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Fellowship – waiting for the Great Leap Forward

January 2, 2013 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

This is the last of three posts exploring key issues facing the RSA as we enter 2013…

It is often said that the Fellowship has the potential to be the RSA’s greatest and most distinctive asset. In truth, the Society’s leaders have not always taken seriously the challenges involved in delivering on this aspiration. Although many individual Fellows have played an important role in the RSA’s activities and governance, there was until recently a lack of clarity and commitment when it came to the engagement of the wider Fellowship. There were several problems:

* The status of Fellowship was ambiguous, was it an award for past achievements or an invitation to get involved?

* The expectations of Fellows’ activities were limited with most regional programmes tending to focus on social and cultural events rather than charitable activities, much less civic innovation.

* There was very little investment in Fellows. Back in 2006 there was only one person employed to support their activities.

* Apart from valued individuals who happened to be FRSA, many parts of the organisation tended to keep Fellows at arm’s length.

* There were, at best, suspicious and often downright hostile relations between the regions and nations run by Fellows and the Society’s HQ, a situation which previous RSA Chairs have told me had persisted for decades.

* It was perhaps symbolic of the general situation that arguably the most active Fellows’ network a few years back was called ‘Fellows’ Voices’ and was, in essence, a group set up to protest at the lack of opportunities for engagement in the Society’s work.

Things really have changed since then:

* Relations between HQ and the RSA nations and regions are most positive and on a more professional footing than ever before.

* The Fellowship Council - elected by and made of Fellows – is a powerful, hard working and influential body.

* The Fellowship network team and the Catalyst Fund provide a range of forms of support for a growing number of FRSA groups and initiatives.

* Fellowship engagement in the work of ARC (our research and development team) is strong and is now built in to every major new project from the start.

Despite all this progress still a big question remains. The fact is that over the last five years the Trustees have agreed to invest more and more of the Society’s income in supporting Fellows’ activities, and still the resources we allocate often feel like they are being very thinly stretched.

No one resents this shift (not even the ARC staff who now have very year to go out and raise the funds to do research), after all Fellowship donations are still the Society’s biggest source of income. Yet, the hard truth right now is that pound for pound the money going back into Fellowship is achieving much less real world impact than the resources dedicated to activities in other key areas such as research, development, lectures and on-line content.

This is not a failure nor is it, in any way, a criticism of Fellows. The idea of Fellowship being genuinely central to delivering the Society’s charitable mission is still new. We are learning and improving all the time. And weaknesses in our own central organisation – most frustratingly technology (at last now being solved) – have made it more difficult than it should have been for Fellows to engage with the Society and with each other.

Also, individual Fellows have put an immense amount back into the Society, not only the activists in regions and on the Fellowship Council but, for example, the brilliant group of FRSA who have worked on the development of our ‘Transitions’ social enterprise prison pilot or the former regional chair who has opened the door for the Society to win local funding for a fascinating piece of research in Wiltshire.

It may be that we – Trustees, Fellows and staff – simply need to carry on doing what we are doing and gradually getting better at it. Cultural change is hard to achieve in a paid full time workforce, it is bound to be even harder working with a disparate and busy group of volunteers.

Nevertheless, these posts are about how the RSA moves from good to great and, as I have said throughout, I think this depends most on taking the mission of Fellowship engagement to the next level and doing it in the next couple of years.

We will know we have together achieved something really significant when:

* Projects begun by Fellows and led by Fellows are starting to become as high profile and influential as the research and development projects managed by professional staff and, as a sign of this, Fellows’ projects are starting to access external funds.

* Research among FRSA is showing a high and rising awareness of all aspects of the Society’s work and how Fellows can get involved.

* More Fellows are being recruited (and retained) because they see the RSA, and the Fellowship in particular as a powerful vehicle for innovation and social progress. At present the numbers are pretty steady (which is a good outcome in the current economic environment), but a gradually rising roll will make it possible for us to continue to invest more in Fellowship.

* And, most of all, outside the RSA there is a growing sense that the Fellowship is made up of people with the inclination and the tools to intervene when new solutions are needed.

There are many opinions about how we can achieve this step change. Importantly, the conversation can now take place in the context of good relations with regions and nations and a Fellowship Council humming with energy and enthusiasm.

Given limited resources and a challenging and competitive context am I sure we will make it? No. We are, after all, being more broadly ambitious than any other large membership organisation I know.

As a chief executive with supportive Trustees and a great team of colleagues I can commit to continuing improvement in the quality of the work we undertake at John Adam Street, but success in the Fellowship project, because that project is so diffuse, and because, ultimately, it relies on the attitude and actions of thousands of volunteers cannot be guaranteed.

So my RSA resolution for 2013 is not to deliver a highly engaged and productive Fellowship but to do everything I can to make this exciting prospect more likely and in so doing enable the Society to be ‘the kind of organisation the twenty first century needs’.



Keep calm. Prepare for change.

October 18, 2012 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking for sympathy, but it is getting to the stage that the only time I get to write a blog is when I am on a train somewhere. Having said which writing a post can be a good way of clarifying my thoughts….

This afternoon I am on my way to a fascinating conference being hosted by Lily Barton and the fantastic North West RSA panel, Manchester Metropolitan University, BITC North West and Corridor Manchester. The title is ‘keep calm, prepare for change’ and the focus is on routes – especially local routes – to a dynamic and sustainable economy.

I plan to argue that we may be on the verge of a new paradigm for social development. Many social analysts and historians argue that the post war era in the west should be seen as an attempt – which for two decades was very successful – to find a way of reconciling the free market with democracy. The market generates inequality, risk, and other externalities which are unacceptable to populations as a whole. The way to head off anti-capitalist revolt (this is a time in which many people thought the Soviet system would win out economically and militarily) was for the state to guarantee expanding social rights, rising living standards and close to full employment.

Now, recurrent crises of capitalist accumulation (of which the credit crunch was the most dramatic), combined with the impact on the rich world of globalisation, plus – although the nature of the impact is less certain – climate change and the need to mitigate it, have all eaten away at the foundations of that contract. As I said in my annual lecture, part of the reason for low and falling levels of trust in various forms of hierarchical authority is that our leaders have simply not been able to deliver what we had come to expect (although younger people’s expectations are already shifting).

What is it that can fill the growing gap between our aspirations for a free, fair and prosperous society, and the path on which we are set (‘the social aspiration gap’)? We can either stare at the gap and get angry or frightened or we can assume that something must fill it and try to make that happen as soon and as fully as possible.

Recently it feels like just about every day I come across examples of the two movements which seem to me to have the greatest potential to bridge the gap. The first is the attempt though community action, civic innovation and public service reform to release the hidden wealth which lies in people’s capacity and desire to help themselves, and each other, to create a better life in a better society. By the way, if that seems unlikely try this little fact, in 1994 a survey of local authorities found that three quarters of the relevant council officers thought the idea that householders could be persuaded to recycle their rubbish was impractical and unrealistic. Now, less than 20 years later, household recycling rates have reached 50% and are rising. Through a combination of new social norms and service innovations, a whole public service has gone from being delivered to being co-produced.

The second is the move towards social business manifested both in the form of enterprises established with social goals in mind, and the attempt by existing enterprises to renew their licence to operate. In both cases it is not only that entrepreneurs and business leaders are responding to the social deficit, but that in a knowledge economy where human creativity and initiative are at a premium, the only reliable way to engage the people organisations need is through a strong and authentic sense of purpose (greater transparency and sophistication make inauthenticity impractical as well as deplorable). This latter is the message of a great book ‘how-why how we do anything means everything’ by Dov Seidman who popped into the RSA for a chat yesterday.

Together – and I do mean ‘together’ as there  is huge scope for the forces to be mutually supportive and reinforcing –   these ideas and innovations can provide the basis for a social renaissance. Standing in their way is the continued hope within the national and global political establishment that we can get back on track to a world where capitalism generates sufficient surplus to be taxed to meet growing needs and rising expectations.

Assuming this hope is unfounded, the more serious threat is that the release of hidden wealth and the alignment of successful business with human progress does not achieve scale in time to avert political, social or environmental catastrophe (this must be how it looks right now from Athens or Madrid). Talking to everyone from progressive local authorities, to enlightened business people and their advisors, to community activists, it feels to me like we may be approaching some tipping points.

Ironically, given that this new world is one in which Government has to move away from control (the ruin of the left) and negligence (the ruin of the right) the crucial variable may be political leadership. We need an acceleration so that what is now the cutting edge becomes the norm. Great leaders can perform exactly this shift, not creating a new movement but spotting it, naming it, nurturing it and making it unstoppable.

I don’t know whether there will be any politicians at the event in Manchester but if there are, I hope it starts to dawn on them that events like this – organised almost entirely by volunteers – are a symbol of the movement that can turn social pessimism, economic stagnation and austerity in the public sphere into a new progressive age.


Ain’t no mountain high enough …

April 27, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 

A few weeks ago I was asked to talk to the UpRising Leadership programme which caters for talented 19-25 year olds from diverse backgrounds. I guess I was there as a high achiever to describe my journey and experience. Instead, to the initial shock and later amusement of the students, I explored why I may not have used whatever talent and ambition I was privileged to inherit to make the biggest impression on the world.

I am very proud to be CEO of the RSA. Alternatively I wonder if, perhaps, with more discipline and guile, I could have been a national politician and made decisions to improve the lives of millions. With more consistency I could have been a professional, maybe a doctor or a lawyer, with the knowledge and skills to help people profoundly in times of need. With more self sacrifice could I have dedicated myself to making a concrete difference to the lives of the most disadvantaged here or in the poorest parts of the word? With more focus and patience could I have been an academic working on ideas which take on a power of their own?

Instead I recycle ideas, trundle around the lower reaches of the second division of public intellectuals and try to live up the honour of running this great organisation. As well as the salary, being boss brings status. But it is oh so transitory. As all organisational leaders know, at the first staff meeting a few days after a leaving party to mark their many years of blood sweat and tears, the new boss will be reassuring an enthusiastic staff, with more or less directness, that it is time to blow away the accumulated cobwebs and march into a brave new future. All those things we fondly saw as achievements are either taken for granted or scorned.

‘Is there nothing’ I ask myself in sleepless nights ‘that will endure?’  When it comes to the RSA I derive most comfort from the slow revolution being brought about by the Fellowship. More and more Fellows are engaged, and more and more of that engagement is contributing to the Society’s charitable mission. One example is Catalyst, formed a couple of years ago to provide small grants to groups of Fellows seeking to develop new initiatives or social enterprises. Every six weeks we get twenty or so bids, each of which has genuine value and of which two or three are good enough to deserve a grant. But because the sums we can provide are small we have always hoped that some Catalyst winners would go on to find funding from other sources. Increasingly, this is happening. For example, last week we heard of substantial new funding for a project in Tower Hamlets, Ladies Who L-Earn, which offers unemployed young women training and mentoring by Fellows and local business people to enable them to run market stalls for local designers.

Another aspect of change has been the concerted attempt to engage Fellows more fully in the RSA’s research and development projects. Just the other day my colleague Rebecca Daddow was enthusiastically describing the many ways in which Fellows are supporting our groundbreaking work in West Kent, which aims to support the rehabilitation of people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency. As our method is all about helping people in recovery to integrate as full members of civil society, Fellow engagement is part of what makes the project distinctive and powerful.

And then this week I heard that in sums ranging from thousands to fivers, many Fellows have already generously responded to our appeal for funds towards the refurbishment of the RSA’s Great Room. One of the many improvements in the new Great Room will be cutting edge technology which will make the on-line experience of watching and participating in RSA events even better. There have in the last eighteen months been around sixty million global views of RSA lectures.

Many people who watch the lectures, and who read this modest blog or visit the RSA’s website are not Fellows. We see spreading great ideas around the world as a core part of our charitable mission, but now, for once, I am asking those who like what we do but don’t contribute as Fellows to make a concrete expression of their appreciation.

One of the symptoms of my mid life crisis has been a growing obsession with physical fitness. I ran the marathon a few years ago and am still aiming to run 10k in under 40 minutes. So when a friend challenged me to run a mountain marathon my foolish pride would not let me refuse. The Lowe Alpine Mountain Marathon on June  9/10 requires me to run a marathon distance mainly steeply uphill navigating my own route and carrying a six kilo overnight pack.

As I have gradually added each ingredient of difficulty to the training – distance, incline, weight, rough ground – the scale of my idiocy in volunteering has become clearer. A trial half marathon along the cliffs of Dover and Deal last weekend left me exhausted for two days. What is more, the whole exercise is costing me hundreds of pounds on travel and kit costs.

But you can lighten my burden. I have set up a JustGiving page and I am asking friends of the RSA to help me raise two thousand pound towards the Great Room appeal.


Perhaps in twenty years’ time a grey haired man, limping slightly as a consequence of a nasty fall in the Cairngorms decades earlier, will walk unrecognised into John Adam Street and point out to his grandchildren a small patch of beautifully restored mosaic on the staircase to the Great Room. ‘There’ he will proudly proclaim ‘I told you I had made an impression on the world’.






Leicester means more

March 15, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

The message of today’s post is that we shouldn’t always assume a fit between a type of problem and a type of solution.

It’s an idea which features in Timothy D Wilson’s book ‘Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change’. In his first chapter he shows how simply spending a few minutes a day writing positive narratives may be more effective than intensive psychological counselling for victims of traumatic events.

I too have seen prosaic solutions to long held concerns. As I can’t actually remember anything about it, I have always assumed that the year of my infancy spent living in a council house in Leicester was not particularly joyful. The absent memories have left me feeling an entirely irrational dread of the city. As it turns out the solution was not to relive childhood anxieties but simply to go the East Midlands and be impressed.

On my visit yesterday there were Fellows Richard Brucciani and Neil McGhee telling me about their plans for a second and even more ambitious RSA-backed civic day in  in September. There was Sue Thomas and her colleagues from De Montfort University extolling the virtues of ‘trans-disciplinary’ research and innovation (my talk was in the newly established Trans-disciplinary Common Room). And there was Dr Jason Wood talking about the university’s impressive square mile initiative through which staff and students are working with a disadvantaged local community on a whole variety of interventions.

The main reason for my visit was to give a talk. As I like to whenever I can, I returned to my core script about 21st century enlightenment (animated twelve minute version here). Repetition not only cuts down preparation time, it also means I have a reason to return to the core ideas. Each time I try to add some new dimension or nuance.

Regular readers may recall the argument (which I first surfaced way back in 2007) that tomorrow’s citizens have in aggregate to be more engaged, more resourceful and more pro-social if we are to close the growing gap between our needs and aspirations on the one hand and, on the other, the trajectory on which current ways of thinking and behaving have set us.

Previously I tended to describe the ‘social aspiration gap’ in terms of material needs such as for elder care, jobs or environmental sustainability. A development of the argument is to add values to the gap. By this I mean the gulf between the kind of society our values suggest we want and the one we seem in fact committed to creating. Perhaps the most stark example – and one I have referred to several times before - concerns the life chances of children. Opinion polls suggest that most people subscribe to the principle that all children should have reasonably equal life chances at birth. However, politicians and policy makers have failed to persuade us to support ideas and interventions which might credibly meet this objective.

Another new thought about the social aspiration gap concerns the principle methods needed to close it. Here I find myself with a counter-intuitive thought.

If closing the gap requires more engaged, resourceful and pro-social citizens and I was to say that the main barriers were human development, organisational innovation and ethics you might imagine the lists of three correspond, for example that we need to be more ethical if we are to become more pro-social. But I’m not sure they do.

In fact an ethical deficit may be the main barrier to engagement. It is only if we are in principle willing to put the good of society ahead of our own immediate interests that engagement can ever work. The main barrier to resourcefulness may be human development in that more of us need to reach a higher level of mental complexity if we are to have the capacity to be more creative in meeting our own and each other’s needs. And the main barrier to pro-social behaviour may be organisational in that – as I have suggested previously – we urgently need new ways of bringing people together, developing ideas and carrying those ideas into action if we are to translate the public’s willingness to contribute into action (this is the hypothesis being explored in our efforts to enable the RSA Fellowship to become a network for social innovation).

Generally my ideas have the lifespan of a mayfly and this could be the case again. But I wonder if there is something worth exploring in the thought that we too often assume solutions will emerge in the same domain as the problems they are intended to solve? An organisational problem may need an ethical solution while a problem about values may actually be solved through a new strategy or design.

Thank you Leicester. I now associate you with great people and food for thought.


Sort yourselves into two groups

February 14, 2012 by · 14 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

Apart from ‘it can’t go on, what’s the point of it all?, one of my little catchphrases is this: ‘the reason people engage is to have fun, to make a difference or to grow; preferably all three’ (by the way don’t inadvertently blurt out the former when buying a ready meal from Tesco; the assistant was so unsettled I had to pretend I was talking about the conveyor belt).

The latter insight came to me from years of activism for the Labour Party which overwhelmingly comprised activities which were not enjoyable, largely pointless and as boring as hell (co-incidentally, the source of another catch-phrase ‘I’ve suffered for my politics, now it’s your turn’). I have since tried to apply the three criteria for successful engagement to the ways we encourage RSA Fellows to come together in whatever way suits them best, to have great conversations and aim over time, to develop projects.

One of our most supportive and inspirational Fellows is Tessy Britton, a powerfully creative thinker and practitioner in the field of community engagement. A while ago  I blogged on a debate started by Tessy critiquing the campaigning assumptions of some exponents of community organising. In essence, Tessy argued that groups which start out with an oppositional or other-directed campaigning stance find it hard to move to a self-help, solutions-oriented way of thinking.

I am supposed right now to be preparing an extended essay for Political Quarterly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bernard Crick’s seminal book ‘In defence of politics’. My chosen focus is the chapter entitled ‘a defence of politics against democracy’ in which Crick demonstrates the folly of seeing virtue in politics as simply following the often contradictory whims of public opinion.

A critique of populist or direct democracy tends to lead to the advocacy of deliberative models. The problem here is the recent literature on deliberation. First there is the work of Cass Sunstein (among others) showing that in most circumstances deliberation leads not to moderation and resolution but polarisation and extremism. Unsurprisingly this tendency is  most pronounced when the deliberative group starts with a broadly shared opinion on the matter at hand. The answer may seem simple; mix up the groups. Not only are the results not as encouraging as one might hope (mixed groups often simply split and then polarise), but they look even more depressing when allied to the work of Diana Mutz.

In her book, ‘Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy’, Mutz reported research showing what motivates participation is strong agreement; indeed, the kind of agreement which can lead to group think and polarisation. Furthermore, she found that when people were forced to hear the other side’s point of view they became rather demoralised and less likely to participate.

I have repeatedly argued that three attributes are required of citizens if we are to  close ‘the social aspiration gap’. One of these is ‘engagement’. So these findings give substantial food for thought. I suggest three tentative conclusions:

We must avoid simplistic ideas that all forms of engagement are a good thing and that each form somehow makes the other forms more possible. Tessy is right; engagement in united protest movements may actually make it less easy subsequently to engage in the more complex, messy and inherently contested process of developing and applying solutions.

The design of forms of engagement is difficult and crucial. Complex issues probably require forms of engagement based on relatively small groups of people who do not start from fixed views and who are committed to in-depth inquiry. Logistics mean that such processes – for example proper Citizens Juries – can only ever involve small numbers.  Indeed they represent a kind of representative/deliberative model.

Engagement should involve a reflexive component in which participants examine and explicitly seek to avoid the pitfalls which each form contains.

Let me end with catchphrases. As I search through my personal history for any small triumphs, I did unearth one witticism of which I was at the time inordinately proud: someone asked me, ‘Matthew, what’s it like to be an only child’ to which, quick as an arrow I replied, ‘I’ve no idea, I don’t have any brothers or sisters’. I’m not sure it it’s profound or pathetic. Perhaps I’ll put it to the vote.


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