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Beyond belief – towards a new methodology of change

August 24, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA, Uncategorized 

An exciting and progressive new paradigm for purposive social change is emerging*. For want of a more positive descriptor, this can be called  ‘beyond policy’. It has many positive things to say, but its starting point comprises a number of related critiques – some quite new, some very old – of traditional legislative or quasi-legislative decision-making.

One relatively new strand focuses on the problems such decision-making has with the complexity and pace of change in the modern world. For example, in their recent book ‘Complexity and the art of Public Policy’ David Colander and Roland Kupers write ‘The current policy compass is rooted in assumptions necessary half a century ago….while social and economic theory has advanced, the policy model has not. It is this standard policy compass that is increasingly derailing the policy discussion’. Old linear processes cannot cope with the ‘wicked problems’ posed by a complex world.

A second strand – most often applied to public service reform – argues that the relational nature of such services means that change cannot be done to people but must be continually negotiated with them, leaving as much room as possible for local discretion at the interface between public commissioner/provider and citizen/service user. The RSA identifies the key criterion for public service success as ‘social productivity’; the degree to which interventions encourage and enable people better to be able to contribute to meeting their own needs.

Design thinking provides another, rather elegant, stick with which to beat traditional policy methods. Here the contrast is between the schematic, inflexible, risk averse and unresponsive methods of the policy maker versus the pragmatic, risk taking, fast learning, experimental method of the designer. Across the world Governments local and national – including the UK with its recently established Policy Lab - are trying to bring the design perspective into decision-making (generally it promises lots of possibility at the margins but has proven hard to bring anywhere near the centre of power).

Connected to the design critique the rise of what David Price and Dom Potter among others refer to as ‘open’ organisations challenges many aspects of the technocratic model of expert policy makers ensconced in Whitehall or Town Hall. When transparency is expected and secrecy ever harder to maintain and when innovation is vital but increasingly being seen to take place at the fuzzy margins of organisations, then we are all potential policy experts.

A final stand worth mentioning (I am sure the are others) is more ideological and idealistic. Following the civic republican tradition, beyonders want a model of change in which the public has the right and the responsibility to be the subject not the object. There is, for example, the distinction made many years ago by historian Peter Clarke between ‘moral’ and ‘mechanical’ traditions in the British labour movement. The former (favoured by ‘beyonders’) is concerned with embedding progressive values in the hearts and minds of citizens who will themselves build a better society, while the latter is focused on winning power so that those in authority can mould a fairer better world according to their grand plan.

The dictionary definition of policy is: ‘a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organisation or individual’. So, echoing Bertrand Russell’s problem with the set that contains all sets, the most obvious objection to ‘beyond policy’ is that it is, well….a policy. ‘Beyonders’ are not anarchists. The issue here is not whether people in power should make decisions; after all, it is because they are judged to be likely to make good decisions that they have been vested with authority. The differences between the ‘traditional’ and ‘beyond’ policy camps are in practice ones of degree. Often the best traditional policy turns out to have used versions of the new methods. But that doesn’t meant the differences between the approaches aren’t important and often  pretty obvious.

Beyonders put greater emphasis on citizens not only engaging with decisions but being part of their implementation. We recognise the importance of clear and explicit goals and shared metrics, but rather than setting these in stone at the outset see them emerging from a conversation authentically led and openly convened using a new style of dispersed and shared authority.

Beyonders are likely to see civic mobilisation as preceding and possibly being an alternative to legislative policy whereas traditionalists will tend to see mobilisation as something that happens after policy has been agreed by experts. Beyonders tend, at last at the outset, to be more pragmatic and flexible about the timeframe over which major change can occur – depending as it does on public engagement and consent – whereas traditionalists pride themselves (before a fall) on their demanding and fixed timetables. And, of course, beyonders tend to be decentralists seeking to devolve decision-making to the level at which the most constructive and responsive discourse between decision makers and citizens can occur.

Another reasonable challenge to the new paradigm is that it can’t be equally applied to all areas of policy. When it comes, for example, to military engagement or infrastructure investment, surely we need clear decisions made at the top and then imposed regardless?

Yes, even here the case is not clear-cut. One of the reasons we sometimes get infrastructure wrong in areas like transport and energy is that the policy making establishment (not just the law makers but those paid to advise and influence them) prefer big ticket schemes (which tend also to generate big ticket opposition) to more evolutionary, innovative or local solutions. And as the military and police know, without winning hearts and minds most martial solutions fail to sustain. A topical example is the way the terrorist threat in the UK is now less to do with organised conspiracy (requiring sophisticated and centralised surveillance) and more to do with disturbed and alienated youth who need to be identified and engaged with at a community level.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the beyond policy paradigm is that it requires fundamental changes not just in the way we do policy, but in how we think about politics, accountability and social responsibility. The solidity of traditional policy making is contained within a wider system which cannot easily contend with the much more fluid material of ‘beyond policy’. When, for example, I tell politicians there their most constructive power may lie not in passing laws, imposing regulations or even spending money but on convening new types of conversation, they react like body builders who have asked to train using only cuddly toys.

Reflecting the way we tend to think about the world, the beyonders’ revolution requires action on several levels. Innovation shows us a better way of making change that lasts. See for example the work of Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley of the Brookings Institute on the advances made by US metros, often based on the convening power of the city mayor. Included in the ranks of a new generation of beyond policy practitioners are community organisers, ethnographers, big data analysts and service designers – they can all tell you why traditional policy making is a problem and they rarely see it as the best way to find solutions. There are also more academics and respected former policy makers (like former Canadian cabinet secretary Jocelyne Bourgon) helping to provide conceptual clarity and professional credibility to the project.

‘Beyond policy is a movement in progress, but in recognising its flaws and gaps we mustn’t forget the traditional system’s glaring inadequacies or that the political class is still, on the whole, clinging tight to it: Over the next ten months our political parties will offer manifestos full of old style policy to be enacted through an increasingly unreal model of social change.

If the problem was simply that the policies and pledges were unlikely to be enacted it would be bad enough. It is worse. Politicians feel they pay a high price for broken promises so, if elected, they demand that the machine try to ‘deliver’ regardless of whether the policy makes any sense or of any learning that points to the need to change course. The result is often distorted priorities and perverse outcomes along with gaming, demoralisation and cynicism among public servants. No chief executive of a large corporation (and none are as a large as the UK government) would dream of tying themselves in detail to a plan that is supposed to last the best part of five years regardless of unpredictable events. But that is exactly what we will apparently command our politicians – facing much more complex tasks and challenges – to do in ten months time.

Surely now, before another Government is elected on a false and damaging prospectus, it’s time to move beyond convention and have a grown up conversation about how society changes for good and how politician can best make a positive difference.

* This is an edited version of an article I have written for the News South Wales Institute of Public Administration



Take me to your (normative) leader

November 23, 2012 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I am grateful – not for the first time – to Keith Grint for alerting me to a distinction made by Amitai Etzioni in 1964 in his book ‘Modern Organisations’:

Etzioni distinguished between Coercive, Calculative and Normative Compliance. Coercive or physical power was related to total institutions, such as prisons or armies; Calculative Compliance was related to ‘rational’ institutions, such as companies; and Normative Compliance was related to institutions or organizations based on shared values, such as clubs and professional societies. This compliance typology fits well with the typology of problems: Critical Problems are often associated with Coercive Compliance; Tame Problems are associated with Calculative Compliance and Wicked Problems are associated with Normative Compliance. 

As regular readers of this blog (lovely to see you the other night, mum) will know, I think that more and more policy problems are ‘wicked’ by which I mean they are complex, intractable in the sense that they can be managed but probably not solved, contested both in terms of diagnosis and prescription, and – crucially – solutions involve changes not just in policy and processes but changes in social expectations, norms and behaviours.  The latter point links wickedness to the ‘social aspiration gap’ (which I have argued separates our collective hopes for the future from the trajectory upon which current modes of thought and action set us) and to ‘social productivity’ the idea at the heart of our 2020 Public Services Commission report that public services should be judged by their capacity to help people meet their own needs.

I have decided to try to delve deeper into this question of normative leadership; why do we need it, what exactly is it, what are the best examples of it in practice, what are the factors which build it and inhibit it?

Last week, following a tip-off from Caroline Haynes at KPMG, I gave the example of transformative normative leadership provided by the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma – if you didn’t follow this link you really should, it’s a great story. My thinking is at an early stage but the working definition of successful normative leadership is ‘the achievement by those in authority of enduring and benign change in social norms, which may involve, but does not primary rely upon, regulatory compulsion or financial inducement’.

Keith Grint differentiates this type of leadership through three dichotomies: questions not answers, relationships not structures, reflection not reaction. This is a good starting point but I want to suggest other dimensions such as a focus on substantive mission not procedural means, a willingness to accept the risk of public failure, leadership y through exemplary action not mere exhortation.

My weekend request to readers is for more examples of normative leadership. It need not be mayors, or even politicians. It could be a head teacher, a social entrepreneur or a community organiser. But it is someone who successfully took it upon themselves to persuade people voluntarily to change their habits for the good of society.

This is the leadership we need right now. It is not the kind being offered by conventional leaders but rather than blame them, I am looking through this project to inspire them to believe it is worth trying to be braver and more ambitious.

And as it’s Friday, here is an old joke from the Soviet era to exemplify the failure of normative leadership:

Worried about the stirrings of revolt in the Gdansk shipyards, Soviet Premier Andropov takes Polish Premier General Jaruzelski on a walk in Moscow. He stops a young boy and asks:

‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?

‘My mother is this great Communist nation, mother to all Soviet children’ replied the boy.

‘And who is your father?’ asks Andropov.

‘Why, that is Comrade Andropov the elder and father to the nation’.

‘And’ says Andropov ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’

‘My ambition is to be a cosmonaut’ says the boy.

‘You see’ says Andropov to a chastened Jaruzelski, ‘this is the ideological rigour you must instil’.

Back in Poland,  Jaruzelski goes on a great propaganda drive in school, on the media and through every organ of the Party.

A few months later comes the return visit and the two leaders are out walking in Warsaw.  General Jaruzelski stops a child.

‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?’

‘My mother’ replied the boy ‘is the Communist state, mother to all Polish youth.’

‘And tell me,’ says Jaruzelski ‘who is your father?’

‘Why my father is General Jaruzelski,  father to all Poland’.

‘And finally’, says Jaruzelski, turning to Andropov with a complacent smile ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?’

‘Oh’ says the boy ‘that’s easy – an orphan’.


Co-production, what’s that?

July 14, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

Think tanks tend to over-claim influence in high places. But sometimes you just have to admit no one in Whitehall is listening. So it is with this week’s Coalition White Paper on public service reform and the RSA 2020 Commission on the future of Public Services.

At the heart of the analysis of the 2020 Commission was the idea of social productivity: public services should be judged on their ability to enable people to meet their own needs individually and collectively. In essence, this means redefining the production mode of public services so that value (social outcome) is seen as the result of a process of co-production rather than one of delivery to consumers.

This idea features centrally in the core recommendations of the recent Christie Commission on public services which reported to the Scottish Executive.

Here are Christie’s top recommendations:

  • Recognising that effective services must be designed with and for people and communities – not delivered ‘top down’ for administrative convenience
  • Maximising scarce resources by utilising all available resources from the public, private and third sectors, individuals, groups and communities
  • Working closely with individuals and communities to understand their needs, maximise talents and resources, support self-reliance, and build resilience
  • Concentrating the efforts of all services on delivering integrated services that deliver results
  • Prioritising preventative measures to reduce demand and lessen inequalities

Coalition Ministers might argue that there is nothing here which contradicts the thrust of the White Paper but that would be disingenuous.

Christie (and the 2020 Commission) emphasise two things which get pretty short shrift in the White Paper. The first is the idea of better service integration. The White Paper gives some nods in this direction including a brief mention of community level commissioning. Also, the allocation of new responsibilities to local government such as public health and, possibly, skills might help join-up some areas of policy, but there is more on the negative side of the ledger.

The Coalition has removed the clunky but well-meaning measures the last Government put in place to encourage better integration, such as Local Area Agreements and local strategic partnerships. Schools are being encouraged to be entirely independent institutions with no encouragement to form links with other local schools let alone other services. There will be new, separate, lines of accountability for police and commissioning for health services. In many places – like Conservative-led Peterborough where the RSA is doing its Citizen Power project – local leaders will continue to work together on collaborative strategies but this will be in spite of, not because of, Government policy.

But more striking even than the limited enthusiasm for integration is the absence of any interest in the idea of co-production. As I said yesterday, the favoured forms of citizen engagement are through consumer choice and citizen control. But the notion that public services and institutions should involve creating shared social value through shared social responsibility is almost entirely absent from the White Paper. Children’s learning should not be something that schools do to pupils but should engage parents, pupils, communities and schools in a jointly designed and delivered endeavour. But such an idea seems completely alien to the current Education Department. This kind or re-imagining is also of no apparent interest to other major policy departments.

This speaks to one of the core weaknesses of the Big Society (which is still, I believe, an important concept): it largely relies on citizens spontaneously choosing to step forward (or doing this because they feel let down) rather than exploring how the services people use day to day could be redesigned to put user and citizen engagement at their heart. Perhaps it is not surprising then that the Big Society does not receive a single mention in the White Paper (apart from a reference to the Big Society Bank).

I can see how the White Paper aims to shift power from the centre to the citizen and the community. And it many areas – such as greater citizen access to information – the Government really is opening up services. But neither shifting power, nor even sharing information, in itself creates value. And – as today’s report today from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility vividly demonstrates – we face an ever growing gap between public expectations and what the state can provide using existing methods.

If the Big Society concept is to regain credibility or to have any chance of success it needs to involve a fundamental value re-engineering of public services, one which citizens themselves would help to design and implement. Maybe I am being too pessimistic but as far as I can see the White Paper shows no awareness of, let alone enthusiasm for, such an approach.


A wonderful evening – marred by my gender bending

January 25, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I attended a great event last night jointly hosted by the RSA North East and the School of Design at Northumbria University. There is an exciting vision of a cultural partnership between the two organisations and over 150 Fellows and non Fellows turned up to hear what we had to say.

Apart from the great people and the stunning venue in the University’s still new campus, the best thing about the event was the focus on action. Several members of the design school issued calls to action asking RSA Fellows to support their research or work with students. Then, in return, during networking, several Fellows spoke to the academics describing problems which they thought designers could help solve.

Much of the discussion in the event focussed on service design and particularly on public services. I found myself repeating an argument I made several years ago when helping to set up the ultimately unsuccessful ippr commission on public service productivity: the North East economy is very dependent on public service spending but – given that health, education, crime prevention etc are growing global markets – the region could turn this to its advantage if only its leaders and creatives committed themselves to innovation.

Building from the 2020 Public Services Commission report, I also talked about social productivity and the need for public services which are better able to help individuals and communities meet their own needs as individuals. How can services be designed to tap into the hidden wealth of people’s commitment to improving their lives and places and to looking after themselves and each other. Also, thanks to my former RSA colleague, Laura Billngs, I was able to cite this fantastic example of innovation – making something wonderful happen by giving one group something they need while the givers find fulfilment in giving. ‘We need more people with the commitment and creativity of Professor Mitra’ I exclaimed ‘she shows what the Big Society could mean in action’.

So it was all a great triumph until, that is, someone from Newcastle University approached me as I wolfed down a bowl of dry roasted peanuts. ‘I’m sure Professor Mitra would be delighted that you praised the project’, the lady kindly  said, ‘but ‘she’ might be slightly less enthusiastic that you changed his gender.’ 

I guess this is reverse sexism – believing only a woman could have such a warm and brilliant idea. But as I have an incredibly low embarrassment threshold, I fear this might end up being the strongest memory I have of the whole event!     

PS:  My Animate has passed 400,000 views – if you have watched it thanks. If you haven’t, please help me make half a million by March.


The CSR is a big test for the Big Society

October 19, 2010 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Today many people – public service workers, users and welfare beneficiaries – will start to learn their fate. Soon after, I suspect, we will find out whether the deficit plan and the fear it is bound to instil in so many people will knock a vulnerable economy back into stagnation.

Fewer people will care, but it will also be a big day for the Big Society. It was widely noted that George Osborne’s June budget statement and supporting documents did not mention David Cameron’s big idea. It is important to its credibility that there is some reference to the idea tomorrow.

On the one hand, there needs to be evidence that the concept has helped shape the decisions being made. I understand there will be a strong localist theme in the statement and plan. The basic deal is that local authorities get less money but more freedom over how they spend it. This is the right strategy and it is credible to link it to a Big Society approach.

On the other hand, advocates of the Big Society need to emphasise its relevance in the context of austerity. The point here is not, as it is often characterised. that communities will be expected to provide voluntarily that which was previously funded (although there will no doubt be some of that). Even if Labour had won the last election and cut less deeply, less quickly there would still have been a gap between social aspirations and what the state could guarantee. Big Society champions have to show how their perspective can help close this gap.

One way of thinking of this is through the liberation of three types of hidden or dormant assets:

At the level of the individual we know that people accept that they should engage more and give more back to society. While three quarters of respondents regularly tell pollsters that local people should have more influence over local decision-making, fewer than a quarter say they are prepared to participate in community activity themselves. The Big Society is about releasing this asset by making it easier, more enjoyable and more powerful for people to engage.

At the level of the community, we know that even deprived neighbourhoods have many human assets. For example, there are often strong social networks but these are hidden from policy makers and service providers, different networks don’t always join up and many people who could join in are isolated (these are all findings from the RSA Connected Communities project in New Cross). The Big Society is about a deeper understanding of community assets and how to foster and mobilise them.     

At the level of organisations a huge amount of benign social potential is wasted. The reasons are many ranging from unclear mission, lack of ambition and an overload of external demands and targets to a failure to engage and innovate or the deadening impact of organisational culture. The Big Society approach challenges organisations in the public, private and voluntary sector to maximise the social multiplier effect of their actions (this is what the RSA 2020 Public Service Commission meant by ‘social productivity’).

In the face of a lot of bad news tomorrow, people who think (for reasons good and bad) the Big Society is vacuous or a scam will have an easy script from which to read. The rest of us, with a more positive inclination, need to sharpen our argument and deepen our evidence that whatever the immediate context our country cannot flourish in the long term unless we get better at mobilising social assets.


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