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The biggest deficit – leadership

December 3, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Politics, Public policy 

George Osborne’s autumn statement appears to be is a sophisticated package; written to maximise advantage to the Conservatives with a strong ideological undertow, but also containing a popular top line policy – on stamp duty – that has already commanded cross-party support.

Although, along with just about every other commentator, I don’t think the Chancellor can actually deliver the targets of spending reduction he published yesterday, the statement confirms what we already knew: unless we start very soon to see a substantial fiscal dividend from economic growth, public services face many more years of trying to meet growing demands and rising expectations with frozen or falling budgets. Indeed the statement adds an extra year to the austerity horizon meaning major cuts will still be being implemented in the immediate run up to the election after next. Bu already, for local services in particular, the fat has long gone, the flesh has been sliced and the vital organs are starting to fail.

Mr Osborne’s unwillingness to recognise this or to accept any responsibility for how his strategy will impact on public servants and citizens is an abnegation of his responsibility as a public servant, albeit one that will be echoed by other political leaders with no desire to disturb voters with difficult truths. The survival of the public domain relies on a further significant shift of responsibility from the state to the citizen. Political expediency and the failure of the Big Society means no national leader will be inclined to ‘fess up to that before next May. If we need a different order of public leadership in these challenging times we will have to focus elsewhere.

Over recent days I have looked at public service reform from a bewildering number of angles. I attended the first national conference for the Government-funded ‘What works centres‘. I chaired a Parliamentary roundtable event on design for policy. I also chaired the launch of the Public Service Transformation Challenge Panel report, sponsored by DCLG.

On top of this I was MC of an event to publish the final report of Islington Employment Commission and the keynote speaker at the launch of the Croydon Fairness Commission. Finally, I chaired the second in our series of seminars held in conjunction with the global education services provider Pearson to discuss the idea of efficacy, this time in the context of school improvement.

Normally this would provide material for several blog posts. For while there was value in all these initiatives I have misgivings about each. The general approach of the What Works centres is overly technocratic (which is perhaps inevitable) and lacking a convincing model of change (which is less excusable).

The design for policy approach is fascinating and progressive but can feel overblown given the paucity of powerful examples of impact at scale and that, on closer inspection, design for policy isn’t all that different from the best examples of traditional policy making.

The recommendations of the Public Service Transformation Panel were hard to dispute but the report didn’t really get to grips with why implementing them seems so hard and, anyway, the idea of ‘transformation’ is surely a misnomer for a set of practices – a focus on citizens and more effective inter agency collaboration, for example – which need to be seen not as one-off changes but as a continuous discipline.

It is heartening that local authorities like Islington and Croydon are looking to provide a broader convening role focussed around the needs of citizens. However, in practice (and it is too early to speak for Croydon) I find that councils have rarely thought deeply enough about how to provide a qualitatively different kind of leadership, one that is based on influence and generosity, not control.

And while I continue to be impressed by Pearson’s commitment to ensuring that their products and services improve people’s lives through learning, it is clear that efficacy is a more powerful tool for asking questions than providing definitive answers. (Indeed, Pearson’s growing awareness that efficacy is not about imposing a single ‘one best way’ perspective on complex challenges contrasts with the rather reductive world view of the What Works initiatives.)

As I rushed from initiative to initiative the sense that something fundamental is lacking in them all grew and grew. The length of time since my last post is witness to my inability to put my finger on what that something is. Now I think I may have found it. My colleague Anthony Painter (who leads the RSA’s growing portfolio of work on institutional reform) directed me to a new paper published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review. ‘The Dawn of System Leadership’ is by the impressive team of Peter Senge (recently interviewed in the RSA Journal), Hal Hamilton and John Kania.

The article helped me identify that missing ingredient. In short, the need for a different order of leadership, something to which reformers often pay lip service but which I see little sign of being fully appreciated. There are two contrasting problems with a focus on leadership: first is that it reinforces a hierarchical model of change, second that ‘leadership’ is a proxy for an ill-defined bundle of virtues – commitment, wisdom, authority. The value of the Stanford Review paper is that it provides a compelling and concrete account of the components of the kind of leadership needed to solve tough problems; problems like reforming public services in a context of shrinking budgets and rising demands.

Senge et al identify three core capabilities:

• The ability to see the larger system

• An ability to foster reflection and more generative conversation

• A capacity to shift the conversation from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

Exhorting a new paradigm is all very well but why might we hope for new leadership? Through their own experience and the many case studies they cite the Stanford authors argue that the hunger for system leadership and the human capacity to provide such leadership is growing. This perspective chimes with the progressive human development theories of figures like Robert Kegan and Ken Wilbur.

The problem is not our receptivity or capacity: it is the organisational forms and norms that put huge barriers in the way of system leadership and, more profoundly, blind us even to its possibility.

Senge et al summarise their argument in one sentence:

The deep changes necessary to accelerate progress against society’s most intractable problems require a unique type of leader – the system leader, a person who catalyses collective leadership.

Although this insight is negatively articulated in the ever growing disdain of citizens towards the political establishment I don’t expect it to be acknowledged anytime soon in the actions and rhetoric of national politics. Yet, without system leadership in our services and localities the next few years will see the public domain hollowed out ever further.


Jumping the impoverished shark

December 10, 2012 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, Public policy 

The phrase ‘jumping the shark’ describes the moment when a popular TV show overstretches its founding concept and begins the process of decline. I am starting to wonder whether George Osborne jumped the shark last week.

As I wrote in my last post, it has become commonplace in political communication to distinguish between the worthy (working) and unworthy (unemployed) poor. It was this that lay behind a skirmish last week between the Chancellor and Shadow Chancellor, with Ed Balls claiming that the Coalition’s cuts in the real value of benefits would predominantly fall on working households.

The backdrop to this debate is opinion polls which show a steady hardening of opinion against welfare recipients, especially the unemployed. But the world is complicated; public opinion is both reflexive and subject to substantial shifts in mood. I suspect that three things may be coinciding to produce just such a shift.

First, there have always been ebbs and flows in public opinion when it comes to a general spectrum of values relating to social justice and collective provision. While the swing against state help for the poor (which is to simplify the issue) has been long and deep, there is no reason to believe the pendulum won’t in time swing back.

Second, the longer economic problems and accompanying austerity continue, the more people there are who will be directly or indirectly affected by some combination of poverty, benefits cuts and unemployment. The number who find the striver/ shirker distinction uncomfortable may be increasing.

Thirdly – and this is where political analysts may have committed the classic error of linear thinking a complex world – it may be that the gradual build-up of social concern about the poor was just waiting for a catalyst. By seeming to be making a point of moralising the cut in welfare, rather than simply saying it was necessary for reasons of austerity, Government ministers may have inadvertently provided just that catalyst.

I have this afternoon been chairing an event on child poverty in London, being hosted by the Peabody Trust and held at John Adam Street. A question I posed the audience concerned how the poverty lobby might take advantage if there is a shift in public opinion. I can’t say the ideas were flowing thick and fast. Probably, the London Living Wage and universal free school meals for primary children – a measure already implemented by Southwark and some other London councils – were the most popular ‘transitional demands’.

My own thought centred on connection. I was very taken by a story told to me by a friend who had spent time on websites for parents of new born children. Amidst the normal lively conversation about illnesses, sleep patterns, diet, equipment and child care, some parents let slip how hard they found life on benefits. The better off parents started asking questions and pretty soon the chat rooms were full of people saying things like ‘until I had a child I never really thought about how hard life must be if you are poor’. Subsequently a great deal of charitable giving started flowing through the site – so much so that it had to be regulated by the site’s moderators.

Regardless of anyone’s political leanings and economic analysis, it is surely a good thing if more people who are fortunate in their circumstances understand more fully the lives of those who rely on state help, whether in or out of work. My hunch is that some clever way of providing such insight and of connecting people across the social divide could go viral at this moment of inflection in public opinion, especially with Christmas almost upon us.

The Autumn Statement and the unappealing politics around it may have marked the beginning of the end of one long running narrative;the opportunity may now be there for some campaigning brilliance to provoke a very different and more unifying public discourse.


Dangerous striving

December 6, 2012 by · 15 Comments
Filed under: Politics 

Today’s blog probably makes me sound like Dave Spart, so apologies in advance to those of a tender or neo-liberal persuasion….

Ed Balls and George Osborne are having a row over whether the Autumn Statement measures hit ‘strivers’.  According to the commentariat this is because the Chancellor sought in his statement to trap Labour into having to choose between backing welfare cuts (which would appal its activists) or opposing them (which would appal an electorate polls show to be ever more hostile to those on benefits). But Labour now thinks it can turn Osborne’s punt into an own goal by pointing out that most of the welfare cuts will actually impact on the working poor, a group which gets a lot more sympathetic attention.

Many people will find the whole deserving versus undeserving poor thing unpleasant, but there are three other reasons why the distinction is highly problematic:

1. Notwithstanding the point about in-work benefits, many people are continuously moving between being ‘strivers’ and benefit dependents. People on the lowest wages and who have experienced recent unemployment are precisely those most at threat of future joblessness. Not only do they face penury and many other social economic and social risks if they lose their job, but they will suddenly move from the sunshine of Mr Balls’ and Mr Osborne’s admiration to the darkness of their admonishment.

2. It is a lot easier to be a ‘striver’ in some places than in others. Given that the unemployment rate in Darlington is three and half times that of Reigate, does this mean the people of the commuter belt are inherently more striving than those in the North East? In fairness, perhaps we should have a regionally adjusted striving index which reflects local labour markets. So anyone who has had a job in the last three years in Darlington can get a ‘striver’ badge but anyone in Surrey with a job on less than, say, £20k should be labelled a feckless loser.

3. Is striving restricted to paid employment? How about those on benefits who provide 24 hour care to loved ones, or who volunteer in the local community or who are coping with severe physical and mental illness. As, apparently, none of this counts as striving perhaps they should just leave their relative in a wheelchair outside the town hall, stop helping out around the neighbourhood and perhaps do the decent thing and stop being a burden to us all.

I am no political innocent. I worked for a politician who was fond of the morally freighted phrase ‘ a hand up, not a hand out’. But whilst this kind of stuff is tolerable at the margins and when things are going well and there is a reasonable supply of jobs that pay a living wage, right now it feels like the worst kind of reactionary, intelligence-sapping populism.

Or perhaps I just don’t get it. I must strive harder.


The epistemological failings of the state

December 14, 2011 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

A couple of weeks ago the RSA was contacted by Rohan Silva, a senior Downing Street special advisor and asked at short notice to hold an event featuring Nassim Nicholas Taleb. The event was packed out and Rohan as chair was at pains to emphasise the powerful influence of Taleb’s ideas on Government thinking. In essence Taleb’s argument – based on a fascinating, but occasionally somewhat opaque, mixture of philosophy, statistics and metaphors – is that big systems are much more prone to catastrophic failure (or in some cases sensational success) than small devolved ones. From bankers to planners to politicians, a combination of ignorance, complacency and self-interest leads to a systematic underestimation of the inherent risk of large complex systems.   

On Monday the RSA jointly hosted an event with OFSTED to discuss our report on satisfactory schools.  In the course of the conversation a different Government special advisor was asked about the idea that a national agency – perhaps OFSTED, perhaps the National College for School Leadership –  might be tasked with helping schools that were finding it difficult to move above satisfactory status.  In expressing opposition he said he had very little faith in national strategies overseen by national agencies. Instead, he said, we should rely on a combination of devolved governance and greater public accountability to drive improvement. Yes, there would be some schools which would fail to improve but this was also true of a top-down national strategy and the latter approach had many other adverse externalities ranging from cost to stifling innovation.

In interpreting Government policy it is important to understand the right’s epistemological critique of the state. From this perspective the size, complexity and reflexivity of the modern world make it impossible for state planners to be able to predict accurately how their interventions will impact. Unintended consequences are inevitable but instead of planners learning from their mistakes, these consequences simply provide the pretext for more interventions leading to an ever more intrusive state and an ever less free society.

Taleb applies this idea to the modern financial system arguing that its size and complexity makes it inevitable that it will be subject to extreme events (black swans).  Corporate bankers and state regulators, who have a vested interest in maintaining the system fundamentally as it is, connive to pretend that risk can be abolished.

Scepticism and hostility towards big state planning goes way back in right of centre thinking and has had powerful exponents including Hayek and Oakeshott. Team Cameron see Taleb as the Oakeshott of the twenty first century.

These ideas are commonplace among right of centre thinkers, but Conservative politicians tend not to put so much emphasis on them in public, perhaps because they are seen as overly intellectual or vulnerable to being portrayed as extreme. I sense this is changing.

There are two obvious reasons why ministers might feel more empowered to reveal that their scepticism towards the state is philosophical as well as pragmatic. First, while the emerging data on Labour’s record in improving economic and social outcomes is more positive than the current public view, there is no doubting that most votors think the New Labour’s statist experiment failed. Second, austerity gives philosophical predisposition the impetus of practical necessity. Many of the public entitlements which Labour used the state to guarantee are simply unaffordable.

But regardless of the economic cycle, the right’s theory of social knowledge is also strengthened by the ever greater complexity of the modern world. If Oakeshott thought national planning was bound to fail in the more ordered, slower moving, more deferential world of the late 1940s imagine how futile he would see it as being today.

If the right does become more intellectually explicit it will face some challenging questions. Here are just two: why is a democratically accountable and relatively weak organisation like a local education authority portrayed by ministers as the kind of overbearing power that needs to be broken up while Tesco (to take just one example) is left free to grow even more powerful and major Academy chains, massive welfare to work providers and various other large scale private sector providers are encouraged? Second, given that Government has to govern, how can we distinguish between national policy which reflects an understanding of the limits of state knowledge and efficacy and that which doesn’t? I heard this morning that the Autumn Statement contained twenty announcements on policy in the FE sector alone; were these all about lifting the burden of state interference?

In the immediate context of austerity much debate is about what welfare and which public services can be afforded. But the gap between what we aspire to and what we can afford is likely to grow over the long term as is the complexity of society. So we should also welcome the right’s invitation to a more fundamental debate about the kinds of things the central state can and can’t do (should and shouldn’t) do.


A new crossroads at 14?

December 5, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Ahead of a speech on the subject I am making tonight (I will do anything to avoid celebrating my birthday), a few thoughts about the implicit direction of Coalition schools policy…. 

One of the less heralded parts of the Autumn Statement was the announcement by the Chancellor that the Government will now be supporting the creation of at least twenty five University Technical Colleges. These colleges (only one is so far up and running) offer an education which is broad and demanding (40 week year, seven hour days for example) with an overall emphasis on technical skills.

It is interesting to put this announcement together with the thrust of Government policy on the academic curriculum and examinations. Promoting the eBac along with reducing modularity and retakes is part of an explicit policy of raising the academic bar. Unless the Government can achieve an unprecedented improvement in attainment, this suggests an abandonment of the goal of every child reaching the headline grade for academic attainment.

Together these policies can be seen to be inching the English system towards a more explicit selection/choice at fourteen.

As a self-styled educational progressive, it might be assumed that I would oppose such a drift. In fact I have no problem with the principle; it is the practice which concerns me.

If only a minority (say 35-40%) of school pupils pursue a primarily academic route (aiming towards degrees in top universities) perhaps the rest could be liberated from the often joyless ‘teaching to the test’ that is involved in schools trying to raise their headline figure for ’5 A-Cs  including English and Maths’. A strong technical route ranging in ability from those aspiring to STEM subject degrees in HE to those aiming for good vocational qualifications and skilled apprenticeships could make technical education more accessible and higher status.

But notwithstanding the massive organisational issues involved in clearer post 14 routes, it isn’t hard to identify the dangers. If from the start the academic route is seen as the best, then it will be even more fully colonised by the middle class than is good schooling already (see today’s excellent RSA report on satisfactory schools for further evidence of school disadvantage heaping on social disadvantage).  Indeed this will mean post 14 selection would actually be post 11 selection as schools marketed themselves as guaranteeing pupils the higher route.

Even if the technical route could grow in size status and popularity it still leaves the question of those who are neither suited to academic nor advanced technical education.  It could be that there are only two strands post 14 (many parts of Germany are now merging the technical and vocational streams of their much vaunted tripartite system) but the danger here is that the idea of ‘technical’ education becomes devalued. Partly because it is not yet explicit about the post 14 choice the Government has not yet even begun to address this issue.

However, it is worth exploring.  A new secondary schooling system should be based on universal access to four basics:

  • Every pupil to get the core knowledge they need and beyond this for curricula and examinations to be fit for purpose and stretching.
  • An education which attends to the fuller development of young people as confident, rounded 21st century citizens.
  • A system which is committed to exploring, finding and developing the educational enthusiasm of every child.
  • A system which as far as possible offers personalised education with flexibility for children to move onto different routes in line with developing preferences and aptitudes.

It might be possible for a system with three more differentiated routes post 14 to deliver this. But only if policy is from the outset committed to promoting genuine meritocracy (meaning extra support for the disadvantaged which goes beyond the pupil premium), parity of esteem between different routes and a robust and compelling account of the offer for the third leg of the tripartite division.

The Coalition has many policies and ideas about schooling and the system is changing fast around us. But beyond the usual platitudes, ministers are very cloudy about its final destination. This is partly deliberate in that it is by definition hard to predict the future when the key institutions (schools) are more diverse and autonomous. But an idea as radical and far reaching as more differentiated post 14 routes needs to be explored in a broader context. For unless it is accompanied by other shifts in policy, public assumptions and expectations, it could simply reinforce educational inequality and exclusion.


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