Me, myself and I

March 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Uncategorized 

In my annual lecture last year I argued that a decline in the performance and legitimacy of institutions along side a weakening of social solidarity had led to individualism being the dominant way in which we think about and pursue change.  The problem is not so much individualism per se (like hierarchical authority and social solidarity, it has its weaknesses and strengths as a mode of operation) but that it is required to do too much work in terms of resolving hard problems. For example, as I have also argued, the political establishment continuously and erroneously maintains that the individualistic idea of social mobility is the most appropriate and effective way of addressing social injustice.

The dominance of individualism (which is accompanied by a muted but powerful social fatalism) influences the way we see the world. It becomes hard to know whether individualistic solutions are best or we have simply become more receptive to those solutions.

A few weeks ago David Halpern, head of the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team spoke at an RSA seminar on social networks and values. He said he had gone into his job being interested both in ‘nudge’ based interventions which target individual behaviour – things like asking people to sign a commitment to look for work when they register with a job centre – and asset-based interventions which focussed on understanding and mobilising communities. However, as went on to say, the former had both been easier to measure – using the preferred methodology of randomised control trials – and more productive in terms of generating proven interventions.

I was reminded of David’s comments when listening yesterday to Evgeny Morozov delivering an RSA lecture about his new book ‘To save everything, click here’. For Morozov the capability offered by big data, used in combination with insights drawn from behavioural economics, social psychology and neuroscience, to offer individualistic solutions to problems ranging from obesity to criminality brings with it two major dangers.

The first concerns privacy and intrusion, do we really want Google to be using our smart phones and embedded sensors in day to day objects to learn a huge amount about our behaviour, including our various cognitive and behavioural quirks. By the way, I find it odd that while we would object strongly if a stranger came up to us and told they knew more about us than we know ourselves, most people seem relaxed about a private corporation having such an advantage.

Morozov’s second objection chimes with Halpern’s experience. He argues that the ability to analyse individual behaviour in granular detail and the enthusiasm of the tech community for behaviour-changing interventions based on incentives and ‘gamification‘ leads policy makers to view all social problems as problems of individual modification not social change.

So the capacity of technology, the insights of behavioural science and the weakness of alternative world views interact to drive an ever more individualistic paradigm.

Another example is the tendency to blame the poor for being poor. The myth - peddled by politicians who should and do know better – that a high proportion of the millions who are out of work are inter-generationally long term unemployed and that by implication their problems are ones of character (maybe even genetics?) is not only objectionable but hampers sensible policy making.

On refection, we know that social problem are not all about the decisions and capabilities of individuals and we remain responsive to hierarchical and solidaristic analysis and solutions. Indeed there may be a connection here to the rise of so-called populist parties. As conventional leaders fail to reform institutions and provide new forms of authority, and as policy makers lose faith in social remedies, nationalist and extremist parties seem to offer the only route for our desire for visionary leadership and shared identity.

‘It’s not about you, it’s about us’ may sound like a terrible managerial cliche but it seem to be something we are finding it ever harder to believe about social problems. To tap the full scope for social power and to achieve progressives ends, means not only focussing on the future we might want but on the means we need to get there.

 

 

 

 

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Doubled up in happiness

April 12, 2011 by · 11 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Today is a happiness and well-being day. Well, sort of…

I started the morning doing a piece on the Today programme linked to the launch of Action for Happiness and the continuing work of the Office of National Statistics on well-being measures (by the way, the closing date for submission to the ONS consultation is Friday). On the radio, I was up against Sheila Lawlor from Politeia, who thinks the state shouldn’t really interfere in anything (apart from national defence) let alone trying to help us enjoy our lives.   

Then we launched Gallup’s well-being and health survey to a packed Great Room. Paul Allin from ONS and David Halpern from Number Ten responded to the data.

So, at the risk of being repetitive, this is a chance to summarise the main reasons in favour of Governments, and those seeking to influence Governments, wanting to understand what drives well-being.        

First, decades of research have offered reasons to believe (a) that GDP growth and a variety of other traditional indicators are not a sufficient basis for describing national social progress and (b) that there are reasonably reliable ways of measuring various forms of well-being.

Second, the debate about well-being can be more interesting and engaging than much of the technocratic squabbling which has passed for political debate since the decline of traditional class politics. Some people, like John Humphries this morning, criticise ideas like happiness and well-being by saying they are subjective notions. But not only can aspects of well-being be objectively measured and averaged across large groups, the very fact that these ideas are contested makes for a valuable debate.

Third, on a more personal level – and here I return to a tune I have been playing a lot lately – the debate about what makes us feel good and enjoy life helps us see that the things we want now, the things we want for the long term and the things which seem to make us happiest are often not the same and that part of being an effective person is understanding and grappling with this fact of human nature.

Fourth, all this stuff can lead to very concrete insights.  Action for Happiness (which has gone off like a rocket judging by the amount of traffic on its website) points out that investing in mental health services offers a much greater happiness premium than most other forms of public investment. David Halpern this morning emphasised (another old tune) that well-targeted spending on public health is much more cost effective in terms of well-being than spending on health care.

The Gallup people brought their own new dimensions. Their research puts fulfilling work at the top of the agenda and they say the UK isn’t too good at it. In comparison to the US, for example, only 42% of UK employees say their employer treats them more like a partner than a boss, whereas in the US it’s 59%. This has a big impact. 63% of people who Gallup describes as having ‘thriving’ lives say they have a good work environment but only 52% of those in poor work environments.

Fortunately, this is not an issue at the RSA. At John Adam Street Pilates is the secret to well–being and good employee relations. Staff pay for a group session on Tuesday lunchtimes and after several of my colleagues have watched me fail to touch my nose with my knee without straining and grunting, all my managerial authority has seeped away.  I wouldn’t be able to boss them around even if I wanted to.

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Eureka!

March 4, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

As many current and former colleagues will confirm, it is a dangerous business presenting me with emerging research findings. Always eager to discover something newsworthy, and better at big concepts than methodological detail, I am prone to seize on tentative findings and turn them into a massive breakthrough in human understanding. 

The dismayed research team has then to deal as best they can with the fallout as I charge around town, telling anyone who cares to listen that we have made a great discovery while each time expanding just a little bit further on what I was originally told. Within a short period any resemblance between the modest claim supported by the research and my towering hyperbole is mere coincidence.

So, I sensed a nervous frisson run through the team when yesterday I seized on a very early finding of our Connected Communities project, being undertaken in New Cross Gate. The researchers are now analysing the nearly 200 interviews which aim to map the social networks of local residents. The results confirm starkly the hypothesis that many people in disadvantaged areas have very limited social networks – for example a significant minority say not only that they don’t know anyone in authority but they don’t know anyone who knows anyone in authority.

But the finding upon which I alighted related to who and what are the main foci for networks. Not only are these centres – as we might predict - local institutions, like schools or Sure Start, or local public servants, like postmen or wardens, but a particular kind of person. It appears that those who say they most value neighbourliness are also those to whom most people connect.  

This immediately put me in mind of two recent statements made at recent RSA Great Room events. First, there was David Halpern telling us that what appears to shape levels of happiness within nations is not so much their material circumstances as what they say most matters. So, for example, the Danes are the happiest people in the world partly because, uniquely, they say that ‘love’ is the most important component of contentment (unlike the miserable Bulgarians who say it is money). Second, there was the comment by the author of ‘Connected’, Nicholas Christakis, that there is a significant genetic component (around 40%) to explain why some people are better social networkers than others.

As the research team tried in vain to get me engaged with others aspects of their findings I was already air-born with my flight of fancy…..

It appears that some people bothvalue social networking (it is what makes them happy) and are adept at it.  These people are potentially a massive resource for any community. There is no reason to believe that this character trait will be less prevalent in deprived communities than anywhere else. However, it may, for a whole variety for reasons, be the case that these people are not in positions where the community as a whole can best capitalise on these skills. (Indeed it may be that some of those in key formal positions of influence – the ones we tend to assume are the most important – are not themselves well-endowed with networking skills.)

Therefore, it should be a key plank of strategies to build community resilience that we identify who these people are and that we give them resources (for example, access to social media) so they can apply their skills. These are the people public authorities should engage when they are designing some or other policy intervention. 

You might think this is a bold and interesting enough claim to be going on with, especially as it is based on analysing only about a quarter of the returns. But surely we can go that one step further. Doesn’t our research offer convincing proof of ‘the people gene’? If only we could find the people carrying the gene, support them, listen to them, make them be the leaders they were born to be, we could transform the resilience and capacity of every community. 

The left would rejoice as deprivation was tackled, the right would celebrate the evidence that it is not in the actions of the state but in the capacities of civil society that the path to social renewal lies. The RSA would be seen to have been responsible for one of the most powerful findings in modern social science and its (surprisingly young-looking) Chief Executive would become a household name, winner of awards, friend of Presidents, feted at home and abroad for his leadership and wisdom, a regular on the One Show …..

‘Nurse, I think it may be time for Mr Taylor’s medicine.’

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Citizenship politics – part 3

February 23, 2010 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

I fear readers will approach the final instalment of my three-parter on citizenship politics with all the enthusiasm of a vegan starting work placement in a steak pie factory. I had my doubts as to both the intellectual and entertainment value of these posts and as the comments have dried up (not that I’m not enormously grateful for those who have posted) my worst fears have been confirmed. Tomorrow I will gather up the pieces of my shattered self esteem and return to more palatable fare; some jokes about dogs perhaps?

Anyway, let’s get it over with. I said yesterday that I would respond to the criticism that citizenship politics was not a politics at all (so now I am offering my own response to my own criticism of my own ideas – John Donne was wrong; I am an island and they’ve just cancelled the weekly ferry).

From the perspective of citizenship politics, how do we respond to the  the questions; ‘who are we?’, ‘who do we need to be?’ and ‘who should we be? Being mercifully brief here is my answer:

‘Who are we?’ Citizenship politics tends to emphasise the social nature of human beings and our species’ unique capacity for empathy and reciprocity. It argues that human beings are capable individually and collectively of functioning at a higher level and that this is the ultimate goal of human progress. But citizenship politics is not naively optimistic about human nature, indeed it recognises the frailties of individual judgement and the need to understand and to restrain our ‘animal spirits’.

‘Who do we need to be?’ Citizenship politics calls for a radical re framing of debate about production, consumption, and growth. A great challenge facing global humanity is how to continue to achieve economic progress within the ever more pressing limits of nature (climate change, biodiversity, finite resources). In relation to question of well-being, of the environment, of what David Halpern calls ‘the hidden wealth of nations’, citizenship politics means developing a more critical and holistic debate about the purposes and trade-offs of economic progress.

‘Who should we be?’ Citizenship politics returns to classical and enlightenment themes in urging an ambitious account of the good life well lived. This life is one in which we have freedoms and entitlements but where also full membership of society carries with the expectation of engagement in the public sphere, the aspiration to live as far as possible within the means available to all in a shrinking world, and a commitment to norms and behaviours which foster social reciprocity.

The practical question for citizenship politics is this: what are the ways of thinking, the circumstances and the policies which are most likely to promote sustainable and fulfilling ways of being for the 21st century. Which again calls to mind the criticism that citizenship politics is just a rather highfalutin way of describing what all politics ultimately is about.

But, as Will Davies reminded me in his comment yesterday, the way we present knowledge reflects the angle from which we look at the world. Citizenship politics is such an angle, one that involves stepping back, trying to make new connections between different ways of seeing, simultaneously trying to understand more deeply what is now going on for the human race while holding fast to the possibility of achieving something quite different. Maybe it is an angle that is better for looking than for doing – this is certainly the impression I get when I discuss these ideas with practical politicians. Then again, maybe the RSA can one day demonstrate what it means to apply these insights, values and ways of being across an organisation.

Now I’ve finished I find myself re-enthused. If only, dear reader, that was true of you too.

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Citizenship politics, citizenship economics

February 19, 2010 by · 10 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

It boils down to this: policy and politics must start from the question of citizenship. This has been the core assertion running through my annual lectures, through this blog and through the strategy for the RSA. I am more and more convinced that this idea is the best basis for an intelligent, powerful, and urgently necessary debate about the choices society faces. But given that the demands of my job rule out finding the time and focus to write a book or even an extended pamphlet, how can I get this idea to the centre of current debate?

To recap – citizenship politics starts from the question ‘who do we need to be to create the kind of future we say we want’? When we look at this question we see a gap – what I have inelegantly called ‘the social aspiration gap’ – between our collective aspirations and our current trajectory.

This gap has three dimensions; three ways in which tomorrow’s citizens need, in aggregate, to be different to today’s. We need to be more engaged. It is only through mature engagement that we either give permission to our leaders to make right and responsible decisions for the long term and for the interests of all citizens, or that we accept that social progress rests, at least in part, on the decisions we make about our own lives.

We need to be more self reliant. We cannot help those who most need help, nor can we find fair and workable solutions to shared global and national challenges (such as climate change and international development) unless as many of us as possible, for as much of our lives as possible, meet our own needs as individuals and groups.

And we need to be pro-social, that is to say we need to behave in ways which strengthen the fabric of society and in particular the ties of reciprocity which underlie what David Halpern has recently called ‘the hidden wealth of nations’.

Importantly, citizenship politics has both a utilitarian and a normative rationale. The utilitarian case – made on grounds of economy, environment or mental well being – is that we simply cannot go on living like this. Debt (whether personal, corporate or public) is a powerful symbol of the unsustainable nature of contemporary lifestyles.

The normative case, which harkens back to the enlightenment origins of the RSA, is that to fulfil our potential as human begins we should be full members of society; which means we are engaged, self reliant and altruistic people.
 
The question for citizenship politics is this: ‘what decisions and what type of decision-making can best enable people to be the citizens they need to be to create the future to which we aspire?’

In answering this question there is plenty of scope for differences between left and right, concerning, for example, the role of the state and the importance of social equality. But both left and right should start, not from second order questions such as how can we maximise family income or economic growth, or even how can we achieve more equality, but with the first order question of future citizenship.

I have been inspired to return to these issues by hearing the economist and commentator John Kay speak at the Progressive Governance Conference in London this morning.

In a brilliant intervention he urged people to understand exactly what we should mean by economic growth. This, he said, is the process by which technological innovation and investment in physical and human capital create new choices for individuals and societies. But – and this is where the power of the argument lies – the route to more choices (for which we might more grandly say ‘freedom’ or ‘fulfilment’) lies not in ‘materialism’ – the producing and buying of more stuff – but in ‘lifestyle’. Quite apart from the way the crazed pursuit of more stuff has left us all indebted and our economy enfeebled, in aggregate as a society, what extra choices has most of the materialism of the last two decades really brought us? 

Instead, says Kay, if we want to think about how growth creates choice take the example of food. The quality of the food most people eat in this country has improved dramatically in the last two decades. But not because we are eating more (obesity is generally a disease of the poor not the middle class) but because we spend more on better quality food. Improvements in the way we cook, in our knowledge, and our skills (stretching from Jamie Oliver to our own culinary efforts), have expanded the market and given us new choices and pleasures without relying on us consuming more resources. Kay argues that we could develop a similar model of lifestyle-enhancing economic growth in almost all areas of the economy.

This seems to me to form the basis for adding citizenship economics to citizenship politics. That is to say, an economics which starts from the idea that growth is there to enable and enhance fuller citizenship not simply to consume more stuff. The question ‘what kind of economy are we trying to grow’ is inextricably linked to the question ‘what kinds of people do we want and need to be’.

And, of course, all these questions require us to have a sophisticated understanding of how human beings work – which is why the RSA spends so much time discussing what neuroscience, behavioural sciences and the study of evolution tell us about what makes us tick as human beings.

We need a new paradigm to replace the failed and contradictory combination of unfettered markets, social individualism, overbearing statism, political triangulation and technological determinism that have been the key features of the last two decades.

That model is to be found in citizenship politics and citizenship economics. 
 
What can I do to convince people?

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