A good day in the frozen north

January 25, 2013 by
Filed under: The RSA, Uncategorized 


I have been Chief Executive of the RSA for over six years, which is a personal record for one job. It means I have got a substantial emotional investment in the Society. A downside is that criticism, especially if I think it is unfair, can really get to me. An upside is the warm glow when I see us at our best.

 

This morning I was bursting with pride. The occasion was the official launch of our Transitions project which is working in partnership with HMP Everthorpe in East Yorkshire to create a ‘through the gate’ social enterprise centre. Like many RSA projects – and this is one of our great strengths – this one has been long in development. It started with a commission on prison learning chaired by the then provost of UCL Malcolm Grant which culminated in the report ‘The Learning Prison’. Then, in 2011, the Transitions report was published  advocating a social enterprise model to bring together some of the best practice in prison training, work and rehabilitation.

 

The next step was a classic example of how the different strands of the RSA come together. An article about Transitions in the Society’s journal attracted the attention of Ed Cornmell FRSA newly appointed governor of Everthorpe. Ed contacted project director Rachel O’Brien – his prison owned adjacent land comprising fifty acres and an abandoned country house. ‘How about making Transitions happen here?’ he asked.

 

Eighteen months later and Ed and I, along with the recently elected Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Grove, are addressing a hundred and thirty people comprising key figures from the sub region’s criminal justice system, leaders of innovative voluntary sector rehabilitation schemes, members of the local community and a group of ‘category D’ prisoners from Everthorpe, one of whom has just been appointed as administrator for Transitions.

 

It was a great event with the our ideas getting a warm and generous response. Another high point was when our dynamic regional chair Pam Warhurst jumped up to pledge to mobilise the thousand RSA Fellows in Yorkshire behind the scheme. They will be adding ti the efforts of the expert group of Fellows who have been working with Rachel.

 

And then it was off to the faded glory of Everthrope Hall and its magnificent grounds. As we wandered around scarcely a minute passed without new suggestions for how the estate could be developed; forestry skills, eco-tourism, mountain bike repair and hire, organic horticulture, fish farming; all activities which could combine feasible business models with the opportunity for prisoners and ex offenders to develop skills and careers and build self confidence. Finally, we toured the newly refurbished Transitions office in one wing of the hall, expertly repaired, painted, decorated and furnished (including tables made in the prison) by Everthrope inmates.

 

Of course, there is a long way to go and the next year is still, fundamentally, about evaluation.  The uncertain future of the probation service hangs over the scheme with worries that if payment by results in probation is like PBR in employment services it will be very hard to carve out spaces for innovative practice. But if the energy in the room is anything to go by we will find a way to make Transitions happen.

 

I have to admit there was a moment when I imagined beaming into the room the small contingent of people who continue to argue that today’s RSA has no mission or that we have somehow abandoned the commitment to invention, enterprise and public good that inspired the founders of the Society. I wanted them to see the delight expressed by so many that the RSA has brought such an ambitious and innovative project to this part of the world.

 

I guess when I find myself having a continuous internal conversation with my detractors it may be time to wonder whether I too have been inside for too long. But sitting here in Rachel’s snug cottage waiting to go out for a celebration dinner with key players in the project I will be keeping any transition plans of my own on hold for a while longer.

 

Share

Comments

17 Comments on A good day in the frozen north

  1. Robert Burns on Fri, 25th Jan 2013 8:23 pm
  2. Mathew,

    very interesting…..

    But, who will hire the ‘rehabilitated’ inmates on their release?

    As with all such schemes the only ‘winners’ in the long term will those who run the scheme, not those who are passed through it.

    Just another Middle Class job creation opportunity/scam.

  3. David Wilcox on Fri, 25th Jan 2013 8:53 pm
  4. Thanks Matthew

    I don’t know whether Robert’s criticism is valid or not, but taking your description at face value the development of the project shows the convening power of RSA and so answers one possible criticism of your social agenda. It demonstrates how RSA can bring together a range of interests and resources for innovation that can be more difficult for others. Vindiction.
    Recent Linkedin discussions about mission and Fellowship have not – in my view – been about lack of RSA potential. They have been about how to help Fellows understand what RSA is for, and secondly how to address your challenge of scaling Fellowship activity to make a bigger and wider impact.
    One very effective way to address the communication and engagement issue would be to tell more stories of good projects. Or even better help Fellows tell stories theselves, and to use the RSA dissemination channels to reach the thousands of people who engage with staff-led events and web sites.
    At present there is nowhere that Fellows can really show what they are doing, often in partnership with others. I don’t think your blog, excellent though it is, can be a substitute. It can provide an additional authoritative and powerful voice – but we need many others.
    So – this is absolutely not a criticism. Really just saying, great story, let’s find ways of telling more of them together. Then using the experience we share to innovate further.
    At the moment this sort of conversation takes place partly here, partly on Linkedin, parltly on the Fellowship site

  5. David Wilcox on Fri, 25th Jan 2013 9:10 pm
  6. …oops, doing this on a small keypad and posted too quickly, I wanted to end by saying we need some better ways of talking to each other about the good stuff RSA is doing, in one space, otherwise a lot of misconceptions develop.
    Sorry this is a bit of a ramble. I just wanted to offer some Friday night good cheer and constructive suggestions to match the inspiration of the story.

  7. John Oakley on Fri, 25th Jan 2013 9:40 pm
  8. Matthew, I agree with David. Posts such as this one just exacerbate the issue that many of us have. My immediate reaction was “another project that I knew nothing about”. Of course from searching I did find a Transitions article but undated and Un-prioritized. When, and how important is this to the RSA?

    I don’t have time or inclination to trawl through the website looking for good stories I can tell to get people engaged or for projects where my skills and experience could be utilized. Especially when the only way to get further details is by email. And I’m not alone.

    As I have discussed with you in other places, image and perception are important to the future of this great Society and keeping the fellowship in the dark and then taking genuine attempts to communicate better as PERSONAL criticism is not going to further the success of the RSA. You are a great personal communicator and bring great value to the society. I became involved because of your charismatic enlightenment vision but as you are painfully aware not all members totally agree.

    Good communication is the responsibility of the communicator not the audience. If some don’t get your message it’s not their fault.

    If you really want to engage with the fellowship and leverage the army of 27000 then you have to reconsider your approach.

  9. Matthew Taylor on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 8:49 am
  10. Thanks John (and David). I feel I must respond to John’s comments.

    If you put the word ‘Transitons’ in the search on the RSA website 29 items come up, the most recent ones of which refer explicitly to the Everthrope project. They also include personal contact details for both the project lead and the network manager. As well as its prominence on the website, the Transitions project has featured in the Journal and in the Fellows’ newsletter. The Transitons project has also been extensively discussed at the Trustee Board (seven of its twelve members being elected by the Fellowship).

    As I described in the post, the regional chair is enthusiastically involved and the project itself has always involved a group of expert Fellows. There is a current and past Trustee on the project steering group, the former of whom was until last month the Fellowship Council representative on the Board. Indeed the original prison learning project was overseen by a network of Fellows in which all Fellows were explicitly invited to engage. Rachel O’Brien – the project lead – tells me that on average she is getting three emails a week from Fellows all over the country who want to offer support to and engagement with the project.

    Seriously, I am nonplussed about how this project could be portrayed as one which has not been fully communicated or is in some way hidden from Fellows.

  11. David Wilcox on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 9:29 am
  12. Thanks Matthew I’ll let John come back on specifics, but excuse me if I use this to highlight a general perception that I’m picking up about formal and social communication.
    Within the core of the organisation it may seem communication has been achieved through Board, Council and newsletter. But I don’t believe most Board members have extensive contact with Fellows (perhaps they’ll correct if I’m wrong), and we don’t hear much from Council either. They don’t even have an online space where we an engage with representatives or good reporting from meetings.
    Content from Journal and newsletters doesn’t spread in conversations because (old point I know) online social systems are poor and staff generally don’t engage in Fellowship spaces. Regional sites have not been facilitated and are now being closed without a clear plan to reanimate centrally.
    While there may be a technology plan there is no communications plan. The organisation is mainly in broadcast mode, and Fellows aren’t getting the messages, and aren’t talking to each other as much as they could.
    This is a systemic failure of a historically hierarchical organisation.
    However, it does mean that your informative and informal blogging stands out as an example of an approach that we should have elsewhere. We need a social communications ecology as well as your social reporting … otherwise your role as messenger gets confused with your strategic role.
    But please don’t stop blogging. Just develop a social communication system for the rest of us.
    Thanks as always for offering an opportunity to engage on your blog. As I said earlier, we really need some way that Board, staff and Fellows can have these organisational conversations privately. That doesn’t mean investment. Linkedin would be good enough as a start for private conversation, together with a commitment to start on planning development of the social communication systems, with people as well as tech. If we have that space, I’ll be glad to contribute more, and I know there are many other Fellows with more social comms skills who would be interested.

  13. David Wilcox on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 9:29 am
  14. Thanks Matthew I’ll let John come back on specifics, but excuse me if I use this to highlight a general perception that I’m picking up about formal and social communication.
    Within the core of the organisation it may seem communication has been achieved through Board, Council and newsletter. But I don’t believe most Board members have extensive contact with Fellows (perhaps they’ll correct if I’m wrong), and we don’t hear much from Council either. They don’t even have an online space where we an engage with representatives or good reporting from meetings.
    Content from Journal and newsletters doesn’t spread in conversations because (old point I know) online social systems are poor and staff generally don’t engage in Fellowship spaces. Regional sites have not been facilitated and are now being closed without a clear plan to reanimate centrally.
    While there may be a technology plan there is no communications plan. The organisation is mainly in broadcast mode, and Fellows aren’t getting the messages, and aren’t talking to each other as much as they could.
    This is a systemic failure of a historically hierarchical organisation.
    However, it does mean that your informative and informal blogging stands out as an example of an approach that we should have elsewhere. We need a social communications ecology as well as your social reporting … otherwise your role as messenger gets confused with your strategic role.
    But please don’t stop blogging. Just develop a social communication system for the rest of us.
    Thanks as always for offering an opportunity to engage on your blog. As I said earlier, we really need some way that Board, staff and Fellows can have these organisational conversations privately. That doesn’t mean investment. Linkedin would be good enough as a start for private conversation, together with a commitment to start on planning development of the social communication systems, with people as well as tech. If we have that space, I’ll be glad to contribute more, and I know there are many other Fellows with more social comms skills who would be interested.

  15. Robert Burns on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 10:13 am
  16. To David Wilcox,

    I know that I am frequently (nearly always?) negatively critical and this grates on some contributors.

    And that is as far as I’ll ever go towards apologizing for calling it how I see it.

    I am all for people who have fallen from being law abiding citizens and/or into unemployment being re/integrated into broader society.

    But, I have observed at first hand the growth of an industry that depends on the continuing existence of long term unemployment and (at one remove) the continuing failure to take people out of crime.

    My criticism rests on the fact that these schemes don’t address the values in broader society that create the conditions that:

    (a) lead to offending in the first place;

    (b) make it more likely that released inmates will go back into offending; and

    (c) make it difficult to impossible for the long term unemployed to get back into regular work

    Despite decades of multi-culturalism propaganda, decades of anti-discrimination legislation (and the associated litigation) we live in a society that still uses race, age, gender and social class to decide who can access what opportunities and benefits society has to offer.

    A lot of what passes as ‘equal opportunities’ policy and practice is simply politically correct racism, agism, sexism and class prejudice.

    Until there is a ‘scheme’ to address the issues I’ve pointed out the Everthorpe project is just another waste of time and money gravy train.

    Sorry, but there it is.

  17. John Oakley on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 10:57 am
  18. Matthew,

    The difference between having the project findable by search or mentioned in the Journal is the difference between have a product in a catalog and having an advertisement actually selling it. Most people need a reason to search. It must be to satisfy a need.

    Rachel’s 3 emails a week – from a body of 27000 – confirms to me the inefficiency of this approach although I’m sure that Rachel has insufficient bandwidth to answer more that that. A simple project structured website with a full description of the project, the skills used and required, the timelines and a discussion space would provide the focus and knowledge base that busy people need to evaluate if this is something that they could contribute to or implement in their own geography.

    And discussion of a project by the Trustees or the Fellowship Council doesn’t get the message over to me either as I receive little communication from either of those bodies as David has pointed out.

    You may not agree with these comments but I am concerned that you say “I am nonplussed about how this project could be portrayed as one which has not been fully communicated or is in some way hidden from Fellows.” This suggests that you are not open to even thinking about better ways of communication. And I did not suggest you were hiding information; just that you were not making it easy to see in context. Search is a poor way to get engagement. Not all of us are researchers.

  19. David Wilcox on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 11:54 am
  20. Robert – very good points around which to discuss and evaluate the project. As John explains more fully than I have, we need a better space in which to do that. CEO visits and blog posts are welcome but not enough.

  21. Robert Burns on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 1:55 pm
  22. David Wilcox,

    thank you.

    For me resetting (at a national level) certain global variables is the key to solving many problems on a national scale.

    For example:

    Most of the criticisms made of the state education system are simply coded attempts at covering up technically illegal and morally indefensible discriminatory policies and practices.

    Further….

    To be taken seriously by the majority of the population government has got to get tough on companies who try to expatriate parts of their operation (i.e., jobs).

    The kind of measure(s) that needs to be in place are:

    (a) before any part of an operation can be transferred out the UK the company should be legally required to provide security for the refund of every EU and UK state grant or subsidy they have ever received; and

    (b) once a company has expatriated its’ operation any goods or services it then tries to sell back into the UK should be subject to an import duty equal to the VAT, corporation and payroll taxes and business rates lost to the UK government and EU by the move out of country.

    Lastly, property prices need to be capped and the Treasury should implement a property sale/transfer tax regime that will force property priced back to their 1987 levels (their real value).

    This is very extreme stuff, but this country is in an extreme situation that can only get worse without strong measures.

  23. Rebecca Hanson on Sat, 26th Jan 2013 6:44 pm
  24. Hello Matthew,

    I’m really pleased to see this blog and your reply within the comments.

    The nature of communication and people’s expectations of it are changing rapidly. I think you were innovative in this area a few years ago but things have rushed ahead. The current ‘Future Identities’ report from the Government Office for science is one of the first documents I’ve seen which gives some clear insight into how personal and challenging the nature of the change is but I think John, David and myself are all ahead of them in understanding it wider aspects of this change.

    The first thing I would say is that starting to engage with how this feels publicly and interacting with these comments is a very positive first step towards moving into the future. It’s a future where your personal, professional and online identities are more fully integrated and where you spend more time reading and engaging with the comments made in reply to your posts than you do posting.

    The second thing is that if you can publicly engage with this transition and stick with the RSA then that would be a tremendously positive thing which would allow the RSA to be the model for other organisations which are facing similar challenges that we would like it to be. It’s an endemic part of the nature of this change (not a criticism of you) that it’s best done when both staying and not staying remain options.

    It’s a change which should leave you able to face your critics in cyberspace without ever feeling afraid or threatened, which is something others of us have done.

    So there’s the mechanical stuff which David has written about which needs to be addressed but there also needs to be a change in style from yourself.

  25. Livy on Sun, 27th Jan 2013 12:38 am
  26. I’d be fascinated to know the average age of fellows and people who read & post on this site.

    Does anybody know? Or can manage a rough guess?

  27. John Oakley on Sun, 27th Jan 2013 2:07 pm
  28. Livy, I don’t have access to any such figures but a rough guess could be based upon the following. The LinkedIn members of the Royal Society of Arts group is currently 2376. The membership of the rsafellows.org site is 2459 but from a random sample (N=20) there is considerable overlap i.e. many FRSAs are members of both sites.

    It is probably safe to assume that the total number of members is less than 4000 (out of the 27000+ FRSAs). Of course there could be more people who are reading posts on these sites. Even though membership should be required it does seem occasionally possible for non-members to read articles on these sites.

    The official thersa.org site ( and this blog) are open so there is no reliable way of getting this information for this site.

    In the commercial organizations I have worked with the rule of thumb is it is uncommon for more that 5% of the potential audience to interact with social media. If the same rules are applied here then the online members are slightly higher than this.

    I read somewhere that the average age of FRSAs is 50+ but can’t find the source but looking at the commenters and judging by their LinkedIn profile photos that would seem to be a bit high – but I used to post a flattering photo of myself until I reached the point that any photo make me look ancient so I’m not sure that photos are reliable.

    Again a random sample of CVs on LinkedIn would suggest that commenters average age is slightly less than 50 years.

    Anyway they are the numbers I’ve been using with some engagement research I’m working on…

  29. Rachel O'Brien on Sun, 27th Jan 2013 3:59 pm
  30. Thanks all for all the comments following Matthew’s generous words about the Transitions launch.

    More information about this can be found here: http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/public-services-arts-social-change/transitions, including the original pamphlet and subsequent updates, and including a form, which we hope will help us to gauge different levels of interest and potential involvement.

    As Matthew said, this project evolved from the RSA’s Learning Prison work (http://www.thersa.org/action-research-centre/past-projects/prison-learning-network/reports/the-learning-prison), which involved Fellows and others from the start.

    The RSA then worked with a group of Fellows who were keen to help develop the ideas further and work on the vision for Transitions. At each step, progress has been shared in the journal, newsletters, online as well as with those people – again many are Fellows – who had seen coverage and asked to be added to what is now a healthy and growing database. Matthew’s quote of three emails a week represents additional Fellows coming to this new as momentum builds. Many share really positive and constructive examples of work they are involved in and that Transitions can learn from.

    The materials and methods used to develop engagement with Fellows is an iterative process. We have learnt much in the development phase of this project from Fellows and others about the kinds of approaches we need to take. This will include the creation of a more interactive online space, which I am in London to discuss this week. I am also in discussion with RSA’s regional organiser and Yorkshire Fellows about creating specific opportunities going forward.

    I would really welcome further ideas and comments in the meantime. Just in case, anyone wanting to learn more, please do contact me on [email protected]

  31. Paul Nash on Sun, 27th Jan 2013 5:06 pm
  32. We live in a transmission culture and by this I mean we are mostly more concerned about what we say and how we say it than we are about how it is received. No matter how important the message if it fails to reach its target or falls on deaf ears it has no value. However, effective communication does require the receiver to also make an effort. I believe it is incumbent on fellows to look for what is going on within the RSA but, and I think it is a big but, key things such as new and ongoing projects should be easier to find than they are at present. Like everyone else I live a very busy life so usually my online searches and interactions are made during brief intervals between work and social activities. If I don’t find what I want or what someone else wants me to want quickly I then do other things. Selfish maybe but realistic.

    @ Robert. I wonder how many people would become unemployed and/or homeless as a result of house prices being pegged back to 1987 prices? I don’t know where you are based but in the NE (England) the gradual price falls of the last few years are surely a better and less drastic solution.

  33. David Wilcox on Wed, 30th Jan 2013 4:46 pm
  34. Rachel – thanks for joining in and offering further insights. It sounds as if there is a lot of potential for learning. Two areas struck me as being of particular interest: firstly the challenge of life transitions, which we all go through in various ways. Second, how to make any project a focus for sharing and learning. Updates are useful, but an online space and participation in existing spaces will be even better, together with any opportunities to meet.

Tell me what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!