Aspects of a peaceful revolution

November 14, 2012 by
Filed under: Credit crunch, Politics, The RSA 

I spoke this afternoon to the annual conference of the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA). Not for the first time I thought I would use my blog to mull over my thoughts for the speech.

The talk was entitled ‘unlocking our hidden assets’ and after a quick run round the ‘social aspiration gap’ (which is, arguably growing wider with every new piece of evidence of the scale of austerity to come), I thought I might try to describe the key headings for a strategy of unlocking civic capacity to improve places:

A major shift in public expectations and attitudes:  Political leaders in central and local government should develop a clear narrative about, first, the need for citizens to step up to the plate in terms of the gap between social needs and expectations, on the one hand, and public resources on the other and, second, about how Government itself will change to facilitate this shift in norms and behaviours. At various times – particularly around the launch of the Big Society – some of this has been articulated but it is a big and challenging message and will only hit home if it comes front, middle and centre of the political narrative.

A new focus on understanding community assets: RSA projects like Changemakers and Connected Communities has shown how much useful knowledge about who makes things happen in communities and how people are (and are not) connected, and about people’s needs and capabilities, is unknown. If we are to start treating civic capacity as an asset we have to understand that asset. An important bonus is that, unlike more traditional social data, information on change makers and social networks seems to be in itself a powerful catalyst for new connections and activities.

Mainstreaming civic intelligence, engagement and mobilisation across public services: The simple fact is that what might still be called ‘the Big Society agenda’ has hardly touched people who run mainstream public services like schools, health services and social care. Indeed the limited aspects of outreach that these services did engage in have been the first to be cut back. As part of fundamental reorientation from meeting needs to managing demand, public sector leaders and senior managers should systematically address the ways in which public attitudes and behaviours help and hinder the achievement of social outcomes and then develop long term strategies to engage, grow and utilise civic capacity (as I argued a few days ago, the example of household recycling shows what can be done).

(As part of the above) Double devolution: Whilst decision makers in Whitehall and (to a lesser extent) Town Hall tend to think of things in terms of uniformity and service silos, every local community is different and the connections between public investment, economic activity and civic engagement are complex and subtle. The more decision making is devolved the more likely we are to see and exploit the connections.

Outcome based innovation, contestability and finance: By opening up data (in usable forms), by creating new forms of social finance and by moving to more flexible forms of commissioning we need to create a platform on which a thousand social innovations can grow.

Social business: From the genuine attempts by some companies to develop strong roots into communities as part of their brand and customer relations (ASDA and Waitrose being lead examples) to the use of the new Public Services (social value) Act to existing and new public services being established as social businesses with scope for commercial development and expansion, there is an urgent opportunity to bring economic/business and social/public service agendas into closer alignment.

A new social economy of place: Taken together these are the elements of what I have called a new social economy of place, a way of seeing and combining public, corporate and civic resources behind a shared mission of creating places which offer the citizens good lives and growing opportunities what will continue far into the future to be testing economic circumstances.

Much of this chimes with aspects of Coalition policy. But not only is the Government inconsistent, half-hearted and unrealistic about moving from grand vision to real change, it may simply be that the scale and pace of cuts make it impossible to reconceptualise and re-engineer Government and public services in time. Instead we may simply have to reconcile ourselves to rising deprivation and a declining quality of life and hope that society can cope without violent dislocation. The odds may be bad but there is no other horse to be backed.

I know a lot of this is big picture stuff but, let’s face it, this is a big picture crisis.




  • Robert Burns


    I think a more current and pressing topic for discussion would be the recent Parliamentary expenses scandal(s) and how this will impact on efforts to engage the public with ‘our leaders’ might have in mind.

    What is wrong with those people?

    If (as appears to be the case) they are so morally and intellectually deficient that they can’t appreciate the risks and consequences to themselves and others of what they’re doing, then how can the public trust the group and institution that these people belong to?

  • Zio Bastone

    Or did you mean a counter-revolution? Your reference to ‘a thousand social innovations’ blooming, the phrase is derived from Mao’s One Hundred Flowers campaign in 1956, is suggestive.

    Once again you stress leaders and narratives, advocating a sort of dirigisme, whilst apparently channelling (‘it is a big and challenging message and will only hit home if it comes front, middle and centre of the political narrative’) Edward Bernays. But in fact the ‘people’ in a democracy should participate (‘nihil de nobis sine nobis’); they should determine what happens next; they should legitimise leaders rather than being legitimised by them; they should certainly not, I would hope, be the creatures of some Straussian elite. Above all they should have at least the opportunity to create an open discourse (or text, or dialectic) rather than simply affirming a narrative that is closed  from the outset or responding with a downtick (or an uptick) to the ‘management’ or the s(t)imulation of ‘demand’. As though consuming was the only thing they ever did. This is important because, as Hirschman pointed out a very long time ago, neoliberalism/marketisation privileges exit over voice. And that in effect is what you too are doing: Agree with us or be gone. (The Hundred Flowers campaign was used to flush out dissidents.)

    As I tried to indicate in an earlier comment, fear of mass alterity runs a long way back and very deep: Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ as an external array of singletons prone to mug one another and loot clothing from TK Maxx. Or Marx’s Lumpenproletariat, the ‘indefinite, disintegrated mass’ who keep claiming disability benefit or child support. It is the task of modernism to reform all this, to create the new modern polity, to distinguish between the disorganized citizen (inside the polity) and the unorganizable rabble outside.

    You are still, I think, a modernist, still addicted to grand narratives imposed from above where there should be immanent critique. Thus your reference in a previous post to a ‘model of social citizenship needed for the 21st century’ parallels both Brecht’s idea of a government dissolving an unsatisfactory people and electing its replacement in Die Lösung and, say, the New Architecture of Lució Costa, which he called  ‘an entirely new constructive know-how’ which was nevertheless ‘still waiting for the society to which, logically, it should belong’. So the implications of something as unplanned and as antipathetic to the moderniser as James Holston’s ‘insurgent citizenship’, in which change comes about from within and from below, would probably be unappealing were you to observe them in the first place. But they are important nonetheless.

    One may indeed look down upon ‘citizens’, as you do, both as backward (in plate stepping terms) and as full of untapped grand potential, ‘civic capacity’. However what you then end up with is a new version of (FW) Taylorisation with respect to community behaviour and probably a continuation of the sort of colonialism which has been developing for some years whereby the polity empties itself of power and expertise, like businesses hiding behind call centres, to become an obstructive void, and where communities feel impotent at worst (because unaccountable plate steppers such as Serco tend to have baseball bats; the Mafia fills a vacuum after all) or frustrated and rebellious at best. Meanwhile helpful changes (which may or may not be afoot) remain utterly off the radar where they have not been smothered or cancelled out.

  • Robert Burns

    Matthew and Zio,

    all of this very interesting, but completely and irrelevantly theoretical.

    Firstly, democracy does not shape (and has not shaped) the world and is not an explanation for distribution(s) of wealth and power at any level.

    The Industrial Revolution(s) and Empire(s) that arose in Europe and North America were exercises market protectionism and the seizure by force of resources and commodities that actually belonged to other people.

    The China Tea Trade and the Opium Wars along with the Belgian involvement in the Congo and the Spanish occupation of Central and South America are graphic examples of the moral foundations of empire.

    The industrial revolutions produced similarly long human casualty lists on equally shaky moral foundations.

    None of these historical events and processes took place in a context of universal suffage and multi-party democracy.

    But they do explain the concentration of global wealth and power in Europe and sightly later in the US.

    It is also uncomfortable to consider that the rise of universal suffage and multi-party democracy coincides with a decline in wealth and power pretty much wherever it happens – the exceptions are small enough in number to be written of as random anomalies.

    Moving to the present day we look around and what do we see.

    Well, we see the the Peoples Republic of China.

    A nation of 800+ million people in a Stalinist one party state with the fastest expanding economy on the planet and unemployment that (depending on how you reckon it) is either consistently falling or zero and where living standards are consistently rising.

    And a great thing about it is that this economy is busy producing what everybody in the world wants to buy.

    Wages and the foreign exhange rate for the Yuen are deliberately kept low as both a ‘competitive’ measure and as a protectionist measure to keep out foreign imports.

    Land prices are low and foreign businesses have to work through Chinese owned companies.

    Whole industrial sectors have been transferred to the PRC on these terms from countries that practice multi-party ‘democracy’ and where unemployment is persistent and/or rising and living standards are consistently falling.

    Further, much of the international deep water shipping capacity is tied up transporting raw materials into, and finished products out of, the PRC.

    At the same time PRC based businesses are buying up the rights to natural resources and intellectual property all over the world.

    So, anyone who wants to compete with the PRC will have to do so by paying premium prices for raw materials, transport, labour and land.

    In the future they may also be unable to access important technologies without paying premium rate royalties to the PRC based owners of such copyrighted or patented intellectual property.

    This is quite apart from the whole issue of countering product brand loyalty issues.

    So, I don’t see how fragmenting our national response to this economic, political and ideological challenge with stuff like these ‘city deals’ will work.

    And what does this whole situation tell us about the morality and leadership competence of our political ‘elites’?

    Why should we believe anything they tell us?

    But, what am I saying, pointing out these inconvenient facts and asking awkward questions in the face of weak beer ‘solutions’ is just ‘whinging’.