Very many networks

July 10, 2007 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Sorry for the gap since my last post. I won’t mention my long hours, as the last time I did someone told it was ‘unbelievably self-serving’.

Last week a gang of RSA folk went to Manchester for a series of meetings including a very successful new Fellows’ event.

It was another chance to talk about our plans for the Fellowship engagement strategy in the autumn. Once again the reaction from both the regional network and new Fellows was overwhelmingly positive.

An issue I shared with the network members and that I have referred to before is the challenge of social innovation through voluntary action.

The vision of a hundred networks of Fellows grouped by locality, profession, interest, expertise, or concern seems to capture the imagination. People like the idea that to be an activist in the RSA you don’t have to be elected or appointed to a committee, simply to take initiative and attract other people who share your experiences, views or priorities.

And with the invaluable advice and support of Fellows with expertise in social networking – like Steve Moore from Policy Unplugged – we are confident that we can choose the right tools to enable Fellows’ networks to develop.

But we have been clear from the beginning that this online activity is only a facilitator for real world interventions. This will be the hardest challenge.

In Manchester we held a Coffeehouse Challenge in a hospitable but noisy Starbucks in St Anne’s Square. The group of about 30 Fellows and guests agreed early on that we should focus on the gap between the ever more successful Manchester elite who tend to work or live in the town centre and the large numbers of poorer Mancunians who continue to be locked out of the success story.

As we knocked around various thoughts, the mentoring of young people surfaced as a popular idea. That was until someone told us that they had been involved in exploring mentoring as an option for a company’s CSR programme. It turned out, he told us, the city was full of mentoring schemes, not all of them demonstrably successful.

A youth worker then chipped in that effective mentoring might mean a 10 year commitment to a young person whose strongest need was for continuity.

With mentoring sidelined we were just starting to get on to other ideas when the allotted CHC time ran out. This underlined how much time and hard thinking it takes to get an intervention right.

Half a lifetime as a political and community activist has taught me two things…

First, a small group of committed people can make a huge difference if they apply their collective intelligence and will to an issue.

Second, a huge amount of time spent on campaigning and volunteering is simply wasted in futile or even counterproductive activities.

Ultimately, when we have very many networks able to learn from each other, when we have refocused the RSA so that supporting Fellows’ activities is a central task and when the vibrancy of the Fellowship is attracting others to become our allies and partners, then I am confident we can develop some really powerful ‘pro-social’ interventions.

But in the early stages this is going to be more difficult. Fellows are busy and have many other calls on their energies.

Between now and the start of our new engagement strategy we need to have a substantial and clear headed dialogue across the RSA about how Fellows working together really can make a difference.

Let me know if you have any ideas on this, or have been involved in similar initiatives.

Some responses to earlier comments –

Justin: It was great to meet up again and I hope you made the church on time!

Gemma: Hybrid:arts sounds great. One idea I had for an RSA network was arts practitioners using creativity to foster social inclusion. There is loads going on but how effective is it? Are you an RSA Fellow?

Chris: Good point, the early years are crucial. But we surely can’t give up on children even if they have had a bad start? And we are exploring how we can apply the Opening Minds approach to primary education.

Peter C: This is just the kind of issue we need to address by opening a dialogue between parents and schools. I don’t think bullying is limited to the state sector, but I am sure you are right that many parents fear that bright, hard working children can get picked on by their disaffected schoolmates.

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Farewells and the Future

June 30, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

Yesterday’s post was a bit heavy so here are some lighter bites…

Wednesday was an emotional day. I somehow found my way into Downing Street to wave off Tony Blair.

There was hardly a dry eye in the house but TB managed even in his last minutes to find time for an anecdote, telling the assembled staff that when he first arrived in 1997 several of those who met him at Number 10 were in tears, ‘but not of joy’.

Behind the political headlines a PM leaving is just like any boss’s last day. TB was very popular with staff ranging from senior civil servants to the indomitable Vera who made the tea and helped run the house.

TB’s last day is also the end of employment for all his political staff, so between the memories and hugs there are lots of questions about future plans.

What made it even more poignant was finding that two out of the three of the people moving into my old office used to work with me before I went into government.

As I was leaving I literally bumped into another former colleague – my successor at IPPR – coming in to his new job as an education advisor. GB has certainly got a very talented team around him.

That was then and this is now.

RSA Fellowship
Work for the Fellowship re-launch is gathering pace. Our focus groups have confirmed that Fellows really are up for a more challenging and rewarding role.

We’ve had fantastic pro bono support from the agency ?What If!, who have both forced us to think though exactly what we are trying to achieve and offered us some great new ideas. We are also hoping we can draw on the innovation expertise and support of NESTA.

The new Fellowship model will have much in common with the best examples of the Coffeehouse Challenge.

As the CHC gathers pace I have been thinking about what makes an event successful and what this tells us about the kind of Fellows’ networks we want to develop in the future.

In essence it’s all about connecting three key links in the chain.

First, creating the right networks of people – sharing commitment and values but bringing different skills and perspectives.

Second, it’s about clarity in thinking – what do we want to achieve and how can we go about it?

Third, it’s turning intentions into actions in a way that is effective but realistic, given all the other demands on people’s energies and time.

Getting groups of people to work together to achieve real benefits to wider society is part science part art. It involves good process, clear thinking and soft skills such as communication and empathy.

I hope that through the CHC and the new plans for the Fellowship the RSA can develop strong insights into how to make this happen. Insights that we can then share across the Fellowship and more widely.

Moving on
I have been having some very useful discussions about the RSA’s future.

Last week I was at a large and enthusiastic gathering of Fellows in Birmingham and earlier this week it was the staff that gathered to brainstorm the RSA’s role in social progress.

I told all our staff that I want them to become Associate Fellows. They don’t get the letters after their names, or voting rights, but it means that apart from their work they can participate in emerging RSA networks in their neighbourhoods or areas of interest.

The team here is really keen to get going.

In the staff discussion we asked colleagues to think of any one thing they would like to change in their area or the wider world. There were some great ideas, but being the bighead I am I have chosen mine to share with you.

How about this idea
Could the RSA do something at a local level to persuade more well off parents to send their children to state schools?

We know that schools benefit from having the full ability range in them and that society is stronger if children from different backgrounds mix together.

Better off parents can bring valuable support to state schools and children themselves gain from meeting and befriending youngsters from other classes, races and cultures.

Some people choose private schools precisely because they want their children to be in an elite group, but for many others the concerns are different. As one friend put it to me: “I know that if I pay I will have the right to be listened to by the school if I think my child needs more support or opportunities. In the state sector you are just another person trying to get the bureaucracy to respond.”

This is a difficult issue, but it is also very important.

Could the RSA get a more open and constructive local dialogue going about how we might give every parent the assurances they need to feel confidence in the state sector (and encourage parents to band together so they have more strength)?

This is not something that could be done overnight, but a good group of RSA Fellows willing to open up the issues in an intelligent and responsible way, to think about how bridges might be built and issues concretely addressed, could maybe stop and even reverse a process which is threatening to create a educational apartheid in too many of our towns and cities.

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A participative system?

April 17, 2007 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Public policy, Social brain 

Those of you who have read my speech or essay on pro-social behaviour (thanks Mum) may recall that one of my arguments concerned the inadequacy of ‘majoritarian’ democracy to today’s social and political challenges. By ‘majoritarian’ I mean the view that the rule of law, regular elections and competition between parties are a sufficient basis for a successful democracy.

This can be contrasted with arguments for a more participative system in which citizens have a direct role in decision making and/or a pluralist system in which power is more widely diffused, for example through extensive decentralisation to cities, towns and neighbourhoods.

I have two recent reminders of this debate. The first comes in a refreshingly frank letter from one of our MP Fellows (a Conservative in case you’re interested). He describes how the task of being a democratic representative is being made ever more difficult by the decline of community organisations. Even where such organisations exist, he adds, they tend to be strongest among those who are already adept at having their opinions heard, particularly the well-off retired.

Very different factors lie behind the problem of understanding what communities want and engaging people in informed debate. The diversity of society (in relation to income, identity, attitude and lifestyles) makes representation more complex while the intensity of work and the opportunities of consumerism mean fewer people are inclined to get involved in community organisations.

The other prompt is my membership of the Commission on Councillors set up by Communities Secretary of State Ruth Kelly. The Commission is charged with exploring why more people (and particularly young people) don’t want to stand to be councillors, and proposing ways to address this deficit. There are some obvious reasons including the level of allowances, problems with time off from work and the low prestige of councillors in the wider community. Indeed only 4 per cent of the population have ever even considered standing.

The Commission was launched last week and our focus now is on listening and learning, but if I do bring a predisposition to our deliberations it is to think that we should address the issue of councillor recruitment in the context of the wider state of representative democracy. As long as the attitudes of citizens to politicians are framed as they are now it is difficult to see why anyone would want the hassle. Add to that the fact that putative councillors have to work their way through the hollow bureaucracy of local political parties and maybe we should be surprised the 4 per cent isn’t lower.

Fiercely protecting its independence, the RSA can sometimes give the impression it is above politics. But as part of our work on ‘pro-social’ behaviour we need to think about why politics isn’t working. Not in order to add to the lazy criticism of politicians but so we can develop practical ways to help reconnect the political process to today’s communities. I’m keen for example that we invite local councillors to Coffeehouse Challenge events – on the strict proviso that their status in the discussion is no different from any other participant.

The competitive nature of politics and an understandable fear of how the media might exploit candour can make politicians shy of describing just how hard it is to be an effective representative. Between the superficial apathy of voters and the disenchantment of politicians there is an important space for the RSA to provoke debate and innovation. And in case this doesn’t feel like a priority, look at the research from Cambridge University published yesterday. In assessing levels of contentment across the citizens of Europe the research suggested that the best explanation for the surprisingly low levels of contentment in the UK (given our affluence and stability) lay in our lack of confidence and trust in political institutions.

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Coffeehouse Challenge

April 4, 2007 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: The RSA 

I spent my Monday morning this week lodged between the celebrity heads of Jenny Agutter and Michael Portillo, banner aloft. Not the usual start to the week then, but rather a celebration of the launch of this year’s Coffeehouse Challenge (CHC).

The CHC is a great opportunity for Fellows to get involved in the work of the RSA, their local community and simply to meet other Fellows over a cup of coffee at their local Starbucks. But amongst the conviviality lies the serious question I touched on last week: how can we close the social aspiration gap – that is, the gulf between the society most of us want to live in and the society we are yet willing to create?

The overwhelming majority of people want a country that is peaceful and tolerant, a pleasant and sustainable environment, citizens treated fairly (which is not always the same as equally), a lively civic and cultural life and – as well as financial security – a better quality of life for people of all ages. Politicians may disagree about the policies needed to deliver this vision, but surely no one seriously thinks that such a society can be built without the efforts of people themselves.

This is so obvious it sounds almost childish to state; like an election speech for a year six school prefect. But if it is so obvious why are we so far from either living like this ourselves or organising society so that everyone can? With the CHC, the RSA in partnership with Starbucks and T-Mobile provide the space to make a start. CHC meetings start from identifying issues of local concern and then move on to develop and act on solutions.

In preparation for this year we received the findings of a specially commissioned opinion poll. The poll confirmed the aspiration gap revealing that on issues people most care about – crime, health, anti-social behaviour – they felt powerless to act. Two thirds recognised the need for local action to tackle these issues but less than a third was actually engaged in community groups or activities. The findings on concern about climate change were particularly intriguing. While it figured pretty low on people’s list of important local issues (only 15% thought it a significant problem) it was easily the highest on the list of issues people thought they could make a difference to. The lesson here is that, while people know they should have more efficient cars or energy saving light bulbs, they have no similar way of relating their own actions to other issues they are more immediately concerned about. The question is: can we develop realistic, attractive and effective ways for people to tackle crime, disorder, community tension, poor health or low aspirations?

The CHC takes a small step towards closing the social aspiration gap and I hope Fellows will grab the opportunity once again this year to get involved and make a difference in their community. All the details are available on the Coffeehouse Challenge website at www.coffeehousechallenge.org.

But real progress will take more profound changes in the way we think about politics, about social action and about the way we organise public services. Politicians from David Cameron to David Miliband are talking more about this ‘pro-social’ agenda but they need to show they understand the implications for the way politics and government themselves operate. Preaching simply won’t work; while 47% of people told us they would listen to friends and family who encouraged them to get involved in community issues only 4% said they could be inspired by their MP!

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Talking about change

March 26, 2007 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

One of the joys of my job is meeting RSA Fellows. Last week, for example, I attended a New Fellows’ Evening here at John Adam Street, and I spoke at a Brussels RSA event attended by local Fellows and a group visiting on one of our popular ‘demystification’ tours. Talking to Fellows you are guaranteed two fascinating discussions: first, about the Fellow themselves – after all they have been nominated in part because of their achievements in life; secondly, about Fellows’ expectations of the RSA.

Of course, many people look forward to being able to use the excellent facilities on offer at John Adams Street and others talk about the lecture series, the Journal and the website. But there is another dimension to Fellowship that I am keen we promote and support. This is the idea of the Fellowship as a network of people not only committed to progress but also to acting to promote change.

From now on we will be putting ever more emphasis on this peer-to-peer dimension of Fellowship. The most high-profile and effective expression of this idea currently is the Coffeehouse Challenge (CHC), which we will be officially launching next month. Through the CHC, the RSA and Starbucks aim to bring people together to discuss local issues and explore the possibility of taking action together. The CHC has already been the springboard for initiatives ranging from a zero waste organic café to a campaign against knife crime to a charity to provide public places for elderly and infirm people to be able to sit and rest.

It is an important dimension of the CHC that it is up to people meeting in their local Starbucks to decide what the important issues are and how they should respond. Without wanting to lose this spontaneity, we want this year to also offer suggestions to local groups for ideas they might want to consider. For example, I was approached by the former MP Peter Bradley who is promoting the idea of creating Speakers’ Corners in major towns and cities as a focus for open and lively civic debate. This is the kind of manageable but potentially significant project that CHC meetings might decide to take on. We are exploring other ideas to showcase in the Journal and put on the CHC website. Over time, I would like people and organisations across the UK (and where we are strong internationally) to see the RSA as a powerful source of ideas, energy and commitment.

So the CHC is at the heart of our model of Fellowship activism. But there are other important dimensions. We are investing in our website, with a particular focus in strengthening the Fellows’ areas. We have launched our Fellow2Fellow web feature, in which we invite Fellows to share opinions and proposals. And, as we get more and more Fellows willing to provide us with information and allow us to connect with them online, we are able to provide a powerful service to people trying to get advice and support. A few weeks ago we were able to contact getting on for a 100 architect Fellows in and around London on behalf of a Fellow wanting to see a higher profile debate about the changing architectural shape of the capital. Just this morning I heard about the help we had given a Fellow who is chair of governors of a primary school. In thinking about his new school building, he had wanted advice on what are likely to be the next advances in school ICT. Drawing on our database, we contacted several Fellows, many of whom have responded with useful thoughts.

For me, the model of Fellow activism has the potential to address what I call the ‘social aspiration gap’. This is the divide between the kind of society we want to live in and the society we currently feel able to create (I may treat readers to a fuller account of this in a future blog!). The Fellowship was one of the main reasons I came to the RSA; the more I see of it in action to more excited I become about its potential.

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