Although often elided the respective domains of ‘policy’ and ‘politics’ are animated by different imperatives and cultures. The former aims for solutions, prizing objectivity and technical know-how: the latter aims for power and values strategic guile. Different kinds of people (or people at different stages of their lives) tend to be attracted to policy and politics and members of each tribe tend to view the other with an enervating mixture of contempt, suspicion and envy.
The worlds of policy and politics have travelled along in parallel lines influencing each other, each being influenced by the wider social, economic and technological changes and with ideas and people jumping from one track to the other. But now a historic divergence may be occurring.
The policy world is buzzing with new methodologies. Changing public attitudes, social media and big data are among the drivers. Key ideas include ‘open policy making’ (the subject of a major Cabinet Office event which I am chairing next week), policy making as design and the greater use of experimental methods such as randomised control trials and prototyping.
Driving the search for innovation is a loss of faith in the traditional system of policy undertaken in secret (with tokenistic and shallow forms of public consultation), compromising objectivity to short-termism and political or bureaucratic self-interest and culminating in huge, often departmentally bounded, make or break projects and reforms. The new generation of policy wonks aim to be more open not just about the solutions being proposed but also about the problems being faced, to share the tools available to solve those problems (particularly data) and to be willing to develop, design and test solutions in and with the public.
As the policy world boldly seeks to go where no policy maker has gone before, mainstream politics drifts deeper into the doldrums of public disdain. Statistics on public trust of politicians, membership of political parties and electoral turnout all tell the same story. The rise of nationalism in Europe, the advance of UKIP and the fascination with the ramblings of Russell Brand are all further symptoms of disillusionment with the political establishment. Any attempt by politicians to claim to be pursuing the national interest is accompanied by a media narrative of infighting, horse-trading and opportunism. As my colleague Adam Lent said in a recent blog post
Politics is hated because it is a hateful profession. That doesn’t make it unusual – most professions are characterised by petty politicking, tedious tribalism, gossip and self-interest. The difference with politics is that, unlike other professions, all those frailties get constantly and very publicly dressed up, by politicians themselves, as humble public service. Such in your face hypocrisy is rarely good for anyone’s credibility
What happens when the aspiration for better policy making is sabotaged by political habit? A former Number Ten colleague who had helped develop and popularise the phrase ‘joined up Government’ told me the following story: Soon after the General Election in 1997 he was asked to speak to a regular gathering of senior civil servants. They were terribly enthusiastic, expressing whole hearted commitment to making Government more collaborative and seamless. By the following year doubt was starting to set in; how could civil servants join up when cabinet members didn’t, how could co-ordination improve when ministers made populist announcements in response to newspaper headlines. “By year three’, he said, “simply to utter the phrase ‘joined up government’ was to invite riducule’.
The criteria of cutting edge policy development – openness, objectivity, collaboration and experimentation – are being championed by various parts of the Cabinet Office (not itself always the most functional department), meanwhile the way policy making proceeds in, say, DWP, MoJ or the Department for Education not only often fails these tests but appears to do so proudly. Such a contrast is a recipe for the kind of cynicism which quickly followed in the wake of New Labour’s promise to modernise Government.
In the face of change and public disenchantment there have been attempts to reform politics. From the Conservatives open primaries to select candidates and its social action Programme through which parliamentary candidates developed local community projects. From Labour the attempt by former General Secretary Peter Watt to allow members to engage with each other more freely on-line, or various flirtations with community organising as a new form of local activism. But the most notable aspect of all these initiatives is how they have remained marginal or been co-opted to narrower electoral purposes.
And if reforming the way Parties work seems tough it is as nothing to changing the culture of political decision making among senior politicians in Whitehall or the Opposition. The ridiculous number of departmental ministers, the very idea of Government policy being overseen by a committee of nearly thirty people, the almost non-existent day to day collaboration between people with different departmental portfolios, the obsession with Party activists and national political journalists (even they are themselves increasingly isolated from the public) are symbols of a creaking system which would not be tolerated in a medium sized jam factory but is apparently acceptable as the way we run our country.
Politics has to change. The question is whether the system can change itself or we will have to endure a dangerous paroxysm of populist revolt. New forms of policy making may initially make business-as-usual politics look even more tawdry, but if they deliver on even some of their promise it might it help shame and inspire the political class to begin the long process of imagining ways of working which both are, and are seen to be, in the public interest.
Although they generally don’t work, many of us are trying to stick to New Year’s resolutions. My own is to have an alcohol-free January (although the decision not to join Cancer Research’s commendable ‘Dryathalon’ hints at my ambivalence).
Resolutions reflect different types of personal aspiration. Broadly speaking, in life we pursue pleasure, control and virtue. This triptych has some resemblance to both the categories of cultural theory (individualism, hierarchy and solidarity) and the Freudian model of personality (id, ego, super-ego). The good life well lived involves a benign balance between these impulses, a goal made challenging by them tending to be in both practical and psychological tension.
This framework came to mind reading a great blog post from my colleague, Adam Lent. In it the Director of the RSA’s Action and Research Centre composes a powerful hymn to creativity. Adam’s post also reflects an internal debate we have been having here at the RSA about how to put creativity at the front and centre of everything we do.
How might a commitment to creativity – which Adam sees as the core competency for the 21st century citizen – be manifest across our three types of personal aspiration?
In relation to pleasure, prizing creativity might lead to an emphasis on participation and production over spectatorship and consumption. And, even where cultural appreciation is more passive, the disciple of creativity would seek out experiences which demand imagination and intellectual engagement.
What about creativity and the drive for control? In terms of our own lives, an emphasis on creativity may mean valuing autonomy and choice over other aspects of control such as security or the possession of assets. Second, in relation to others, creative control may be more about the flexible and relational idea of influence rather than the heavy weight of coercive power.
Finally, in terms of virtue, the creative approach will focus on ultimate ends and the search for new solutions rather than simply the observance of existing rules or duties.
Presented in this way the cause of greater creativity certainly seems one the RSA should rally to. Indeed we already do. Quite apart from the longevity and strength of our work on design, RSA reports have, for example, argued for a greater emphasis on participation in publicly funded arts provision, championed the autonomy offered by entrepreneurship, particularly of a socially-minded form, and argued for a more relational, co-productive approach to public services. Creativity has also been an important lecture theme and next week I am chairing the distinguished thinker, writer and former politician Moses Naim who argues convincingly that old forms of authority and power are being challenged by more adaptive and innovative insurgents.
Yet, creativity’s strengths are not unalloyed. Take virtue: as I get older I become more aware of the wisdom (the creativity of the past) embedded in traditions and conventions. Equally, I can be dispirited by those people who seem determined to develop their own creative solutions to social problems when they could almost certainly do more good by lending their weight to similar existing ways of doing things (Freud’s phrase ‘the narcissism of small differences’ springs to mind). Sometimes in the face of crisis, threat or short lived opportunity it is creaking old power not subtle new models of influence that are needed. And, whilst high culture and home cuisine may be more creative ways of spending our time, surely we can also be sometimes excused a take away pizza and reruns of The Good Life?
I don’t need Adam’s eloquent prose to convince me that creativity is an increasingly important ingredient for the good society and the fulfilled life. But no ingredient is sufficiently nutritional on its own; what matters is how it adds to the mix. Whether order, efficiency or justice in the public domain or satiation, duty and rest in our private lives, the question is how we enhance creativity without dismissing other qualities, goals or needs.
If creativity is to be our lodestar we will also need an account of its origins. Broadly speaking the argument here has tilted in two ways. Partly thanks to the ten thousand hours rule popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, we tend to see higher levels of creative talent as the result of effort rather than luck or innate ability. As Edison said ‘genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration’. Also, historical and geographical analysis suggests that creativity is socially contingent – certain times, places and organisations are more creativity-inducing than others.
These conclusions highlight an important and easily overlooked truth – the road to creativity is not paved with creativity. Thousands of hours of routine practice provide the foundation for creative talent. As I pointed out in an Observer column last year some of the most creative artistic directors in our theatres rely on the more humdrum skills of their commercial directors. Many great policy innovations founder on a failure to get right the grubby politics or grinding task of delivery.
In his post Adam referred to JS Mill’s enthusiasm for originality. Another Millian idea is worth considering – obliquity (the subject of an excellent book by John Kay). As a utilitarian Mill saw the pursuit of happiness as the greatest goal of human life and social policy but towards the end of his life, he argued it was best achieved indirectly: ‘this end was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness – on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.’
Is the spark of creativity too partly an ‘obliquitous’ phenomenon? If so, as the RSA champions ‘the power to create’ in 2014, our own resolution must be to address intruiging questions about the generators of that power and how it can best be exploited for social benefit.
I wrote the following blog yesterday. In this morning’s Observer interview the Chief Inspector is in a more thoughtful mode and correctly – in my opinion – rejects an expansion of selection as a route to higher standards or greater social mobility. But while I prefer this morning’s opinions to last week’s my concern about treating the head of OFSTED as an oracle remains……
Sir Michael Wilshaw, continues to live a charmed life – politicians and media commentators respond with warmth and alacrity to just about anything he says. Last week in presenting the quango’s annual report he managed to get away with castigating policy makers, head teachers, teachers, governors and local authorities for the continuing ‘mediocrity’ (his word) of the English school system while managing to evade any suggestion that the responsibility for this state of affairs might, at least in part, lie with the most powerful institution in the English school system: OFSTED itself.
These are some of the points that commentators, were they less in thrall to him, could have made in response to the claim by Sir Michael that failure is everyone else’s responsibility:
Last year OFTESD made it clear to schools that performance management must not become detached from pupil attainment. If a teacher in a school is not delivering good results for pupils but the school’s performance management systems suggest this teacher is performing adequately it will be seen as evidence of weak school leadership. Yet, in an outstanding example of ‘do what we say not what we do’, OFTSED tells us that in a ‘mediocre’ system four out of five schools are now rated by the agency as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
In his speech Sir Michael claimed that turning the previous OFSTED category ‘satisfactory’ into the tougher ‘requires improvement’ (a recommendation which was influenced by work undertaken by the RSA) had a ‘galvanising’ effect in raising the number of schools that are good or better from 70% to 78% in one year. This is a remarkable 11.4% rate of improvement across a huge and complex system. If it was maintained, next year 89% of English schools would be deemed good or better and sometime in the spring of 2015 the system would triumphantly pass the 100% point.
However, as well as Wilshaw’s boast that this step change is down to a toughening of the OFSTED framework there are two other possible explanations: first, OFSTED may have failed to mitigate the risk that by making ‘satisfactory’ status more reputationally damaging and dangerous for schools it would lead inspectors to err on the side of ‘good’ when faced with borderline cases; second, the inspection system has surely become detached from a deeper assessment of whether schools really are equipping children with the functional knowledge that they need and that PISA tests suggest we are lacking.
The second point links to another. Wilshaw places great emphasis on what happens in the classroom, being particularly obsessed this year with discipline (a well-chosen topic if your aim is to deflect media attention from other more difficult issues), but the degree to which OFSTED inspections get to grips with what is happening in the classroom is highly debatable.
The Chief Inspector is fond of Manichean dichotomies. His speech contrasts the ‘lucky child’ and the ‘unlucky child’ (the latter being its title). Yet according to the OECD, intra-school differences in teaching quality are more pronounced than inter-school differences. Wilshaw’s entirely lucky and wholly unlucky children are much less common than those who are, say, lucky in lesson period one and unlucky in period two. The Chief Inspector’s imagery may be vivid but it is also, as his officials and speechwriters surely know, largely misleading.
Sir Michael also implies that bad lessons and failing schools are obvious a mile off, characterised by such media-friendly images as ‘litter in the playground’, ‘disorder in the corridors’, ‘untidy classrooms’ where ‘it’s hard to see the carpets for gum’ and where teachers call pupils ‘mate’. Such things may be indefensible but the problem – as Wilshaw partly recognises in other aspects of his speech – is not just profoundly failing schools but more those that are coasting in affluent areas while failing their poorer pupils.
The distinction between an adequate and a good lesson is much more subtle than the kind of ‘heroic versus catastrophic’ contrasts of which the Chief Inspector is so fond (and on which his own reputation as a school leader are justly based). But OFSTED classroom inspections are limited, short and of dubious objective value. This is what two people who spend a lot of time in schools have said to me:
“When Ofsted are around, teachers do the five page lesson plan which no teacher would ever do in real life, they make sure they have a lesson structured as required, lots of interaction, and all the other things inspectors have said they want to see. But it is much easier to change things to teach a lesson in a particular way than it is to make a real difference to students’ learning. So this approach means that teachers, schools and Ofsted can say that more lessons are good and outstanding. It also helps the inspectors out. If you’re a retired geography teacher sitting in on a French lesson and not understanding a word (it happens) you can tick the boxes to show which elements of the lesson have been covered far more easily than you can judge whether the children are learning.”
“The twenty-minute ‘outstanding lesson’ now endemic, with its enforcement by terrified leadership teams, and even training courses offered by the usual suspects who are making a fast buck out of teaching schools how to game the system. This concept requires teachers to split lessons into 20-minute segments (the length of time an inspector will attend a lesson), and in that twenty minutes, tick every box on the inspection framework, which itself would take most adults at least five minutes just to read and decode. Chief amongst the hoops teachers are required to jump through is that of demonstrating that every student in the class has made measurable progress inside twenty minutes. If you want to understand the truly devastating effect of OFSTED’s reign of terror, picture a history curriculum in which a thousand years of British history is divided into 20-minute long gobbets for students to regurgitate, parrot-style, to demonstrate “learning” for the inspectors. Picture students not being allowed to read a work of literature for longer than a few minutes, because the teacher wouldn’t be able to demonstrate “progress” in twenty minutes. Understand that any sixth form discussion of a complex topic, which lasted longer than a few minutes, would be graded as unsatisfactory, because the boxes could not be ticked for the inspector. OFSTED, of course, deny that this is their intention, and claim not to dictate preferred lesson styles. Yet, not for the first time, what Wilshaw says, and what his inspectors are driving schools to do, are not the same thing.”
Arguably a much more useful indicator of the likelihood of consistent good quality teaching would be for OFSTED inspectors to explore whether the school has a thorough system of teacher peer observation, review, inquiry and feedback. Not many schools do, so this would actually raise the quality bar.
Wilshaw’s speech also spends some time praising the London Challenge process that did so much to transform educational outcomes in the capital city. At the heart of that process was school-to-school collaboration (especially through the ‘family of schools’ approach). It was the need for thorough collaboration which was core theme of the RSA’s recent report (’No school an island’) on how to improve the quality of schooling in Suffolk.
Yet OFSTED has failed to make school collaboration (something which research shows is not only vital but very hard to do) a part of its inspection regime, while the Department for Education has also done too little to enforce the expectation that outstanding converter academies should provide wider system leadership. Moreover, many school leaders living in fear of OFSTED argue that it is that it is that fear together with the cut throat competition between schools to which OFSTED inspections contribute, which undermines the possibility of authentic and long term school collaborations. In questioning at last week’s event Wilshaw also revealed the mistaken belief that school collaboration only works on the basis of an outstanding school offering its brilliance to a failing school. In fact, collaboration is more likely to succeed on the basis of a mutually respectful partnership in which each participating school sees it has strengths to offer and valuable lessons to learn.
There are other issues with the Chef Inspector’s speech. For example, he ducks the issue of how much intervention a local authority can realistically make in an academy or free school that resists that intervention or, come to that, any other form of engagement with its locality or other local schools.
Sir Michael argues that the ultimate virtue of good school leadership is ‘responsibility’: the good head teacher accepts that what happens in their school ‘is their responsibility and no one else’s’. I agree: Responsibility begins at home. Start with how you could improve before casting blame on anyone else.
Given the degree to which OFSTED and its methods are surely implicated in some of the weaknesses of our school system, dare I suggest that on this measure Sir Michael’s own agency may ‘require improvement’.
I’ve blogged about the wonderful Brene Brown before and I’m really delighted that her lecture on vulnerability here has been chosen as our next RSA Short. We’re really pleased with it – and gratifyingly Brene herself has given it an enthusiastic stamp of approval.
Hope you like it …
In his e-book anti-hero, Richard Wilson describes the malign characteristics of the heroic leader as over-confidence, a lack of empathy, inflexibility and being unable to recognise uncertainty. Conversely, the benign characteristics of the anti-heroic leader are being empathic, humble, self-aware, flexible and comfortable with uncertainty.
There is some tilting at windmills here. I suspect even Fred the Shred would have denied neatly fitting the former list or totally rejected the latter, but I also have a semantic quibble: Surely, to exercise the qualities Richard extols under the growing day to day pressures of organisational leadership is itself heroic? We might particularly think this having explored something rarely acknowledged, that leadership is inherently tinged with pathos.
The very pursuit of high office has elements of delusion and futility. Lacan plangently described falling in love as ‘giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist’. Our ambitions and the objects of our desire are displacements of our instinctive desires. The claim of leadership may be dishonest. We say it is to make the world better but it is really an attempt to make us feel better. While the fulfilment of that ambition is futile as we are likely to find the desire that drove us remains unfulfiled. Whisper it quietly to the young and ambitious, but they will probably one day abandon leadership not because they are satiated but because they are defeated or exhausted.
And when we give up the struggle how quickly the waters close over our heads. The one thing of which most leaders can be sure is that a few weeks after their leaving party their successor will be announcing plans for a root and branch strategic review with a mind to achieving transformational change in what the new leader sees by implication as an outdated and creaking institution. If you want to feel the full force of the transience of status try visiting somewhere you used to be a leader a few years after you’ve left it. New staff won’t know who you are and old ones will try to hide their embarrassment at the fact that it has long become a recognised fact that your reign was mediocre at best.
Finally, heroic leaders often remain unsung. We live in a short term world with a shrinking attention span and little or no respect for the recent past and those who inhabited it. Yet, a large part of good leadership is about laying down long term foundations and addressing weaknesses and risks before they turn into problems. Some of the best and bravest decisions any leader makes may remain virtually unknown until years later when a successor – who may be of little merit – gets the credit for a long since made investment. This may have been more bearable in a slower moving, more deferential world with a more settled and self-assured leadership class but when blame and reputational disaster can move so fast, it is hard to expect leaders to await their reward in heaven. In my view Richard definitely left one leadership virtue off his list – stoicism.
None of this is to say that I would advise against the ambition to lead. It would after all be pretty hypocritical to do so. Love may be ‘the hysterical illusion we are no longer alone in the world’ (Lacan again) but it also makes life joyful and motivates great acts of courage and compassion. Leadership may be self-deceiving and futile but it also solves problems, drives progress and can release our most noble capabilities. To understand the tragedy of leadership is not to abandon it. As the stoics argued, resignation – particularly resignation we have chosen to adopt – can be a source of wisdom and comfort.
On Monday I had the honour of interviewing the great writer and practicing psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Near the end (I won’t say when because you ought to watch the whole thing) an audience member asked about coaching for leaders. Phillips wanted to know what the purpose of the coaching was seen to be; merely to make the boss a better profit maker perhaps?
I am a supporter of leadership coaching. Partly for the reasons I have given, leaders need a safe place in which they can stop leading, unburden and be human. But coaching, like analysis, should not promise, or perhaps even offer, to provide instrumental success. Coaching may make us wiser in part because it makes us sadder (I have heard analysis described as ‘replacing hysterical neuroses with everyday melancholy’). Equally, and this possibility should perhaps be explicit from the outset, it might inspire us to find somewhere a little less exhausting to displace our insatiable desires.