Heritage for the future

July 14, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Can heritage help close the identity gap at the centre of place shaping?

Over the next two days I am chairing a conference hosted by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I will also be telling the conference about the findings of a small RSA project exploring heritage and its role in local strategic decision making.

It is seven years since Sir Michael Lyons used the phrase ‘place shaping’ as the central concept of his Government sponsored report on the future of local government. Now, a variety of factors, including austerity and some aspects of greater devolution to cities and city regions (with more promised by all parties), has made this concept dominant. Local leaders are recognising ever more explicitly that unless they can turn their localities into places that are economically dynamic and social engaged, the gap between needs and resources will become an unbridgeable chasm.

Looking at these issues from the perspective of the heritage sector it is auspicious that the first item in Lyons’ list of priorities for modern councils was ‘building and shaping identity’. Heritage is, of course, a central component of identity.

This would lead one to imagine that councils and other public agencies in the business of place shaping would see heritage as a set of assets of great significance. Based on field work by the excellent Clare Devaney, we explored this assumption through ‘deep dive’ research in three cities: Stoke on Trent, Manchester and Plymouth.

Heritage certainly matters to local leaders and other civic figures. Many talked passionately about local history both tangibly preserved in buildings and spaces and less tangibly in traditions and social mores.

However, the enthusiasm is much less evident in local strategic policy making. There is an inconsistent and incomplete view of what heritage assets comprise and it often isn’t clear where lead local responsibility for the sector lies (something which will have been exacerbated by the massive reduction in the number of conservation officers employed by councils). Conversely, the local heritage sector itself generally lacks cohesion and leadership, something which contributes to its low profile in strategic forums.

More significantly, the influence of heritage in the definition of place was not consistent. This is bad news for a sector which has already been badly hit by local austerity measures. But it also throws into doubt the whole place shaping project.

It is hard to appreciate local identity without appreciating local history.  Yet, without a compelling view of identity referencing the relationship in citizen’s minds between past, present and possible future, how can place be understood let alone shaped? To put it more simply there seems to be an identity gap at the heart of place shaping, one which could in part be filled by an appreciation of heritage as a tangible and intangible asset.

Place shaping involves identifying a place’s distinctive qualities and associations and deciding which of these to emphasise and seek to enhance. It involves mobilising local stakeholders behind an inspiring vision for their place. And it should involve engaging citizens themselves in identifying what they value about where they live and what they want to preserve even as the pace of change accelerates. Sometimes places bring the past into the future in ways which are thoughtful, specific and powerful, other times it is so superficial to be risible; one place we visited had a list of ‘fifty heritage high points’ which included the fact that the Beatles twice played a concert in the city!

Much of this is politically charged. The local public debate is often poised between two contrasting dynamics; on the one hand a sense of loss and often resentment in the face of change and particularly immigration and diversity (captured in the phrases like ‘there’s been a lot of change round here’ or ‘thing’s aren’t like they used to be’). On the other hand, it seems that people arriving new in places have a strong appetite to feel quickly part of their new community and to find routes for engagement.

Our report is in part a critique of the often thin and ahistorical way that place is conceptualised and applied in local strategy, but it is also a challenge to the heritage sector. Locally, organisations need to work better together showing they can recognise the need for hard choices and can bring something of value to conversations that go much wider than their sector. Nationally, peak heritage organisations – like the HLF – could play an important role in exploring the relationship between place shaping and heritage, and identify examples from the UK and around the world of where engaging the heritage sector and thinking more deeply and bravely about the relationship between past, people and progress has contributed to successful local economic and social strategy.

A few years ago it was often assumed that the growing mobility of information, population and capital would make place a less significant factor in our lives. This assumption has been belied by a growing focus on cities, their different performances and potential trajectories, and an emphasis on the local in patterns of engagement, innovation and consumption.

If, when it comes to social and economic policy, ‘place is the place’, this is a huge opportunity for heritage to move from the periphery to the centre of local strategic policy making. The question is whether the sector can raise its sights from the day to day grind of protecting old stuff and fighting for grants to take advantage of this opportunity.


Religion and politics – the great unifiers?

June 30, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

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.


Ippr and Miliband – new direction, same engine?

June 19, 2014 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

It may not be immediately apparent from the news headlines, which were dominated this morning by Iraq and will tonight be fixated on En-ger-land, but today is a big day for British social democracy. Our leading left of centre think tank, ippr, has publishing a milestone report of its long and impressive Condition of Britain inquiry and it has been launched by Labour leader Ed Miliband.

The ippr report is comprehensive and contains many detailed policy recommendations, but most significant perhaps are some subtle shifts in the broader narrative about Britain’s challenges and the goals and methods of social democratic reform. In an article about the report ippr director Nick Pearce hints at a number of changes of emphasis.

There is a move from a simple redistributive economism. Pearce writes: ‘social equality and how we relate to each other as citizens matters as much as material equality in closing the gap between rich and poor’. Progressives need to focus more on power and accountability and this means ‘giving more power to counties and cities’ and ‘to ‘engage individuals and civil society in shaping what the state provides’. It seems that a critique of centralism is now just about universal on the centre left. Whether this conviction would survive the temptation of Labour having central power is an entirely different matter.

Another important theme can be seen as a return to ideas way back in ippr’s previous major report for Labour in opposition, the 1994 Commission on Social Justice. One the one hand, the legitimacy of the state must be rebuilt through greater conditionality and reciprocity. On the other hand, public spending must focus less on remedial interventions and more on those which enhance people’s opportunities to be self-reliant: ‘more fences at the top of the cliff, fewer ambulances at the bottom’ as the 1994 report put it, or ‘a hand up not a hand out’ as Tony Blair used to say.

Finally, there is a stronger emphasis on institutions; ‘social reforms embodied in shared institutions are more durable that those which rely on transactions’ Pearce writes. The report proposes volunteer-led neighbourhood justice panels, an Affordable Credit Trust and neighbourhood networks led by older people.

The ippr report deserves to widely debated. It demonstrates a genuine willingness to examine and address the weaknesses of the social democratic message and method in the modern world. This includes an important recognition of the need for a new form of ‘statecraft’. Yet, ultimately, apart from shifting power from Whitehall to town hall, it fails to provide a sufficiently bold account of what that new statecraft might involve, particularly the need for the centre left to reduce its reliance on its favourite fix – policy itself.

Evidence of the problem lies in Ed Miliband’s speech at the report launch, a response couched in terms of a set of new policy commitments. He wants us to know Labour has given up the idea that public spending is the answer to every problem but deos not seem ready to give up the idea that public policy is the answer to every problem.

‘Well, what do you expect from a putative Prime Minister’ he, or you, might reasonably respond. What if, as I have argued in previous posts, the whole apparatus of policy making and democratic scrutiny is increasingly incapable of achieving the impacts on society that it intends?

The point here is not that we don’t need policy, nor that it isn’t better to have good policies than bad ones (the ippr report contains many policies which are better than both the Coalition’s and the last Labour Government’s), but that we need to think of policy as fuel for a strategy of social renewal, not the engine of that renewal.

If I could insert a paragraph in to the Party leaders’ conference speeches this year it would be something like:

‘ In a fast changing world, facing ever more complex problems and with an ever more independently minded citizenry the right an election victory gives us is not to exercise power but to try to create it’

Power is created by – amongst other things – the authenticity and clarity of leadership, the ambition and integrity of the conversations and collaborations that leaders help to convene, the quality and scale of new and reformed institutions emerging from people solving problems together, and the degree to which civic culture animates individuals and communities to direct their energies towards social progress.

Good policy making (and there is precious little of that around) can reinforce and amplify these aspects of a dynamic society but in the modern world policy increasingly rarely generates positive social energy on its own. To give one obvious and rather tragic example, if Blair’s Labour has taken the time and effort to make the abolition of child poverty a broad based and deeply felt movement it might have persisted as a national goal. Instead it was presented as a set of technocratic national policies for which people felt little affection or responsibility, and now the goal has been abandoned. Ultimately for all its many strengths the ippr report, and even more Miliband’s response reaffirm a policy driven view of social change.

An alternative technology of change isn’t easy to get your head round if you have spent a life equating social change with policy change. To articulate it would be hard and risky – it would, for example, involve a manifesto which was much stronger on analysis and vision and much lighter on policy.

But if my argument seems detached from political reality, ask yourself this; what do the British people seem to want right now – better leadership, a clearer vision and more reason to hope…or more policies?

Watching ippr and Ed Miliband lay out their serious thinking it seems unfair that it is overshadowed in some newspapers by more evidence of the voters’ lack of affinity for Labour’s leader. Then again, perhaps voters implicitly grasp better than even the most intelligent parts of the centre left what really matters when it comes to the possibility of social progress.


Sorting, splitting, subordinating

June 5, 2014 by · 15 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

In preparing my annual lecture on the RSA’s new, emerging, world view ‘The Power to Create’, I have reached a section on barriers to people living creative lives. One of these barriers comprises the dead hand of outdated institutions. I have come up with three ways in which institutions stifle creativity. I am looking for readers’ thoughts on these ways; are they right, have I given them fitting names (as always with typologies one tries to be alliterative) and are there others I have missed?

The first creativity-sapping habit of institutions is ‘sorting’. This is a core characteristic of hierarchies, legitimated by values of efficiency and merit. The assumption is that only a certain number of roles within the institution can be creative – in the sense of allowing and expecting autonomy, voluntary engagement and fulfilment – and that a vital role of management systems is to sort posts and people into a pyramidical structure with the most creative jobs at the top along with the most attractive incentives. Along with hierarchical sorting there is also the vertical sorting of skills, tasks and functions.

Recognising the malign impact of sorting is not to ignore the requirements of organisational working. But even taking requirements of clear decision making, functional specialisation and the varying ambitions and life stages of workers into account, there is still a huge amount of dysfunctional sorting in institutions resulting in most workers feeling largely unengaged, unrecognised or irrelevant at work. Facing problems with recruitment, retention and motivation, many organisations are seeking to address the consequences of sorting – but more intractable are its causes in the logic of hierarchical working.

Sorting is also a core purpose – for some, the core purpose – of most education institutions. The ultimate goal of formal education should surely be to inculcate and sustain a love of learning, and to guide young people into finding the areas in which they can most fully and successfully express themselves to the wider benefit of society. Instead we have a system which prizes one set of intellectual attributes and then sees its role as forcing young people to focus on these attributes and then be sorted by whether or not they possess them.

Creative thinking and action often arise from the tensions and synergies which emerge between our different social roles. But ‘splitting’ is a second creativity-constraining habit of institutions. This involves dividing people by their institutional role and separating this from the other multiple roles they occupy. One example is the way we sometimes talk about the different interests of public service workers – teachers, police officers, care workers – and public service consumers – parents, citizens, clients. But, of course, most teachers are parents, all police officers are citizens and most care workers will at some time or another find themselves or a loved one being a client. The question raised by the accusation of producerism made at public service workers (an attitude which is said to be a barrier to innovation and compassion) is not only its extent but how it can come about at all, given that nearly all public service producers are also public service consumers.

This phenomenon is just as common in the private sector. Dan Pink has recently argued that a growing majority of modern jobs involve one form or another of sales. There is nothing inherently problematic about the act of selling – it is the principal way information travels in markets – but when selling involves persuading someone else to do something which you know, or you strongly suspect, is not in their interest it requires the seller to dull his or her moral senses. The most egregious example is the financial services sector where instead of sellers being encouraged to work cooperatively and creatively with clients to discover what their real needs and interests are (as they would want to be treated themselves), they have repeatedly been incentivised to take advantage of information imbalances to mass sell poor products on the basis of misleading information.

Splitting is particularly prevalent in institutions displaying the third creativity inhibitor, ‘subordination’ (can anyone think of a better ‘s’ for this?). The process of subordination was first identified by Max Weber (who was a fan of bureaucracy). He identified the distinction between an institution’s substantive (real world, value-based) goals and its procedural (bureaucratic, rule-based) goals. Weber observed that organisations over time tend to subordinate the former to the latter.

A similar process can be observed in corporations established by innovative producers to offer a market-beating service or product, which subsequently become obsessed by size or shareholder returns. John Kay cites ICI as a business that was highly successful while its goal was to be a world class chemicals company but which soon crashed after it changed its goal and strategy, explicitly subordinating everything to the maximisation of shareholder returns.

Subordination also happens in organisations that claim to be operating in the public interest. Instead of creatively working through the inherent tensions between short term organisational interests and public duty, institutions tend to subordinate the latter to the former (dealing with the cognitive dissonance this involves by asserting an identity between the two). The Police Federation was a classic example of this process, which is why it was such a turning point when it adopted in full the recommendations of the independent/RSA panel.

One obvious riposte to all this is that people can be creative doing bad stuff as well as good. The phrase ‘creative accounting’ springs to mind. My response – which may sound naive – is that people will on the whole be more creative when they feel they are doing something which is valuable and valued. But this is for another part of the speech to address…..




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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