Just so predictable

September 3, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Uncategorized 

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.

 

 

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Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change

August 24, 2014 by · 3 Comments
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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Time to agree to differ?

August 20, 2014 by · 21 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

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.

 

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A formula for volunteering?

August 14, 2014 by · 5 Comments
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Volunteering is a vital resource for society and an important source of satisfaction and meaning in many people’s lives. Perhaps it is a reflection of the nature of volunteering but the way we think about it as a system tends to be rather ad hoc and under-conceptualised. Yet the modes, norms and values of volunteering also make up a system which can both challenge and enhance the working of the market and the state providing a more pluralistic and humanistic way of thinking about the good life and the good society.

A few weeks ago the Local Government Association made the suggestion that people who volunteer to help run and provide community services like libraries and leisure centres should get a £100 rebate from their council tax. The proposal can be criticised from opposite points of view – either that rewards go against the very idea of volunteering or that the incentive is far too small to make a difference to motivation and volunteer recruitment.

A United Nations paper published in 2001, largely based on work by Justin Davies Smith, then Director of the Institute for Volunteering Research, explored different criteria used to define a volunteer. The first is indeed reward with views ranging from the purist that there must be no material incentive to the view that any reward is OK as long as it is below the market rate.

Next is the issue of free will. Some examples of volunteering have a compulsory feel, for example, school based systems in the US where pupils have to clock up a certain number of hours. We don’t count mandatory unpaid work activity undertaken by benefit claimants as volunteering even though much of it is classic volunteer activity such as serving in charity shops. This is also one of the reasons for controversy about the growth of unpaid internships where the rewards – such as they are – look like volunteer rations but the discipline expected of interns is more or less the same as paid employees.

A third criterion concerns the beneficiary. We don’t generally consider an activity as volunteering if the main beneficiary is family or close friends. This is a key issue in relation to caring. Despite the huge aggregate savings to the public purse which result from it, unpaid familial caring is seen as a loving burden, not a civic act of volunteering. But wouldn’t it be good for the status of carers if we saw them as volunteers for the general good as well as loving relatives? And is the boundary clear or rational: does it make sense that a lifelong neighbour who cares is a volunteer but a nephew or niece who chooses to take on a caring responsibility for a previously remote aunt or uncle is just doing their duty?

A fourth criterion concerns organisational setting. We have long since passed the point at which volunteering was not considered appropriate in relation to core public services. Estimates suggest that getting on for 1 in 8 public libraries are now volunteer-run with the whole library service being largely a voluntary effort in some English counties  Volunteering for private sector organisations may seem counter intuitive and the idea that volunteers help make profits is frowned upon.  However more and more corporations sponsor volunteer activities from which, whatever their warm words about corporate responsibility, they presumably aim to boost their brand value.

A final and, in my view, increasingly important issue concerns the level of commitment (to which I would add responsibility). Here again there is huge diversity from virtually effortless clicktivism (deos this even count as voluteering?) to the huge often statutory responsibilities being the chair of a school governing body or major charitable organisation. People in the latter roles may, despite the voluntary nature of thier engagement, be considered fair game for public censure for underperformance, prejudice or negligence.

Typologies are all very well but what is to be done with this complex picture? I am not arguing for neatness, much less for regulation (as the aforementioned Davis Smith argued in response to the LGA initiative, the problem with organised schemes is the scope they create for red tape and disputation). But a more systematic approach to the way we think about volunteering activities might help all of us involved in promoting volunteering to ask better questions and be more consistent, fair and open in our approach. The failure to recognise the civic contribution of familial carers and the resistance to giving some kind of material recognition to the contribution made by people taking on activities with high degrees of public accountability are two examples, in my view, of unclear thinking.

This blog post aims to start not win a debate, but one idea worth considering might be a ready reckoner which puts the demands and expectations of volunteering on one side and the incentives, rewards and support on the other. The former might include time and difficulty, length of commitment and level of responsibility, while the latter would include scope for personal development, material rewards and social recognition. Such a formula might help encourage a more systematic approach to thinking through the structure of expectations and rewards for new forms of volunteering and would identify some existing forms which, on the face of it, seem to offer a ‘good’ deal and others that are less so.

From the perspective of the volunteer, volunteering always will and always should be driven by the heart as much as the head. The potential advantages of a more robust and broadly applied conceptual framework are not only help for those designing and managing volunteering schemes but, more importantly, that the social-economics of volunteering could provide a more powerful alternative paradigm to the highly developed market economics of paid employment.

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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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