Reflections on ‘Developing Socially Productive Places’

This is a guest blog by Alison Seabrooke, Chief Executive of Community Development Foundation. Alison spoke at our recent conference at the RSA on developing socially productive places.


I was privileged to be asked to participate on the closing discussion panel at the RSA and British Land event on 2nd April on ‘socially productive places’. These places are ones where communities have an opportunity to shape the physical environment where they live, work and socialise; and to benefit socially and financially from the end result. It was clear from the opening speakers that community and built environment development should be intertwined and that places should be networked in more than one sense. This common thread ranged from the need to cluster like-minded businesses and for greater public, private and voluntary sector collaboration, to well-designed transport infrastructure which helps people move about and connect.

The event was comprised of a largely private and public sector audience. During the sessions we heard inspiring stories of successful private and public sector community development. Chris Grigg, Chief Executive of British Land, a property investment company, opened the day by describing his experience of the 30-year Regents Place development. The success of this project was an exception given the long timescale, but he gave a convincing description of his, and his company’s, changes to community development practice as a result of the project. His conviction that community collaboration worked for them was driven by his experience that sitting at the table with local residents and businesses led to intelligent, productive and sustainable outcomes. Which makes sense: how many new developments are delayed and local tensions stirred by a failure to communicate effectively? Or how many companies, or public bodies, pursue a new development without the input of pragmatic, locally-driven intelligence? In effect, these processes of local engagement should also be viewed as a form of commercial as well as community risk mitigation.

Of course, it isn’t always like this and there are some difficult and bloody-minded professionals, as well as difficult and bloody-minded people living in our communities. But we all have the ability to be difficult when liberated from the constraints of our professional roles. So I remain bemused at these events when ‘community’ becomes an abstract term, when sensible and intelligent people separate their lived experiences, personal desires and expectations from their views on how things should work in a community other than their own.

At the event, we also heard about difficult community ‘representatives’; but then there were the side comments that these people actually come from all walks of life, including developers and planners, who turn up to argue against local developments. There were also comments that communities aren’t consistently reliable – of course they’re not! Communities, like organisations, change; people move on, their interests evolve throughout life cycles and local political leadership shifts. But unlike organisations, communities aren’t limited by a structure to drive consistent behaviour. That’s what can make them unreliable. It was the people who deeply understood this and worked with the grain, like Ed Watson from Camden council, who remain excited about the change that can be achieved in communities.

During our 50 years’ of work in and with communities here at the Community Development Foundation (CDF), we have learned that there are more common than divergent interests amongst different parties wishing to achieve ‘socially productive places’ – just as there are often more shared aspirations between people and families of different faith, race and socio-economic background than disparities. In fact, I would argue that there are usually more common goals between those pursuing new built environment developments and those living in the communities that benefit from them.

Let me describe what I mean by this. At the event, businesses and local authority planners talked about development to increase local economic prosperity, through things like increased land values, created by intelligent housing, business and transport infrastructure. For this, developers need a strong employment pool, populated by people with the right sets of skills. What’s more, public officials want to see environmental quality of place to meet health and community safety objectives.

In comparison, what do people living in communities want? Well, in my community, we want financial prosperity and wellbeing, driven by opportunity – jobs, education and training – to enable us to live in decent housing, with good schools and transport. And we want a pleasant environment so we feel healthier and safer. It seems what developers and communities want are simply both sides of the same coin.

What we know at CDF, and what those like Chris and Ed have learned, is that it takes a particular set of skills to facilitate these discussions, to be able to help prioritise goals and agree or agree to disagree on particular outcomes. New developments are about more than the spadework involved in digging the footings to a building; they are about the work behind the scenes to develop common goals and a shared understanding of what a socially productive place might feasibly look like. In other words, development that works for the wider community.

As William Blake said, ‘without contraries is no progression’, or Maroon 5 (She Will Be Loved) sing, ‘it’s not always rainbows and butterflies, it’s compromise that moves us along’.


If you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom?

April 8, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

In Dan Willingham’s superb book ‘why students don’t like school’, one of his provocative conclusions is that ‘the mind is not designed for thinking’. The problematic combination of effort, uncertainty and mental availability leads us to be, in John Hattie’s words, ‘highly selective about what we pay attention to’. Although Willingham is pragmatic and optimistic about solutions to this issue, his Realpolitik starting point is salutary and useful. If, to use Robert Coe’s definition, pupils are learning when they are ‘thinking hard’, their capacity to dislike and avoid learning things should hardly surprise us.

A similar analysis could easily be applied to the question of ‘why teachers don’t like research’. Of course there are structural, system-wide barriers to teachers’ engagement with research, and more could be done to incentivise the profession. However, this doesn’t wholly explain an overall teacher culture whose daily detritus, whether on staffroom walls, classroom desks or ‘to do’ lists, rarely lets the research light in. Time is an enemy of most good intentions, but I don’t think that if all teachers suddenly conjured, say, an extra hour a week to spend on professional learning, they would flock to the altar of research engagement.

With all this in mind, I went to my first researchED conference on Saturday. The beautiful baby of teacher blogger Tom Bennett, researchED is a thriving teacher-led movement. Frustrated by the wavering attempts of both Government and the Academy to connect teachers with research, and the variable quality of the stuff that cuts through, researchED’s curators are doing it for themselves through sell-out conferences and online conversations.

Although the researchED posse is a little dominated by the more traditional end of the teacher spectrum (and I don’t blame the organisers for this), the conference reminded me of Creative Partnerships at its best, when teachers and others engaged deeply with and in grounded research to inform the programmes they were designing.

I was there to discuss the findings and emerging recommendations from our Inquiry with BERA into research and teacher education, but really wanted to ‘learn from the converted’; to gain an understanding of why the teachers gathered on a Saturday in Birmingham were the exception rather than the rule, and whether this mattered. As I asked the teachers at my session: ‘why are you weird?’ One participant tweeted, ‘I feel like the lone nut’, then talked about his isolation as the only person in his secondary school who had heard of John Hattie. Another talked about the fear factor when her senior leadership team were promoting evidence-free interventions (yes, brain gym got another deserved kicking, although I tried to remind people that progressives and constructivists don’t have the monopoly on snake oil).

The BERA/RSA Inquiry’s interim report and follow-up conversations has convinced me that the development of all teachers’ ‘research literacy’ does matter, and made me increasingly optimistic that progress can be made. Research literacy (which does not require all teachers to be researchers) matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.

What are my grounds for optimism? When I left teaching fifteen years ago, we were just getting to grips with data, and how attainment data should inform classroom decisions. Now, this is a universally accepted attribute – in virtually every teacher’s job description. The depth of this cultural change struck me at a recent RSA Academies INSET day, when food technology teachers (perhaps not the usual data suspects) were having sophisticated data-led discussions. England is the most data-rich education system in the world. This gives us an incredible foundation to become both data-driven and research-rich during the next decade. Small nudges, whether from the passionate people who are researchED,  the Education Endowment Foundation, or  government rhetoric and requirements, for instance to demonstrate an evidence-informed approach to pupil premium spending, could combine to make a huge, rapid difference. We hope that our Inquiry’s country-specific recommendations and system-wide ‘design principles’ can also contribute when launched next month. I am also aiming to broker a productive partnership between researchED and BERA. A clever alignment could catalyse some common ambitions.

You can find links to an impressive multitude of blogs at #redb on twitter. Here are my thoughts from a fantastic day that might help maintain the researchED momentum.

1) People who can sound shrill and overconfident on twitter and blogs are much more prepared to engage critically with issues when face to face – yes, I mean me too. This means that, for all the social media and clever online engagement solutions emerging, the sometimes-visceral nature of events such as researchED matters deeply to the key task of creating a little more (if never total) long term consensus about schools and learning.

2) Progressive educators need to join the researchED fray. It would also be terrific to bring theory and research into practical learning and arts learning into the Research-Ed conversation.  As part of this process we need to read, and to some extent reclaim, elements of cognitive psychology to inform our thinking.

3) On the other side of a confusing fence, the teachers and researchers who are using cognitive psychology to justify and explore pedagogies should embrace some developmental and behavioural psychology too. Even within the range of cognitive outcomes they focus on, it’s still worth exploring, for example, Robert Kegan, Carol Dweck, and some of the other theories summarised in our recent report into behavioural insights and education.

4) We need a common, cognitive bias-free commitment to nonsense-detection. Andrew Old should be as angry about Toby Young’s recent evidence-lacking Civitas pamphlet as Debra Kidd is. Together, we should be on commentators’ cases.  The Education Endowment Foundation or new Education Media Centre could take on a national rapid-reaction ‘health warning’ role whenever anyone plays fast and loose with evidence.

5) Compared to ‘official’ research conferences, researchED speakers are often prepared to ‘present before they are ready; the ‘mad idea’ of ‘mapping the complexity of concepts’ is a great example of this. Could ResearchED create a light touch, formative alternative to the classic ‘peer review’ process that stimulate an ongoing critical dialogue which aims for ‘just in time’ improvements to research efforts, rather than ‘just too late’ destruction?

From the promotion of girls’ education in the 19th Century to the more recent Start Right early years campaign, the RSA has a wonderful history of supporting important movements for change in education. The researchED phenomenon could be just as crucial, and we’re up for helping it sustain success in any way we can.


How to develop a socially productive place

Last week the RSA brought together over 100 people who invest in, plan and construct our built environment – homes, workplaces and public buildings. Here, we summarise the key insights generated, and diverse voices heard. In the next two months, we will pull together a paper outlining policy directions for the government and the various relevant sectors of industry. This will be an open process, so we are starting here summarising feedback and providing minutes and presentations:

We want this to be the basis of an inclusive “in the pub” conversation which includes constructive cricism…

To open the conference, Mark Prisk MP, former housing minister, gave a keynote address – welcomed by Chris Brown of Igloo as the best he had heard in years. Mark was aware of how his ability to speak freely was liberated.

Mark outline five key challenges for the conference

  • “we will need to show people that when we build to a greater density, its desirable for them and for the wider community.”
  • “what needs to change, so we can integrate this [rapidly growing] older population back into the community?”
  • “those of you who are investors or owners will reel from the idea of broad, mixed-use asset classes. However isn’t it time to recognise how people’s lives are changing, and not leave these assets increasingly vulnerable to becoming redundant ?”
  • “So what does it mean for a space to be public? And how do we square private ownership and public access, in either new settlements, or urban renewal schemes?
  • “The final challenge is how can we empower people, to create lasting communities? It’s that social side, less tangible but just as important, which acts as the glue that binds a community together. Now all too often this is the exception not the rule. We need to change this, developers, community leaders and politicians alike.”

In short, the conference had to consider how our planning, development and construction sectors account for the changing reality of work, rest and play? You can watch his full presentation here:

Tim Dixon’s session concerned how the built environment fosters social sustainability, well-being and a sense of community.

Other sessions emphasised the need to allow successful places to grow and fulfil their potential? Chairing a session, Ben Lucas noted how this question was tackled by the City Growth Commission

…and identified that keeping successful places successful, while expanding them, rather than always making new places, is an art which may be promoted by new ownership models.

Matt Leach: What inspired you to take this approach?

Waheed Nazir: I’m a resident, born and bred. Grown up thinking “why is the public realm so awful”? It’s not rocket science – its basic. The planning process makes it complicated – frustrates residents.

Matt: How have you found winning over those who made the mistakes in the 90s?

Waheed: Haven’t called them ‘mistakes’, for starters.

RSA Chief Executive Matthew Taylor defined a socially productive place as a place where “people are enabled individually and collectively to come up with solutions which help to meet their own needs and achieve their aspirations for issues which matter to them”. To realise this requires developing a shared vision. One challenge identified by Tom Bridges of Leeds Council is that places need to find a balance between finding their “unique selling point” in a competitive playing field, and having an economic development strategy which is too broad and generic so that “if you Tipp-Ex out the name of the place, it could be anywhere”.

All agreed that for successful places, a shared vision is required, and local plans need to be easy to understand. Where a vision is already in place (or development underway is prompting local people to respond), Ed Watson (Camden Council) and Nigel Ingram (Joseph Rowntree Housing Foundation) considered the actions they had put into practice, based on their understanding of local places, to foster better social and economic outcomes.

…some suggestions were made, and there was much debate about who should be in the driving seat, and what drives socially productive places.

In the final session there was consensus that one focus should be achieving progress measuring the social impact of development in the built environment. This will be considered in a policy directions paper to be released via the RSA website in June 2014.


The Big Idea – unleashing the power of talking in London

April 7, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

team_picture_large - talk to me London x160The Big Idea: reducing loneliness and isolation through launching an annual Talk to me London Day to encourage people to speak to complete strangers.

Hello! I’m Ann Don Bosco FRSA. Along with fellow co-founder Polly Akhurst, I run Talk to me London, a not-for-profit that seeks to find ways to get people talking in London. Polly and I started Talk to me London because we believe in a world where people should feel able to talk to each other.

It can be hard to connect in a big city like London. It often seems like everyone is in a rush and it can be tricky to strike up a conversation. We think this is not only a shame but that it’s also having a detrimental impact on our society. We see incredibly high levels of isolation with over 25% of Londoners say they feel lonely often if not all of the time.  We see London voted as one of the most unfriendly cities in the world. And we see people brush past each other and not see each other as humans. It’s because we’ve lost our sense of commonality – our community.

We want to change this. And we want to do it through talking.

We believe in the power of conversations. One conversation can make you happier. It can inspire you. It can make you understand another point of view or it can just make you feel a little less alone.

We believe in the power of conversations. One conversation can make you happier. It can inspire you. It can make you understand another point of view or it can just make you feel a little less alone.  Talking is what makes us human and what enables us to connect to each other. We want to harness its power to make London a better place. We’re raising money for a Talk to me London Day in August 2014. The day aims to put the importance of talking and its link to broader social issues such as well-being and community connectedness on the agenda. On the day we’ll use badges, stunts, events, flash mobs and public art to encourage Londoners to chat to people they don’t know.

Talk to me LondonSince launching our Kickstarter campaign just over a week ago, we’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response we’ve had so far. We’ve been featured in Time Out’s blog and Kickstarter’s global newsletter.  And just today a controversial piece written about us in the Guardian has prompted many people to express their opinions on the subject of Londoners not talking to each other. We’ve also received messages from all over the world, such as this one: “I love this. I’ve never even been to London, but I backed this project just now. This is a problem in many cities across the world, and it would be wonderful to start changing our culture.”

We’re now close to reaching our initial Kickstarter target, but ideally we want to reach it as soon as possible and surpass it so we can show how many people are behind this idea – and to prove to our cynical Guardian commentator that Londoners really do want to talk! With more money, we can make the day bigger and better, and truly London-wide.

We have the RSA to thank for helping us get our project of the ground. We worked with the RSA’s Connected Communities team to run a pilot project, Talk to me SE London Week, and we’re now being supported with our crowd-funding campaign through the RSA Catalyst scheme.

How you can help

What we need now is for you to join us. Show that you believe that the power of talking can make us happier, less alone and more connected. Please help us make Talk to me London Day 2014 a reality by donating and sharing our Talk to me London Kickstarter page with your friends. Thank you!

Ann Don Bosco FRSA
Visit the Talk to me London website

Visit our campaign on the RSA crowdfunding page


To get help from RSA Catalyst for your social venture through grants, expertise and crowdfunding visit our webpage.


Bristol: Reconsidering terms at our second formal evidence hearing

April 4, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

I was told to expect the Mayor of Bristol, George Ferguson, to appear in his signature red trousers. I was not disappointed.  The Mayor appeared on the first of our three panel sessions in Bristol and was candid in setting out the issues facing the city and its wider region.  He was followed by 11 other city leaders, drawn from business, academia, local government and the public and third sectors.  This was the second of the City Growth Commission’s formal evidence hearings, and the setting of the Lantern room in the Old Bristol Council House – with its beautiful domed roof – befitted the occasion.

Jim O’Neill, the Commission Chair, was flanked by Tony Travers, Ben Lucas, Alexandra Jones and I as we explored our main themes: What economic levers would the city like at its disposal to enable growth? What governance arrangements would be needed to support this? And how should public service reform be integrated into the city’s wider growth strategy?

The witnesses representing Bristol had slightly different take on these issues than witnesses from other cities. The Commission asked if this is because the city is the only net contributor to the Exchequer outside of London; and whether Bristol’s geographic distance from other major cities (compared to Core Cities in the north of England, for example) is a source of economic strength, with the city benefiting from an agglomeration effect. While the evidence is not clear and views amongst the witnesses were mixed, most agreed that the Commission – with its focus on city regional growth – needed to consider the definition of each of those terms, and why they were important.

‘City’ – Bristol city has a small administrative geography but its wider economic area extends into North Somerset and South Gloucestershire.  Development within the ‘city’ will need to be mostly in these areas, especially affordable housing – which was identified as pressing problem.

Regional’ – One of the Commissioners asked whether Bristol considered itself to be the ‘capital of the region’.  The response was ‘which region?’ and ‘it depends who you ask’.  One witness said that Tewksbury, on the north edge of the Bristol travel-to-work-area (TTWA) was closer to the Scottish border than Lands’ End.  The South West is not dominated by Bristol, and the city can pose as much of a threat as an opportunity within its wider region.

‘Growth’ – “Would [Bristol] be willing to forego growth for greater happiness?” asked Tony Travers during a discussion of what it meant for places to grow and thrive.  Liz Zeidler, co-founder of Bristol’s Happy City initiative and co-chair Bristol Green Capital city, turned the question on its head – “Should we be willing to forego greater happiness for growth?” The need for inclusive and sustainable growth was raised by many of the witnesses.

This article was originally published by the City Growth Commission.

A summary of social media coverage of the Hearing is available on storify - City Growth Commission Hearing (2)


Cigarettes, booze and fat: does banning bad behaviour just make us worse?

April 3, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent 

The popularity of banning, taxing and regulating daft behaviour never seems to dim. Just in the last two months we’ve seen smoking in cars with children banned, plans laid out to prevent ‘vaping’ in public, rising demands for a sugar tax and today we’ve been told that cigarette packaging will face new regulation to make it look boring.

The common (and usually ineffective) objection to these plans is that they restrict the freedom of the individual and create a ‘nanny state’.

But I wonder if we should be exploring a somewhat different concern: what such solutions do to our capacity to deal with the next problem that comes along.

The truth is that the human tendency to give in to temptation is very strong.  I am certain that by the time smoking, drinking and eating fat has been regulated out of existence, we will have found other enjoyable things to do us harm. Who knows, maybe we’ll face vociferous campaigns from opticians for the Government to restrict the use of virtual headsets and relationship counsellors will be up in arms about the failure to regulate robo-love.

My worry is that the more we rely on the state to stop us doing bad things, the less we develop creative, voluntary and lasting solutions to avoid temptation. As a result, we just keep going through this cycle of discovering a new pleasure, enjoying it too much and suffering the consequences before the state finally steps in after a lot of damage has been done.

This notion that  banning things only sets us up (ironically) for further damage is just a hypothesis; I do not know if it’s true. But I think we should find out because when I look at the now famous voluntary and imaginative effort by Oklahoma to lose weight, I wonder what sort of long-term resilience and benefit that City has now secured that we would miss should we go down the route of taxing and regulating away the latest crisis of temptation.


It’s a Kind of Magic!

April 3, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Recovery 

This is a guest blog by Steve Bodycomb. Steve is involved with the West Kent Recovery Service and a member of the service’s Research and Innovation Team.

There are good days; very occasionally there are great days. To an addict in recovery every day they stay safe is a good day.

It was psychiatrist Carl Jung who said there were two ways people could find recovery from addiction; through ‘religious experience’ or the ‘protective wall of human community’. This story is definitely the latter and the human community is family. Not blood-relatives but a growing family of recovering addicts helping each other.

So what makes a good day great? Let me elucidate… Ladybird
After a bad night’s sleep, I was not in the best of humour and the 5am start to the day did little to enhance my grumblings. Getting up and hobbling to the shower on my crutches, I slipped and fell backwards. Knowing I could not stop myself falling, I had no option but to use my one good leg to propel myself onto the bed, rather than risk more serious injury. Fortunately, the landing was a success although not dignified; flat on my back, legs akimbo, with crutches spread even wider like some helpless, flailing insect turned-turtle by a mischievous child.

By the time I had composed myself, made it through the shower, dressed and limped downstairs my daughter had rung to say she had missed the train so could I run her to school. Rather than her be late I agreed, collecting her before heading off in the opposite direction to where I needed to go adding some 40 minutes to my journey. Seeing the bus leave as I neared the stop, the 15 minute wait for the next one turned to a 28-minute wait in the cold wind and rain. After a walk, or hobble, of more than a mile on my crutches I arrived at the Maidstone hub of West Kent Recovery Service where I was due to greet and serve at the breakfast club organised by the RSA’s Whole Person Recovery programme.

Cold, damp and in pain I was, obviously, not in the best frame of mind and after the inauspicious start to the day it certainly wasn’t looking like being a great day.

Whether it was the effect of attending the ‘Action on Addiction’ seminar on the effectiveness of Mutual Aid recently I don’t know, but in the couple of hours following my arrival I witnessed something quite remarkable that had a profound effect on me.

The breakfast club had been going for about 15 minutes when a key worker appeared with a shy and anxious client. They had travelled from another service where they currently have no breakfast club or mutual self-help groups, such as Aspire2Be – a peer support group in Maidstone – and he felt his client would benefit from such groups.

Now I have to break away from the story for a minute; as I feel it only fair to say that the only reason I refer to the persons as the key worker and the client is to respect their anonymity. It is not a case of us and them. In reality it’s all of us together, as equals, no-one being more or less important than anyone else in the group.
Anyway back to the story….

I welcomed the client, introduced myself and the other club members nearby and offered to make them a hot drink. While they sat with their key worker, it was obvious that they were anxious and very nervous. Who wouldn’t be meeting a group of total strangers for the first time? I told her a little about the group and other activities at the hub with her key worker interjecting along with some of the other breakfast club members.

That’s when the magic started….
The client started relaxing, becoming visibly less anxious and started to engage with the group. Soon they were taking an equal part of the conversations. There were lots of smiles and jocularity as there always is at breakfast club. Help and advice being freely exchanged along with experiences, hopes, aspirations, fears and dreams.

We have a saying in recovery that ‘No one understands an addict like another addict’. Within 90 minutes of being at a mutual self-help group, a shy, highly anxious and stressed person was fully engaging with members of the group to the point of discussing which other groups and activities people did and arranging with some to meet at the meetings. New friendships formed in minutes, with the client telling the key worker that they felt safe and happy. They said that within the time they had been there they felt welcomed, listened to and part of the community. New friends that actually listened, understood and knew how they felt.

They also told the key worker that he need not stay as they felt okay to be left with their new friends and had indeed decided to stay on after the breakfast club and try out the Lazy Energy Workshop that followed.

I was still in the building when the participants were leaving the workshop and there were lots of smiles, goodbyes and see you on such-a-such night. The client also made a point to come and say goodbye to me saying that they had really enjoyed their time with us and couldn’t wait till the next breakfast club. They had also signed up to the Aspire2Be sessions.people pic

Whether or not they do return, time will tell, but I have no reason to doubt they will, seeing the smiles as they left. They saw in that short time, that recovery is possible and life in recovery from addiction can be fun and fulfilling. The very worst case scenario is that they were safe for the half-day they spent with us.

Personally I have always known the power of mutual self-help groups whether they be Fellowship 12-step higher power groups or non-secular groups such as Aspire2Be, or the even more informal breakfast clubs.

People helping people for the simple reason of wanting to give back what they have received. Real altruism in action.
The work and involvement of the RSA in the help and support of these mutual self-help groups cannot be quantified by me, other than anecdotally. All I can say is stories like the one in this blog happen far too often to be a mere coincidence. This isn’t some clever smoke and mirror trickery; designed to fool those whose only interest is the data on a spreadsheet. This is real, tactile, holistic healing. For those of us fortunate enough to witness, and be part of the power of these groups we have only one word to describe it….

And the people who were once the story are now telling and sharing the story. And with the continued support and encouragement from organisations such as the RSA (part of the West Kent Recovery Service), this amazing self-help community will continue to grow and flourish.

Myself, I am honoured and humbled to be able to serve and know such amazing people. So what started out as a good day turned into a great day. And the secret of its success?

Well, it’s a kind of magic!


New technology and clever people- the future?

April 3, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Enterprise 

“Imagine being asked to chair a big organisation with a multibillion-pound turnover….you find that while you as chairman will be accountable for everything, your chief executive will be accountable for almost nothing, has little management experience, cannot be removed and – in common with the rest of the workforce – will not in fact ultimately work for you at all.”

This is how former ministers Nick Herbert (Conservative ) and John Healey (Labour) launched their new cross-party group, GovernUp, in The Times this morning. Sir Humphrey is failing his brilliant ministers. He’s not experienced enough. The machinery of government doesn’t work. He is setting a prime minister and his ministers at an immediate disadvantage. “Tomorrow’s government will need to be leaner, smarter at commissioning, better organised and more responsive to citizens.” New technology and the machine needs to be fixed. And politicians – ‘The Chairman’-  are just the people to do it.

It’s funny because it is almost as if this were a parallel world to the one written about in Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s The Blunders of Government. I guess Sir Humphrey’s implementation was to blame for the Poll Tax, the Child Support Agency, the failure of public-private partnerships for the tube, Railtrack, and numerous other recent debacles?

Crewe and King see failure in the policy-making process. That Mr Chairman is driven by you. These failures include ‘ministerial hyper-activism’, ‘cultural disconnect’ (ie people respond very differently to new policies than expected), a deficit of deliberation (ie ministers driving forward initiatives without real consultation), a deficit of accountability (those responsible for disasters have gone by the time the disaster is clear), and operational disconnect (those who craft the policy fail to consult those who will actually be putting it into practice).

So GovernUp aims to fix the machine so politicians, who are pretty much responsible all the major blunders that we see, can become more hyper-active, less deliberative, and, in all likelihood, less accountable too.

It’s very convenient for politicians to lay the blame at the feet of Sir Humphrey but it is also a tad too easy. It also happens to miss the point.

What is needed is not a better machine with better drivers, engineering and technology. Actually, there needs to be a complete rethink for how Government works. State economic command was abandoned because it is impossible for Government to see and respond to trillions of pieces of real time data. So it is with public services. There are no people clever enough or technology smart enough to replace the adaptability of direct contact with those who need, use and want public services. It requires constant interaction with people, between institutions, and a capacity for flexible adaptation.

Without a real distribution of power to creative institutions and communities of support then clunky, ill-adapted, systems will remain. We use machine metaphors when describing the state. Instead, there is a need for cultural metaphors. If we were to see the state as an untold number of complex interactions then we might begin to engineer it around people’s real complexity of needs.

Elsewhere today, the Commission on the Future of Health and Social Care in Britain has published its interim report. It demonstrates how the two systems of health and social care, each with a different logic, funding methodology, and entitlement rules, work in friction. It shows how our demand for health and social care is already escalating and will continue to do so. The notion that Government will be able to do anything other than set the basic rules of the game – entitlement, standards, and resourcing – for a combined health and social care system is in the realm of fantasy. These enormous systems will need to be completely reconfigured around the needs of the individual rather than the system. It is about both quality and efficiency of care.

It is through professionals interfacing with individual needs and having the freedom, motivation and power to adapt that we have any chance at all of improving standards and not swamping ourselves with an unfundable burden.

This is the real debate we should be having: how do we create cultures around people that enable them to better meet their needs? Who has more control between Jim Hacker and Sir Humphrey entirely misses the point. It is convenient for ministers of all parties who want to have it slightly easier when it comes to having their way. But as Crewe and King show, that will just lead to even bigger blunders. Instead of GovernUp, how about PowerUp for all those involved in providing public services and those who rely on them? That is how to make the governance of Britain better in the future. It will also make lives better too.


Learning about the city – Bristol

April 3, 2014 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

I’ve always enjoyed living in Bristol and although not a native have a strange sense of pride about the city.  Everyone always has positive stories and thoughts about Bristol, some not even cider related!  The city regularly features in top places to live surveys, in fact it topped one published last week.  So, when the City Growth Commission decided to hold one of its hearings in Bristol, I was curious to find out what key public figures had to say about the city and the issues it faces.

The City Growth Commission is an inquiry (led by the RSA) into how the UKs major cities can thrive, how we can change thought processes and create inclusive and sustainable growth.  The inquiry is currently holding a number of hearings across the UK to further the Commissioners understanding of key issues in cities in the UK and will produce a report in October 2014.

The hearing in Bristol IMG_1110based itself in the Lantern House at the beautiful Old Council House and we settled down to listen to three different panels in rotation.  The panels were asked to respond to the same questions (see below), and consisted of an interesting group of people including the mayor, George Ferguson, and the Happy City founder, Liz Zeidler.  There was a strong RSA Fellow contingent on the panels also, with Carolyn Hassan, Knowle West Media Centre, James Vaccaro, Triodos Bank and Stephen Atkinson, Aukett Fitzroy Robinson, all making their points.

The key questions the Commission asked were -  What are the cities challenges and opportunities?  What might the city want, if anything from central government?  What else would enable the city and wider economy to thrive?

Varying responses and arguments were put forward, I was interested to learn that Bristol is the only city in England to positively contribute to the GDP, but that there is a ten year difference in life expectancy across different parts of Bristol, pointing to issues around inequality.  There was also a plea to be given the freedom to fail – and being less risk adverse.

Some of the clear issues that came out of the hearing, were those I heartily agree with – transport services, housing, need to improve employability and skills of young people.  The Commissioners certainly went away with a lot to think about and take forward.


We carried the debate on into the evening with an informal Fellows meet up, and discussed a few key issues that weren’t bought up during the hearing.  The high concentration of creative companies in the city and the South West as a whole “is a hotbed of creative and digital media and the sector is growing more rapidly than anywhere else in the UK, employing more creatives than any other region outside London.” (Universities  Also the green agenda having for a long time been a priority in the city (see my previous blog).

I look forward with interest to the Commission’s report and hope to continue the conversations about Bristol, with the Fellow-led Making our Futures series.

Lou Matter is the Programme Manager for West and South West. You can follow her @loumatter



Helping people with autism to flourish at work

April 2, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

As World Autism Awareness Day draws to a close (hey it’s 1150pm as I write this but it still counts!) I get the sense that we might be reaching a tipping point in the understanding and response to this fascinating and highly diverse condition.

As the great Uta Frith said in her Horizon documentary last night, the neurological difference that we now call autism has always been part of the human condition, and historical experience. There is a lot of alarm in some quarters about the rise in the reported incidence of autism – according to one study rates have increased 400% over the past decade –  but as Uta and others have said, the likelihood is that this is largely down to more sensitive diagnosis rather than new environmental or genetic factors.

What this rising incidence means is that more and more people must now know and care about someone who they recognise as being on the autistic spectrum. My anecdotal experience bears this out. Whenever I mention I am working on this topic, the majority of people I meet reveal that they have an autistic friend, relative or colleague. Autism is gradually (but still only very slowly) becoming understood, de-stigmatised and even appreciated for some of the wonderful differences it brings, alongside the significant challenges.

Having said all that, there is still an enormous mountain to climb before people with autism experience live without chronic stress, anxiety and exclusion from many of the things in life that the rest of us take for granted. Living as a person with autism is exhausting.  It is like permanently being a traveller in a strange and foreign land (some say the Wrong Planet). Nothing makes sense and you have to continually, and consciously learn how to function around other people, while the ‘natives’ seem to acquire such skills effortlessly and instinctively.

The warm and insightful documentary last night focused particularly on the cognitive and neurological differences in people with autism, in particular their  difficulties in understanding that other people have different minds, thoughts and interpretations of experience from their own, and the problems this creates in everyday social life.  But it’s long been known that differences in perception and cognition associated with autism can also confer powerful gifts and abilities in a range of tasks and pursuits, which the documentary also touched on.

The autism employment gap

What’s shocking is that despite these strengths, only around 15% of people on the autistic spectrum have a full time job, compared to 31% for people with disabilities in general and 57% of the ‘neurotypical’ general population of working age. Quite apart from the human cost in terms of lost independence, comorbid mental health problems (e.g. depression) and strain on families and carers,  one  study found that this exclusion from employment cost the UK economy £9 billion per year. Unfortunately, as a recent IoE report bears out, most of the activism and research on autism has until now been almost entirely focused on understanding the causes and manifestations of the condition rather than on understanding how to help autistic adults lead healthy and flourishing lives, including getting jobs.

It’s this mismatch between the strengths and abilities of people with autism and their current  employment prospects that deeply concerns and frustrates me.  And I’m far from alone. For example my late, wonderful colleague Emma Lindley also blogged about this a long while ago, and it garnered a phenomenal response. So what follows is what I’ve been trying to do about it recently. I do this because I’m keen to hear from any organisations or individuals who want to be part of this….

The Autism Employment Alliance

Since last autumn I’ve been helping to create and sustain an active but informal network of people with autism, and representatives from a range of private, academic and voluntary sector organisations, who have set ourselves the goal of radically improving the job prospects of what the National Autistic Society call the “Undiscovered Workforce”. We loosely call ourselves the Autism Employment Alliance and we’re keen to enlist more members, so get in touch with me if you’re interested ( In addition to those not attached to any organisation, people currently in the Alliance work for organisations including the following: Specialisterne, National Autistic Society, SAP AG, Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), Mental Health Foundation, RSA, Barclays Bank, Goldsmiths (University of London), the BBC, Novartis, University of York, Garratt Park Advisory Service, Hao2, Research Autism.

Developing a new employment service

This is not about joining a club. It’s about doing something useful. So the first thing we did (late in 2013) was to develop an idea for a new kind of web-based employment service that helps broker autism-friendly work opportunities between would-be employers, employees and supporters/mentors. We called it AutieCorp (NB it’s just a working title!), and immediately entered it into the  European Union Jobs Innovation competition.  To our great delight, in late February we found out that we were one of 30 semi-finalists out of over 1200 entrants. You can read a short blurb about our idea (and vote to support it) on our semi-finalist page here. The judges are deliberating on our detailed business plan this month and by the end of May we’ll know the outcome, but will try to make it happen regardless, so if you are keen to support it in some way (e.g. as an investor, software developer, mentor etc) let me know.

Raising awareness and interest among employers

Another priority was to raise awareness and demand among employers for people with autism, by starting to effect a shift in their attitudes. To that end, we recently held an AEA/RSA panel debate which includes not only a great expert panel (e.g. Professor Francesca Happe), but also some fantastic questions and comments from the audience. An edited 20 minute version will go on the RSA website soon, but for those of you interested in the subject the full length version is well worth watching. Here it is:

One of the things the panellists stressed was how it’s actually rather easy than most employers think to make necessary adjustments for someone with autism to flourish, and it has lots of positive repercussions for the wider organisation.

The Chancellor recently announced his long-term goal of full employment. In that light, the fact that there is significant untapped potential out there among those with autism, who may only require minimal adjustments, should be cause for immediate action. And it’s welcome that today saw the Think Autism initiative launched by the Government. But in order to reach and experience that tipping point I mentioned at the beginning of the blog it requires persistence, focus, passionate interest and alternative problem solving mindsets – in fact many of the great qualities people with autism can bring to the task in hand.


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