For good ideas – go local

January 5, 2010 by
Filed under: Politics, Public policy, The RSA 

The working new year started early yesterday. So that I could take part in a Today Programme item about the coming election campaign, and fulfil a speaking engagement, I had to get the 6.30 train to Bath. The radio discussion was fine, although the other two participants were much more partisan than I try to be (even when I am not appearing in my RSA guise). 

Then on to an event with City of Bath College. Just a few years ago the college had some big issues around both finance and quality but under the leadership of one of the sector’s youngest college principals, Matt Atkinson, things have stabilised. Yesterday’s event was about the College upping its ambition both as in education institution and as part of the fabric of city life.

I delivered my core speech exploring some of the questions that emerge from overlaying a discussion about who we need to be (‘closing the social aspiration gap’) on to insights into how we function as social animals. It seemed to go down OK although I fear I cram too much material into my 25 minutes and that after a few hours not many people would be able to recall what I said (not necessarily a drawback!).

I was followed by Ashley Ayre, strategic director of children’s services for Bath and North Somerset Council. There were two key themes of his speech, ones that I hear over and again from public service leaders and managers. On the one hand, there was the issue of how to reconcile a growing ambition to reduce social exclusion, increase attainment and improve life chances with the expectation of declining resources. On the other hand, there was the emphasis on the urgency of greater co-ordination and collaboration between public sector institutions and agencies.

So the message out in public sector land is; we have to do things very differently if we are meet growing needs with shrinking budgets, and that crucial to the capacity to reform and innovate is a much higher level of collaboration, focussed around a shared strategy and a strong sense of place.

I don’t see this changing whoever wins the next election. Indeed the realism, coherence and imagination being shown in the best localities are streets ahead of the dishonesty and opportunism of the national political debate. With the 2010 election campaign only a few days old we have already seen a deeply disingenuous performance by the Prime Minister on the Andrew Marr programme and an intellectually second rate health policy document from the Conservatives. If this is anything to go by, it’s going to be a long and dispiriting four months.



  • Livy

    “A deeply disingenuous performance by the Prime Minister ”


  • Matt Atkinson

    Matthew – it went down very well indeed and people have been talking about it all day. Many thanks. Matt

  • Susmita

    Your last paragraph is a good summary of how many of us are feeling.

  • Michael

    “So the message out in public sector land is; we have to do things very differently…”

    My first thought is that I have been hearing that message for about ten years, maybe longer. The impetus has varied, but the “must change” message has been a constant. And I sometimes think there is a sort of inverse correlation at work – the more an organisation asserts the message, the less real change is actually happening.

    “The urgency of greater co-ordination and collaboration between public sector institutions and agencies…”

    This is interesting. An (enduring) influence on me a few years back was Jake Chapman’s 2002 Demos mini book “System Failure”. It addressed (among other things) the increased complexity brought about by the impact of communication technologies, and the resulting growth in interactions (email, meetings, calls, websites, documents etc) between organisations and agencies who have to work together.

    With the coming big financial squeeze, organisations will indeed have to (really) change, but to cut costs, they may have to interact less, not more. The successful ones may be those who can shed the traditional cumbersome structures of public sector partnership working, instead adopting different approaches, maybe including “how would Google/Apple/your choice of innovator here do it?”.

    Reading “System Failure” (and a follow up last year, “Connecting the Dots”) prompts a thought that others have also asked – how different things could have been since 1997, had the Labour administration not been so addicted to the top-down, command and control management approach that Chapman criticises in the books.

    Both available free from Demos website:

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