Yesterday’s predicted and predictable local election disaster for the Liberal Democrats may be meaningless this time next year. If their core vote forgives some of their soul-selling, and no other party gains its own overall majority, the Lib Dems could arrive in May 2015 with a similar number of MPs and a meal ticket to form another coalition.
It will, however, be a different party from the one which formed a government in 2010. International Development Minister Lynn Featherstone confessed on Question Time yesterday that the Liberal Democrats have lost some of their ‘humanity’ since joining the coalition. Her explanation that the party has become too ‘ministerial’, may only partly explain this (it’s not as if the electorate perceives the Labour opposition as having humanity in spades), but there is little doubt that national power has changed the Liberal Democrat DNA.
One of the unintended yet refreshing aspects of this coalition government has been an unearthing of the power of open policymaking. Whilst the Cabinet Office is trying this through sophisticated, design-led processes, politicians have been getting on with it. Cross-party ministerial teams have been prepared to reveal the tensions, debates and doubts that are an inevitable part of policymaking processes. The disagreements have been substantive, in the best possible way – they have revealed the substance of policy debates, rather than the style of clashing egos – the ‘froth’, as Tony Blair used to dismiss various internecine New Labour squabbles.
When we met with David Laws last week (squeezed between various free school/free school meals rows and rapprochements) to discuss our report into teacher education and research, he was as focused as ever on the job in hand, especially the effective implementation of current policies. However, with policy development more-or-less concluded for this Parliament (with the important but cross-party exception of the Modern Slavery Bill), there is now a strong argument for all Liberal Democrat Ministers to resign from their posts, in an orderly and non-grumpy way, before they depart for Summer holidays. There have already been rumblings of plans for a happy divorce, but I’d suggest that it’s up to the Lib Dems to take the initiative on this. If some kind of mutual non-disclosure agreement is necessary to prevent Jerry Springer-like mudslinging between current and former ministers, then so be it (although with Clegg, Gove and advisers involved, any truce is unlikely to hold for long).
Liberal Democrat Ministers deserve some time out of office to create some clear yellow water between themselves and the administration they have been part of. This is not just about the development of catchy pupil premium-like ideas for the next manifesto. Next time, the concept of coalition does not need to take them by surprise. Liberal Democrats need to rethink how their approach to their next possible coalition needs to be underpinned by a clearer set of principles which return the party to their historical roots and traditions, especially relating to localism.
What was most surprising about Nick Clegg’s ‘free school meals for all’ policy, apart from its shaky evidence base and partially regressive nature, is the lack of commitment it revealed to the principles of school autonomy. Schools could not be trusted to make their own budgetary decisions on this issue. Similarly, less excusable than their unavoidable climbdown on tuition fees (they are the minority party, after all) was their blind rubberstamping of the government’s top-down health reforms – I say blind , given that Nick Clegg allegedly did not even read the proposals before giving them his blessing. One Liberal Democrat 2010 Manifesto proposal which has been barely mentioned since is the idea of a local income tax. Given current concerns about regional disparities in wealth and growth, and the Conservatives’ half-hearted attempts to devolve power to local communities (look and laugh at the front cover of their 2010 Manifesto), this idea is worthy of proper reconsideration.
A period of reflection, on deckchairs, backbenches, and constituency surgery chairs, could enable the Liberal Democrats to use their experience of holding office to think pragmatically about how their commitment to localism should manifesto itself in both manifesto and in future negotiations about the next coalition. Otherwise, to adapt an old phrase, ‘Whoever is in office, the centralisers are always in power’.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
I spent yesterday afternoon at the Open East Festival in the new Queen Elizabeth Park. After the joyful but somewhat oversanitised experience of being in the park during last year’s Games, the slightly shambolic nature of the festival was reassuring. The wildflowers, the best surprise of last year’s visit, were less than unkempt, and barely flowering. The McDonalds had disappeared, as had the Gamesmakers. Turnout was probably lower than organisers had hoped, but the Hackney Colliery Band made the £10 entrance fee worthwhile.
Looking from the highest point of the park (a grassy mound where one of the big screens used to be), I finally got my head around the scale of the whole “village”, which mostly lies empty, and understood the task of reclaiming every square metre for use, whether public or private. Squeezed into a corner of the massive 2012 site, Open East served as an ironic reminder that the new Park is not mine, nor anyone else’s, and won’t be for many years. It’s worth comparing these two maps to show how little of the park will open to the public this year.
In terms of thinking about the legacy from the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games, I’ll declare an interest as a local resident, and also having worked on the 2012 Get Set education programme last year. I did sign a non-disclosure agreement with LOCOG, but LOCOG has now been liquidated, and anyway my experience working there was entirely positive. Get Set was a brilliantly conceived and executed programme which, though careful not to overclaim, genuinely connected with thousands of schools, a few to the point of deep obsession. Working for LOCOG was, to my dismay, nothing like the sitcom 2012. The company was efficient, often generous if occasionally ruthless, and more focused and clear on its mission than anywhere I had ever worked. Unmovable deadlines do that, I guess.
One year on, it’s time for a sensible conversation about legacy. It’s not worth questioning whether the money was well spent (although my instinct is that the event could have been just as successful for half the estimated £12bn cost). However, last week’s ‘one year on’ coverage has been anything but sensible. The recent government report on the economic impact of the games seemed like Enron-style accounting, based on tangential evidence and uncertain future predictions. The Cultural Olympiad’s evaluation report is an equally dodgy advocacy-based evaluation. Seb Coe’s claim in a TV interview this weekend that the Games’ main achievement so far has been to enable us Brits to ‘think differently about ourselves and our nation’ was, unusually for him, a fuzzy and flabby response.
London 2012′s aim to ‘inspire a generation’ falls at the first conceptual hurdle. Which generation? To do what? Overall, legacy is such a tricky, slippery concept, I’d suggest that we boil it down to two long term outcomes, one national, the other local.
Nationally, let’s worry about sports participation, especially for those who currently do next to nothing on a regular basis that gets them out of breath. Sport England’s active people survey, in contrast to the frothy legacy-speak which surrounds this issue, is a breath of empirical fresh air. This showed a decline in sports participation since 2012.
Locally, let’s focus on regeneration, and whether the park and village deliver long term social and economic benefits, especially in the form of jobs, for low income residents in the most fragile parts of East London. Over the long term, this is measurable, even if causation and correlation can never be entirely disentangled.
The rest is noise; nonsense noise that should be confined to the cutting room floor of the next series of 2012. Surely there’s plans for a one off ‘legacy special’ episode?
As a committed Labour supporter, Alex Ferguson’s announcement to retire could have been better timed. It took the heat and light out of a Queen’s speech that was even duller than her annual Christmas message. If Ed Miliband did give the front bench the hairdryer treatment, it was lost in the photos, eulogies and trophy infographics of one of Britain’s greatest post war leaders (or is that brand-builder?)
We shouldn’t judge a government by the content of its Queen’s speech. Halfway through an administration, the big policy changes have already been pushed through, and the inevitable suite of unintended outcomes have not yet revealed themselves. It may be that “we don’t need much legislation”. New laws don’t grow economies, although like most of us I can’t quite work out what might.
But a dearth of real parliamentary business offers a potential opportunity. Margaret Hodge pointed out recently that too many MPs don’t have enough to do. This year’s legislative programme may lead to even more slack time.
How might MPs fill this time? There probably isn’t any room for more MPs at Number 10, whatever school they went to. As more policies become scrutiny-ready, Select Committee members should get even busier. The unlucky ones will be swallowed by the dull machinations of party business. Others may find more interests to register this time next year (one of the greatest ideas to come from Mark Thomas’ People’s Manifesto was that MPs, like F1 drivers, should be forced to wear the logo of any organisation which pays them). The natural and ethical way to fill your time will be to serve your real employers, your local constituents. A few MPs such as Stella Creasy and Robert Halfon are taking this beyond the standard reactive surgery and letter-passing approach to become genuine community entrepreneurs in their patch. Matthew Taylor once proposed that MPs should be given specific government projects to oversee, to improve their understanding of implementation, and feel the heat of accountability.
However, there could also be scope for under-occupied MPs to use some of the time to transcend the short term needs of their constituents, and the myopic demands of parliamentary non-business. They could do what politicians of all sides find most difficult, partly because we voters make it so difficult for them – to think about the longer term challenges we face, outside of traditional party or departmental divisions, and develop philosophies and policy ideas that will probably have too much depth to be manifesto-ready.
So for those MPs who are twiddling thumbs rather than fiddling expenses, here’s an offer of work. RSA education is currently developing a new research programme to redefine adolescence. How can society relish rather than fear the teenage years, harnessing its ‘hidden wealth’? How might attitudes, funding and policy towards adolescence make the same step change that we saw in the Early Years during the last 15 years? We are looking for a small number of MPs from all parties to help develop this programme. The salary is less than minimal, the coffee isn’t great, and the chances of promotion and prizes are zero, let alone of winning cups with big ears.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
One evening last summer, for reasons I can neither adequately remember nor explain, I found myself at the ‘alternative’ 300th birthday party for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the outdoor courtyard of a former squat in Geneva.
Being neither an expert on Rousseau nor a French speaker, I sat awkwardly through the lengthy speeches from local historians and activists, while an English-speaker patiently filled me in on the history of this cooperative-run apartment block; how it had been earmarked to be bulldozed to make way for a supermarket in the midst of the city’s 1980s housing crisis before being squatted by a band of community activists who had, eventually, secured ownership rights to the building.
Finally the speeches ended, and the party switched to an activity I could understand: eating. Heaps of sausages and vegetable cous-cous appeared as if from nowhere, and people squeezed alongside each other on long picnic tables to tuck in and chat. Any divisions among the group were invisible as private tenants and former squatters alike talked and laughed and kept each other’s glasses filled with cheap red wine. Nobody seemed to object to my presence as an uninvited stranger taking far more than my share of sausages, a greedy Anglo-Saxon unacquainted with their continental and collectivist ways. They explained to me that, while this was a special occasion, they often met as a group to share a meal, and that this ritual fostered the community spirit which enabled them to successfully organise and manage the once dilapidated but now thriving property. I remember feeling a distinct sense of warmth, a convivial and exciting atmosphere as people bonded over the breaking of bread.
This is the kind of scene that Tim Smit, the founder of Cornwall’s Eden Project, has been creating all over this country through his latest brainchild, The Big Lunch. He was at the RSA last night, along with the broadcaster Fi Glover, Linda Quinn from the project’s backer The Big Lottery Fund, and Jonathan Carr-West of the Local Government Information Unit, to discuss what can be learned from The Big Lunch project about community building.
The title for the evening’s event was ‘Where Does Responsibility For Community Lie?’, and this is a question that greatly interests me as a project developer on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme. Is it possible for a third party or an external campaign to help build social capital and encourage a community spirit, or can such feelings only be aroused by people acting independently and spontaneously? Does government have a role in creating the conditions in which communities can flourish? What is the role of business and the third sector? And what the heck do we mean by ‘community’ anyway?
Smit and his co-panelists had much to offer on these subjects and much besides. Smit talked about how food, and the British institution of the Sunday lunch, is a crucial element in encouraging people to gain the confidence to knock on each other’s doors and turn strangers into neighbours. This, in short, is what Smit claims an external project like The Big Lunch can do; in his words it can ‘give people permission’ to overcome shyness and take responsibility to act in the community.
Smit said that he hopes that within ten years the pizzazz of ‘The Big Lunch’ branding and publicity won’t be needed, and that a regular, grassroots ‘neighbours day’ will have outgrown the initial project. But he also sees the potential for something much bigger to emerge out of the initial small-talk that occurs over an outdoor dining table. Especially keen Lunch organisers are invited down to The Eden Project for training as social activists and organisers, and are encouraged to develop the confidence to help mobilise communities in new and potentially radical ways. In the modern context of the traditional, hierarchical modes of centralised politics being seen to be losing relevance and influence, Smit says that ‘the potential for a really powerful social force’ lies among horizontally-organised groups of citizens.
Back in the present, Carr-West was on hand to discuss the impact of The Big Lunch to date, following the publication of his report on the project. Headline figures of 8.5 million participants over four years, with 82% reporting that they felt closer to their neighbours as a result, are remarkable, but some of the more qualitative observations are just as significant. Conversations, he said, weave the fabric of communities and allow people to feel better about themselves while also building social capital. He pointed to evidence that an increase in social capital is good for people’s health, it’s good for the economy, and it helps to lower crime. Furthermore it cannot be monopolised – or cut – by governments as it is held collectively in society. And yet the public sector does have a role, he maintained, in helping to connect community activists with one another to run services, provide social support, and enact change, with local councils especially well-placed to facilitate a kind of ‘connected localism’.
All of this may sound like a lot of lofty talk when placed alongside Big Lunch photographs of people wearing face-paint and cutting Victoria sponge cakes underneath lines of bunting. But the culturally ingrained custom, built up over millennia, of people coming together around food in an atmosphere of sharing, warmth and safety, allows for social connections to form. And as the RSA’s Connected Communities programme helps to show, our social networks go a long way to determining our wellbeing, our employability, our health and our ability to get things done in society. And that is something that my erstwhile dining companions in that housing cooperative in Geneva are living testament to.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a researcher from the University of Manchester who is working on a collaborative research project examining the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. The project aims to explore how people use social media in their daily lives and the extent to which people’s use of social media reflects local issues, events and concerns. It is part of the Manchester eResearch Centre which exists to explore how the recent explosion in social media and the interactive web opens up opportunities for understanding societal issues and concerns. So far so interesting…
Having already interviewed a community forum, the police, city council and local MPs, the researcher is in the process of recruiting and interviewing individuals who live in South Manchester and are ‘well-networked users of Twitter.’ She’d got in touch with me via someone she met at a networking event, who had given my name as someone who he thought would fit the bill. I was slightly surprised – I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati‘. Aside from that, I don’t use Twitter all that much to share information about or discuss local issues, so I wasn’t convinced I was quite what she was looking for.
I tend to think that I don’t really know what I’m doing with Twitter, and I’m an extremely long way removed from the major league ‘twitterati’.
Nevertheless, I agreed to be interviewed, not least because I was keen to hear more about the research project, and mindful of potential connections or overlaps of interest that might emerge through having the conversation. I wasn’t disappointed. Aside from anything else, it was interesting to be on the other side of the voice recorder for once – there’s a lot to learn from being interviewed rather than doing the interviewing.
Answering questions on my use of Twitter, the role it plays in my professional life, my personal life, and the connections between my use of Twitter and the community in which I live made me think about all these things in a particularly reflective way.
I was asked questions relating to how I use Twitter to provide information to other people, to organise debate and discussion, to gather support and interest and to portray sentiment in relation to various local issues, concerns and events. Like I’ve said, I don’t really think of myself as someone who really knows how to use Twitter to great effect, so it was curious for me to discover that I had at least something to say in relation to each of these lines of questioning.
On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised.
In answering the questions, I began to give examples and the discussion turned to the inclusiveness or otherwise of the Twittersphere. On one level, Twitter has facilitated the democratisation of news creation, information sharing and agenda setting. On another, it does little to engage, empower or enable some members of society who are, in various ways, isolated or marginalised. Aside from those members of society who do not have access to an internet enabled device, there are those for whom Twitter simply doesn’t appeal. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and why should it be?
My interviewer mentioned one member of the community forum she’d interviewed who was deeply negative, resistant, and unable to see any potential benefits of using social media to engage with the local community. We talked about professionals such as teachers, nurses and social workers, whose day jobs are are structured in such a way as to make it very difficult to be tweeting all the time alongside doing the job.
They may also already be part of existing communication networks that they are used to and that work well for them, or they may feel that using Twitter is a quasi-work activity that they’d rather not get involved in after hours. There’s the public bodies for whom it is very difficult to use Twitter in the organic, instantaneous way that it needs to be used because of the need to adhere to policies and have all public communication formally approved and signed off. And there are people for whom Twitter is confusing, off-putting, boring or simply not their medium of choice
I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that Twitter is a sort of bubble – a group of relatively similar people talking to each other about the things that matter to them. It is easy, when you’re part of that bubble, to imagine that all the important voices are being heard, that anyone who wants to be included in the debate will be. It’s also easy to feel – if you find yourself amidst a storm of retweets – as though you’re really making a difference, that the important people are listening and that you’re at the heart of the action.
But there’s also a world out there that doesn’t live itself out on Twitter. For all the unique opportunities and connections that Twitter may facilitate, there are plenty of people outside the Twitterverse who may be doing really important and valuable things without tweeting about it, or whose voices are easily overlooked. The research I took part in is due to be published this summer and it will be fascinating to find out more about the ways in which Twitter represents, enables or excludes people from participating in community life. In the meantime, I’m very happy to hear any thoughts. Use the comment function below, write me an email, post me a letter (wouldn’t that be novel?) or, if you really want to, you can even send me a tweet.
Matthew Taylor has recently written several blog posts about the need to reconsider care. His suggestion that secondary school pupils should be required to do 100 hours of caring as part of a compulsory work experience programme seems like a good one for lots of reasons.
Acquiring the skills of caring early in life can only be an advantage, and raising the profile and status of care are important likely benefits of such a scheme. In general I think working with young people in schools is a valid way to try to achieve cultural shifts across a generation.
Shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives?
But I also think that it can be an effective strategy for sidestepping our own responsibility to contribute in areas that we recognise as important, but might not want to engage with directly. For those of us who left school years ago and are busy working full time, developing our careers, or in Matthew Taylor’s case, running the RSA, the idea of doing a bit of hands-on care as well might seem unfeasible, not to mention unappealing.
If we are in broad agreement with Matthew’s arguments, shouldn’t offering care be something that we all do, in some form, and continue to do throughout our lives? It occurs to me that there might be scope for companies and organisations to set up schemes in which employees are encouraged to offer their time as voluntary carers during work hours.
There is at least one precedent in which a company has decided to donate employees’ time to charities. The housing association, First Ark Group, has recently made the decision to donate 500 days of staff time to volunteer in local good causes. In the Guardian’s report, published on Monday, First Ark explain that they see their responsibility to the community as extending beyond doing their ‘bread and butter’ work in the best way possible. Being a force for good and building genuine connections with the community are also key priorities and donating staff days is one way of making these things happen.
There is plenty of evidence to indicate that volunteering is good for us. It’s not just good for our communities and for the organisations, individuals and groups who receive voluntary help, it’s also good for the volunteer. In addition to the fact that volunteering brings the opportunity to learn new skills and build different kinds of relationships, it’s also good for our overall wellbeing. It has the feel good factor.
So, if an organisation were to introduce a caring scheme, what would it mean for the workplace? I suspect it would be likely to increase morale amongst staff, raise pride in the employer, develop a reputation for being a socially responsible organisation. If staff throughout organisations, from chief executives to managers to cleaners were all expected to participate, it would give the entire workforce a shared experience and sense of solidarity.
What about the likely costs? How could any company afford to donate staff time to offering care? What would the impact be on individuals’ time management and workload? According to First Ark, these problems are easily ironed out quickly, and all it takes is a bit of adjustment. Tot up the amount of time staff waste at the water cooler, and we already know that being present at work 100% of the time doesn’t amount to 100% productivity.
It will be interesting to see how First Ark’s scheme works out, and whether they continue with it beyond this year. It seems to me that if we really care about care, we should be prepared to demonstrate that by actually getting involved ourselves. The way working life is structured makes it a tall order to expect people to volunteer to care in their spare time, but I wonder how prepared we would be to do it if it became part of our working lives.
Yesterday saw the launch of our new report on Oldham Council’s co-operative model of local government. What struck us immediately during the roundtable discussions was that despite differences in language and emphasis, people across the political divide share a lot in common. After a month of national party conferences where the central messages were about collective aspiration, social solidarity and the need to become ‘one nation’, it is fitting that those at the frontline of local politics and community action were keen to emphasise a sense of shared direction.
In many ways this is unsurprising. Communities, civil society and local authorities across the UK face many of the same pressures. Rising demand, rapid demographic change, public sector cuts and a sustained period of economic recession have radically changed the context of local government. Councils have had no choice but to try to invent new ways to deliver better outcomes with less money, manage service demand and re-examine the role of public services. Both what we have learned from Oldham and what was discussed at the launch by different stakeholders suggests community leadership should be at the core of a better model of local government that is able to respond to these pressures. Effective community leadership rejects both a centralised, managerial model of executive government and a localism agenda that hands power directly down to communities and liberalises delivery, but bypasses the state and political leaders in the process.
The challenge is to harness the power and influence of the council and councillors in a new way. This is less about council process and performance, and more about mobilising and catalysing communities through a more reciprocal relationship between the state and citizens. Jon Cruddas, who is heading Labour’s Policy Review, argued the report was right in highlighting the need for a new social contract between citizens and the state. This new type of community leadership is a central strand of Oldham Council’s co-operative model. The council is working on instituting a radical shift away from a model of centralised control and managerialism to a greater enabling role that empowers community leaders and citizens to take greater responsibility for their neighbourhoods. This in turn is indivisible from the imperatives of reducing dependency and managing demand, redesigning services and leveraging the assets of a local area to achieve better social and economic outcomes in tough times. Oldham Council Leader Jim McMahon spoke honestly and eloquently about how local politicians, including from his own party, had in the past created a dependency culture. Back then, significant levels of grant masked the entrenched social and economic problems that existed in the borough. But a new approach under his leadership and the reality of austerity has shown only a new form of engaged leadership can really meet the challenges facing many of the UK’s towns and cities.
Councillors are crucial to making this happen. Oldham has recognised this by providing ward councillors with new forms of support and power through devolution, and a mandatory training programme that is helping to ensure that councillors have the right skills to become more effective community leaders. Christina Dykes compared their role to a spider’s – knitting everything together by identifying and leveraging available resources and opportunities to give communities a stronger stake in local politics. In many ways councillors have been the missing ingredient in the current government’s localism agenda. What Oldham’s experience demonstrates and what our conversations suggest is that a ‘Big Society’ without strong local leadership is unlikely to work. How councils leverage community leadership and to what degree they help councillors play a more constructive role in their communities is just as important as – and closely connected to – questions about new delivery models, a renewed focus on productivity and efficiencies, and the need to get ‘more with less’. In short, community leadership should be at the core of a new localism.
Last night in the Great Room at the RSA, there was a wonderful magic show and it felt like the space had truly opened up, not only for flexible use but also for a different kind of interaction. I sat next to an architect for the event and we had a good conversation about how space itself shifts how we engage with each other. In the arts world, the shape of a working space is almost always in some form of circle in an environment where it is evident that you can also get up and move, and create different formations of seating arrangements. But also, there is often an attention to the space itself as one of invitation to engage without there being a set interpretation of what this might look like; in other words, flexible and inclusive – anyone can enter and participate. In this way, the arts are not only for those who know about the arts and the Great Room is not only for the great and the good.
This reminded me of the Creative Gatherings we have run in the Arts and Social Change programme in Citizen Power Peterborough which I have blogged about in the past. These gatherings are for anyone in the city who engages with the arts, whether this engagement lies in a professional or voluntary capacity and are held in a variety of settings (the idea of arts happening everywhere and belonging to everyone). So, we have held them in amongst other places, a railway museum, a community college, a pub, outside in a community allotment and this summer, as part of a walk across the city. As you will see from this last link to the Creative People’s Walk, they are about finding hidden resources in the city, creative gems that offer up a delight in being in this place. One of the guides for this walk was the Poet in Residence for the Broadway Cemetery – surely another unique aspect of Peterborough.
A key characteristic of these gatherings is that they are rooted in doing things together, a creative practice of one sort or another, and not simply a talking shop. They take as their prompt, the RSA theme of reflecting and doing, action and research, expressing something in new ways and then reflecting upon this with others. Without doubt, this has generated new networks, new friendships and new ways of thinking about the arts and the city itself. We have recently published a case study on this strand, More Purposeful Together.
But getting back to the magic show last night, it was a delight and it reminded me of our collective need to ring-fence a space for delight in our lives, not just because it is fun but because it offers a motivation to get together with others to experience a communal pleasure. An experience that militates against individualism and self-interest. Could this role of delight also contribute to Matthew Taylor’s notion of recasting individualism and paying attention to what motivates us to volunteer? Long may magic in the Great Room reign!
Occasionally it can feel as though there are a thousand and one ways of making sense of the world. That is, of understanding why people think and behave in the way that they do and of knowing what can be done to help people live the lives they want to lead. Not a month goes by without the publication of another book telling us about the most important thing we need to know if we want to solve our problems – be it the importance of willpower, the power of ‘influencers’, the art of taking things more slowly, or of the significance of ‘group-identity’ and belonging.
While some of these ideas are no doubt useful, it can be a struggle to keep track of all the lessons that are supposed to help guide our day-to-day actions. Indeed, many end up competing with one another for our attention, and often it is the salient ones that triumph over the most important. Hence the nod to Malcolm Gladwell’s work on ‘influencers’ just now.
To find our way out of this maze of different concepts, it can be helpful to take a step back and try and view the whole picture. In practice, this means drawing upon a set of ‘meta concepts’ through which to make sense of the world. These aren’t lessons or rules as such, but more ‘lenses’ that can be applied to view different issues more clearly.
At the RSA, there are a few lenses that are either dominant or emerging. Here’s a brief summary of three:
Cultural Theory tries to make sense of problems by viewing them in terms of the different ‘cultural understandings’ that are at play. First conceived of by the anthropologist Mary Douglas during her studies of different communities in Africa and elsewhere, Cultural Theory suggests that there are four dominant understandings that can be found (to varying extents) in different groups and areas: egalitarian, individualist, hierarchical and fatalist.
Whether these different cultures are present depends upon two different criteria: Grid and Group. Grid relates to the importance of rules and structures, whereas Group refers to the importance of collective control and consensus. Where there are high Grid and Group orientations, we find hierarchical cultures. Conversely, where there are low Grid and Group tendencies, we find individualist cultures.
The message at the centre of this theory runs as follows: efforts to address challenges need to draw upon and broach all of these different cultural understandings if they are to effect change. Since every community contains some element of Grid and Group, efforts at tackling problems are unlikely to bear fruit unless they accommodate each perspective. We need a mixture of rules (Hierarchicalism), norms and community values (Egalitarianism) and incentives and support structures (Individualism). Matthew Taylor recently used the example of cash-in-hand work as one particular challenge that could be better addressed by applying the lens of cultural theory. To date, we have an overtly ‘elegant’ hierarchical approach (through sanctions and inspections), at the expense of egalitarian (nurturing tax fairness) and individualist ones (tax/benefit incentives).
The notion of mental complexity was developed by the Harvard professor Robert Kegan some years ago. Mental complexity refers to how we know, not just what we know. Kegan identifies a number of stages of mental complexity (or ‘adult development’), each of which offer people greater scope to see things objectively rather than subjectively. See the graph below.
This ‘subject-object’ relationship is important. When we take things as subjective, they ‘have us’, whereas when we take things as objective, we ‘have them’. The difference is between being caught in the grip of something with your blinders on, and being able to take a step back and get some perspective. Kegan uses the analogy of the scriptwriter vs. the actor. The actor follows the lines and is caught up in the minute-by-minute action, whereas the scriptwriter views things from afar and is able to edit the script as they see fit.
In short, higher levels of mental complexity give people a greater awareness of their emotions and attitudes and allows them to take more measured decisions. When applying this lens to view different issues, it prompts us to think about whether people are mentally ‘up to the task’ of undertaking the behaviours and actions we expect of them.
One example of where this has been used to make sense of an issue (beyond the territory of organisational management) is the RSA’s work on the Big Society. Our argument, published in a report earlier this year, is that the Big Society presents people with a ‘hidden curriculum’ of emotional and relationship-based tasks that require a certain order of mental complexity – the ‘self-authoring mind’ – which the majority of the population do not hold.
The concept of Values Modes suggests that there are three main value groups: Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers. Where you fall within each of these groups depends upon the extent to which you are ‘sustenance driven’, ‘outer directed’ or ‘inner-directed’ (there are sub-groups to each of the main three). Settlers, being primarily sustenance driven, like stability and security; Prospectors, being outer-directed, look for things that confirm their identities and boost their self-esteem; and Pioneers, as mostly inner-directed, seek out the new and novel.
Two of the foremost proponents of Values Modes, Chris Rose and Pat Dade, argue that used in the right way, it can be an invaluable tool for understanding how different policies and initiatives are likely to affect people’s behaviours. For example, one of their key arguments is that you have to tailor initiatives and messages to fit different value groups. You can’t expect to heavily influence a Settler’s behaviour by showering them messages about new trends. Highlighting social norms would be more appropriate, but then this wouldn’t do as much to shift the behaviour of Pioneers who are less concerned about what other people are doing.
Michael Gove dropped into my kids’ school this week to talk about food, and gardening, school meals and, er, other kinds of food-related stuff. The announcement about a new Review had a touch of The Thick or It’s ‘spare rooms database’ about it.
At least Gove has learnt from his Labour predecessors (remember those two playground swingers Burnham and Balls?), and didn’t appear with a spade or spatula in his hand.
However, that didn’t stop the whole visit feel a little soiling for the parents, school chefs and teachers involved. Were they using an exceptional school and talented group of parents to justify a lack of genuine national action to improve school food? If the good owners of Leon wanted to make a difference to school lunches, breakfasts and overall ‘food culture’, then their energies might be sapped rather than harnessed by the review process that they are now leading. It would surprise me if they came up with anything surprising, and amaze me if they don’t find the process, once they are past the seduction of touching power’s cloth, frustrating.
The Academies issue might be a red herring – there is no real evidence that academies have worse nutritional standards than other schools. In fact, Jamie Oliver and others may have been so successful that regulation is no longer required – there might now be enough upward demand from parents and others to keep school kitchens and vending machines healthy and honest, although the guidance out there is already useful to schools, and will always be worth occasional revisions and improvement.
On Wednesday, as ministers, aides and the fast food chain owners shuffled back to their hybrid limos to return to Westminster, a tiny part of Hackney pondered the purpose of this photoshoot, and wondered whether next time, they should charge for their time.