to increasing civic capacity and individual autonomy in poorer communities is important to the Power to Create. But progress does not have to wait for a benign national policy environment. There are many practical things we could do tomorrow to enable people to have more control and more meaning in their lives.
At the RSA we are putting ever more focus on institutions as how they work can be a big barrier to, or enabler of, human creativity. Organisations that are dynamic, mission driven and where employees are encouraged to work together in teams with significant autonomy succeed through generating the Power to Create in their employees. Given that only one in five British managers have had management training it is perhaps not surprising that over third of workers say their talents are not being used at work or that national productivity is so low (in my experience the way people are treated within the higher echelons of political parties and Whitehall all too often exemplifies bad practice).
And when it comes to public services, what matters to people is not just what is provided but the way it is provided. The RSA promotes the principle of social productivity – that public service interventions should be judged by the degree to which they enable people better to contribute to meeting their own needs. Jocelyne Bourgon and her colleagues talk about civic effects such as growing capacity in communities being as important as more traditional public policy outputs. Even if there was no national policy change for five years a more collaborative, creative, open ethos in national and local government could still reap impressive results.
Which leads to a final response to the charge that the RSA’s thinking is too abstract and idealistic. As well as suggesting a set of broad goals to pursue, the Power to Create also helps describes a set of principles to apply today. It means a commitment to live creatively and to see that potential in every other person, living up to our capabilities and trusting in the capabilities of others. Perhaps the most underwhelming aspect of Ed Miliband’s speech was that at no stage did he seem to feel he could trust his audience – in the conference hall or in the country – to deal with anything that was intellectually, politically or personally challenging.
Which takes me back to the beginning. When I made all these arguments to my Labour friend she replied; ‘but people don’t want challenge, they want hope’. To which my answer is this; it is not hope that leads to action but action that leads to hope. The party political model of change tells us to rest our hopes on the right people getting into office, the Power to Create is a call to action starting right now.
Although as the designated member of the Downing Street inner circle I once held what was arguably the most senior political strategy position in the UK – I suspect I’m not actually very good at it. On the one hand, I tend to be too rational, focussed on the head and not enough on the emotions. On the other, I am too idealistic, tending to confuse what I wish would engage the public with what actually does.
A couple of weekends ago, for example, a worried advisor to the Better Together campaign team asked me (in a personal capacity, of course) what I would do in their shoes. My advice was to abandon loud aggressive campaigning entirely and go unplugged: Stop making threats and holding rallies and instead get everyone to start having conversations with ordinary people. Let voters see Alistair Darling or David Cameron having an hour long conversation with a group of Glaswegian mothers in a cafe. This will make your campaign more human and humble but also imply your confidence that if only people would really talk through the issues they would share your conclusions. As we know, the ‘no’ campaign did precisely the opposite – cranking up the promises, the threats and the volume – and won a surprisingly resounding victory.
So in describing the kind of speeches I would like to hear over the next three weeks from the Party leaders I recognise that what I want is probably not how they should maximise their impact. What I want is a world view.
In a few days I am speaking to the Board of a charity. Reading their documentation they have a vision, they have a list of values and they have an approach. This is what we expect to hear from the leaders’ speeches; some kind of rhetorical vision of a resurgent Britain of happy successful people, a statement of their and their party’s political values (although these will almost certainly be hard to distinguish from one leader to another) and then a list of policies which are supposed both to symbolise those values and win votes.
The difference between this and a world view is subtle but important. A world view might start with a values statement – the ideal which inspires us – but at its core is an analysis of the future: given long term trends in society what possibilities could exist in terms of the attainment of our ideals? The world view thus connects emotion and intellect by connecting timeless values to the concrete possibilities of the future.
But the future will not simply happen, it will have to be created. The next stage of the world view is to explore the barriers to the inspiring possibilities just described. Having held out a tantalising account of possibility the audience is warned that this future could be denied. This then leads to the final element of world view – the promise and the call to action; what is it we must do to remove these barriers and seize the opportunities the future could hold?
Thus the world view conforms to the classic three part narrative structure that we watch over and again in TV drama and films – the set up (our values and the future context), the crisis (the barriers that stand in the way) and the resolution (our plan).
This is the structure for the RSA’s set of ideas: ‘The Power to Create’ which I outlined in my annual lecture and which will be available in a highly condensed, animated form tomorrow. The speech was twenty five minutes long but it turns out that less than four minutes is perfectly adequate to get across the core narrative. And this may be the reason why we won’t hear world views from conference platforms.
The narrative structure of the world view means that it is relatively easy to scale but quite hard to dismantle. But the primary purpose of a conference speech is to be the source for extracts for the mass media (the speeches are judged more than anything else on what is repeated on the evening’s news bulletins). A world view is like a story or a play – it is held together (or not) by its essential structure whatever its length. A conference speech is more like the performance of a football team – we will judge it by its highlights (and low points) even though – as anyone who has seen a match they have attended on Match of the Day can attest – these extracts may not actually reflect the whole performance.
Strong narrative structures are more meaningful, memorable and inspiring than slogans, assertions and detached pieces of rhetoric. If our leaders offered us such a narrative we would have something to engage with and something to argue about. Sadly, the combination of our unwillingness to invest the time in listening, the media’s unwillingness to engage us in depth and the politicians’ unwillingness to take risks means we will over the next three weeks hear some jokes, some attacks, and lots and lots of promises but probably nothing that amounts to a world view.
(Postscript after Ed Miliband’s speech: I didn’t watch, but the transcript reads more like a pop medly than a unified narrative. It has tonally distinct sections cut across with overlapping themes (life is tough, the Coaliton is to blame, togetherness is the answer and Labour has a plan). Some of the policy areas are welcome to RSA ears – on the self employed, devolving power and vocational education for example and, from everything I hear, the other Parties will have little choice but to follow Labour in promising more for the NHS. Having said which, however well intentioned, some of the pledges smacked of the top down over engineering that is so often counter productive in policy making.
There was one paragraph that set my pulse racing. Here it is:
‘the ethic of the 20th century was hierarchy, order, planning and control, rewarding the talents of just a few, then the ethic of the 21st century is co-operation, everybody playing their part, sharing the rewards and using the talents of all. Together. It’s time we ran the country like we know it can be run’
Sadly, this big idea wasn’t developed leaving the togetherness theme to feel merely rhetorical, albeit clearly heartfelt.
Many years ago a phrase used by a friend stuck in my mind: Interrupting my attempt to criticise some aspect of his beliefs, he asked why we should waste time on ‘an already conversation’. Ever since, from time to time, I have spotted this habit of diminishing our lives by replaying in our thoughts, statements and interactions conversations we have already had with outcomes we already know.
Two recent examples concern my radio series Agree to Differ – which ended on Wednesady - while a third is currently headline news.
It has been encouraging to receive constructive feedback on the programme, but until earlier this week nobody had told me about the dismissive review by that doyen of radio critics, Gillian Reynolds of the Daily Telegraph. Here is what she said:
We say we long for reasoned exchange, cases set out clearly so we can make up our own minds. Yet when we get such a programme, as with Radio 4’s new series Agree to Differ (Radio 4, Wednesday, repeated Saturday) it just seems dull….. This journey didn’t go far. Snore score: four.
How terribly unfair! I have about thirty tweets, emails, blog comments from people who found the programme interesting, not to mention the kind things my friend and family said. As usual critics don’t care what the audience think, they are too busy grinding their various axes.
It was as this narrative was feverishly gripping me that a small very annoying voice said ‘listen to yourself; just like everyone who has a bad review’. I tried to shut it out but the voice went on to suggest that perhaps the programme was of interest only to a particular section of motivated listeners (including people loyal to me). Then – worst thought of all – wasn’t it true there had been some longueurs in the first episode from which we tried to learn lessons for the others?
Such moments of insight are not common for me. Generally I conform to the position outlined by Jeff Goldblum’s character in conversation with Tom Berenger’s character in the film The Big Chill:
Goldblum: I don’t know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalisations. They’re more important than sex.
Berenger: Ah, come on. Nothing’s more important than sex.
Goldblum: Oh yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalisation?
The good thing about interrupting an already conversation with myself was that I didn’t spurt out my indignation to friends only to see that awful moment when people’s mouths are saying ‘oh yes, I so agree’ while their eyes are saying ‘when will this poor deluded fool finally shut up’.
Anyway, we did learn from the first episode and I am confident that few people who listen to the final programme on ‘who should own Jerusalem’ will find it dull. Indeed you will hear me trying – with occasional success - to persuade my guests to abandon their already conversation.
In inviting a pro-Israeli rabbi and a Palestinian performance poet to agree what they disagree about, I try to make the conversation move somewhere new and interesting. But despite my entreaties the protagonists keep not only asserting the rightness of their own cause but seeking to rubbish the position of their opponent.
Then on Wednesday I listened to the summary on the Today programme of yesterday’s Parliamentary debate about the Rotherham child sexual exploitation scandal. Yvette Copper used it as an opportunity to expose the failings of the system of Police and Crime Commissioners while Theresa May used it as an opportunity to attack the culture and performance of the local Labour Party.
Once again the Commons proves itself the academy of already conversations.
I wonder does anyone in Labour’s senior ranks hear a little voice in their heads. This might interrupts their narrative directing blame onto local individuals and the Government to say this:
‘What happened in Rotherham was extreme but in essence the combination of local authority incompetence, political cowardice and self-interest is typical of what has happened for decades in so many Labour rotten boroughs and is still happening in some. We must use this as an opportunity to examine ourselves as a Party and commit to destroying once and for all the culture that breeds such inhumanity and irresponsibility’.
This week, for the RSA Journal, I had the privilege of interviewing Theodore Zeldin, philosopher, historian and author, amongst many other works, of a wonderful book ‘Conversation – How Talk can Change our Lives’. He makes the point that for conversations to be powerful for us and for the world we inhabit we must enter them with the hope and expectation that we will emerge with our view of the world in some way altered: In other words the reverse of the intent of an already conversation.
The RSA’s new idea ‘The Power to Create’ argues that the potential now exists (but is not yet fulfilled) for every citizen to be the author of their own lives. A responsibility we have in pursuing the creative life is to resist the lure of already conversations with ourselves, with our friends and, perhaps most of all, with our competitors and opponents.
This isn’t easy. We could do with some high profile role models to show us the way: Which is a subtle but important reason why the general quality of our political and media discourse continues to impoverish our lives.
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
I can’t hide my nervousness: broadcast for the first time tonight is a radio programme I have been trying to develop for several years (indeed I posted about it nearly four years ago!). Of course, I hope it sounds good and is reasonably entertaining but just as important that it helps to get across the idea that originally inspired me.
The programme is called Agree to Differ and the first edition – on Radio 4 at 8.00 pm – is on the topic of fracking. The format involves me chairing a discussion between two people who hold strongly opposing views. Our job, working together as much as the protagonists are willing, is to try to agree what their disagreement is about. We divide the issue into three segments and see whether at the end of each we can find a form of words that the guests will accept adequately summarises the basis of their differences.
Recording the programmes it has been fascinating to see how the debate has unfolded. Tonight, as I had envisaged, the two rivals - George Monbiot against fracking and James Woudhuysen in favour – do indeed get under the surface of the issue, relegating some of the controversies that have received the most publicity and focussing on others which they both view as more significant.
Other programmes, however, have gone in a different direction. In one, the format led two high profile people who have been on opposite sides of a highly charged, sometimes even violently contested, issue ending up agreeing on almost everything. While in a third, despite me feeling there was quite a bit on which the protagonists might agree to differ, they found it very hard to get past their accumulated and mutual suspicion.
The inspiration for the programme was my frustration at the tendentious nature of most political and policy debates as they are reported or take place in the broadcast media. Put simply these are versions of ‘I believe in good sense and the public interest while my opponent is blinkered and self interested’ to which comes the reply ‘no, I believe in good sense and the public interest while it is my opponent who is blinkered and self interested’. The consequence is that very often the issue in question becomes more, not less, opaque to the average viewer or listener. ‘Imagine’ I thought ‘if we applied the kind of techniques used in mediation to shed much less heat and much more light?’ Vital to that method is requiring that the protagonists resist caricaturing each other’s position – something which immediately inflames debate – and focus instead on clarifying their own stance.
It’s a pretty simple idea but, as I hoped, it does cast new light on well-rehearsed arguments. From recording just three programmes I formed two conclusions.
The first is that we often fail to pay enough attention to the underlying structure of a debate; is it, for example, one in which matters of detail stand for much more fundamental differences of values, or one in which relatively small differences in starting points have somehow ballooned into what feels like a much more polarised debate than it needs to be?
Second, my original hunch has been confirmed: there is whole industry out there comprising most of party politics, large swathes of the media, lobbying and campaigning which is basically a disorganised, self serving conspiracy to convince the public that just about every issue is the site of deep and profound differences of opinion. About three quarters of the ground of every debate comprises the arid territory of one side’s distorted portrayal of the other side’s views.
Imagine a world where the organised effort of politics and communication was to make things clearer and, where possible, more consensual. Not only would we waste a lot less time and probably make wiser decisions, but we could focus our arguments on stuff that is genuinely important and on which we really do profoundly disagree.
I am incredibly grateful to the folks at Radio 4 for commissioning the first short run (and to its brilliant producer Phil Pegum). The BBC won’t look kindly on me hustling for a second series but if you do feel like listening and tweeting your approval I would be very grateful. And if you don’t like it, well maybe we can agree why not.