Capable of anything?

January 16, 2013 by · 15 Comments
Filed under: The RSA 

I have described the modern mission of the RSA as enhancing human capability. This can provoke two different critiques. The first alleges blandness and vagueness – who could possibly be opposed to such a goal and isn’t it possible to justify almost any activity under such a broad heading? The second warns against hubris; who are we to judge what is more or less enhanced capability and doesn’t the idea of enhancing people’s capability have rather sinister overtones of social engineering? Let me try to refute these perfectly reasonable sets of concerns.

Whilst it may be true that no one would say they were against enhancing human capability, one reason the capabilities school of political and social science has had such an impact is that it can be distinguished from the two other main strands of contemporary political thought and action: social democracy and free market liberalism.

Social democrats (British ones at least) have tended to act as though capability is largely a matter of access to material resources. A lack of concern about what dispositions and behaviours are best for individuals and society, and an unwillingness to be judgemental, goes some way to explaining why social democrats failed to see the dangers of allowing the reciprocal design of the welfare state to be gradually eroded.

For champions of the minimally regulated free market, a focus on capabilities is doubly flawed. First, it can help make the case for enhanced universal entitlements, confusing – from the perspective of liberals – the valid concept of ‘freedom from’ and the dangerous one of ‘freedom to’. Second, the idea of capabilities is judgemental, suggesting that some attitudes and attributes should be favoured above others. In contrast, free market liberals will argue that individual choices – as long as they don’t infringe the freedom of others – are equally legitimate and that the market can be relied on to turn these choices into the stuff of economic progress.

The RSA’s focus on capabilities is also, I would argue, of substance because we not only are interested in promoting policies and practices which enhance  capabilities but also in using behavioural science better to understand the basis of human capability.

What of the second critique: is a focus on enhancing capability in danger of being elitist or overbearing? It does unquestionably involve some judgement about how we should live. One – instrumental – justification arises from the concept of the ‘social aspiration gap’, which separates the kind of society most people say they want to live in from the one we seem likely to build relying on current predominant modes of thought and behaviour. I have sometimes formulated this in terms of ‘enabling people to be the people they need to be to create the future they say they want'; unsurprisingly it hasn’t really caught on!

But I would go further, suggesting a very basic account of human fulfilment comprising three overlapping elements: first, contentment and quality of life, second, the fulfilment of potential (the domain of vocational skill and professional ambition) and third, the sense of contributing to the lives of others and the good of society as a whole. Individuals may not choose to take opportunities that are provided in these three domains, but the good society is one which, as far as possible, not only provides every person with the realistic opportunity – through institutions, rules, norms and entitlements – to pursue fulfilment in each.

There are, no doubt, many problems with what is a very broad brush arguments but what I find both depressing (about public discourse) and motivating ( about the RSA) is how rarely these kinds of questions are directly addressed in debate about politics and social policy. As is often said, our health service is a sickness service and we rarely explore what we mean by good health. The current administration is explicitly hostile to debates about young people’s capabilities in the context of education, seeing them as an excuse for dodging the real imperative of acquiring knowledge. And in welfare and criminal justice policy we work with almost medievally crude models of human motivation.

Who we need to be, who we should be and how we create the right circumstances for human development and fulfilment is blandly implicit in much debate; surely, politics would be more engaging and illuminating if these questions surfaced more often and more profoundly?

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No pain, no gain

May 9, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

Controversy has been sparked by Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s decision yesterday not to publish the official internal risk assessment for the NHS reforms. His explanation is cogent, making the case to retain ‘a safe space where officials are able to give ministers full and frank advice in developing policies and programmes’. When Labour spokesperson Andy Burnham says ‘this disgraceful decision is a cover up of epic proportions’ we must, assume, first, he has forgotten that the Labour Government of which he was part would never have dreamt of publishing something so dangerous and, second, he has fully consulted his shadow cabinet colleagues – particularly Mr Balls and shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy – about this radical commitment to treat departmental policy development as a totally open book if and when Labour returns to office.

But while understanding the reasons for Mr Lansley’s decision in practice I think it is wrong in principle. Of course, were the risk assessment published it would lead to a slew of alarmist headlines. By definition risk assessments are there to interrogate worst cases; for example the RSA’s includes fire and flooding as well as IT melt-down or a sudden drop in Fellowship recruitment.

When I was in Downing Street we took it for granted that when an evaluation of Government policy was, say, 80% positive it would be the other fifth which would be the story. In news coverage of the risk assessment, the detailed metrics of the Departmental evaluation would be ignored or come well down a news story highlighting all the terrible things that could conceivably go wrong with the reforms. (By the way, as Ben Goldacre’s deconstruction of cancer scare stories vividly underlines, the problem of proportionality in risk reporting isn’t just one for politicians.)

However, there are two principles which outweigh my natural sympathy for ministers and officials and scepticism about the press. First, the simple question of public accountability; if ministers are taking big risks with our money and our services and if open government means anything, surely we deserve and need to know about it? By all means ministers can tell us why they disagree with the assessment or why they think the risk worth taking, but to supress the assessment itself is hard to justify and will simply lead people to assume the worst.

The second reason goes back to that old RSA favourite ‘the social aspiration gap’. As my regular reader will recall (‘hi mum, lovely to see you the other night, try to not to work so hard’), the idea of the gap is that in certain ways we need to enhance citizen capabilities if we are to create the future most of us say we want. One of those attributes is greater engagement, by which is meant a capacity in citizens to recognise and relate to the difficult choices which need to be made by us and on our behalf.

In the same newspaper in which I read about Mr Lansley’s decision there is a powerful column by Daniel Finklestein. The Executive Editor of the Times expresses his anxiety at the rise of extremist populism across Europe and calls on voters to face up to the necessity of hard choices on the road back to economic stability. But, as he says, to escape the folie a deux of dishonest politicians and an unreasonable public requires a step change in the candour and courage of mainstream leaders; ‘At the last election no party felt able to level with [the voters] about how bad things were, and what would be needed to put things right because they correctly divined that if they tried to do so they would be horribly damaged’.

Which takes us back to Mr Lansley’s dilemma and the case for sharing Governmental dilemmas with the public. Any genuine economic and fiscal risk assessment carried out before the last election would have forced politicians to confront the issues more openly and honestly and would have prepared the voters better for what was ahead.

Medium term pain for long term gain: what’s true for the economy is true also for the quality of dialogue between politicians and citizens.

PS: On the subject of risk, it’s now less than 4 weeks until I try and do a mountain marathon in aid of the RSA Great Room appeal. I haven’t actually done a risk assessment, but on the basis that risk needs to be balanced by gain, all donations gratefully received

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Fair enough?

April 20, 2012 by · 12 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

A comment on yesterday’s hubristically titled post focussed on the absence in my account of ‘how to save the world’ of any mention of social inequality. It is a valid criticism. But here are some things to bear in mind when we do talk about social justice.

When people are asked about what is unfair in society they are as likely to focus on what philosophers call procedural justice (playing by the rules) as distributional justice (social equality). As any political canvasser knows, if you ask people in disadvantaged areas about what is unfair they are more likely to refer to the neighbour who is working while on benefits or the immigrant family perceived to have got housing priority than to bankers, private education or the class system.

In his recent book on moral instincts, Jonathan Haidt suggests these two views of fairness (he calls procedural justice ‘proportionality’) are distinct impulses. While, as would be expected, the left tends to have the strongest story on distributional justice, conservatives often have a powerful message on the procedural dimension.

Sticking with Haidt, we need also to deal with the central idea of his book, which is that our moral judgements are more instinctive than reasoned. For example, he cites the example of Millian liberals who, having responded negatively to a story about a man buying a supermarket chicken, having sex with it then cooking and eating it, then scrabble around trying to find some harms-based rationale for their response. So while from moral and political philosophy we can derive ideas about what ought to offend us, this is not the same as changing what does offend us, the latter being based on long evolved aspects of our characters. It is like the distinction between what we know to be healthy foods and our continuing appetite for curry, beer and doughnuts.

In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I made the point that in progressive circles a lot of time is spent discussing the content of social justice but much less on the emotional foundations which underlie a desire to treat others justly. These debates are now getting more prominence with the growing popular interest in brains, behaviour and evolution. ‘Empathy’ is a widely discussed phenomenon, the existence and significance of mirror neurons is hotly debated and I suspect this year will see a shift in the evolutionary debate towards those who argue for group selection.

Although Robert Putnam’s work on values and diversity is important (and challenging) we could also do with more sociological research on why fairness is more or less powerful as a social norm in different types of places and communities.

Finally, people for whom justice is the most important value have to accept that most people are less motivated and more pragmatic. I am sure most voters would subscribe to the Ralwsian exception; inequality can be justified if it increases the aggregate well-being of everyone, including the disadvantaged. This is one reason why the left has seized so enthusiastically on the evidence presented by Wilkinson and Pickett in The Spirit Level.

Nor is it simply that arguments for justice have to contend with an economic/utilitarian calculus, there is also the value people ascribe to freedom as a virtue. Whilst people on the political left tend to assume that greater equality is a characteristic of a better society, those with less strong political leanings may see the connection between justice and progress as more contingent.

I have said before that one important aspect of what I call ‘the social aspiration gap’ is that we are not in any way on track to deliver a widely shared value; namely that all children should have reasonably equal life chances. I adhere strongly to this value (and I believe any credible meritocrat must also be an advocate of greater equality across society in general), but I also think the case for fair life chance is more likely to be furthered if progressives move beyond assertion and theory (however elegantly expressed) to an account and strategy informed by wider insights into public values and human nature.

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Saving the world (part 2)

April 19, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

In my post yesterday, I made the case for a new public sphere in which the efforts of state, civil society and individuals are more effectively combined so as to narrow the currently growing gap between social aspirations (for both entitlements and values) and the trajectory on which we are now set. I promised today (thanks to those who kindly retweeted my promise) to identify the spaces in which change is required to develop this new public sphere.

* Political leadership: we tend to associate credibility in politicians with their ability to persuade us that they can solve social problems (in my terms, that they can single-handedly close the social aspiration gap). This needs to be reversed. The attribute we should most value in politicians is an ability to help us see that only we, the people, can close the gap and their role is simply to try to provide the most enabling context. This means a style of leadership which is more modest, more discursive, much more willing to recognise and live with uncertainty. It is a style of leadership which feels to be saying more about us and our capabilities than about the politician and his (or hers).

* System reform: big ideas people and practical innovators too often ignore systems. But having the right systems with the right incentives in place is vital to developing a more participative public sphere, and having the wrong systems can be disastrous. Being an enthusiast for the perspective of critical theory, (see for example Michael Thompson and Christopher Hood) I advocate systems which mobilise the power of hierarchy (expertise, strategy, wise regulation and accountability), of egalitarianism (shared mission and values, social solidarity, subsidiarity) and of individualism (competition, invention, ambition) whilst recognising the inevitable prevalence of fatalism (apathy, scepticism).

* Innovation: from time to time there are innovations which are so simple and powerful they have the capacity to be scaled up across whole systems. This social care initiative from Hertfordshire may be a recent example. But most innovations which seem to work do so because of specific people and places, and so are not easily replicated. The innovation challenge is less about how to scale up individual initiatives and more about how to understand and create the conditions for innovation to emerge (a combination of attitudes, skills, institutions and resources). Every city, county and service needs these ‘innovation clusters’.

* Enterprise and investment: as almost everyone involved in social finance seems to agree,  the problem they face is not a lack of will or ideas, but the difficulty with turning proposals into viable social or commercial businesses. For example, payment by results contracts – which were supposed to drive innovation and efficiency – are often subsidised by providers (whether this is an appropriate use of charitable income is an interesting question). Whether social financiers and entrepreneurs can help innovators turn their ideas into sustainable businesses is an open but key question right now.

* Civic renewal:  some of the change we need has to come up from communities of place, experience and interest. Progressives (those who believe the human race can and should seek to attain a higher level of development) and those who claim to speak for the disadvantaged must make a shift away from the politics of complaint and towards to the politics of mutual self-help. As Tessy Britton and others have argued, once people and organisations have mustered on the unifying, one dimensional basis of articulating grievance (which seems often to be the raison d’etre of community organising) it becomes very difficult to turn this energy towards the messy, difficult process of developing and acting on solutions.

* Re-conceptualising: here is Ivan Illich on education:

‘ Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue’s responsibility until it engulfs his pupils’ lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education – and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries’.

This quote – which feels so contemporary – was written forty-one years ago. Part of re-inventing the public sphere must be about re-conceptualising core public service institutions (school, hospitals, prisons etc) which have in essence remained unchanged for a hundred and fifty years.

The point of describing the different dimensions of change (and or course, there could be other equally valid typographies) is not to provide a template for a single manifesto or strategy; the list is too broad and there are too many imponderables. But reformers should be aware of, and supportive towards, progressive movement in each domain. Innovators should care about politics, community mobilisers should understand the travails of entrepreneurs, policy wonks should get out more often. Progressively minded people should beware the cultural divide between thinking big about new paradigms and thinking in detail about practical inventions. To paraphrase Roberto Unger and Cornell West, ‘to be realists we must first be revolutionaries’.

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Saving the world (part 1)

April 18, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Every once in a while I get the chance to restate, and in so doing refine, a core element of my case for change in the world. So it was last night when the wonderful Tessy Britton (FRSA) and Laura Billings (FRSA) invited me to an ‘Ad-hoc enquiry’ dinner at the Hub in Westminster. I was a last minute stand-in and the group of twenty or so people sitting round the table eating soup and salad were highly impressive and accomplished, so it was quite a tough gig.

Today and tomorrow I will summarise what I said.

My initial pitch focussed on the social aspiration gap and the conundrum posed in seeking to close it:

* Growing demand and rising expectations combined with what is likely to be at least a decade of severe public sector resource constraint, mean we are on a default trend toward more and more unmet social need.

* Furthermore there are values which most people adhere to, for example, that children should have relatively equal life chances, young people should have jobs or useful education, whole localities should not be excluded from opportunity, which we are not in any way on track to deliver.

* On the whole, in relation to public service policy the Government and citizens want to achieve the same goals: better educated children, healthier lives, safer communities.

* Citizen behaviours are crucial to achieving these outcomes, indeed what we do as parents, patients, carers and neighbours is, arguably, a more important factor in outcomes than changes in Government policy or variations in the quality of services.

* Overall, internationally, the British are probably in the fair to good range when it comes to being responsible, resilient and altruistic, which is only what you would expect given our privileges as a nation. But there is huge scope for us to be better at looking after ourselves and each other.

* The conundrum (the question the Labour Government was mulling over when it commissioned work on ‘behaviour change’ and David Cameron was driving at with the notion of the ‘Big Society’) is how we persuade or enable people to align their expectations, attitude and actions with their aspirations so as to increase what the RSA has called the ‘social productivity’ of public policy interventions.

* There are some examples of the kind of change needed.  Take refuse collection, where fast rising rates of household recycling are the consequence just as much of changes in the way citizens manage their rubbish as of changes in how councils deal with it. Similarly, at their best, personal budgets for social care take the desire of services users and carers for more autonomy and turn this into a resource enabling a reduction in bureaucracy and ensuring that money gets directed to meeting the needs and wishes of budget recipients. Yet still across most public services, and running through most public policy, is a model in which citizens are seen as demands, needs or problems rather than partners, stakeholders or assets.

* Is this because the model of public services as collaborations to achieve social outcomes between the state, civil society and individuals is simply unrealistic? Perhaps the underlying nature of British society – particularly inequality and limited social solidarity – makes a more socialised model of public provision impossible? Or perhaps we simply haven’t been willing to be sufficiently imaginative or ambitious?

After my pitch there was a fascinating conversation which shaped a conclusion in which we identified six elements necessary for the emergence of a different paradigm for the public sphere. I know it will be almost unbearable, but you’ll have to wait until tomorrow to hear what those elements are…

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