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The reality check is in the post

August 21, 2012 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: Public policy 

I am grateful to the RSA’s Jonathan Rowson for alerting me to this research: A team at UCL have published findings from their repeat of a famous Stanley Milgram experiment to test neighbourhood altruism. The researchers dropped 300 stamped addressed envelopes in the street, fifteen each in twenty neighbourhoods, and counted how many were subsequently put in mail boxes so they would reach their intended recipient. The findings are stark. Nearly nine out of ten of the letters dropped in the most affluent 30% of neighbourhoods were posted on but less than four in ten in other areas.

Although the experiment is limited in scope and scale I don’t accept the view that dropped envelopes are too trivial to be meaningful. There is something significant being measured here. So what might be the implications?

One conclusion could be that poor people are simply constitutionally less altruistic then the well-off; indeed could the causality go the other way with generosity predicting success in life? However, not only is there no evidence of the latter, but other studies have found that when it comes to individual behaviour (such as the manners of car drivers) the well-off actually behave worse.

Finding no correlation between letter forwarding and two other variables – population density and ethnic diversity – the UCL researchers suggest that perhaps levels of crime would help to explain the difference. This might seem simply to replace one question (why lower altruism) with another (why higher crime), but as there is a strong statistical correlation between criminality and neighbourhood poverty a low altruism/high crime relationship would mean the former phenomenon could be accounted for using the many (contested) explanations for the latter.

While it could as be, as one of the researchers says, that fear of crime leads people to be more suspicious of finding a letter I wonder whether a factor is also fear of being accused of crime. While a middle class person might confidently assume their actions would be seen to have good motives, poorer citizens’ experience of authority might lead them to worry that if found in possession, even for a few minutes, of a letter between two strangers they would be accused of misdemeanour.

One thing we can surely take from research like this is the greater difficulty of making certain forms of trust based voluntarism work in poorer areas. If levels of self-confidence and revealed altruism are higher in the most affluent areas then these are also likely to be the areas where the ground is most fertile for Big Society type initiatives. The hope that communities will come together and step in when the state withdraws may be well-founded in these areas but it is a much bigger leap of faith to see this happening spontaneously in other neighbourhoods.

So this research joins many other findings in implying that if a re-launched Big Society, or a new initiative in a similar vein, is to be honest and credible it should combine a message of transferring power from the state to the community with one about transferring resources from well-off areas to others that are less blessed.


Wicked priorities

May 30, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA, Uncategorized 

In my last post I used a footballing metaphor to suggest that the lifestyles of well-off people in the UK, particularly those based in the South East of England, put them in the Premiership of developed economy citizens while the poor have fallen to the level of the Championship. Given there are twenty teams in the top football division, there was gloomy confirmation in the statistics released yesterday by UNICEF that UK children are now 21st of  34 in a league table measuring child poverty levels (where the top country has the lowest levels).

There is a link between child poverty and my main current preoccupation, namely strengthening the 21st century enlightenment thesis to which I want return to in my 2012 chief executive’s annual lecture.

Writing with the equally esteemed Professor George Jones, the great local government academic Professor John Stewart used the phrase ‘wicked issues’ to describe problems – such as tackling poverty or promoting sustainability – which were not amendable to conventional bureaucratic public sector responses:

‘A wicked issue cannot be confined to a particular department. Many departments have contributions to make….This issue has to be dealt with across organisations and authorities, and at many levels…..Wicked issues present government and society with problems full of uncertainty’

Generally, policy makers and public sector managers have seen the response to wicked issues in better ‘joining up’ of organisations, functions and budgets. This is an important and a constant struggle, but it tends still to imply that the answer to these problems lies exclusively in action by government. But in a post last week I suggested some of our biggest challenges combine these policy and delivery challenges with collective action problems (getting individuals to align their behaviour with desired outcomes) and deeper issues of power, social structure and values. In this sense the implications of wickedness go much wider than problems of public sector silos.

Two different examples illustrate the point. The Big Society ideal is clearly one which involves voluntary changes in individual behaviour, reform and innovation in policy and service delivery, and shifts in power and social meaning; something which the idea’s architects seemed initially to recognise. The problem has been the half-hearted and unbalanced way the mission has progressed. Most of Whitehall either didn’t understand or care about the principles of the Big Society and those ministers who did were happy to talk about a shift in power away from central Government but not about trickier political issues like how realistically to grow and support capacity in deprived communities.

Moreover, the communication of the Big Society both underestimated how much in this vein was going on already and the length of time it would take to achieve the shift in norms, expectations and capacities to make the best of current practice ubiquitous (on the last point see this report from the RSA Social Brain team).

Child poverty under Labour offers a contrasting story. Here the problem was not a lack of commitment in Government – indeed there was pretty good progress – but the failure to make the abolition of child poverty an objective for wider society so that citizens as a whole understood this transformational goal and committed to what it might involve for them.

One consequence and symbol of that failure is that the possibility child poverty rates are set to increase is presented as a matter of Government policy rather than a problem for society or for our very idea of the kind of country we want to be.

Wicked problems require concerted and determined responses articulating political leadership, long term policy, institutional innovation, intellectual and cultural discourse, and the mobilisation of civil society by civil society. Unlike the crowded agenda of Government, it is probably only possible to pursue change of such a scale on a very limited number of issues at any one time.

If a Prime Minister were to say that he/she wanted to be judged on only three issues and over a decade’s time frame, for the sake of argument, abolishing child poverty, providing universal high quality care to older citizens and matching American levels of entrepreneurialism, there would, of course, be an outcry as the advocates of other priorities made their case. But while bureaucracies can always sign up to additional priorities (safe in the knowledge that some will soon go by the board) solving wicked issues requires change on a social scale and this means working work with the vital but constrained capacity of people to change their attitudes and behaviours.


Cluster’s last stand?

May 1, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Credit crunch, Public policy, The RSA 

We all agree but we may all be wrong. From David Cameron’s Big Society to social democratic ideals of social solidarity and an empowering state, and including many public service experts and voluntary sector thought leaders, there is a consensus around a big idea: in essence, blurring the boundary between state and civil society so that social outcomes are achieved through the combined efforts of publicly funded programmes, individuals and communities. Yet the evidence of this approach succeeding at scale is limited and many who are at the front line of public service delivery seem sceptical.

As I have commented before there are examples of public service reform which engage citizens as co-producers of outcomes. One is refuse collection in which rising recycling rates are a joint effort of councils and households; another is individual budgets which – at their best – turn the desire of social care clients for greater autonomy and dignity into a resource which reduces the cost of bureaucracy and of providing unwanted services.

But the idea of co-production is still at the margins….In many ways some – as yet unpublished,- findings of a recent LGIU/RSA survey of local authority leaders make reassuring reading. Despite the scale of cuts, councils report they have been able to achieve the bulk of savings through efficiency measures, such as sharing back office services with other councils and public agencies. Furthermore, and this is very good news for the Coalition, the councils are just as likely to say that services to the most vulnerable have improved as that they have deteriorated over the first two years of cuts. Of course, it is early years and the vast majority of cuts are still to come but councils also report that they are being forced to do things differently with the implication being that this is a good thing.

However, one area where the findings are less positive relates to the Big Society approach. Councils continue, generally, to be sceptical that citizens and communities will step forward to fill gaps left by a receding state.

One interpretation of these findings is that the whole fluffy, empowering, civic idealism thing is for the birds: ‘end of’. Austerity will force councils to cut bureaucracy and less essential services (which is a good thing), what will remain is a residual safety net focussing on those in most dire need (which is an inevitable consequence of sorting out the public finances).

Another interpretation, to which I am clinging for the time being, is that the RSA’s idea of social productivity – judging services by their capacity to help people meet their own needs individually and collectively – is still vital and necessary but we are running out of time to move it into the mainstream.  Which returns me to a question which has recurred in several conversations I have had recently: ‘What are the necessary ingredients to generate social innovation so that we can protect and even improve social outcomes at a time of falling budgets?’

Every once in a while I am like a dog with a bone with a project idea. So it is with this question. I would love to do a piece of work exploring the conditions for generating successful large scale local social innovation; what I have previously referred to as a social innovation cluster.

I have spoken to people who know about social finance, to social entrepreneurs and innovators with great ideas (some of which are up and running on a small scale), and to experts on organisational change in the public sector. They all agree the question is how to bring the various pieces of the change process together and to create circumstances in which not just one but many substantial innovations are explored, commissioned and rolled out. Which city or county wants to be the first to create a social innovation cluster which has parallels with industrial clusters or innovation hotbeds like Silicon Valley?

I realise I may be shouting into a void (which could almost be a synonym for ‘writing a blog’) but is there anyone out there with a budget and some change levers who wants to talk to me?

PS I may not even be alive to take the idea forward if I perish on the mountain marathon I am running to raise funds for the RSA Great Room appeal. So even if you can’t meet my ambitions for an innovation cluster you could always sponsor me….


Not local, not big, and not clever?

December 16, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Two stories of unmet social need have featured in the news in the last 24 hours. First, there was David Cameron’s announcement of matched funding to tackle the problems of dysfunctional families. Second, there is today’s report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists highlighting failings in care for patients with dementia. One aspect of these stories is the apparent fading of two key Government principles; localism and the Big Society.

Although we are told Eric Pickles fought off an even more centralised approach, the troubled families scheme will effectively mandate local expenditure on a priority chosen by central Government. The content of the scheme is also likely to be tightly specified by Whitehall. This may not be a bad thing. I am sure my old friend Louise Casey could make a strong argument both that councils should be forced to invest in this area and that there are tried and tested techniques which every scheme should apply. But this effective imposition of a priority through earmarked funds stands in contrast to Eric Pickles’ promises when he abolished Local Area Agreements, the mechanism through which councils negotiated their priorities with Whitehall.

An even more striking example of central control comes in the response of Care Services Minister Paul Burstow to the RCP report. Apparently, next year will see the introduction of a financial incentive to encourage hospitals in England to screen patients for dementia when they are admitted for other conditions. It is hard to see how this kind of micro-management fits with the promise that health commissioning will be localised.

In both cases the Government can claim it is using incentives rather than targets and regulation, but when there is too little money to go around ear marked funds are surely as powerful in driving behaviour as any target.  

Also noteworthy in both these stories is the absence of an explicit role for the community in addressing problems. As I argued a few weeks ago in response to the Care Quality Commission’s findings of terrible hospital care for vulnerable elderly people, a crucial factor is the place of family, friends and volunteers providing care and advocacy which goes beyond the basics of medical treatment. I don’t have any evidence to prove my point, but I am willing to bet a substantial sum that a key variable in the quality of institutional care received by older people is simply the number of visitors they have.

The extended family and wider community also have a crucial role to play in helping troubled families. The RSA’s own work with people recovering from substance abuse addiction has developed a strategy in which service users design and help provide the services they need with a particular emphasis on engaging other individuals and organisations across their locality. The aim is to create what we call ‘a recovery community’.

An impressive example of an approach with similar principles is Shared Lives. This long established and expanding scheme involves local co-ordinators identifying and supporting families who are willing to open up their homes and lives to vulnerable people. The families get back up, advice, help if things go wrong and something towards costs, but the scheme is based on relationships not transactions, love and compassion not service requirements.

In the context of growing needs and shrinking budgets it is crucial to develop interventions which successfully blend public services and funding with self-help, co-production and community mobilisation.  This should be the golden thread running through every Government public service initiative. That it is not is yet another sign of the failure of the Big Society narrative to be understood or gain traction in Whitehall.


The consequences of throwing stones – and this time I really mean it

August 19, 2011 by · 13 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, The RSA 

Apologies to Shane, Neil and Ian: you all commented on a post I wrote at Sydney airport on Wednesday afternoon which I then comprehensively rewrote when I got to Bangkok nine hours later. The original post was called ‘the consequences of throwing stones’ and contrasted the punishment being meted out to rioters and looters with the way those who behaved irresponsibly in the financial sector have got away Scot-free. I don’t sleep well on planes and at some point in the first leg of my journey back to London I decided the post was trite. But now, back in England, I find myself wanting to make the point more strongly. But this time in the form of an urgent challenge to the Prime Minister.

My conviction was renewed by two pieces on the BBC web-site. The first describes the sixteen month prison sentence for Thomas Downey, who helped himself to doughnuts from an already looted Krispy Kreme shop in Manchester. From his photograph and his record, Mr Downey is not, I think, the kind of person I would like to have as a friend or even sit next to on a bus. But, even so, banging him up for sixteen months for grabbing a box of doughnuts from a vandalised shop when he was drunk is surely unlikely to: (a) do him any good; (b) be a wise use of public money; or (c) appear to most people as a proportionate punishment.

The second story explores the profound and still unfolding consequences of the financial turmoil unleashed in the credit crunch. With stock markets crashing again yesterday (and it looks bad today) no one knows where all this will end, but we already know that hundreds of millions of people across the developed world will suffer hardship and insecurity and that many will never fully recover from the effects.

No one can argue that all this came about just because of the behaviour of bankers and speculators. I have been arguing since even before the crunch that the deeper cause lies in the fundamental and growing mismatch between public expectations of personal affluence and public services and what the state and market are able to provide in the absence of a strong civil society. But equally, there is no question that the finance sector bears substantial responsibility because of how it chose to make as much money as possible despite the risks and because it was a strong voice advocating the economic and policy framework which collapsed in 2008. Furthermore, there continue to be parts of the sector which not only make money out of adversity but also have an interest in adding to the turmoil (this is one reason why four European countries recently banned short selling).

I could stop here, simply highlighting the way rich and powerful people can cause great misery and get away with it and poor and hopeless people can be severely punished for minor misdemeanours, but we need to get past impotent rage. The contrast between what happened to Thomas Downey and the impunity of the bankers and speculators is at one level entirely rational. Downey was personally responsible for committing a crime, the finance guys are collectively responsible for making a killing in a system which has created, and is still exacerbating, a crisis. Some people do terrible things which aren’t against the law; other people do trivial things which are. The state can only punish the law breakers. It’s just the way things are.

But borne on the wind of turmoil and trouble can be heard the swirling murmur of contested moral equivalences. The Government is close to big finance and it made an explicit policy decision to put pressure on the judiciary to hand out longer sentences to all those involved in the riots, so it can’t simply shrug its shoulders if people find this imbalance of consequences ugly and unjust.

The Big Society is in part a way of addressing the limits of the state and market in meeting social need. And for this I have often commended it. But to have credibility, the Big Society must also be about a basic sense of justice, which is essential to social cohesion and morale. Fred Goodwin and thousands more like him are still rich and still making money out of decisions which have had a profoundly damaging impact on innocent people. Thomas Downey and hundreds like him, more guilty of stupidity and impulsive greed than malice, are starting prison sentences which could blight their lives. There may be nothing that can be done about this, but political leadership has sometimes to be about helping us understand why things seem unfair and describing ideas and principles which offer a better foundation for society.

A friend of my fifteen year old son got arrested after the rioting. He didn’t attack or hurt anyone physically but he was involved in the looting. It is clear that the consequences for him as a working class kid are going to be dire. My son said to me last night ’my mate was stupid and he knows it but he is going to lose everything. Why is it when rich people screw up they always seem to get away with it?’  As he spoke I sensed a deep and lasting impression is being made on him about the way things are and how unlikely it is that ‘the system’, as he sees it, will ever change. 

If David Cameron is to return to the promise of his early years as Tory leader and provide a vision which unites, heals and invigorates society then he needs to balance the punitive rhetoric of the last few days. He needs to say something which touches and unlocks this hardening sense of injustice and cynical resignation. He needs to do it powerfully and he needs to do it soon.


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