In the 1970s, so the story goes, when for the first time in its history the Association of University Teachers (now part of the University and College Union) took strike action, a committee of dons was established to agree a protest slogan. After several long and intense meetings a consensus was reached. On the appointed day taxi drivers, office workers and tourists thronging central London were called on to express their solidarity with the AUT’s stirring demand, printed on hundreds of placards and chanted as protestors in their gowns and mortar boards marched down Whitehall: ‘Rectify the Anomaly’.
I was reminded of this communication failure at a seminar yesterday on progressive responses to the rise of political populism in Europe. Among the various contradictory suggestions were that mainstream parties should get better at addressing the bread and butter issues that often most concern, and annoy, people and, conversely, that progressives should counter the nostalgic idealism of populism with their own mobilising visions, not of a lost past, but a better future.
Perhaps these ideas fit better together than first seems.
Currently political debate is dominated by a short list of almost entirely negative stories; on public service cuts, falling living standards, immigration and welfare. A few posts ago I asked whether the focus could have shifted by next May:
‘The odds are that the next election will be about blame and credit for the past and an unedifying retail sale of pledges for the future. Yet my sense of what the country needs and what voters may be ready to hear, is a message broader, braver, more engaging and uplifting. Something about the kind of country we want to be and the kind of choices our collective aspirations involve not just for Government but for us at citizens’.
As we emerge from long recession with an unbalanced and a patchy recovery and continue with public service austerity, political idealism may seem wholly misplaced. Certainly, what we don’t need is mere gassy rhetoric about the ‘great future of our great country and its great people’. Indeed polarising negativity and unrealistic promises are the twin banes of political debate. While rhetorically the latter may be the antidote to the former, together they are bound to obscure real political choices.
Which is why I was struck by a point made at the seminar by the writer on philosopher, Julian Baggini. Might it be that recession and austerity have instilled a greater realism among the public, a realism that would enable politicians to combine an optimistic story with candid acceptance that a better future can only come about through the combined efforts of Government and civic society?
Such a story interweaving realistic ambition and concrete challenge is surely what we want and need to hear not just as a piece of rhetoric (as it largely was with David Cameron’s Big Society) but as a political organising principle, a component of every major policy, indeed central to a different way of thinking about policy and political power?
If for example, any Party, was to feel inclined to reassert the now effectively abandoned pledge to abolish child poverty, it would surely have to rely not only, or even mainly, on new Government spending but instead on a society-wide mobilisation, by councils, public services as a whole, businesses, churches, charities, community groups and poor families themselves .
When things are going well politicians are tempted to offer to solve every problem themselves: whatever Tony Blair actually said, this is what New Labour was heard to be offering in 1997 and 2001. When things are going badly people may be too angry and hurt to accept a message which makes demands on them, which may be why, as the IFS’s Paul Johnson argues in this morning’s Times, there is a tacit agreement among the main parties to avoid admitting the scale of the fiscal choices ahead.
Perhaps the background of 2015 – a country that has survived the crisis but knows it faces many more challenges and is a long way from thriving – is propitious for a new type of message and a new model of change?
Back at the seminar, someone suggested a new take on the classic call and response chant:
‘What do we want?’
‘Pragmatic, progressive idealism!’
‘Ah yes’, said another contributor, ‘but don’t forget the second half’;
‘When do we want it?’
‘As soon as we agree that it’s practically feasible’.
I’m in Helsinki to meet with our growing band of Finnish Fellows and to speak tomorrow at a conference they have organised. Rather to my consternation not only am I sharing a platform with some rather senior Finnish figures but the title for my talk seems to be simply ‘good society’. Apart from ‘the meaning of life’ it is harder to imagine a tougher brief for a twenty minute speech. Nevertheless I will have a go and what follows will be a key part of my argument.
Despite globalisation, travel and migration, important differences between countries persist. Cultural traditions, social norms, patterns of inequality, educational attainment and the quality of the public sphere are all examples of differences between countries which are as likely to grow as diminish. Most permanent incomers to new countries keenly adopt the norms and expectations of their new home, often including antipathy to the next round of incomers.
It is therefore relevant and important in every nation to talk about the kind of society its people want to create and sustain. Yet this conversation rarely takes place. Sure, we talk about all kinds of aspects of society and how we might change them but the deeper question of nations as a whole, what makes them work and what we want them to be, rarely gets beyond vague lofty aspirations.
Although countries remain importantly different, most of the developed world is experiencing a combination of declining trust in democratic institutions alongside a rise in political populism. Is this perhaps because the populists, while generally lacking credibility and coherence, speak to this yearning for a national project which binds and inspires people?
There are two interconnected processes which have hollowed out public discourse over societal progress; one ideological and one intellectual.
The first concerns the triumph of left social liberalism and right economic liberalism (the subject of a fascinating extended essay by David Goodhart, Director of Demos).
While left social liberals are clear about specific things that they want to change – discrimination, poor social mobility, for example – they are more uncomfortable with good society talk: Partly this is down to an ambivalence (based on a commendable internationalism) about the whole idea of nations as cultural unifiers; partly because the idea of one person’s or group’s idea of a good society being better than another clashes with a relativist world view; partly because they don’t really have a script – and certainly not a normative script – that enables them to talk about things which are clearly part of most people’s idea of a good society – social norms , family and community bonds, traditions, duties etc.
For true economic liberals, talk of a good society is positively dangerous, providing cover for all kinds of meddling by Government, erroneously implying that it is possible to plan for social progress and ignoring the fact that the route to collective success can be more or less entirely be paved with individual market based choices.
Tied up in the triumph of liberalism is an important intellectual barrier to an exploration of the characteristics of the good society. In the sixties and seventies a schism took place between sociology and economics in which the former largely abandoned the Durkheimian tradition of functionalism (the study of how society works) in favour of a Marxian focus on oppressive power (the study of how society doesn’t work for various subjugated groups). Meanwhile the triumph of the neo-classical school drove economics away from thinking about how to overcome the inherent instabilities and inequities of national economies into the ever more arcane study of the assumed perfect functioning of the free market. Meanwhile, psychology went more micro and political science became more technocratic. Arguably, only anthropology managed to maintain a focus on the functions and disfunctions of societies and cultures as a whole.
So what is to be done? First, mainstream politicians need to find coherent and inspiring ways of talking about the good society and the good citizens and institutions which will be needed to grow it. Here I strongly agree with Roberto Unger that progressives must move beyond a privileging of greater economic equality as the only thing that matters. Instead the starting point must be a commitment to a society in which people can live the fullest lives of which they are capable (of course, this begs a thousand questions, but they are the right questions to be asking). Sure, it is hard to see how we could make progress without tackling inequality, but when it comes not only to the good society but what most people really care about, it is a means, not an end.
Second, I favour a neo-functionalist way of analysing society. I have outlined my favoured version of this - cultural theory – in many blogs and lectures. To this view stable societies tend towards a complex functional balance of hierarchical, solidaristic and individualistic forces. However, the optimum balance is rarely achieved and, even when it is, is always at risk of destabilisation. This is because these three sources of power (of authority, of the group and of the individual) are inherently in tension, but also because contextual factors differentially strengthen and weaken the three forces.
The most obvious example of this latter process can be seen in the decline of hierarchical authority in the developed world (here is Moises Naim talking about his book ‘The End of Power’). This decline is the consequence of various trends such as population mobility, affluence, higher levels of education and the shift of technology from being primarily a resource for authority (only big organisations could afford main frames) to becoming one which is a tool for new forms of individualism.
Which brings us full circle. Unless you are an anarchist, your good society is likely to be overseen by responsible and respected sources of authority. In the twenty-first century that kind of authority has to be very different to old closed elites. It has to nurture solidaristic feeling by articulating a powerful and binding mission of the good society while seeking to maximise the degree to which individuals and groups can themselves adapt and build toward that mission.
Thus one of the ways in which putative social leaders might start on the road towards a good society is to have the courage to start talking imaginatively and concretely about what that good society might comprise.
Call it a tragic irony or, more prosaically, another example of human cognitive frailty, but while we nearly always notice fast occurring defeats and victories we rarely appreciate outcomes of equal or greater significance that take years to unfold. So, however long it has taken to acheive, it is well worth marking a seachange in the methodology of policy making.
For more than twenty-five years I have been advocating an approach from Government that demands more from the public while also treating citizens with greater respect. On Friday, while chairing a Cabinet Office conference on Open Policy Making it occurred to me this argument has reached a turning point; it is a matter now of how, not whether, it will be won.
My own journey began in the mid-nineties when a Research Fellow at Warwick University working on a Joseph Rowntree-funded project designed by David Blunkett (often ahead of the curve in his thinking). The project explored the degree to which public service interventions rely upon, and might potentially foster, civic effort. At a time when the idea of a ‘demographic time bomb’ was just coming to public prominence, my research looked at the mix of public sector, familial and voluntary effort involved in providing care to older people.
I came up with some pretty big figures for the contribution made beyond the state and reached the obvious conclusion that policy should seek to supplement and encourage that effort rather than ignoring it or crowding it out. But when I presented the paper at a departmental seminar I met a response that, over the years, I have come to expect: No one exactly disagreed but neither did any one seem terrible excited.
Partly, this is ideological. Those on the left traditionally haven’t really seen a problem with the state doing everything and are suspicious of the inequalities lurking in families and wider civil society. The right is sceptical that the state could ever do anything but suffocate civic effort and increase dependency. More generally, the indifference reflects a view that while it is obvious public service outcomes are a joint effort of the state and civil society, and while there may be many small interventions which might demonstrate this idea in practice, it is far less clear what it means for the kind of large scale policy debates that dominate national politics.
As Director of IPPR and a Number Ten policy advisor I kept banging on the same drum with more or less the same response. Tony Blair, for example, would politely but unenthusiastically listen to my rather vague thesis before turning his rapt attention to more thrusting colleagues as they made the sinuous case for quasi-markets, huge technological solutions and greater consumer choice. The case for reform might be made in terms of people power but public service users were seen as consumers not citizens.
My first RSA annual lecture, in similar vein, focussed on the idea of moving from a Government-centric to a more citizen-centric model of social change: How could new forms of politics and policy help us close gap between our collective aspirations and the trajectory on which current attitudes and behaviours place us?
Of course, I haven’t been the only voice; not the loudest and certainly not the most coherent. From ideas of public service co-design and co-production to the concept of the ‘relational state’ many others have made the case and promoted examples of different policies and forms of delivery.
When David Cameron first expounded the idea of the Big Society I saw an attempt to put the notion of a renewed relationship between state and citizens at the heart of a political project. I was a great enthusiast. But, as it turned out most of the big beasts of the Tory Party and Whitehall reacted to the Big Society with that same old polite disdain.
Yet in the idea of ‘open policy-making’ (OPM) I hope we have at last reached a tipping point beyond which a more ambitious model of citizen engagement gradually becomes the norm. To use the jargon, after thirty years of dominance it may at last be that the nostrums of New Public Managment are being superceded by those of OPM.
OPM is a broad term and suffers from being erroneously reduced to only one of its components; for example, opening up data to citizens or adopting a more design-based trial and error approach to policy development. But the core elements, it seems to me, are that Government can only be effective if it is able to mobilise the efforts of citizens as service users, carers and community members, that it should share problems and the analytical tools (especially data) it has to solve them, should prefer small incremental to large expensive solutions, be willing to experiment and be tolerant of failure and should listen hard to the views and experiences of service users as well as providing multiple channels for those to be expressed. To turn those principles into action there is a large and growing tool kit ranging from ethnographic research methods to design based decision-making and data visualisation.
At the conference last Friday, as well as a mix of senior civil servants and external practitioners from outfits such as NESTA, the Design Council and the Denmark’s MindLab, the impressive line-up of speakers included Cabinet Officer minister Francis Maude, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Haywood and Chris Warmald who combines being Perm Sec at Education with leading the policy profession across Whitehall.
Amidst the enthusiasm there was recognition of the various pitfalls facing the advocates of OPM. These include tendencies to overstate the degree to which it departs from existing good practice or to fall into jargon and a technocratic worldview (all problems can be solved with the right data). But by far the biggest challenge remains the one I identified here – reconciling the scale of innovation in policy making with the unedifying and unreconstructed reality of political manoeuvring.
An example was provided by Francis Maude who contrasted the evidence-based and collaborative nature of OPM with his largely vain attempts every year to stop his ministerial colleagues unveiling headline-grabbing but often ill-prepared policy initiatives at Party conference. Equally, I have very little sense that Labour is aware of much of this work, let alone that the Opposition appreciates its potential to underpin a more progressive and popular model of government. One of the senior civil servants extolling the virtues of OPM told me that rational decision making on big issues has almost ground to a halt in Government as the Coalition ‘partners’ retreat to build up their supply of arms for the General Election battle. The small scale of most OPM at least means it will be less impacted by this abandonment of public interest considerations by our elected representatives.
Still, I am confident. However much I would like it say it was voices like mine that have wrought the shift of OPM from the left field margins to the edge of the mainstream, it is in fact bigger forces; changing public attitudes and expectations, new computing power, the ubiquity of social media, and the inevitability of continuing constraints on public expenditure.
Open policy-making is the future. Politics will simply have to catch up. I wonder who will get the credit when it does.
As Martin Wolf reminds us in this morning’s FT, the economic cycle has a behavioural underpinning: stability creates instability (it fosters behaviour such as complacency amongst regulators and greater risk taking in business).
Politicians in Government are subject to a similar tragic irony: success becomes irrelevant. The electoral salience of an issue reflects the level of public concern. One consequence of today’s good unemployment figures is that jobs move further down the list of the voters’ priorities. This helps explain why those in charge of the country – who we might expect to transmit a message of calm and optimism – often seem to be in the business of stirring up public anxiety (for example, in relation to immigration): parties don’t just need to persuade people they have an answer to a problem, they also have to persuade them the problem is big and dangerous.
Among pollsters, politicians and commentators there seems to be a consensus on what the battleground issues will be at the next election. It is worth considering whether they are wrong. For, if by May 2015 people have become used to economic growth, if living standards have started to pick up with the prospect of more to come, if austerity is still not seeming to impact on the views of those most likely to vote in key marginals and if the feared hordes from Eastern Europe continue not to show up, then these currently poll-topping issues may turn out not to be as dominant.
Politicians, like generals, have a tendency to keep fighting the last war. Indeed, the danger in 2015 for the Coalition parties may have peacetime parallels with Churchill’s nasty surprise in 1945. The Government could fight an election on its success in winning the economic war but find an electorate more interested in who can make the most of relative peace. Not that the parallel between the Second World War and the global credit crisis works for Labour (not only was it not blamed for the former, it was a key partner in the wartime coalition).
The electorate in spring 2015 could be receptive to a new, more expansive, pitch. But how might something like this emerge? To experiment with a narrative that peaks next spring will mean starting to unveil it before the public is ready, thus providing an opportunity for the political media to undermine it almost before it has been noticed.
Earlier this week I was at a dinner with a thoughtful and impressive senior Number Ten strategist. As someone involved in manifesto writing, he asked how his Party could escape the long term and dysfunctional tendency for the number of specific policy pledges made to NGOs and sections of voters to increase at every election (there were apparently over 650 such promises in the last Conservative manifesto). This temptation made be even harder to resist in 2015 given that, beyond economic growth, a combination of austerity and a very mixed record on policy means the Coalition won’t have much in the way of concrete service improvements or outcomes to trumpet. This problem of a weak record beyond the economy will be exacerbated if the crime figures are about to start rising.
The odds are that the next election will be about blame and credit for the past and an unedifying retail sale of pledges for the future. Yet my sense of what the country needs and what voters may be ready to hear, is a message broader, braver, more engaging and uplifting. Something about the kind of country we want to be and the kind of choices our collective aspirations involve not just for Government but for us at citizens.
The RSA’s contribution to such a debate might involve advocating an ambition for the UK to be the most creative country in the world and then to explore the implications for education, public services, cities and business.
For many understandable reasons it is unlikely the political class will summon up the courage to debate shift in this way. Maybe it is up to us the punters. A new topic for discussion: what I would like the next general election to be about.
This morning I chaired an event in a packed Great Room to launch an RSA report on the scope for large retailers to be active contributors to community life. It is easy to see corporate responsibility as a marginal issue in comparison to the big questions of public policy. Also, as the report focussed in particularly on one initiative – Asda’s community life programme – the research could be seen as public relations flim flam. But having read the report and chaired the event I think the future of retail sector and its relationship to local communities is significant and am reassured that the RSA and Asda have flagged up some of the significant challenges ahead for what we term ‘community venturing’.
There are 46 million retail transactions in the UK each day. Only big retail chains have this scope for face-to-face interaction with the public. Yet, despite its importance in our lives and localities the sector has been neglected as a subject for wider social research.
We may be missing a trick. As many physical spaces for public connection – libraries for example – are closed down, supermarkets could provide a new setting for people to engage with each other and with key local challenges. Now is a key moment. As large stores are reformatted to serve mobile-connected customers, there is a chance to reimagine the form and function of ‘big box’ retail.
The RSA has a growing body of work exploring the role that the retail sector can play in connecting and strengthening communities. For this project we spent six months undertaking fieldwork and data analysis with three contrasting Asda supermarkets implementing Community Life. This programme involves opening up 570 stores to offer free space for use by community groups, and allocating 22 hours per week of paid staff time to coordinate the store’s local engagement.
Retail is renowned as a fiercely competitive sector. While donating money to charity through grants is valuable and worthy, our report focuses on the business case for ‘shared value’: where commercial activity can support positive social value, and social activity can support positive commercial impact. We call the exploration of such opportunities ‘community venturing’.
It is clear from our research that to build trust and loyalty from local customers, a localised store-by-store approach is imperative. Community ventures will be effective when they are co-developed through partnerships with existing local charities, voluntary groups and public sector agencies. This could mean sharing data between businesses and public authorities; offering new services in store for citizens and entrepreneurs as well as shoppers; bringing a range of public service interactions into the store; and better utilising physical space such as car parks for commercial and community use.
In Tilbury, Battersea and Oldham, we brought local stakeholders together to develop ideas for the community ventures they’d like to see in their Asda supermarket. In the short-term, they wanted to build on existing services such as pharmacies in store to offer a wider range of health services and tackling nutrition, cooking skills and budgeting together. Thinking five years ahead citizens had ideas that included drive-in movies in car parks at night in areas with no cinema and roofs of supermarkets being endowed to community trusts producing renewable energy. In each case, it is clear that as an anchoring institution, reliant on local people for business and workforce, the public wants large retailers to show leadership for the local area, for example serving as a hub for volunteer recruitment or services for start-ups and small businesses.
Supermarkets have complex algorithms to stock their stores with products, but if they are committed to making a difference on issues of public concern such as obesity – a particular concern in Tilbury – they can use sophisticated data from local health authorities on the scale and nature of these challenges. In areas with high residential turnover and overcrowded homes like Battersea, housing authorities could work with retailers to better manage and recycle the waste generated from moving, sell space-saving storage units, and offer homework clubs in store.
Sixty years after the first supermarket opened its doors in Streatham in South London, there’s now at last one in almost every neighbourhood. Price, quality and convenience are key customer values but the retail giants now have the opportunity for a benign competition to be the greatest provider of additional local social capacity.
To put all this into practice, stores need the power and permission to experiment at the front line in engaging with the customers and wider public. Asda recognised that engagement had be devolved, something which can be challenging for a company which relies so much on central service and economies of scale, Local and central government, along with charities and third sector providers, need to be leaders in this process too.
Through a prolonged period of austerity, the contribution of businesses locally in developing community ventures with social and environmental benefits could be significant.