Religion and politics – the great unifiers?

June 30, 2014 by · 7 Comments
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What can we do about divisive and damaging attitudes to the poor? Knowing more people from other classes would be a good start.

Today sees the publication of the first report of the Social Integration Commission, an inquiry which I chair in a personal capacity. The Commission was established by the charity The Challenge and is a response to the growing diversity of the UK in terms of ethnicity, income and age. Most of us think integration is broadly a good thing but we don’t know how integrated our society actually is.

The key findings of the first report focussed on a survey of the social interactions of over 4,000 people. Headlines included the fact that very diverse areas – like London – aren’t necessarily very integrated: Just because you live in a mixed neighbourhood doesn’t mean you have mixed social networks. Overall, people have about 40% fewer interactions with different ethnic groups than if their networks were chosen at random.

Also, it seems that life stage and the institutions we inhabit are important to integration. While 13-17 year olds are not very ethnically integrated, 18-34 year olds do much better. But the latter group are poor at inter-generational integration, perhaps reflecting the time they spend socialising and studying with a diverse group of other young people.

But for me the finding that most stood out concerned integration along lines of class and income. Overall, the integration scores look pretty good, we have only about 15% fewer interactions with other classes than if we chose friends at random. However things are much worse at the extremes. Social grades A and B – professional and higher managerial – have a third as many interactions with those who are unemployed as would be expected randomly.

Given that about 40% of jobs are found through word of mouth this disconnection between the employing class and the out of work could play a big part in social exclusion. But there is another consequence.

As Robert Walker argues passionately in this morning’s Guardian, attitudes to the poor in the UK seem to be getting ever more punitive. ‘Why’ he asks ‘do politicians continue to abuse the weakest members in our society?’, before answering his own question; ‘in a society characterised by gross inequalities, it allows the privileged to vote in accordance with their own self-interests, free of guilt’.

A comparative take is offered by Danish social scientist, Christian Larsen whose analysis demonstrates the mutually reinforcing relationship between national welfare regimes and attitudes to the poor. In essence the more punitive the regime the less the poor are seen as deserving. Whereas in countries like the USA and the UK the poor are often seen as a feckless underclass, in countries with more generous systems the disadvantaged are perceived as ordinary folk who have fallen on hard times. Hostility to immigrants may change this picture but Larsen’s finding does undermine the argument that making welfare more punitive will help to rebuild its legitimacy.

The Social Integration Commission will now move on to explore the consequences of integration and segregation before making recommendations for action by Government, civil society and individuals.

In talking about the Commission I have reflected on my own experience. When I was involved in youth football coaching I had many more friends who were from different ethnicities, classes and ages (the players were teenagers and their grandparents often came to watch). But since I stopped coaching and since I moved into the ever more hideously gentrified environs of Clapham Common my networks have become much more homogenous.

Reflecting on what I could do to have a social circle more like the mix of my city two surprising words sprang to mind: politics and religion. I am not a believer but going occasionally to the local Catholic church with my partner is like attending a grass roots United Nations. Also, while it’s long time since I was a local political activist I remember that Labour Party meetings too were a pretty good mix of local people. An irony indeed that we might rely on those great historical sources of sectarian conflict – ideology and God – to bring us together in the modern world.

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Careering into oblivion

May 28, 2014 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, Uncategorized 

How might the self-serving reminiscences of celebrities have helped kill an important public service for young people?

Last week I attended a dinner and discussion on the future of the careers service hosted by the Comino Foundation. To which the obvious question is ‘what future’? The service was already weakened when the Coalition came to office. By focussing the lion’s share of resources on disadvantaged young people, Labour’s Connexions service downgraded the idea of a universal careers provision. The Coalition government started out sounding positive about a lifetime careers service but, while the adult provision was to some extent enhanced, Michael Gove – who must have been fully aware of the likely consequences – made the decision to devolve careers advice to schools. This was a bad idea for two reasons. Most schools, obsessed as they are with exam results and OFSTED inspections, were bound to see careers as a low priority. Also schools can’t be expected to give objective advice when they have strong incentives to keep pupils on in their own sixth form.

So absolutely no one was surprised when last year’s OFSTED report on careers advice found that only one in four schools were fulfilling their duty to provide impartial, high quality careers advice. OFSTED is beefing up the inspection of careers and the greater use of pupil destination data may concentrate minds, but it is clear from the dismissive comments made recently by Michael Gove to the Education Select Committee, that the virtual demise of an independent professional careers service for young people is not leading to any shedding of tears at the DfE.

In essence the Secretary of State’s response to the Committee’s concerns was that, as the careers service had been rubbish before, it doesn’t really matter if it is abolished now. Apart from being a non-sequitur, the problem with this view is that the most authoritative analyses of the old council-funded careers service suggested it was a pretty good model.

How is it – apart from a series of unfortunate events – that a significant public service which seems broadly functional, and is surely even more important in a world of high youth unemployment and fast changing labour markets, simply disappears under the waves of political ignorance and indifference?

One reason lies in the difficulty of proving that careers advice works. You can of course measure pupil satisfaction but what policy makers really care about is whether careers advice leads to better decisions. But this is almost impossible to disentangle from the many other influences on young people’s decisions, not to mention wider changes in the economy and labour market. Also the impact of good careers advice may often be long term; youngsters may not follow the advice immediately but it could be important to subsequent choices.

But a less obvious reason lies in the musings of the famous. According to the Times diary last week Lynn Barber amused the audience at the Bloomsbury Institute by telling them that had she followed her careers advice she would have ended up a prison warden. I’m a huge fan of the writer and interviewer and I’m sure she meant no harm by what she said: The problem is the overall impact of throwaway comments such as this.

The people whose opinions are heard most loudly – the famous and powerful – are by definition unusually successful. Whilst good careers advisors would never discourage young people from being ambitious, it is their job to help young people understand the options they face if – as will be the experience of the vast majority – they don’t enjoy exceptional talent or good fortune. Therefore, it will almost always be the case that celebrities will have been given advice which will seem prosaic or ill-judged in view of their subsequent success. The most successful people also love to project a self-serving biography of overcoming adversity and discouragement to prove everyone wrong (how often do the rich and famous tell us they succeeded through a combination of privilege and luck?).

Therefore while we hear very little from the millions of young people who have had good advice which has helped them make wise choices, we are often regaled with the amusing failure of some poorly paid, corduroy jacket wearing, time serving careers advisor to see the obvious brilliance of future celebrity.

Thus – a vital service which might help address huge problems like youth unemployment, young people making poor educational choices and a mismatch between skills and labour market needs – withers away misunderstood and largely friendless.

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To pay or not to pay

May 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
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Strong and dynamic societies need a plurality of institutional forms to flourish. But that plurality is not best served by preserving those forms in aspic. They need to modernise while maintaining their most important distinguishing features.

Over the last few years I have been approached by head-hunters asking me to put my name forward to chair a charity. Some approaches haven’t interested me but a couple have, partly because of an enthusiasm for the charity, but also because I felt that there would be some synergies with my role at the RSA.  But further conversation about the options has stopped abruptly when I have asked whether the charity would reimburse the RSA for my time.

Other than for charities which have specific permissions, the process to reimburse trustees (or their employer) is bureaucratic and few charities are willing to consider it. Thus the invitation to chair the board would require either that I reduce my contracted hours at the RSA or that the RSA effectively subside another charity by paying me for the two or three days a month required at minimum to be an effective chair. As I have now been approached and have refused on several occasions, I have been reflecting on the pros and cons of trustee remuneration.

In a thoughtful and authoritative speech at the RSA last week Dan Corry, chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital, challenged the third sector to address its problem with low productivity.

As Dan said, governance is clearly an issue. Without the services of unpaid volunteer trustees (like those of the RSA Board) the third sector could not function. However, the combination of voluntarism and the cumbersome nature of much governance can undoubtedly be impediments to charities being as focussed and productive as they should be. One result is that innovation in philanthropic organisation is largely taking place through new forms which are either explicitly private sector (for profits with social purpose) or which are closer in their governance to the private sector than traditional third sector governance (social enterprises).

It is an important responsibility of the executives and boards of charities to take opportunities to modernise governance arrangements. This isn’t easy: governance reform not only risks distracting leaders from the core purposes of the organisation but can cause controversy and act as a catalyst for various groups opposed to the direction taken by the charity to organise a revolt.  Trustee compensation might be an important dimension of modernisation.

Eighteen months ago civil society minister Nick Hurd rejected a proposal arising from a review of charity governance by Lord Hodgson to make it easier for charities to pay trustees.  In doing so the minister was siding with two of the peak third sector organisations (NCVO and NAVCA) against a third (ACEVO).

The argument against remuneration has various elements: first, that there is no problem to be answered; charities can and do find good trustees willing to work hard for nothing. Second, it is argued that the public – on whom charities rely for legitimacy and income – would be opposed to trustee remuneration. Finally, there is concern that allowing some large charities to remunerate trustees would be the thin end of the wedge, leading to an expectation that all charities should pay and also to an escalation in payment of the kind we are all too used to in the private sector.

These are all legitimate arguments although the second and third could be substantially addressed by having strict limits on the scale and scope of remuneration. When it comes to the quality of trustees those advocating more scope for remuneration should be clear that wanting to expand the pool of available talent is not an implicit criticism of those currently performing the role. The RSA has a strong Board and a great (unremunerated) Chair in Vikki Heywood but that doesn’t stop me being an advocate of greater freedom to compensate trustees.  Let me explain why.

The potential risks of trustee compensation need to be stacked up against the consequences of not doing so. First, this does obviously reduces the pool of potential trustees and chairs of trustees and introduce a strong bias towards older, retired or semi-retired, members. Second, it means that any working trustee who takes on the role will feel considerable pressure to try to keep their trustee commitments to the minimum because of the uncompensated impacting on their day job. Third, it makes it less likely that senior executives in one charity could be trustees of another even though performing both roles might increase understanding and the sharing of good practice between executives and trustees in each organisation and across the sector as whole.  Fourth, the block on remuneration may be a factor leading to more business-like new charitable forms being preferred to ones which involve democratic forms of accountability

It is this last point that concerns me most. Membership voice and democratic accountability are important aspects of the charitable sector and its contribution to civil society. But unless we do all we can to make these forms modern and effective, they may wither away in favour of social businesses. Those who oppose reforms such as making it easier to compensate working trustees are in danger of protecting the purity of one model of governance at the expense of that whole model becoming marginalised.

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Devouring the future?

April 2, 2014 by · 4 Comments
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How should we carry the past into the future? This important question lies, often opaquely, behind personal, political and cultural dilemmas.  Without the past we have no identity, we are not human; but the past can also be an invading army colonising our future and mercilessly wiping out the people we might have chosen to become.

Writing back in the 1950s Alan Watts’s ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’ drew on eastern philosophical traditions and modern psychological insights to issue a rallying call for living in the present:

‘There are, then, two ways of understanding an experience. The first is to compare it with the memories of other experiences, and so to name and define it. This is to interpret it in accordance with the dead and the past. The second is to be aware of it as it is, as when in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future, let the present be all, and thus do not even stop to think, ‘I am happy’

Watts does not advocate forgetting or ignoring the past but that we should be mindful of the way in which, in the very act of meaning-making, we give the past dominion over the present and preclude the power and joy of unmediated experience.

While the feeling of transcendent ‘nowness’ may be rare to those of us who have not chosen the path of committed meditation we can more prosaically perhaps agree that in life’s journey the past should be a guide book of useful information, suggestions and stories rather than a rucksack of rocks.

Think also of heritage and place. There is a drive to build more new towns but whatever benefits starting from scratch might bestow our ambivalence about the concept reflects the sense that for a place to have identity it must have a past.

An RSA project is looking at the role of heritage in local social and economy strategy. It suggets civic leaders are aware of how the past provides identity and distinctiveness (dare I say ‘brand’) and in a nexus for civic engagement and social connection. Yet, too often, the heritage sector defines itself in terms of the protection of old stuff, forgetting that if heritage has no resonance beyond the historical it may survive but be inert.

The best way to protect the past is to think deeply and creatively about its contribution to the construction of a future sense of place. By choosing to be a site of contestation about identities and choices, heritage can secure its place as a social asset.

Then to politics: Thomas Piketty’s monumental work ‘Capital in the in the 21st century’ is rightly being seen on the left as one those rare debate-changing works. In it, the French economist argues that with the exception of the early and middle part of the twentieth century (when war, population growth and social democratic policies combined in a very particular way), earnings from assets have outstripped economic growth and thus earned income. Growing inequality between those who have assets, and are able not only to enjoy their fruits but grow them further, and those who do not is endemic to market economies. We mistook the exceptional cycle of the twentieth century as a trend but now we seem set back on the road to nineteenth century levels of profound inequality. Combine this with modest levels of long term growth and the prospects for those without assets are grim.

Piketty’s work raises many provocative questions and left of centre blogs are buzzing with them but one of the most important concerns time:

‘ …inequality expresses  a fundamental logical contradiction. The entrepreneur inevitably tends to become a rentier, more and more dominant over those who own nothing but their labour. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than output increases. The past devours the future’    

And so to David Cameron’s apparent commitment to make a major cut in inheritance tax a priority for a Government in the middle of a deep austerity programme. What is it that we want to pass onto future generations? Surely love, self-worth, some sense of the responsibility and honour of standing on the shoulders of past generations. There is no reason why part of this legacy should not be expressed materially.

That parents do all they can to help their children thrive, that adult children strive to provide dignity and care to older generations, and that at death we pass on – if we can – assets which might provide our loved ones with opportunities or some resilience to misfortune; these are parts of the familial world we should honour and protect. But should the opportunity to succeed become a passport to entrenched privilege, should something to fall back on become a feather bed for the failed or feckless? Most of all do we want the result of yesterday’s races to become an insurmountable handicap system for tomorrow’s?

How does the past live in the future? It turns out this question is everywhere. Perhaps we should think about it more deeply and more consistently.

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Pearson’s lesson in shared value

February 11, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 

A global corporation’s new strategy has broken down my wall of scepticism….

Big business can be a force for social good as well as a generator of economic value. Indeed, arguably, some of our big corporations take a more robust and consistent approach to issues like environmental sustainability and international human rights than many governments.  Jon Miller and Lucy Parker championed corporate good deeds in their recent book and talk ‘Everybody’s business’. As they report, the spur for a company’s serious focus on social value is often soul searching following some kind of reputational disaster.

Over the longer term, as Michael Porter and Mark Kramer and many others argue, the most powerful and resilient approach to corporate responsibility is to build it into the core business model (Porter and Kramer call this approach ’shared value’).

Before the credit crunch banks gave away hundreds of millions of pounds in sponsorship and charitable schemes, while at the same time enriching their senior employees by shortchanging both their customers and the global economy, thus providing  a classic example of tokenistic corporate responsibility.  Various people now working with banks as they seek to salvage their reputation tell me the financial sector still finds it almost impossible to accept there is no future in selling profitable products which are bad for people and society.

Any robust strategy has to recognise and candidly confront the inevitable tensions between profit maximisation and social impact. I recently gave a talk to an energy company whose mission statement asserted its top goal was giving customers a great service. In reality, of course, the company’s goal is to make a profit while – one hopes – giving customers the best service possible. To fail to recognise and face up to that tension creates a barrier to the kind of robust self-examination corporations should welcome and encourage.

This is one reason I was so impressed by the strategic turn taken by the global education corporate Pearson – an initiative led by my former Number Ten colleague Sir Michael Barber and his colleague Saad Rizvi. Pearson has committed to a big goal and to a thoroughgoing long term process of organisational change involved in delivering it. The goal is ‘efficacy’: by the end of the change process every Pearson product and service must have ‘a measurable impact on improving peoples’ lives through learning’.

Unlike the energy company with its vacuous mission, Pearson recognises explicitly the challenge of combining the ultimate aim of efficacy with providing a return to investors. The issue is not so much whether or nor to be self-interested. The strategy  is based on a calculation that long term it will be efficacy that matters most and this goal has to drive out short term pressures to design and sell stuff that makes a profit but doesn’t work for learners.

Pearson’s commitment is not simply a vague goal declared by company bosses. A very thorough project – laid out in the report – has been undertaken to develop an efficacy framework and then to roll this out to tens of thousands of staff in every division worldwide.

It is well worth reading Pearson’s own account of their journey, an account whose credibility is enhanced by a recognition that it is far from complete and an invitation to educationalists, the company’s partners and clients to comment on the goal and the process behind it.

There are many challenges ahead, not the least of which is the lack of strong evidence for the efficacy of almost all existing educational interventions, but I genuinely think that what Pearson is trying to do marks a new frontier in responsible corporate strategy. Unlike so much other well-meaning CSR, this is the risk-taking institutional innovation to which businesses should aspire.

I was saying as much to a friend last night who is a senior executive in a company that provides major services to Government and who is – in the face of his own company’s reputational challenges – recognising the need for new ways of doing things.

He was intrigued by the Pearson approach and while he didn’t rule out simply copying it he asked whether his own company might develop an alternative mission to efficacy. My suggestion was trust:-

‘How would it be’ I asked ‘if you committed not to provide a service or product unless you had strong evidence-based and publicly-declared reasons for believing that to do so would enhance trust in your company, the service and the agency paying for the service’?

‘It’s a great idea’ he said ‘but there’s one problem; if we were serious we would have to stop bidding for most Government contracts’.

BTW -in case you are wondering, Pearson is not currently funding the RSA.

 

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