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.


To pay or not to pay

May 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

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.


Look hard before you leap

May 7, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

The Guardian’s splash this morning focussed on the delayed launch of the Better Care Fund. The Fund aims to encourage improved coordination across health and social care but apparently the Cabinet Office has severe doubts about value for money. This may be embarrassing for ministers and officials but, if there is one thing worse than a bad policy being delayed, it is a bad policy being implemented.

Apart from general misgivings quoted in the Guardian, we don’t know the substance of the Cabinet Office’s concerns, but let me offer three reasons why what looks like a sensible response to an obvious problem might be running into difficulties.

First, the Fund was premised on one of the most commonly claimed, and also one of the least often proved, assertions made in public policy; namely, that spending money in one area will reduce expenditure in another. Hospitals are expensive, risky and anonymous environments and so it is surely in the interests of both public sector paymasters, on the one hand, and patients and carers, on the other, that people should stay in them for the minimum necessary time.

The problem is that cash strapped local authorities have always lacked incentives to help reduce bed blocking and now face eye watering budget cuts. The Fund will transfer money from the NHS to councils on the principle that better community provision for councils would reduce pressure on the NHS, both in long stay wards and in the A and E departments where badly cared-for vulnerable people often end up.

I have heard this kind of spend to save argument countless times not just from public sector officials but from people setting up a variety of social enterprises and charities. So I will let you into an open secret, everyone in the Treasury, and now it appears the Cabinet Office, treats such arguments with intense scepticism. Time and time again such promises evaporate as savings fail to materialise either because the policy doesn’t work or – more fundamentally – because the released capacity in one area is immediately filled with new demand. As what is ostensibly a spend to save scheme, the Better Care Fund would have immediately aroused the suspicions of any seasoned policy analyst and in this case those concerns would be loudly echoed by NHS commissioners and providers threatened with having to hand over money to their local council today in exchange for jam savings tomorrow.

Second, I suspect size matters. There are some structural ways one might address the health and social care divide, most obviously putting certain NHS services under the control of local authority social care departments or vice versa, and there are lots of smaller scale innovations which can and have made a difference in particular cases, but the £3.8 billion Fund may have suffered from reverse Goldilocks syndrome: too big and expensive to be genuinely innovative but too small and short term to achieve system change.

Third, when a problem is obvious, bad and persistent the tendency is to think that what is needed is simply more determination to solve it – in this case incentivised by cash. But when a problem is obvious, persistent and bad it also tends to indicate something else – we may be failing to grasp its nature and how difficult it is to solve.

The other day I came across an example of this in a different part of the social care jungle. I was being told that teenage children who fall into the care system (a system which is expensive and has poor outcomes for older children) have very often been seen multiple times by local authorities and other agencies. The obvious point, and one we often hear in tragic cases of neglect, is that none of these interventions grabbed the problem and solved it once and for all. The answer is surely concerted decisive interventions earlier on. So far, so obvious, but this view of the problem is conditioned by the starting point – those who have been failed. What about evidence as to the general efficacy of earlier interventions?

If, for example, we found out that 90% of youngsters subject to an earlier and cheaper intervention (some form of parenting support, for example) had not re-entered the system, we might deem this value for money even though 10% fall through the net. Also, if a system focusses on more intensive interventions the consequence might be that fewer youngsters get any kind of help and that we over-intervene with youngsters who only needed a small helping hand. Thus the case for what seems a more effective and economical solution (one big intervention rather than lots of smaller ones) may not be as open and shut as it seems.

I suspect that bed blocking may be a similar example where, perhaps, most frail people do successfully exit to the community while the few who don’t have particular characteristics such as complex conditions and needs, and a lack of informal support. If those who are bed blocking are the hardest cases then neither the projected savings nor the better outcomes of community care will be as clear cut as they first seem or as ministers – who are desperate to believe they can have a decisive impact – have been led to believe.

There are no doubt lots of bad reasons why the launch of the Better Care Fund has been delayed. There might also be some quite good ones.


‘Creative communities with a cause’

April 29, 2014 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I have been trying to use my preferred way of thinking about human motivation and social power to develop the RSA’s emerging world-view, ‘The Power to Create’. In this regard I am grateful for an idea given to me by public intellectual and social innovator Charles Leadbeater (who will be speaking soon at the RSA about his new book ‘The frugal innovator’.

Charlie tells me that from his own direct observations he has come to the conclusion that the most innovative and successful organisations are ‘creative communities with a cause’. The potential synergy between my simplified application of cultural theory and the goal of greater creative capacity is obvious (well, to me, at least): Broadly, the three ‘c’s in Charlie’s phrase line up respectively with the three sources of social power in my account; the individualistic (creative), the solidaristic (communities) and the hierarchical (cause).

A concern with The Power to Create has been its lack of ethical substance; looking out on the inequalities and wastefulness of modern society the question asked is ‘whose power to create what?’ A focus on the role of human drives in the effectiveness of organisations, people and places doesn’t solve this problem, but it might help.

Going in reverse order, consider the critical polarities for each drive:


The production and maintenance of rationality is often the role assumed by leaders and the hierarchical systems over which they preside. But in his study of bureaucracies (of which he was generally a fan), Max Weber made the powerful distinction between substantive rationality (directed at ends/outcomes/values) and procedural rationality (directed at means/procedures/rules). Organisations are established to pursue substantive rationality but over time, as they become institutionalised, procedural rationality often starts to dominate.

By the idea of ‘cause’ Charlie’s description of the most effective organisations implies leaders who maintain a focus on substantive (value) based rationality rather than procedural (process based) rationality. Interestingly, there is growing emphasis in debates about corporate responsibility of the ideal of purpose driven organisations.


People on the left often assume that solidarity is their kind of thing. But this human drive – based on shared norms, identity and values – is characteristic of racist populism as well as workers’ cooperatives. The key polarity here may be between ‘solidarity for’ and ‘solidarity against’, both in term of identity (an expansive versus an exclusive bond) and mobilisation (cooperation to develop solutions versus cooperation simply to mobilise protest).

The context in which Charlie uses the word ‘community’ implies an expansive idea based on a constructive activity.


The Power to Create is an alternative to a previous, less stirring, definition of the RSA’s mission, namely ‘enhancing human capability’. A focus on capability points to the key polarity when it comes to the individualistic drive. This is between the fulfillment of individual appetites (for stuff, power, wealth or whatever) versus a notion of human development. There are many versions of the latter and RSA folk are particularly keen on that of Robert Kegan but the key point is that this is an idea of individual aspiration linked to self-discipline and self-knowledge as well as self-expression.

By using the descriptor ‘creative’ the implication of Charlie’s phrase is that the individualist drive in the most effective and innovative organisations is directed to personal growth and pride in craft rather than success measured only by income or promotion.

For me the most intriguing aspect of the Power to Create is that it implies two distinct but overlapping ideals, one with a primarily idealistic rationale and the other responding to more practical imperatives: first, citizens being able to create the lives they choose; second, an economy and society characterised by mass creativity.

The kind of creative organisations, places and societies needed to pursue both these goals would, according to this account, tend to exhibit leadership based on substantive rationality, forms of solidarity that are inclusive and constructive, and a developmental model of individual aspiration.

Certainly, as we look at the largely depressing tableau of modern politics and public discourse, to make the case for idealistic leadership, for forms of belonging which are generous and optimistic and a model of human success which is to do with being rounded productive citizens rather than wealth-hoarders or consumers – well, it seems pretty revolutionary.


Old states, new technologies

April 24, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I agree with Adam Lent. There is no fundamental reason why the accelerating capacity of new technology to undertake tasks previously the domain of skilled humans should lead us to be pessimistic about the prospects for social progress. All things being equal, rising productivity driven by technological advance provides the basis for sustained economic growth and sustained economic growth (especially if that growth is focussed on the quality not the quantity of production) should mean more people being able to pay each other to have their needs met and desires fulfilled.

But, of course, all things are not equal. As Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson recognise in ‘The Second Machine Age’ the impact of technological change both reflects and reinforces aspects of the social arrangements in which it appears. Neither economic nor technological determinists are right, as Evgeny Morozov has argued, different technologies interact with social reality in ways which reflect specific aspects of each. For example, email is functional for bureaucracies while social media tends to be disruptive and Twitter can be effective both as a way of mobilising protest and as a means to monitor dissent.

Thus the biggest danger of the coming third industrial revolution/second machine age (or whatever we choose to call it) is that it has the potential to map onto and further widen inequality in an era when national Governments seem particularly powerless to intervene on behalf of the greater good. Imagine if Google had been invented in the 1950s (yes, I know that was before the internet but stick with me): It would have been assumed that such a ubiquitous and essential service which makes its money largely out of expropriating other people’s labour (content) would have been at the very least highly regulated and taxed and more likely brought into public ownership.

Among the characteristics which lead McAfee and Brynjolfsson to believe that intelligent computing power will further widen inequality are these: it is only the most creative and ‘special’ people who will still have something to offer than robots don’t; and digitally based innovations can spread very quickly making huge monopoly profits for inventors and investors until another innovation comes along to make another killing for another group of super clever or super rich individuals.

Another related factor concentrating power and wealth are network effects which mean that the bigger the market share achieved by a platform, the more effective it is and the more able it is to withstand and buy out competition (think of the respective dominance and scope for rent-seeking profits of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter and Kickstarter).

Without action technological change will reinforce already wide inequality. Compare this with the middle of the last century: the inventions of the first machine age – domestic electricity, motor cars and white goods – achieved ubiquity among Western consumers at a time when a much higher proportion of economic growth was recycled into the income of ordinary workers. Now – as Thomas Piketty eloquently argues – the proceeds of growth are being grabbed and hoarded by the already wealthy.

So, whilst Adam is right that we should reform education and pursue other policies to prepare our populations for the challenges and opportunities of the second machine age, these challenges will be much harder, and opportunities much fewer, unless Governments (working at home and internationally) can develop the legitimacy, confidence and know-how to ensure the benefits of the next technological revolution are fairly and wisely distributed.

Which reminds me of another of Adam’s blogs, this one on Moses Naim’s analysis of the decline of big power, particularly that of the state. The American sociologist Daniel Bell once argued that in the modern world the nation state would come to be seen as ‘too big for the small things in life and too small for the big things’. I have tended to think of this as being about the spatial dimension of governance; the need for greater devolution to localities, on the one hand, and greater international collaboration, on the other, but it is more deeply a point about power.

I have repeatedly argued that central Government and its traditional policy tools are becoming ever more blunt and dysfunctional when it comes to social policy. Yet we desperately need the unique democratic authority of Government to tackle some of the biggest problems we face; on climate, inequality, infrastructure, regulating finance, and global security. When Piketty argues for a global wealth tax or McAfee and Brynjolfsson join the ranks of those who support a minimum income guarantee, it is not so much that people object to the proposals as that they have little faith in Government to be able to enact them successfully.

All of which leads to me to conclude that part of the RSA’s pursuit of what we call the ‘Power to Create’ (releasing the creativity inherent in all of us) must be about 21st century statecraft. Technology is the most powerful single force in the modern world but its impact depends to a large degree on the choices we have made and the choices we will make. Democracy is the way we make those choices at a collective level. Unless democracy works better in twenty-first century conditions then there is no guarantee that technological progress will beget human progress.


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