‘Do we need to be institutionalised?

July 10, 2013 by
Filed under: Politics, The RSA 

Yesterday evening – in a personal capacity – I attended a Policy Network event launching Anthony Painter’s wide ranging and impressive new book ‘Left without a future? Social justice in anxious times’. I left with two thoughts, one small, one big.

The first is that it is a very bad idea to agree to speak at a launch event for a book without doing the homework. One of the respondents had committed this lazy misjudgment. After using his allotted time merely to repeat his own rather hackneyed world view, he was finally instructed  by the chair to say something about the book, at which point there followed an excruciating extended silence in which the entire audience was shouting to itself ‘he hasn’t read it !’.

The second was a response to the emphasis Anthony places in the book on institutions and the need for us to revive and create them, particularly in the economic sphere. He quotes Tamara Lothian and Roberto Unger from their essay ‘Crisis, slump, superstition and recovery’:

‘Institutional innovation is to empower experimentalism: by establishing arrangements that broaden economic and educational opportunity, by giving small and medium sized business access to forms of credit, technology, marketing, and knowledge normally reserved to big business, by propagating successful local practice and, above all, by creating the means and conditions for pluralism and experimentation in the institutional forms of the market economy’  

The emphasis on institutions is welcome and can be seen as a ‘third way’ between the liberal right’s emphasis on individuals and unfettered markets and the social democratic left’s on the central state and society at large.

As an organisation which sees its research and development functional more as an ‘act’ than a ‘think’ tank, an increasing proportion of what we do at the RSA can be seen as institution (re) building; think for example of our work with our Academy schools, our interest in creating new makers spaces, or the consultancy work we are doing to help the Police Federation renew itself (a project led by none other than Anthony Painter).

I need to do more reading around this subject but it feels to me like there is often something slightly missing in the argument. This is the definition of an institution and why institutions so defined have the power to foster the socially benign behaviours and outcomes most of us desire.

Regular readers won’t be surprised that at this point I reach for the three powers/cultural theory framework. To recap, this argues that there are fundamentally three sources of social power: individualism, hierarchy and solidarity. We tap most fully into human capacity when all three forms of power are positively expressed. Indeed when we are looking to achieve stuff together we will generally try to find ways to articulate each source.

Although the theory has this functionalist dimension (describing how open societies, organisations and people generally solve problems) it can also accommodate conflict, change and failure by recognising, first, that the three ways of thinking about and pursuing change are always in competitive tension and, second, that at certain times partially exogenous factors – such as technological innovation – can make one form of power more attractive than the others, leading to an unbalanced system overall (for the fuller thesis here is my annual lecture).

Going back to institutions, my thesis is that their potential might derive from them expressing their own structured method – suited to their environments and time – of including and balancing the three powers. Institutions fail when they don’t adapt and the expression of that failure tends to be the unbalancing of forces as organisations become too hierarchical (ossified and bureaucratic), too individualistic (irresponsible and chaotic), too solidaristic (defensive, tribal, inward looking) or simply unable to reconcile the different modes (schismatic, siloed).

This perspective offers a way of understanding why institutions are important (balancing the powers), why they fail (inability to adapt leading to a loss of balance) and the basis on which they can be best reconstituted and created.

What do you think, Anthony?





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  • http://www.twitter.com/anthonypainter Anthony Painter

    A very interesting set of reflections Matthew – thank you.

    The underlying issue you raise is how do we assess the effectiveness of an institution (a related question is when do we decide that we need an institution to fulfil a purpose where it currently doesn’t exist.) Acemoglu and Robinson are interesting on this.

    First, I’ll dive into the book for a working definition:

    “Institutions are ways of changing the way people interact. They are governed by rules and norms; and are designed to rig a game so that more desirable outcomes are achieved rather than simply leaving things to chance or the market. They sit between the state and the market or between different actors – such as workers and owners – within the marketplace or around public services.”

    So they mediate. It intrinsically about balancing. The method is about balancing powers (and consequently, redistributing power) through the interaction of rules and norms. The structures are codes, rules, laws aligned with social interplay – rational and human combined. Successful institutions are functional (rational) and matter (human).

    So yes, there is something to applying cultural theory to this – in the sense that hierarchy, individualism and solidarity describe different power distributions. Where institutions are effective they perform a corrective mechanism, mediating between different sources of power in some way that can meet democratic ends.

    All this raises a question for me that I’ve had on my mind for a while: is there a further source of power? Richard Sennet has eloquently described co-operation. It feels different to solidarity (moral bonding), individualism (exchange), and hierarchy (authority). Can we search for a fourth way that is voluntary yet collective? And could adaptive and inclusive institutions be where co-operation is explored and safeguarded?