#ToryBingo: the ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality of British politics

March 20, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Uncategorized 

I imagine Grant Shapps had a bit of a political hangover this morning. In a fit of misplaced triumphalism, his thoughtless piece of Conservative propaganda went viral on Twitter last night. The Bingo poster lumps all ‘hard working people’ together as a monolithic and stereotyped ‘they’, who presumably are something separate from more sophisticated politicians. Now in the clutches of the internet, in the hands of no-one and everyone at the same time, it shows that the Tories are disconnected from a large portion of electorate they claim to representative. But, this is not just a problem of the Conservative Party. The positioning of a ‘them’ and an ‘us’ is endemic within the political system.

torybingo

Think for a moment of the words we use to describe British MPs. They’re known as the political elite, who are vacuum-sealed from the rest of society in the Westminster bubble. Now, I’m not here to say we shouldn’t be using these terms. Statistics from the Smith Institute show that they’re pretty accurate: 43% of MPs went to private schools (compared with the national average of approximately 7%), nearly a quarter are Oxbridge educated, only 4.1% are from non-white backgrounds, a mere 22% are female, and there are possibly as few as 4 disabled MPs. Our political house is not representative of the society we live in and our language reflects this. But this isn’t the whole picture.

One of the reasons the system remains a hotbed of elitism, which is stagnant in its appeal but also in its variety of ideas, is the way those of us who are not part of this political elite see ourselves and the way we’re told to see ourselves. While we’re attempting to unveil the unrepresentative nature of contemporary politics by using the word elite, we, the electorate, are referred to as ordinary or normal.

These words slip out of politicians’ mouths without a second thought. As I’ve written recently, they’re used by people across the political spectrum for different reasons but regardless of the intention behind these words, they’re disempowering. In our everyday lives, at home, in the workplace, at school, how acceptable would it be to call each other ordinary? Used so openly in the political context, what they tell us is that if we’re ordinary, politicians are extraordinary. These words, and the dichotomy they create, imply that you can only effect change if you qualify as part of the elite. Unless, that is, you’re one of the special ones who can work to overcome their ordinariness. Understanding ourselves in relation to politics and politicians in this way reinforces most people’s feeling that politics isn’t a place for them or a world that represents them.

It is by playing upon these ideas that Nigel Farage is making such good ground. By claiming to represent ordinary people, he’s tapping into this sense of disenfranchisement in a perverse way. Pictures of him, pint in hand on a weekday lunchtime, are a crude attempt to make him seem like an ordinary person (despite the fact he was once a commodity broker and in many ways is cut from the same expensive cloth as Cameron and Osborne) but they have an eerily similar echo to Shapps’ Bingo (and Beer) poster. Although Farage’s tactics may prove electorally effective, he’s continuing to disempower people by speaking for the ordinary electorate, who, these pictures suggest, he also sees as a homogenous beer guzzling mass. Ironically he’s playing on his own self-professed ordinariness to get himself a pass into the Westminster bubble, instead of helping ordinary people to create a platform where they can speak for themselves.

A likely response to what I’m saying is that no one needs to buy this ‘ordinary‘ line anymore. Not now we have the internet, potentially a key plank to achieving true democracy, where everyone can make their voices heard. But what this implicitly means is that if we still feel voiceless, or in a world where we’re judged by our Twitter followers, if we don’t feel we have enough, it’s our own failing. The tools are there, we just aren’t using them in the right way.

We won’t create a political system in which no one is described or seen as ordinary by telling individuals to go forth and shout over each other on Twitter. It will be done by moving past this ‘them’ and ‘us’ dichotomy. To begin, we need a truly representative parliament, a place where everyone in society feels like they have a stake and where we realise no human being can or should be called ordinary.

Can today’s Subpostmasters be tomorrow’s community gurus?

February 27, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy, Uncategorized 

This week the RSA launched a new report exploring the potential for Post Offices to transform themselves into Community Enterprise Hubs. You can view the report here. And you can view the Twitter coverage here.

Tanya

The Post Office is an organisation like no other. Local branches contribute enormously to the life and soul of their communities, are an essential vehicle for delivering public services, and provide the vital infrastructure that our businesses need to prosper. Yet we have only scratched the surface when it comes to realising their potential.

In the RSA’s new report, Making the Connection, we argue that Post Offices could do more to support local residents and businesses. They have a presence in nearly every community, are widely trusted and have a resilience and continuity that few other organisations can match. Close to 93 per cent of people live within a mile of their nearest branch, and it is estimated that a third of residents and a half of SMEs visit one at least once a week – the kind of footfall that other organisations would give their right arm for.

A number of Subpostmasters up and down the country are already capitalising on these opportunities and showing what can be achieved with limited resources. Win Morgan from Llangadog Post Office in South West Wales provides packaging and technical support for home-based businesses, while Tanya Vasileva (pictured) from Belzise Park Post Office in London provides shelf space for local businesses to sell their wares. Danielle Barnes from Port Clarence Post Office in Stockton has gone as far as to host a health centre, crèche, training rooms and café next to her branch.

Yet these are the exception rather than the rule. Most Subpostmasters are some way away from running the type of Community Enterprise Hubs called for in our report. This is a loss not only to the community but also to the bottom line of Subpostmasters. By doing more to support local residents and businesses Post Offices could tap into valuable new revenue streams and drive up all important footfall. Indeed, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that Post Offices are first and foremost commercial businesses, and as such need to stand on their own two feet.

Tomorrow’s world also presents more opportunities for Post Offices than many would currently believe. The growth of microbusinesses, self-employment and homeworking presents Subpostmasters with an opportunity to make them­selves indispensable hubs for local business communities. Likewise, their ability to understand community dynamics is an attractive trait for potential public service partners seeking to support an ageing society, implement demand management (see another report we published this week) and create bottom-up responses to social problems. Whether it is in smoothing the transition to Universal Credit or improving access to affordable finance, there is nearly always something the Post Office could bring to the table.

With this in mind, the RSA has set out several new proposals designed to encourage and enable more Subpostmasters to make the transition to a Community Enterprise Hub. This includes nurturing a more entrepreneurial culture across the network, rewriting the underlying narrative of the Post Office, and attracting new talent into the cohort of Subpostmasters. In practical terms, this might mean creating a new Subpostmasters Apprenticeship Scheme to bring in fresh faces; or fast-tracking the serial Subpostmasters who want to run multiple branches. The RSA has also suggested inviting social entrepreneurs to become the next generation of Subpostmasters.

In 2014, the RSA and Post Office Ltd will work together to realise some of these proposals.

The Big Idea: making cities fully transparent

January 13, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship, Uncategorized 

Nathan Boublil Nathan Boublil FRSA co-founded Stat.io, a Cambridge-based software company aggregating the millions of statistical spreadsheets released by government units. While the data-driven software is mainly intended for professional decision-makers, Stat.io is now partnering with cities to launch OpenCity portals. These virtual townhalls allow any citizen to be able to seamlessly view all available data points about their city and engage with other citizens as well as their local policy makers.

The story so far

Stat.io, founded in late 2012 by a team of Cambridge University graduates, has been committed to developing technology addressing Open Data’s usability issues: segregation (the data divided across more than 500 portals on the web) and formatting (eclectic mix of data formats, structures and languages). As millions of datasets are being released publicly by government units, Stat.io has been working on ways to aggregate, geo-reference and normalise this statistical data, creating in the process a search engine particularly relevant for professional decision-makers (corporate strategists, NGOs, government officials). Supported by the RSA’s Catalyst programme, Cambridge University, Unltd and Google, Stat.io has already aggregated over 20 million datasets.

Stat.io will not rest until the socio-economic situation of every geographical point on the planet can be accessed in a few clicks.

Stat.io is now looking to apply this technology to tackling local issues by launching OpenCity. Encouraged by a prize received from San Francisco’s Mayor Lee last year, the team is now starting collaborations with cities in the UK and abroad to create a full local transparency solution. The offer is simple: the Stat.io software aggregates of all of a city’s public data (hundreds to tens of thousands of datasets depending on the city) on a single online page and the easy-to-use interface lets any citizen comment on the layers of data using their existing social media credentials.

Statio

We have all seen the deluge of citizens commenting about their cities, neighbourhood of street – in positive or negative ways – on obscure online forums or social media… The issue is that online citizen engagement has so far been inefficient. Comments often lack credibility as not backed up by data and simply hit a communications wall as there is no way for government officials to keep track (and therefore act on them).

Through OpenCity, we at Stat.io are essentially creating a 24/7 easy-to-use virtual town hall. The platform provides a common structure where every citizen has access to all the objective (recent and historical) facts and can, in one click, make data-driven suggestions/comments involving other citizens and local officials. The entire platform is geo-referenced, making it particularly easy to navigate. All discussions happen using twitter/facebook credentials, adding even more convenience as both citizens and (increasingly) government officials are present on the social networks. Stat.io will not rest until the socio-economic situation of every geographical point on the planet can be accessed in a few clicks.

At Nacue’s varsity pitch in November (where Stat.io won best financial technology), ex Ambassador David Landsman OBE called Stat.io “an important tool for democracy”. Indeed, Stat.io clearly intends to provide a way to improve both transparency and accountability – one city at a time.

How you can get involved

Stat.io is currently recruiting 5 partner cities (3 in the UK and 2 abroad), of all sizes. If you are interested to be part of the scheme or believe your city should be – please do get in touch with us on cities@stat.io. More information can also be found on www.stat.io/cities

Nathan Boublil FRSA

To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture visit our webpage

Social Brain’s Top 10 of 2013

December 20, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Uncategorized 

If there are two things I know, they’re that a) time goes by too quickly and b) everyone loves a list. So with this in mind and with 2013 drawing to a close, we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the work that we’ve done in the Social Brain Centre here at the RSA.  Below we offer you the top 10 “best of” the Social Brain blogs, in chronological order. Enjoy!

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In The Key to Eternal Happiness, Nathalie discusses the difficulty of sticking to goals and offers a way to reposition the want/should conflict (what I should do isn’t always what I want to do now) to understand how we can help ourselves to be both happy now and happy later.

Divided Brain, Divided World introduces a publication of the same name, which is a Q&A between Jonathan and Dr Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary, and a series of reflections from other parties. McGilchrist’s work is the subject of one of our much-loved RSAAnimates.

In What older people want: Sex, Skydiving and Tattoos, our late colleague Emma announced the launch of a report in association with Hanover Housing Association, provides key findings, and offers some quotes illustrating the divergent views of ageing.

We argue in Two types of climate radicalism that to live with climate change we must either accept radical change or we must radically ignore or deny the concept.  This foreshadowed the in-depth report, A new Agenda on Climate Change, published this week.

The post When was the last time you went on a Saving Spree?  describes some innovative new tools to help people save more money and improve their personal finances.

We pay tribute to our late colleague, Emma Lindley, in Emma and In Memory of Dr Emma Lindley.  She is sorely missed and remains in our thoughts and hearts.

Taking Spirituality Seriously talks us through the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ questions of Spirituality to introduce our current programme of work, including a series of workshops and public events.

We describe one way that behavioural science might be used in schools to help boost performance in Starting with an A, giving a taste of a forthcoming report which will be published in both English and German.

The Guardian’s sustainable business hub section features Jonathan’s Changing Behaviour: How Deep Do You Want to go? 

Recently, again in anticipation of the climate change report, the Can we save the planet, keep the lights on, and avoid freezing to death? post explains the ‘energy trilemma’ and what it means for our strategies to mitigate climate change.

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Given all the blogs we’ve written this year, it was difficult to pare down the list. These are not necessarily the most-viewed posts, but together they give a glimpse into the range of projects we have been working on this year. Keep your eyes peeled for publication announcements in the near future.

Most importantly, thank you for all of your interest, (re)tweets, Facebook likes, and thoughtful comments throughout the year. We’re looking forward to continuing our blogging in 2014!

Many warm wishes for a happy holiday season to all of our readers,

From the Social Brain Centre

 

The RSA will be closed for the holidays from December 24rd 2013 to January 1st 2014, inclusive.

Substance Use Network Edinburgh (SUNE): Getting Ready for Better Services Learning Event 24.10.13.

In mid-summer I received a phone call from Lucy Stewart, a researcher working with Ossian Communications www.ossiancommunications.co.uk. Ossian is an Edinburgh based agency commissioned by the Substance Use Network Edinburgh (SUNE) to undertake research into UK-wide developments in cross-sector (public and third sector) partnerships developing new approaches to service design, partnership working and service user involvement within the field of substance misuse recovery. This initial conversation led to a longer and wide-ranging interview where I shared with Lucy, some of the experience I had gained as Lead Recovery Community Organiser within the Whole Person Recovery (WPR) project in west Kent. As some of you will already know, the RSA’s WPR project is part of a consortium that includes CRI and Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Our project is a working example of the type of partnership that SUNE, was looking to draw learning and insight from in preparation for imminent reforms within the Scottish public and third sector social welfare communities.

Following the interview with Lucy, I was invited to attend the SUNE event, Getting Ready for Better Services: Learning Day. This whole day event in Edinburgh organised by SUNE, provided an opportunity for Edinburgh-based third sector organisations to participate in a knowledge exchange regarding cross-sector partnership working and service user involvement in service design and delivery. As a guest presenter / facilitator, I offered an overview of the genesis of the Whole Person Recovery model within the RSA’s work, which began in 2007 with the publication of the report Drugs – facing facts, The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs, Communities and Public Policy. I drew attention to the different contexts in which the WPR model has been developed, first in west Sussex during (2008-2010), as an independent project run with partners form across the public, third and voluntary sectors including GPs, criminal justice system and drug rehabilitation professionals, substance users and individuals in recovery from substance misuse. A further report: Whole Person Recovery: A user-centred systems approach to problem drug use was published offering an account of this work, to the current context of the WPR project. Presently (2012-2014), the WPR project is operating ‘within the system’ i.e. as part of a consortium working within the Payment by Results (PbR) mechanism. The WPR project is one of eight national pilot projects delivering social welfare programmes under the PbR model. In the PbR context there are rigorous governance and reporting frameworks that service delivery partnerships must comply with. These relate to the clinical elements of programme delivery where service users draw on the expertise of specialist nurses, doctors and psychiatrists as they move towards abstinence on their journeys of recovery, and to programme completion rates for service users under the care and supervision of service providers.

I made an effort to foreground the realities of the challenging dynamics and realpolitik expediencies that one has to exercise in partnership working, especially in the dual-contexts of working with relatively unstable user groups and rigorously prescribed reporting obligations. I also made a particular effort to open up our experience of working to engage service users in the co-design and co-production of the RSA elements of the WPR programme. These are challenging and iterative approaches to service provision and are not necessarily straightforward in their development or implementation. This kind of fluidity and the contingent nature of the work can sometimes be at odds with conventional organisational processes and cultures. The business of partnership working and service user involvement is sometimes gritty not pretty; it requires a particular resilience and steadfastness on the part of professional partners.

The event was deemed a success by the SUNE members and I had the opportunity to visit Edinburgh’s first Recovery café – The Serenity Café www.serenitycafe.co.uk, which is an initiative of community development charity COMAS www.comas.org.uk. I was given a tour of the space and a summary account of the genesis of the project from John Arthur, who chaired the SUNE event and is also the Recovery Coaching Development Manager at COMAS. It was interesting to see the way that the cafe was used as an ‘ordinary’ community resource by a range of people from the general public. It was inspiring to see the way that former service users make use of the cafe as community members seeking a social space and a creative and learning space for a range of activities that take place over the course of each week. The grassroots take-up of the recovery model as a real, achievable and desirable path back into the wider community is clearly alive and kicking. There is much that commissioners and others involved in policy level decision making could learn from these projects, particularly the ways in which service users are determining the speed and trajectories of their personal development and reintegration into society as proactive citizens with hard-won experience and inspiring stories to share.

How can we encourage the new wave of self-employed to take on their first worker?

October 20, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise, Uncategorized 

The UK is experiencing nothing short of a boom in self-employment. 367,000 more people became sole traders in the period since 2008, bringing the total proportion of sole traders in the workforce to a record 15 per cent. Where once we were a nation of shopkeepers, now we are seemingly one of consultants, freelancers, entrepreneurs, online marketplace traders – and whatever else comes under the banner of self-employment.

Naturally we can expect such a transformation to bring about wider changes to society and the economy – many for the better. As my colleague Adam Lent argues in a recent blog post, the proliferation of microbusinesses may be hugely beneficial for innovation, regeneration, gender equality and so on.

Yet we also have to acknowledge the downsides too – one of which may relate to jobs growth. Indeed, many have voiced concerns that large parts of the self-employed community are highly reluctant to take on a first recruit. A recent report from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills revealed that only 5 per cent of self-employed people increased employment over the 6 year period from 2007 to 2013 – an astonishingly low number.

To their credit, the government has acknowledged this problem and taken several steps to address it. Only last week, for example, they stated their intention to introduce a sizeable cut in the National Insurance Contributions that small employers pay on their employees. This is set to benefit up to 1.25 million businesses, and will mean a third of all employers will be taken out of paying NI Contributions altogether. A business that employs 4 adults on the minimum wage, for instance, will no longer have to pay anything.

No doubt this a step in the right direction. But the problem is that this scheme, like many others, has one fatal flaw: it wrongly assumes that finance, and only finance, is what’s holding people back from taking on staff and growing their business. Look at similar schemes and it is obvious to see that finance is rarely a game-changer.

It was recently revealed, for instance, that the holiday in National Insurance Contributions launched late last year to encourage job creation had extremely low take up rates. Likewise, the Youth Contract, which supports the wage bill of employers taking on young people, has been met with an equally muted response from the business community.

In reality, many of the barriers to recruitment are psychological in nature – not just financial. The aforementioned BIS report highlighted several examples where self-employed people were constrained in their ‘vision’, consistently overestimating the costs of growing and taking on staff. For instance, they found that non-employers judged recruitment costs to be as much as £17,000, whereas employers reported these to be a much lower figure of £7,000. Other research reveals deeper biases. An interesting study published last year by CIPD found that many employers are ‘petrified’ to employ young people because they have negative perceptions about their attitudes – even though many of these are unfounded.

None of this is to say that financial schemes like the National Insurance cut are unhelpful – if anything they are likely to be incredibly useful for those already employing staff. But if we’re talking about encouraging our new wave of sole traders to take the leap and hire their first worker, then on their own they are simply not enough. In the 21st century we also need policies and initiatives that recognize the people who run businesses as inherently human, and that go with rather than against the grain of their quirks, frailties and dispositions.

Benedict Dellot is  Senior Researcher within the RSA’s Enterprise Team. Follow him @BenedictDel

Healthcare in the US: A Tale of Unintended Consequences

October 1, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Uncategorized 
Photo credit :Patrick Michels texasobserver.com

Photo credit : Patrick Michels texasobserver.com

This blog has been written by Jennifer Barnes, intern with 2020 Public Services team

Today, the Healthcare Insurance Marketplace is going live. Its feels like a distant memory now, but in June of this year, Democratic Senator Wendy Davis stood up in her pink trainers and delivered an incredible 11 hour filibuster in the Texas Senate against a bill that would take us back decades (to before the landmark Roe V. Wade decision) in our fight for women’s health. After all of the media attention, the twitter support, and the hundreds of confiscated tampons, we seem to have forgotten about the impact the passing of this legislation will have on the lives of Texas women.

As a Texan woman currently on an internship with the RSA, I wanted to share insight into the Texan example of how policy making can result in perverse incentives and unintended consequences. I hope that this post is enough to pique your interest in the current happenings in Texas as well as the wider healthcare debate in America.

House Bill 2 disregards the challenges that women face when it comes to affordable health care by:

While Texas has become the 13th state to pass legislation banning abortions after the widely debated 20 week mark, it is arguably the latter three requirements that are most cause for concern. Presented in the rhetoric of raising standards, these stipulations instead eradicate options. The passing of this bill is predicted to close dozens of clinics across the state (with the highest closure estimates predicting all but 5 of the state’s 42 abortion providing clinics), most notably those in disadvantaged, rural areas where alternative healthcare options are limited.

“Governor Perry and other state leaders have now taken sides and chosen narrow partisan special interests over mothers, daughters, sisters and every Texan who puts the health of their family, the well-being of their neighbors, and the future of Texas ahead of politics and personal ambitions.”- Wendy Davis

To understand the likely impact of the changes that House Bill 2 will bring it is important to understand how medical services for women in Texas, and elsewhere in the US, are funded.

Contrary to popular perception, pregnancy terminations form a very small part of what the major women’s clinics actually do.  For Planned Parenthood, for example, the organisation that runs the majority of abortion providing clinics, abortions are only 3% of the medical services provided.  But they are financially crucial.  30-50% of Planned Parenthood’s surpluses are generated from termination services.  What this means is that as the system currently stands, many of the cancer screening, sex-education, STD, pre-natal care and pregnancy prevention services that are accessible to low income women will potentially become more difficult to fund if the legislation succeeds in driving down the number of abortions.

Alternatively, if clinics are required to invest in expensive unnecessary upgrades to surgical standards to perform abortions, they will have to choose between closing or stopping their abortion provisions entirely. Planned Parenthood gets about half of its funding from government, but there are strict limitations on how it can be used. Title X funds are the only federal funds devoted to family planning and by law these funds cannot be used for abortions. If the state increases funding for family planning provisions outside of abortions, the clinics will likely survive, but will no longer offer terminations.

This funding atmosphere has created a complicated and unbalanced relationship between terminations and other women’s wellness provisions, and wrongfully reduces this conversation to one of economics, not value read more on ThinkProgress.

thinkprogressorg

Pretend for a minute that you’re Cathy, a sexually active 16 year old girl in Texas living in a conservative town where everyone knows everyone and you all go to church together on Sundays. Your church and your high school teach abstinence-only and therefore your sexual education is lacking, but you become sexually active anyway.

If this is your reality, then the likelihood that you would be willing to buy condoms from the local pharmacy (where the pharmacist is friends with your father) is slim to none.  It’s quite unlikely that you’ll go to the clinic for birth control and free condoms.  If your closest clinic is up to two hours’ drive away, it becomes vanishingly unlikely. If you become pregnant and have spent the first few months working up the courage to face what’s happening, the 20 week mark will significantly limit your options even if you do make the drive.

This isn’t an unlikely story in many areas of rural Texas. Here, a young girl is strongly deterred from accessing birth control and receiving an abortion due to logistics and circumstances over which she is powerless. Here, the passing of House Bill 2 achieves the pro-life agenda and significantly reduces access to abortion.

Regardless of your thoughts on the morality of early termination, an alternate scenario is enlightening:

Now consider that you’re Julia, a single mother, working two jobs to pay your bills. You work part-time jobs without health insurance and you can only just afford the premiums even after the Affordable Health Plan takes effect. While you are eligible for the Texas Women’s Health programme, the doctors taking part in it have taken their quota of Medicaid patients so this option becomes almost worthless to you. Even if you have a health insurance plan, your deductible (the amount of money you must spend before the insurance company begins to pay for your health services) is enormous, leaving clinics like Planned Parenthood the only places you can go for affordable reproductive health needs and screenings.

The local clinic shuts down and you don’t have the time or energy to drive to the city for an exam when you start noticing mild symptoms. The gas money to get there is too much and the childrens’ schedules are too busy on top of your multiple shifts…so you ignore the symptoms. When the pain becomes too much to bear you hire a babysitter that you can’t afford and go to the closest clinic, 100 miles away. By then, it’s clear that you have advanced cervical cancer.

Supporters of this legislation ignore the reality that for many women, clinics like Planned Parenthood are one of their only affordable options for reproductive care. In many geographic areas, for those who earn too much for government Medicaid assistance but lack private insurance, Planned Parenthood truly is one of their only options. The story isn’t that Planned Parenthood supports pre-marital sex and abortions, the story is that Planned Parenthood supports women and their freedom over their bodies.

The passing of this bill limits women’s freedoms: freedom of choice is nonexistent when there are no options.

How Post Offices could be the new catalysts of change in hyperlocal areas

September 30, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Social Economy, Uncategorized 

The RSA and Post Office Ltd. are soon to publish a report on the future role that Post Offices could play in catalysing change in local areas. Below is a summary of the discussions we had at a series of roundtables during the 2013 party conferences.

Party conferences are well known for their unveiling of grand policies. For the Lib Dems, it was free school meals. For Labour, it was a freeze in energy prices. And for the Conservatives – well, we’ll have to wait a few more days to find out what they have in store. In any case we can expect something that will grab the headlines.

What party conferences aren’t so well known for, however, is discussing the nitty gritty of policies and how it is they will be implemented on the ground. Ed Miliband spoke of the importance of doing more for small businesses, yet it is unclear how the government and its agencies are to reach out to entrepreneurs – particularly the 500,000 new microbusinesses that have emerged since the recession. Likewise, Nick Clegg and his party have raised the idea of a green bank, but there is little understanding of how residents and businesses will interact with such an institution in practice.

These gaps appear to indicate the need for a certain type of local infrastructure that can bridge the centre with the local, orchestrating new policies on the ground and turning them into something tangible for everyday people. Such ‘community anchors’ – if we can call them that – might be able to ‘deliver’ new services themselves, but more importantly they should provide the shared space for citizens, public services, businesses and others to come together and create value. So far, so theoretical – the important question is what does this look like in practice and who is going to fulfil this role?

Enter the Post Office. The RSA’s party conference roundtables with the Post Office Ltd. this year explored the potential for branches to transform themselves into key catalysts of change in their local area, taking on some of the functions previously owned by a now retrenched state. While our conversations acknowledged the priceless contribution that the Post Office network already makes to communities, there was a sense it could do a great deal more with its defining assets. Namely, the trust that people put into it, the presence it has across the country – over 90 per cent of people live within a mile of the Post Office – and the continuity it enjoys, in that Post Office branch numbers are set to remain stable for the foreseeable future.

With such assets at their disposal, Post Offices would appear to have all the ingredients in place to become these so-called community anchors. But what will they actually do? While it all depends to some extent on the specific needs of a given area, there were several broad public policy debates that our roundtable participants touched upon. Those at the Liberal Democrat event talked of Post Offices as being future gateways of business support, for example by signposting entrepreneurs to relevant information and advice, helping them to deal with new real-time reporting procedures, or raising awareness of schemes such as StartUp Loans.

On the Labour side, the discussion tilted more towards the role that Post Offices could play in addressing emerging social challenges, such as those associated with poor access to finance. One idea raised was to link Post Offices with credit unions and CDFIs, enabling the latter to raise their profile and reach out to more individuals at risk of predatory loan sharks. It was also suggested that Post Offices could help residents in their area make the transition to the Universal Credit system, not least by helping them complete the new mandatory online forms.  Other themes and policy areas touched upon were regional banking, the localism agenda, social care, and cities and local economic growth.

No one, however, was under the illusion that any of this is possible without a fundamental shift in the way that Post Offices are run. Impediments highlighted at the roundtables include the availability of space within branches, the financial viability of providing or hosting new services – many Subpostmasters are already under severe financial pressures – and the level of demand that exists among people for a wholly different kind of Post Office.

Yet there was also a sense that the assets of Post Offices are simply too valuable to be left untapped. Nor was it hard to recognise how Post Offices themselves could benefit from enhancing their community role. Indeed, we know from our own research with Subpostmasters that there is often a strong business case for ‘going the extra mile’ for residents and businesses, not least in terms of the footfall it can generate. As the adage goes, what is good for society is also good for business – and that no doubt includes Post Offices.

So in years to come, after the dust has long settled, don’t be surprised to see at your local Post Office the remnants of those policies that echoed throughout the party conference season of 2013.

Benedict Dellot is  Senior Researcher within the RSA’s Enterprise Team. Follow him @BenedictDel

In memory of Dr Emma Lindley

September 20, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain, Uncategorized 

Readers of this blog may already be aware of the tragic news that Social Brain colleague Emma Lindley recently passed away.  Below, I offer to you a poem I selected and read in Emma’s memory earlier this week at a staff gathering in her honour.  Tributes by colleagues Jonathan Rowson, Gaia Marcus, and Matthew Taylor are also available.

 

I’d like to read a poem in Emma’s honour; but first, some background:

Some may remember that Emma wrote a blog post earlier this year about world poetry day.  This was the first time I learned that she was a poetry buff and more specifically a fan of poet William Carlos Williams.  I am a novice but from my limited exposure I too am a William Carlos Williams fan, so together we had a really lovely exchange about poetry in general and his work in particular.

More recently, when I “discovered” a famous poet of a similar style, Emma and I were in touch again and we had planned on taking some time to get a coffee and chatting more about this genre when she was next in the office.

So I thought it would be fitting to read out a poem today in Emma’s honour, a William Carlos Williams poem that I chose because it illustrates the quality of paying careful attention to the essence of a thing, a quality about which she wrote very elegantly in her blog post.

Emma wrote: “His poems often convey a certain haecceitas – the quality of ‘thisness’ – capturing something very particular. In the Social Brain Centre, we’re interested in the importance of attention, and one of the possibilities offered by Carlos Williams’ poetry is to focus attention very acutely. In a way, I think his poems illustrate mindfulness in action.”

With this in mind, I’d like to read “To a Solitary Disciple” by WCW.

 

Rather notice, mon cher,

that the moon is

titled above

the point of the steeple

than that its color

is shell-pink.

 

Rather observe

that it is early morning

than that the sky

is smooth

as a turquoise.

 

Rather grasp

how the dark

converging lines

of the steeple

meet at a pinnacle —

perceive how

its little ornament

tries to stop them-

 

See how it fails!

See how the converging lines

of the hexagonal spire

escape upward—

receding, dividing!

— petals

that guard and contain

the flower!

 

Observe

how motionless

the eaten moon

lies in the protective lines.

It is true:

in the light colors

of the morning

 

brown-stone and slate

shine orange and dark blue

 

But observe

the oppressive weight

of the squat edifice!

Observe

the jasmine lightness

of the moon.

 

In memory of Dr Emma Lindley.

If the Spartans went commando, why can’t we?

September 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise, Uncategorized 

The Spartans were famed in the ancient world for their many unusual cultural conventions. Spartan society was completely focussed on the cultivation of military prowess, fortitude and discipline. For much of their early adulthood, men lived together in communal barracks rather than with their wives and families, learning how to perfect their command of military tactics, alongside logic and philosophy, and a uniquely ‘laconic’ style of personal expression. In most respects Spartan life was pretty brutal and unenviable, but perhaps uniquely in the classical world, Spartan women received near equal political status to men, could inherit property, and got a decent education. And when it came to dress code both men and women preferred to go commando, or flash the flesh, much to the consternation of the more prudish Athenians, who thought them weird and scary in pretty much every respect.

But the Athenians, and the other Classical Greek City states were themselves extreme outliers and oddities in the context of the ancient Mediterranean, dominated as it was by monarchies and dynastic despots. The experiments in social organisation and political economy that characterised that period laid the foundations for much of our contemporary civilisation, while the dynasties crumbled into the sand and were forgotten.  And much of this glorious flourishing of human creativity was based on (for the time) radical distribution of power, autonomy and knowledge.

We still need organisational experimentation and diversity to enable more powerful ways of working to emerge. But the pressures and conventions of our economy are forcing us to conform to cookie-cutter models of structuring and sustaining organisations, most of which are closed and dynastic, rather than open and democratic.

Andy Law, the founder of the famously ‘disruptive’ St. Luke’s advertising agency said: “the market pushes back on innovation. It tries to normalise businesses. Accounting laws force companies into rigid structures (partnerships, limited liability partnerships, limited companies etc). That is the root cause of why every company ends up being the same.”

Some buck the trend.

Ricardo Semler said of Semco, his famous organisational experiment “Our ‘architecture’ is really the sum of all the conventional business practices we avoid”.

I’ll blog more about what we can learn from these more recent outliers, who still get talked about in mythic terms many years after their flame grew dim – just as the Spartans did.

But for now, we need to keep asking why there are so few wonders of the working world and what consequences this has for our economy and society.

 

 

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