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Sort yourselves into two groups

February 14, 2012 by
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.



  • Andrew Gallagher

    Interesting ideas but to me it ignores the the always undervalued attribute of humility. I’ve always tried to encourage this in my work and considered it a critical tool in the “art of building consensus”. The recent book Humilitas by John Dickson explores this notion and its links to leadership and to a lesser extent consensus. The question for me is how to maintain the ‘passion’ and energy of individuals and at the same time instill them with the virtue of humility, thus ensuring they are in a position to ‘let go’ of their goals and adopt a new goal that is at once a group goal and their goal

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Matthew. As often happens through the serendipity of the web, this popped up just as I was talking to others about the development the new RSA online platform, and spotting posts about lessons we can take about online collaboration from other organisations. I’ve posted over on the Fellowship site: We need more sociability before more technology … including fun.
    Practically and positively I’m suggesting that in the spirit of Fellowship-led initiatives we should play a bigger part online on current systems as hosts, guides and social reporters in order to model the sort of creative, fun, learning activity needed to realise the value of new investment and so make a difference.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    @David Wilcox – As a non fellow and one who has only recently discovered the RSA (via online means) it is interesting to note that the RSA promotes membership via geographic chapters. What if fellows were not assigned to geographic chapters and instead were simply members of the RSA and therefore free to participate in whatever groups they wish – be they geography based, or interest based?

    Thinking along the lines of your post i would assume that a strong online platform would foster and grow around these interest based groupings – probably even self organised – and in this manner you would actually broaden your reach, strengthen global ties and potentially achieve more?

    I know that those of us who reside outside of major population centres would benefit from such an approach

  • David Wilcox

    Thanks Andrew for taking a look at the post, and your suggestion. I’ve recently rejoined RSA and I’m catching up on current arrangements, but I do know there’s no restriction on Fellows forming communities of interest online, and you will see quite a few groups at You are most welcome to join, as someone interested in RSA.
    We are exploring how best to support activity through a mixture of staff and Fellow facilitation, and your approach sounds very relevant. Can you give us a link?

  • junius

    Getting back to the themes in My Taylor’s latest posting. I would be more inclined to a ‘defence of democracy against politics’ (and Westmister politicians). I am not so pessimistic about the capacities of the public to show wisdom. In throwing the shots against the poll tax and the UK’s ill-advised intervention in Iraq (2003) the public were right in my judgement and the politicians wrong.

    Perhaps it is because my initial training was as an historian that I am surprised you refer to ‘deliberative democracy’ without investigating or mentioning at all the popular assembly which constitutes the main form of architecture for organizing this deliberation. One can usefully study how this architecture sought to organize deliberation (with varying degrees of success) in the cases of ancient Athens and the states of the United States of America in the run up to and during the American Revolution. The example of Pennsylvania is a particularly enlightening one.

    It was through this architecture that necessary checks and balances for deliberative democracy were addressed. One key example being the balancing of minority groups’ rights to put their proposals and views to an assembly while ensuring the final judgements and decisions should be made by majority assent.

    I am surprised that the US political scientists/sociologists you quote appear to fail to analyze deliberative democracy in the context of popular assemblies; the most common and effective architecture for it.

  • Edward Harkins FRSA

    Matthew re your citing of Tessy Britton on ‘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’. It sounds familiar to an aspect of community regeneration across the UK.

    I think that the ‘community regeneration business’ in the UK has long been in the businesses of telling communities that they must display and argue and promote their ‘poverty’ and ‘the failure’ of their communities, and the injustices they suffer – all in order to be rendered ‘eligible’ for regeneration funding. Policy makers and professional practitioners then discovered, IMO, that the outcome was communities with an institutionalised identity as poor, failed communities.

    It seems to be (my opinion only and no measurable evidence to support it) that many of these communities have found it hard to move on from that. Another outcome is that entities such as The Policy Exchange came up with arguments that were by turns reprehensible and risible – that such communities were doomed to perpetual failure and we should just give up and prepare them for downsizing or even evacuation. This mantra at one point was applied to entire cities such as Liverpool and Sunderland.

    Late on in the Labour Scottish Executive’s life, this ‘institutionalised identity as poor failed’ was being recognised. There was then much policy chatter about the need for all social programmes and projects to include a community-capacity-building element.

    One of the significant developments in Scotland under the current SNP Administration has been an accelerated move towards ‘preventative spend’ and asset based strategies in the fields of health & wellbeing, worklessness and community regeneration. I sympathise with these approaches as they aim for a true transfer of resources and power – but also responsibility and autonomy – to communities.

    There are, however, significant barriers. One is the need to redeploy funding for long term programmes away from current expenditure on programmes and projects that may be popular, but simply salve existing and recurrent problems whilst doing nothing about fundamental underlying causes. The public will be reluctant to accept the pain of that redeployment in the increasingly unequal and unfair society that is the UK. Another worry is that on this difficult redeployment, the Scottish Labour will repeat their disreputable populist behaviour such as over the Scottish Government’s intentions on alcohol minimum pricing. The other barrier is the powerful producer interests – not least the professional medical forces.

    I will be at a lunchtime lecture in The Glasgow Housing Association Academy tomorrow (Friday) to hear Sir Harry Burns, the much respected Chief Officer for Public Health in Scotland (if I have his title correct). He has long been a champion of the preventative spend and asset-based approaches. I hope to raise the ‘barriers issues’ with him.

  • David Wilcox

    Edward – I agree about much of earlier regeneration policy, and good to hear about recent development in Scotland. Fortunately Big Lottery Fund, among others, are also supporting a strengths-based approach as I found in a social reporting exploration recently on behalf of their People Powered Change initiative.
    To provide an example I dropped in to the I Love Thornton Heath event that I reported here. I It met Matthew’s criteria of being fun, providing a great shared learning experience and is likely to make a difference without big budgets, very much on the lines Tessy advocates.

  • Edward Harkins FRSA

    I did attend Sir Harry Burns’s lecture at the GHA Academy. (David I’d especially like to hear what you might see the strengths-based approach saying about what follows). His theme was the health and wellbeing factors and data applying to the Greater Glasgow metropolitan area. As always his presentation was comprehensive and even at times complex, but always accessible, persuasive and thought-provoking.

    Most relevant to this discussion were his comments on community ‘engagement’ in pursuit of community regeneration. His view was that ‘communities’ are complex and highly adaptive entities. It’s therefore a fatal error to approach them with a strategic plan and expect predicted outcomes from that plan. In essence his message was that complex entities do not respond to complex plans – his recommendation is to keep the approach to a few simple measures.

    His great preference with regard to work with troubled communities was that we simply enable/facilitate the re-establishment of linking-up and communication between individuals in the community – and then stand back and observe and analyse what then goes on and what can be done for the best.

    He also stressed that for many agencies with a public or social policy remit, a core factor was how the people in that agency organise themselves on how they deal with the individual people who comprise their clients or their publics.

    He, however, did leave me in a quandary on one point. In another part of his lecture he spoke very favorably of Igor Ansoff’s concept of coherence. This concept holds that where individuals experience a lack of meaning or ‘coherence’ in their lives they suffer illness, especially mental stress, as a direct consequence. When many individuals in a society experience a lack of coherence with regard to their society and their place in it, the entire society can suffer seriously negative consequences. (Sir Harry was speculating as to this concept helping explain the decline over the past 30+ years in many of the West of Scotland’s prime health indicators as compared with elsewhere in the UK.).

    The inference is that there are deeply embedded and long-term societal forces that have to be addressed if we want positive change. I suggested to him that there was a tension or conflict here for public health and wellbeing policy. If we approach communities of disadvantage and poverty (for shorthand) and enable the individuals to link-up and act together, surely they will seek to have the immediate and most compelling social, economic and health ailments in their community to be addressed. The individuals will not be much interested in discussions about ‘deeply embedded, long-term forces to be tackled.

    Sir Harry disagreed with me (in his usual courteous way). His judgement was that if we give residents in such communities the opportunities to think about the more visionary and fundamental things, they will respond – they will be aspirational for their community. I replied that my heart and my philosophical sides wanted to agree with him, but that my long-time practitioner’s experience said otherwise – individuals in those communities want the decent housing now, or the violence and dirt sorted now or local health care needs provided for now.

    I’m left wondering if this is all to do with how earlier regeneration initiatives were ‘taken to’ communities and presented to them e.g. the approach was to ‘go in with a plan’, just as Sir Harry now warns against.

  • David Wilcox

    Edward – what a fascinating conversation, particularly with one end in Scotland where I spend a lot of time on regeneration projects in the 1980s, starting with setting up the Barrows Enterprise Trust in Glasgow. I hope the market is still going strong!
    These days we recognise that collaborations are often short term, and that instead of setting up (often imposing) more institutions that may not be sustainable, we should look to making the most of our assets, physical, economic and social, and weave stronger relationships between those.
    That puts emphasis on mapping the assets, supporting the connectors, and creating circumstances in which they can flourish. More gardening than landscaping.
    My Edinburgh-based colleague Drew Mackie and I are working on a simulation and set of resources that aims to embrace both context and connecting, as you can see here. People can use that framework to develop their own plans, individually and collectively.
    Incidently, I think this analysis also has direct relevance to RSA Fellowship. You can see discussion in the digital engagement group on the Fellowship site about the challenges in creating a new online platform (link in my earlier comment above). I suggest there that we should concentrate first on building relationships, and only secondly on the equivalent of another top-down regeneration plan.
    I’ll shortly be starting some work teasing out the differences and similarities between the various community organising, building, connecting, development initiatives we are seeing in England – and hope we can compare cross-border.

  • Edward Harkins FRSA

    Yes David this could get all creative and all go way off topic!

    Several quick things: Drew Makie is of course a well-kent face hereabouts; the Barras is still going strong with it’s at times scary and challenging edginess, but see the links below for examples of the positives; the tendency of (government) institutions to ‘short-term initiate and instigate’ with consequent unsustainable creations is still present here in Scotland; I agree with your comments on the relevance to the RSA Fellowship and I know of some other similarly interested Fellows here in Scotland with whom I hoping to go forward; as well as me taking a look at the digital stuff you mention, can I mention how impressed I am with the interim outcomes of the RSA’s programme on Connected Communities (that’s non-digital connected); another aspect that seems close to this theme is the Cultural Planning model with its mantra of ‘investigate and map the existing resources, talents and assets before doing anything else whatsoever.

    Re the latter, I’m currently developing a relationship with the inspiring Fablevision team based in the heart of old Govan in Glasgow (see other link below). The redoubtable Liz Gardiner of Fablevision has long been a champion of Cultural Planning.

    So, all-in-all it seems we have bags of stuff to exchange on.

  • Ian Christie

    Fascinating thread – thanks to Matthew for starting it off.

    On this issue, I’d love to see RSA collaborate with the small but impressive think-tank and consultancy INVOLVE, (declaration – I am acting chair), which works on evaluation and advocacy of deliberative democratic processes.

    There is a general lack of work on integrating representative institutions with deliberative processes intended to expand participatory democracy. Deliberative systems are often presented as means of making up for the inherent flaws of representative politics, but there is more to it than that: it is dangerous to get into the habit of assuming representative democracy is always a mess that better ‘engagement’ can help us get away from. Just as we need a clearer representative political Constitution, so there is a need to imagine and debate the nature of a Participatory Democratic Constitution to complement it.

    Great news that you’re working on a tribute to Crick’s superb book. One theme could be the need to defend politics from the search at all times for consensus. On some issues there is no scope for consensus – we have a basic conflict and a set of interests has to be defeated (peacefully) and accept a new, irreversible state of affairs.

  • Andrew Gallagher

    @david wilcox

    Hi David sorry for the slow response – a bit hectic. Thanks or the link, I will sign up. I can’t provide you any link or think of any off hand – it was just a thought I had in response to your post. I guess the closest I can think of would be something like a virtual special interest group (SIGs were every where in the 90s and generally self organized)

  • Andrew Gallagher

    Edward, I am just catching up with this thread so please forgive my tardiness.

    In reference to your comments re Sir Harry’s view and your experience I wonder do you actually have to choose? Isn’t it possible to provide or facilitate the aspirational and also deal with the necessities?

    I think we sometimes categorise people based on the community they live in and the size of their wallet rather than acknowledging the capacity and differences of individuals – surely some are naturally more tactical and practical whilst others operate in a more visionary aspirational manner.

    If this is true then isn’t the role of the regeneration activity not to solve the problems and drive the regeneration ie not to turn up with the plan but instead to facilitate the regeneration through engaging and resourcing both the tactical and aspirational thinkers within the community and acting as the conduit that combines and fastens the initiatives of both?

  • Edward Harkins FRSA

    Andrew thanks for your thought-provoking contribution. I think my response would be twofold.

    First, the evidence is that the ‘regeneration sector’, taken as a whole, has shown a systemic failure across the UK to deliver on community engagement. Whilst I agree with what you say in your final paragraph, I wonder if you are describing a task that would be better done by others. Specifically, is what you describe not what community development strategies and officers were meant to be doing?

    Secondly, and please excuse the seeming facetiousness, but if you read you final paragraph again – is that not a case of going in again with a ‘big plan’, albeit a different format? Maybe the plan is ‘still the thing’.