Last week I posted on an aspect of the RSA’s quest to become the kind of organisation the 21st century needs. As it’s the end of the year and I am in an introspective mood I thought I’d write about another.
Over the last few years – in large part as a result of coming to the RSA – I have focussed less on Government policy and more on practical innovations as a way to make the world better. This has an impact on a question that matters more to me than any other: ‘How important am I?’
One upside of a focus on social innovation is a sense of making things better right here right now, whether that’s the people in recovery from addiction we are supporting in West Kent or the pupils benefiting from attending RSA Academies. In the policy world it is impossible to achieve anything significant without both luck and a massive job of political persuasion. Think tanks like the ippr or Policy Exchange may do great work in developing policy recommendations, but these are hardly worth the paper on which they are printed unless ultimately they lead to changes in the decisions of policy makers.
Even that may not be enough. My greatest achievement as its Director was to play a small part in ippr persuading the previous Government to introduce the Children’s Trust Fund. But as soon as the Coalition was elected the fund was abolished.
A downside of the world of social innovation is that it is very crowded. It is difficult to get noticed and with so many people claiming so many things, it is even harder to know which people and ideas you should follow and which you should ignore (most evaluation is so weak and self-serving it hinders rather than helps).
In policy fields there is a kind of hierarchy. If you are reasonably bright and work at it, it’s possible to get your head round key debates quite easily and to know who is most respected in that field and who is most likely to influence policy (ultimately, senior civil servants, policy advisors and politicians). Another social innovation challenge is the scale of impact. For good or ill, national policies tend to make a difference (although often not the one intended), but successful innovation in one case and place will often prove not to be replicable.
The landscape of self-importance in these two worlds is different but the topography is similar: occasional peaks when it feels like one might have made a difference, deep valleys of self- doubt and failure and flat expanses on which we hope we are on the way somewhere or have just enough grounds to claim more influence than we can ever prove to ourselves, let alone anyone else.
There is a now another approach to change, championed most strongly by the Behavioural Insights Team in the cabinet Office. Using ideas gleaned from behavioural science and a methodology relying largely on Randomised Control Trials the BIT uses innovative thinking and service design to change the practice of Government agencies. Taken from BIT’s annual report here are some examples of what they do:
A trial which changed the messages conveyed to Doctors with outstanding tax liabilities, which has brought in an additional £3m in revenue this year.
A trial with HMRC that showed how telling late tax payers that most people in their towns had already paid their tax increased payment rates by 15 percentage points. When rolled out this will generate £30m of extra revenue to the Exchequer annually. Subsequent trials are demonstrating new nuances about how best to convey these messages.
A trial with the Courts Service showed how personalised text messages were six times more effective than final warning letters at prompting fine payments. The Courts Service estimate that this will save some 150,000 bailiff interventions and £30m per annum when this is rolled out across the country (which is now planned).
As an organisation which is interested in policy, which undertakes practical innovation and which has its own behaviour change team (as well as specialists in design) the RSA’s aim is both to be able to choose the type of intervention which seems best and to develop approaches which could combine these different tools. For reasons I have rehearsed before, it is generally easier to do this at a local level.
The aim is also to have a team of researchers, innovators and organisers who feels confident to choose from a big tool box of ways both to influence people and shape society. Hopefully this means that we will develop a greater capacity to have original ideas and test them out in different ways.
But whatever we do I still recommend to all those seeking to change the world that they should reconcile themselves to the attitude recommended by Antonio Gramsci: ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’.
But on a more positive (and less self indulgent) note, here’s something you can do …
The RSA Great Room was packed yesterday lunchtime to hear Steven Pinker explain the core thesis of his masterwork: ‘The better angels of our nature: the decline of violence and its causes’. Unless you have hidden away from the radio, TV and serious newspapers for weeks you will by now be starting to recognise Pinker’s core argument: the five forces which he says are responsible for the irrefutable evidence of declining human violence: 1) the Leviathan (the rise of the orderly state, and particularly the democratic state); 2) gentle commerce (trade creates an incentive to avoid war and to cooperate with other nations and peoples); 3) feminisation (the rise of female-friendly values); 4) the expanding circle (globalisation, culture and mass media have expanded empathy beyond its biological span of kin, friends and peer group); 5) the escalator of reason (rising levels of education and intelligence are making the world’s population more capable of reflection and self-control).
Given the current economic turmoil, perhaps the most challenging part of Pinker’s case is simply that the world is becoming a better place, and quite rapidly too. It isn’t hard to think of counter-arguments.
One of the most obvious concerns environmental degradation and climate change. But, even here, a fascinating article in yesterday’s Guardian sheds a more positive light. Data analysis by the environmental writer Chris Goodall provides clear evidence that economic growth in the UK has for some years been de-coupled from resource consumption. For example cement production peaked in 1989, paper and cardboard consumption in 2001, we have been producing less household waste since 2002, and eating less meat and using less water since 2003. Of course, it is still the case that UK citizens consume far too many of the world’s resources and generate far too much of its greenhouse gasses but, still, it is surely good news that the trends are going in the right direction. It is reasonable to draw the conclusion that it is well within the normal scope of modern human ingenuity and effort to build a steadily better future and overcome even tough challenges like climate change.
‘What about something that is clearly getting worse?’ I hear you cry ‘social inequality, for example’. It’s a fair point; many Western counties have suffered rising levels of inequality and – judging by the 49% rise in boardroom earnings reported on Monday – the problem is getting worse. But the prelude to social advance is rising social concern which is, in turn, precipitated by a problem seeming to get worse (which may be because it is or simply that we have become less tolerant of it). Could it be that widespread anger about social inequality and concern about stalling social mobility turns out over the long term to be the spur to new attitudes and new ideas which see such inequality being overcome?
By now you might think I have had magic mushrooms for my breakfast. I can understand why such apparent complacency is jarring. On a personal level, as someone who has all my adult life said that my reason for being is ‘to change the world’, the news that the world may be changing perfectly well without my intervention is potentially soul destroying. This is why I cling on to the idea that a great deal of the credit for the world getting better in modern times is due to those people who insisted that without action it could only get worse.
The 18th century enlightenment saw the triumph of humanism, the idea that it was within the power and authority of all citizens (rather than just kings or Gods) to decide what future they wanted and then to build it. Since then we have simultaneously striven for and achieved progress while at the same time having a predisposition to social pessimism.
In the face of the failure of communism (and success of fascism) in 1920s Italy the Marxist Antonio Gramsci suggested the right mind set for revolutionaries was ‘optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect’. The progressive paradox is this: pessimism about the human condition is both ill-founded and indispensible. Conversely, those like Matt Ridley who suggest we cheer up, chill out and leave progress to the hidden hand of the market are in danger of creating a self-negating argument – for if the progressives did relax the momentum of social advance might be lost.
In her famous study of Adolf Eichmann and the bureaucracy of the Holocaust, Hannah Arendt coined the resonant phrase ‘the banality of evil’. Perhaps we could also talk about the ‘illusion of idealism’; the idea that progress relies upon those who feel it is their duty to emphasise all that is wrong in the world and demand radical change.
Social revolutionaries are only a part of the engine of progress. Sometimes (as in the first half of the 20th century) they are the part that blows up the whole mechanism. At other times they may prove essential to its survival, and perhaps tackling climate change is an example of the latter. This doesn’t mean reformers should leave the streets and tend to their gardens, but instead that we might project a less overbearing, more generous, more subtle and, most of all, more optimistic view of the world.
It is entirely understandable that progressives believe that without them the world will collapse but it is this that leads to the jarring disconnect between our future idealism and our current pessimism. Given this may be the biggest flaw in the progressive argument, perhaps humility is the path to potency.