From factory floor to local authority to Northern Line, social change is like cooking – it’s all in the mix
Last night I gave my RSA Annual Lecture. The focus was improving work and particularly employee engagement. Given the widespread support for such engagement and the benefits it could have, not just for companies and workers but for wider society, ‘the conundrum’ I suggested ‘is this: why have our aspirations for work not turned into social norms and expectations?’
As is my wont, I argued for an approach which combined hierarchical, solidaristic and individualistic power. Managers need to accept that genuine employee engagement is about representation and voice not just individual employee satisfaction. Champions of workers should accept that most workers see no inherent conflict of interest between managers and employees. And we as individuals must become more ambitious and less instrumental about the meaning of work in our lives.
In case this all sounds like empty exhortation, the speech also contained several practical proposals, some of which the RSA itself is taking forward.
In questions, David MacLeod from Engage for Success , which part sponsored the event, asked where the responsibility for starting to close the gap between the rhetoric and reality around employee engagement should be placed – on managers, trade unions or individual workers? In reply I said change needs to pursued in each area broadly together. Any process led simply by managers will become too focussed on the interests of organisations; if workers’ representatives calls the shots what emerges would be radical but possibly also unworkable; and, while we all need to take some responsibility for making our jobs meaningful, it is too much to expect any of us to do this alone.
I gave a similar answer last week to a group of local government officers who labour under the daunting title of ‘Head of Transformation’. One asked; ‘if we are weak on solidaristic commitment and individual initiative in relation to change, but are strong on leadership, shouldn’t it be the last of these that drives change?’.
The answer is ‘only up to an early point in the process. ’ Solidaristic and individualist perspectives and aspirations are inherent to us as human being and thus they lie somewhere in the organisation even if tacit or supressed. Hierarchical overreach (leaders relying on top down tools) – even if motivated by the very best reasons – will tend to turn these forces oppositional. So, even if your leaders are brilliant they need patiently to seek to summon up (and engage with) solidaristic and individualistic energy if they are to maximise the chances of transformational change.
A classic example of getting this wrong occurred yesterday.
As someone who has regularly stood on a claustrophobic, overcrowded Clapham South station failing to get on to train after packed train, I can entirely see the sense of encouraging commuters to walk or cycle to stations further up the line in order to avoid the stations which daily become totally overcrowded. But to offer this advice on its own without giving any ground to self-interest or a sense of fairness is predictably counter–productive.
Much more likely to succeed would have been a campaign which called on all those who can influence travel patterns to help solve the problem of overcrowding, which will persist until a signalling upgrade next year. A solidaristic message would, for example, have appealed to employers (and customers, who include tube users) to offer staff greater flexibility to work earlier or later hours. The campaign would also have provided simple incentives – such as new early bird tariff – to commuters who chose to get trains before the rush hour.
As it is, an appeal which is perfectly sensible in its own terms (and which could benefit individuals and the wider commuter group) comes across as an unfair and unreasonable demand from an unloved hierarchy (TfL); one which, as the quotes from Londoners in the article shows, manages to stir up both solidaristic (‘it’s not fair to us’) and individualist (‘it’s doesn’t work for me’) indignation.
The point is this: the ingredients of social change like the ingredients of a recipe need to be appropriately mixed. If they are not a flavour which could be an integral part of a delicious dish can instead destroy it. This is one reason why patience is an important managerial virtue. It is also why behaviour change works better when it is designed and delivered closer to people and can be more incremental, adaptive and nuanced.
To start a fashion you have to be willing to look ridiculous. So here goes. I think Mark Carney (yes, the man who has single-handedly saved the UK economy just by taking up his job) made a rather superficial speech a couple of weeks ago.
I can’t pretend even to understand every word of the offending oration. In parts it is quite a technical account of the things that are happening and need to happen in order to provide a firm foundation for the UK to continue to be a global centre for financial services.
Indeed, in his speech the Governor of the Bank of England goes further than the search for stability. He told a Financial Times event to mark the paper’s 125th anniversary:
Suppose, for example, that UK-owned banks’ share of global banking activity remains the same and that financial deepening in foreign economies increases in line with historical norms. By 2050, UK banks’ assets could exceed nine times GDP, and that is to say nothing of the potentially rapid growth of foreign banking and shadow banking based in London.
For Carney the benefits of such a growth are obvious:
… if organised properly, a vibrant financial sector brings substantial benefits. Today financial services account for a tenth of UK GDP and are the source of over 1 million jobs.
Two thirds of those are outside London…. Being at the heart of the global financial system also broadens the investment opportunities for the institutions that look after British savings, and reinforces the ability of UK manufacturing and creative industries to compete globally. Not to mention that financial services represent one of the UK’s largest exports.
More broadly, London’s markets serve a vital global role. London acts as Europe’s window to global capital; is a centre of emerging market finance; and can play an important role in the financial opening of China.
Carney thus rejects both the prioritisation and implicit trade-off contained in Peter Mandelson’s assertion post credit crunch that we need ‘less financial engineering and more real engineering’. The Bank of England Governor believes that a dynamic and growing financial services sector is perfectly compatible with one which behaves responsibly.
These two brilliant articles by John Lanchester offer an alternative view of things
Lanchester’s pieces were written in the summer but still there is a steady flow of new scandals. Indeed, as he argues, the big question – given the terrible impact on so many people of the banks’ behaviour - is how the public has become insouciant in the face of ever more evidence of venality and incompetence at the very heart of finance capitalism. In a sane world the recent rate swap scandal would be a cause celebre but so inured have we become that it has only bubbled under as a story. Every week it seems there are now allegations about rogue traders such as last week’s about currency speculation.
On a more systemic level much of the activity that makes the world of financial capitalism go round and which makes millionaires of its most accomplished practitioners is of questionable value. According to a recent World Development Movement report speculation on food prices by the world’s largest investment bank increased global food prices over the last decade while generating more than £2 billion in rent seeking profits for the banks.
There are two questions to which I would need to hear satisfactory layman’s answers before I could feel the faintest enthusiasm for Mark Carney’s vision of a UK economy even more reliant on global financial capitalism.
First, what is the evidence that all this activity – particularly that in the so called ‘shadow banking’ sector – actually contributes to improving the lives of the world’s citizens, particularly its most disadvantaged? This is partly an ethical question but also one about national interest; to be dependent on a category of activity of minimal substantive value must be risky.
Second, is it really – as Carney asserts – possible to have a dynamic, speculative, financial capitalist sector that also behaves responsibly and consumes its own risks?
Arguably, the high flyers of finance capitalism are as obsessed with making money as sex addicts are with having sex. We wouldn’t expect a sex addict to be very good at fidelity or treating other people (particularly the objects of their desire) respectfully. So why would we expect financial speculators ever to be much good at behaving responsibly or in anyone’s interest than their own? The reason regulation in this sector has such a poor record is that those who run it have an obsessive drive to circumvent anything which gets in the way of money making.
In offering us a future of powerful, but also responsible and effectively regulated, finance capitalism dominating the UK economy isn’t Mr Carney ignoring history and putting hope above expectation?
So many of us are in the wrong jobs; maybe including me…
Yesterday morning I met with an RSA Fellow who has been working as a job advisor for Job Centre Plus. He told me how he has grown to hate the harshness of the regime of which he has been a part. JCP is a public service but rather than offering the most effective help to the unemployed (which would be expensive), the idea of service seems to be increasingly about responding to public antipathy to claimants and Whitehall pressure to save money.
The regime is explicitly designed to catch out claimants either for working on the side or for not trying hard enough to get employment. There is a deeply held public assumption that the welfare benefit regime is soft on claimants, but in 2011 over half a million sanctions were handed out and that figure appears to be rising (we will know more on November 6th when the next data set is published by DWP). Other recent changes include calling claimants in for appointments at very short notice and sanctioning them if they fail to turn up on the grounds that they should be ready at all times to take work.
Perhaps the most striking feature of the growth of sanctioning is not the sheer numbers but the idea of so many rank and file public servants and employees of Work Programme providers being incentivised to punish their fellow citizens by docking their already meagre benefit entitlement. For those who entered the employment service with a vocation to help the disadvantaged to now find themselves called upon increasingly to be the administrators of punishment must surely be brutalising.
Yet, of course, there is another side to the argument: One which can be read every day in the mainstream media and heard a hundred times a day on radio phone-ins. How much sympathy would those who miss appointments, fail to take up job opportunities or object to unpaid work placements get from the millions of low paid workers slogging their guts out in menial jobs from which they take home just a few pounds a week more than being on benefits?
It is not just night shift security guards, office cleaners or chicken pluckers whose day to day existence might make them intolerant of those on benefits. As this powerful piece from the LSE’s David Graeber argues, millions more people are in ‘nonsense jobs’ which seem to lack any intrinsic value to either themselves or wider society Perhaps it is not surprising that fewer than one in three employees say they feel actively engaged in their workplace.
Also, I have previously argued, a big question hangs over one of the fastest growing sectors of employment – care. The commodification of care has liberated many people, most of them women, but it has also led to a situation in which millions of moderately well paid people pay millions of generally badly paid people to provide care to their loved ones as strangers. Yet, generally speaking care is more warmly received and more thoughtfully and effectively provided in the context of familial affection (see Stephen T Asma in the RSA Summer Journal).
So, quite a mess: millions unemployed or under-employed, more and more of whom are treated like semi-criminals; millions in menial low paid insecure jobs; millions more in better paid but pointless activities; yet millions of others providing at best adequate care to strangers while the rest of us wish we had more time off work to spend with our loved ones. Suddenly, the New Economics Foundation’s campaign for a twenty one hour week seems more than pie in the sky.
Russell Brand found himself accused of celestial baking by Jeremy Paxman in an interview that has provoked widespread fascination. Brand’s vivid critique of the world as it is and advocacy of revolution is seen – just as he and his commissioners at the New Statesman foresaw – as a breath of fresh air contrasting with the stale rankness of Westminster pinhead adversarialism.
An important and astute critical strand in Brand’s NS essay focusses on the self-righteous, self-referential nature of much left of centre politics. He is on to something here, but arguably in his refusal to engage with conventional politics Brand also exemplifies another failing of radicalism; the tendency to split off radical social critique and idealism from practical politics and policy making.
There are many reasons for the divide between revolutionary idealism and incremental practicality. But one is aesthetic. As former New York mayor Mario Cuomo said ‘You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose’ (surely Barak Obama has this quote somewhere in the Oval Office).
Which brings me on to my annual lecture: the focus is work and I want to open with some Brandian fire (although sadly I lack both his looks and capacity for iconoclastic eloquence), but I also want to make a practical suggestion for progress in modern employment practice. It is, I suspect, a proposal radicals will find puny and managerialists will find unnecessary. To have a hope of impact my modest idea needs all the support it can get, but even if it were brilliant and even if it might have the potential to make a significant difference, the sad truth is that policy proposals are never as compelling as the poetry of denunciation and utopianism.
Way back when, I got into politics and social policy because I wanted to change the world. Notwithstanding my profound lack of talent perhaps I should have chosen showbiz instead?
I find myself unimpressed by a new Whitehall guide to better policy making….
During my brief undistinguished time in Government one of my trademarks was making politically unfeasible suggestions. On one occasion I wrote the PM a long note about how we should reduce the number of ministers or at least give them time-limited measurable tasks rather than let them wander around departments trying to find something interesting to do. Given that handing out ministerial portfolios is a key aspect of Downing Street patronage, the only impact of my suggestion was to further undermine my already tenuous credibility.
In a similar vein I argued passionately, and with absolutely no success, that the capability reviews of Government departments, which began in Labour’s third term, should not just explore the work of civil servants but also what seemed to me to be often the most dysfunctional aspect of Whitehall – the interface between ministers and special advisors, on the one hand, and senior civil servants on the other. I remember the then Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell responding to the suggestion that we scrutinise this aspect of departments with the mixture of politeness and disdain you might reserve for the man on the bus who confides in you his ability to control the weather with his feet.
In the age of leaks one top secret document that hasn’t, as far as I know, surfaced is the assessment made by Permanent Secretaries of the qualities of their Secretaries of State. Although this assessment is available to the Prime Minister, it is in everyone’s interests to keep it under wraps; not least those of the PM himself, who generally wants to make ministerial appointments on the basis of political considerations and not have his judgement clouded with irrelevancies like merit or ability.
I was once informally told how Labour cabinet ministers fared and it was interesting to see the almost total absence of correlation between political star status and those who – according to the PermSecs – were any good at their job. I can’t help thinking the quality of Government might be improved if after a decent time interval – say three years – these judgements were published.
Broadly speaking civil servants look for a short list of qualities in their political masters. In no particular order these include:
- A clear, consistent and coherent medium term plan which can be understood at all levels and provides a basis for policy officials to develop a sense of what is, and is not, likely to be well received.
- A reasonable and consistently applied distinction between political and strategic issues (where the ministers lead) and operational ones on which they don’t, unless there is good evidence of failure or a risk of it.
- Resilience and a willingness to take responsibility in the face of problems and attacks, including a resistance to acting in haste.
- Tending to trust officials and having a good instinct for where advice should be questioned and where it should be accepted.
- Respecting process and being courteous and demanding the same from the rest of the political team.
I am willing to bet that on a three point scale the Secretaries of State who score more than ten out of fifteen are in the minority.
All of which goes toward explaining why I found the recent report ‘Twelve actions to professionalise policy making‘, produced by the Whitehall Policy Profession Board, deeply underwhelming.
Once again the political interface is deemed too hot to touch and so, once again, the whole approach is of limited value and highly artificial. I say this despite the fact that I am quoted (although not named) in the report *.
The Coalition deserves praise for some important improvements in the way Government works. Fixed term Parliaments are a big step forward (imagine the blight now on Government if we were constantly discussing whether David Cameron might call a spring election next year). There have also been some important innovations in evidence gathering – such as the work of the Behavioural Insights Team and the ‘What Works Centres’. The very limited number of ministerial changes of office is also a boon, especially after the appaling turnover rate under Labour.
But still, the fiction persists that we can substantially improve policy making without discussing the performance of ministers and the interface between them and civil servants. As long as it does, the promise to improve the quality of policy making in Whitehall will ring hollow.
*My quote: ‘Designers assume that a problem needs to be redefined, you need to really understand what the nature of the problem is, you need to take it apart…they will spend time talking to employees, customers and clients….if there’s one set of skills Departments lack it’s not policy making, it’s design)
I was flattered to be asked to give a speech at Southampton Solent University this morning, at their Vision for 2020 Conference. Southampton is close to my heart as I was at university there so I was delighted to accept.
In a slight departure from the norm (for me), I’ve done a full text, which has gone to local RSA Fellows and the local press. The core idea is that the institutions, businesses and communities of Southampton make fifty commitments to improve the city to coincide next year with its fiftieth birthday as a chartered city.
If you ‘re interested, you can read it here: Speech to Southampton Solent University October 2013. It would be fantastic to have thoughts from Southampton Fellows (thanks to those who have sent me emails – I’ve had some really helpful comments).
After the speech the audience will be discussing the idea so I’ll add some reflections later.