Eat my school food plan

July 6, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

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.

Angleterre, Nil Points

May 21, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Everyone has his or her own prejudice-drenched and ideology-affirming reason for why Finland appears to have such fantastic schools. Better trained, higher status teachers; a later school starting age; less time at school; ‘curriculum coherence’; an atmosphere of collaboration; no external testing or inspection; a monocultural population; dark boring winter nights with no choice but to study.

Pahsi Sahlberg did a terrific job at an event at the House of Commons last week to tie most of these strands together whilst refuting a few of them. He outlined a historical set of values and particular set of agendas and priorities that came together in the 1970s, and enabled the government to nurture and trust teacher professionalism and collaboration. His book, Finnish Lessons, is a beautifully written history and exposition of a Finnish miracle.

However, I have one more reason he didn’t mention, although it’s probably more symbolic than causal.

In the 1970s, Finland became the only country in the world to enter both the Eurovision Song Contest and its Communist bloc rival The Intervision Song Contest. In 1980, Finnish singer Marion Rung won the Intervision with Hyvasti YoWhere is the Love?)

What might such a promiscuous attitude to song contests tell you about Finland’s approach to education?

First, Finland’s careful but precarious neutrality during the Cold War may have forced the government to adopt a different, more enlightened attitude to its people and public service professionals. Not trusting either market or state control, it had to rely on citizen control, despite being in the same, or even worse, economic mess as the rest of us.

Second, Finland’s deliberately pragmatic political ideology left itself able to borrow valuable educational ideas and practices from anywhere in the world, and adapt them to its own, well-understood context. Sahlberg acknowledged how much of Finland’s success had been inspired by the adaptation of initiatives from England and elsewhere. Picking and mixing policies from abroad carries obvious dangers, but doing this without ideology-tinted glasses gives you a greater chance of finding the right ideas, and adapting them in the right way. This pragmatism remains at the core of Finnish education. The most incredible mini-story Sahlberg told was of a group of hockey players whose school allows them to study more in the dark winter so that they can spend more time training and competing during the summer. The Finnish for ‘personalisation’ is, Google thinks, ‘mukautus’.

Finally, during a time of economic crisis and real global fears about nuclear war, Finland managed to think and act long term – its education strategies worked because it stuck to them.

Finland’s education system is far from perfect, and new challenges are emerging. Although Finland is not resting on its, er, fir branches, the next OECD PISA results might have different winners (and maybe, like the Intervision, someone should create an alternative to PISA and TIMMS). Thousands of education tourists might soon be flocking to Japan, or Poland, or Turkey (if PISA results could be disaggregated by region, they might even come to London). However, as the RSA develops our family of academies based on a set of values that foreground trust, collegiality, innovation and school-to-school support, maybe we are trying to create a piece of England that is forever Finland.

Chelmsford wins city status – with help from RSA fellows

April 24, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

There is only one town in England to have been awarded city status as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations – that town is Chelmsford.

Malcolm Noble

The RSA fellow-led Changing Chelmsford project played a key part to make this happen.The application for city status referred to this project as a “ground breaking initiative bringing together local people, academics and key businesses to consider the most appropriate future for the town”. For two years the town has been through a process of conversation, collaboration and (most importantly) community action that has helped create Essex’s first city.

What is Changing Chelmsford?

Achieving city status is only one small part of an on-going story. In 2010 a small number of individuals from Essex County Council, Chelmsford Council, the Academy of Urbanism and the RSA established Changing Chelmsford as a pilot project.

The RSA fellow-led Changing Chelmsford project played a key part to make this happen

The aim was to develop a strategic vision for the town – retaining our links with the past while creating an identity for the future.

Responding to the 2008 Borough Council ‘action plan’ for the town centre, we brought together local individuals, organisations and professionals with others able to share experiences from similar places in England and elsewhere within the EU. Funding was obtained from the local authorities, business sponsorship and the RSA Catalyst budget. A programme manager was appointed to run what was labelled ‘Changing Chelmsford – how bold is your vision?’ Eight workshops led to a ‘town like ours symposium’ and a synthesis called the ‘Town Commons’. The outcomes were 100 plus ideas, 18 self-organising initiatives and one big step.

Statue of Marconi in Chelmsford. Photo by Stephanie Mills

A festival of ideas

In 2011 we launched the ‘Festival of Ideas’ – 9 events involving 116 invited participants from 48 different organisations and many members of the general public. The focus was the concept of the ‘Heritage Triangle’: the desire to transform three unused or under-used buildings representing the town’s heritage and the links between them. They were an 18th century Quaker meeting house, the Marconi factory and the Georgian Shire Hall – all sites now have new activity or are going through periods of reform. 

Chelmsford is still changing – we’re not finished yet. In October our Festival of Ideas will be organised in partnership with Anglia/Ruskin University.

How to make it work

The essential elements to success have been:

  • Recruiting committed individuals – you need to include people from across the local community (the fellowship is a great place to start)
  • Establishing a formal organisation – essential if continuity is to be maintained (Changing Chelmsford is now a Community Interest Company)
  • Rigorous planning – the key to making progress. To quote Abraham Lincoln: ‘given six hours to chop down a tree, I will spend the first four sharpening the axe’.

What’s next?

Chelmsford is still changing – we’re not finished yet. In October our Festival of Ideas will be organised in partnership with Anglia/Ruskin University. Local community groups will play a key role: notably the Young Explorers, with work embedded in the curriculum of local schools and Chelmsford College.

To discuss how you might do something similar in your area please get in touch.

Malcolm Noble FRSA is Chair of Changing Chelmsford CIC. Read the Changing Chelmsford report from 2011.  

Identify and mobilise hidden ‘ChangeMakers’ to tackle local challenges

February 29, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

This week the RSA publishes a new report suggesting that local areas would benefit strongly from identifying and better mobilising the ‘ChangeMakers’ who are already striving to improve outcomes in our communities and public services.  

A combination of financial cutbacks, unabated calls for better quality public services and rekindled ideals of a more active citizenry are creating a paradigm shift for local areas. The need to transform the landscape of place shaping and public service delivery has rarely been greater, yet there is a sense that some places remain ill-equipped to rise to the challenge. Despite significant increases in welfare spending over the past ten years, local areas have so far proven unable to wield these resources to best effect. A quarter of adults in the UK are obese; one in ten of the working-age population have no qualifications; half of all people aged 75 and over live alone; and some one in ten households report crime to be a serious problem in their area.

The scale and diversity of these problems are such that they have prompted calls for a more comprehensive, all-encompassing narrative of change that can inform the way our public services and local authorities deliver their services and achieve their aims. The 2020 Public Services Hub, for one, has been vocal in calling for places to be more ‘socially productive’, where people from all sectors are involved in ‘identifying, understanding and solving public problems dynamically using all appropriate means’. Likewise, the Big Society and Localism agendas are working towards a clear vision of a society where people shape, if not entirely run, the public services they use and the places in which they live.

These visions remain largely uncontested in principle. Yet there is a clear concern that the number of people currently working to improve their communities and public services will be insufficient to turn these visions into reality. Despite two thirds of people saying that individuals should be taking more responsibility for their own lives, over 90 per cent still believe that the state should remain primarily responsible for delivering key public services. As the RSA has argued in another recent report, initiatives like that of the Big Society demand far greater competencies than the vast majority of the population currently hold. As such, they should be seen more as 20 year projects than 2 year ones.

This is not to say that we should give up on ambitions for more people to be involved in shaping their communities, nor that we should discount the fundamentally important care-based exchanges that everyone partakes in. Rather, it is that we should temper our optimism and acknowledge that the numbers actively contributing to their communities in the ‘thick’ manner now demanded (volunteering regularly, taking part in neighbourhood groups and shaping/running public services) is frankly very small. As some well-cited research from TSRC has pointed out, a ‘civic core’ of around 8 per cent of the population contributes nearly half the recorded volunteering hours in the UK.

The challenges facing our local areas are so great, and the time that they have to tackle them so short, that it is becoming increasingly obvious to local authorities and public services that they will need to work with the grain of the assets that are already available to them. With this in mind, our attention naturally turns to the individuals who are already working to improve outcomes in local areas. These people, who we have termed ‘ChangeMakers’, can be defined as those key individuals who are, or who could be given more support, highly effective in tackling the social, economic and environmental challenges facing society, and who are spearheading positive change within their own fields of interest and work. This could be anybody from an active police officer, to a leading light in the business community, to a community activist dedicated to his or her cause.

The RSA ChangeMakers report published this week describes how we were able to map a local network of these ChangeMakers in Peterborough using an innovative new ‘social network analysis’ approach. Through piloting our method, we were able to identify over 240 of these individuals, among them social entrepreneurs, members of the clergy, artists, head teachers, police officers, businessmen, charity workers and housing officers. The results of our surveying indicate that such individuals are adept at driving positive change in their local areas. They appear rooted in their communities, have an impressive repertoire of capabilities, and are instilled with an appetite to apply these to address local issues.

As well-connected and knowledgeable individuals, ChangeMakers are a potentially highly valuable asset that local authorities and public services could draw upon to realise their ambitions, whether that is by using them as sources of expertise and local opinion, as sounding boards for feedback on new initiatives, or as conduits for spreading information and behaviours.

Our report urges local authorities and public services to acknowledge the latent power of their ChangeMakers and to develop plans that would enable them to channel the energy of such individuals to best effect. In our report, we put forward the concept of a ‘ChangeMakers’ Network’ as one means of doing so. By bringing local ChangeMakers together through structured events to share ideas and advice, to assist local bodies with their work, and to collaborate with one another on joint initiatives, Networks would play a key role in surfacing, connecting together and further developing the capacity of ChangeMakers to achieve a positive impact in their own fields.

The next stage of our project will involve developing the first ChangeMakers’ Network in Peterborough, and to begin undertaking further mapping initiatives in other parts of the country, with a view to creating a large consortium of Networks all working together.

If you would like to hear more about the findings of the ChangeMakers project or about forming a Network in your own local area, please get in touch with via email or on 020 7451 6836.

Sunderland City Council’s Community Leadership Programme: Big Society, but with the politics?

February 10, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

It is now stating the patently obvious to say that the public policy and public services landscape – especially at a local level – is undergoing a transformative change. Austerity, fiscal pressures, political shifts in Whitehall and a raft of social, political and demographic changes and pressures are forcing decisionmakers and public managers to rethink the way services are designed and delivered. “Public service innovation” has become a buzz-term, and councils are at the forefront of attempts to re-design services in the context of massive fiscal squeezes, ageing populations and rising demand for services. This is why 38% of all local authorities in England and Wales applied to be a part of the LG Group and NESTA’s Creative Councils programme last year – with the hope of implementing radical innovations to meet these challenges.

Public policy is also changing: the localism bill and associated policies and drives for greater decentralisation (or, according to critics, attempts to shift responsibility – and blame – from Whitehall to local government) – along with overarching narratives such as ‘the Big Society’ – are heralding in a future where ‘more with less’ is set to become the central organising principle. The Big Society vision has been used to provide a great deal of the moral case for change: the government says it wants to see greater power in the hands of local communities and citizens, and wants to see an active and engaged citizenry as a core part of a new era of politics and public services.

The difficulties and contradictions are abundantly clear. Some argue councils simply can’t deliver ‘big society’ initiatives at the same time as they are forced to absorb massive cuts in funding – this is why Liverpool City Council withdrew from the government big society pilots last year. Nevertheless, several other councils are making strong attempts despite recognising the pressures of austerity and disagreeing with current Government policy. For examples, thirteen Labour councils – including Sunderland – have joined the Labour Co-operative Councils network, which seeks to develop co-operative models for running local services – putting citizens at the centre.

Much of the scepticism about the ‘big society’ comes from many regarding it as a rhetorical device, and arguing that it relies too much on volunteerism without a solid political structure behind it. It is clear that for truly ‘big society’ politics to take shape, the concept needs to be less associated with volunteerism (although this is important) and more grounded in a new political economy – a point Philip Blond has repeatedly made.

In this respect, Sunderland City Council’s Community Leadership Programme (CLP), which is a key strand of the council’s ‘Sunderland Way of Working’, provides a good example of a local model that is moving towards a political ‘big society’ approach- even though the Labour-run council would eschew the ‘big society’ as a political term. As the 2020 Public Services Hub’s latest report – an evaluation of Sunderland’s CLP – shows, the CLP encompasses multiple strategic layers. This includes engaging elected members more effectively as community leaders and creating the processes and structures necessary to empower them at the community front-line. The second layer is about reconfiguring public services so that they are locally responsive and foster new forms of delivery and accountability in partnership with citizens. The third layer harnesses the power of people, place and council to achieve sustainable growth at a time of political and economic flux. While Sunderland’s CLP certainly faces challenges and has space for improvement, the 2020PSH report shows that it provides valuable lessons for localities across the UK.

At the roundtable marking the launch of the report (on Wednesday 8th February), there was also a general broad agreement by participants on different sides of the political fence about the importance of locally responsible and citizen-centric services supported by various forms of community leadership. Participants at the roundtable also raised some of the challenges that face local politics in practice. For example, Christina Dykes (of the Conservative Next Generation Project) spoke of the need for a culture change at the local level, which Government needs to be proactive in helping. Conservative councillor for Hammersmith and Fulham (and former Leader) Stephen Greenhalgh also said there needs to be greater effort in achieving mass engagement and communication to make local politics relevant to local people. Representing civil society, Neil Jameson (CEX of Citizens UK) and Lucy de Groot (CSV) also argued that civil society is the missing ingredient in many approaches to reinvigorating local democratic politics – civil society has the greatest engagement and contact with citizens, and yet it is often the weakest political actor in the local mix, and so it needs to have greater support. All participants generally agreed there needs to be a politics behind local democracy, and the state at various levels has a key role to play in making narratives such as ‘big society’ viable in practice.

To read the 2020PSH report, click here.

How to understand the psychology of active citizenship

January 13, 2012 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

I’m proud to have been given the opportunity to co-author a report with my colleagues in RSA Projects, the think-and-do arm of the RSA.

Beyond the Big Society – Psychological Foundations of Active Citzenship has just been published, and you can download the report here.

One key conclusion in our report is that enduring ‘active citizenship’ requires individuals who are guided by their own internal compass, who have what we call a ‘self-authoring’ mind.

The Conservative-LibDem Coalition agreement stated “you create a Big Society matched by big citizens” – we argue that a ‘self-authoring’ mind is the prerequisite for these ‘big citizens’.

The model of adult psychological growth we draw on in the report was developed by Harvard’s Prof Robert Kegan. I will dive into his analysis as briefly as I can.

Prof. Kegan found that four qualitatively different ‘ways of knowing’ are most common in adulthood – ways in which we as adults actively interpret, organise, understand and make sense of our life experiences. These ‘ways of knowing’ represent a centre of gravity for the development of our cognitive, emotional, interpersonal and intrapersonal capacities. As someone grows towards the next way of knowing, the former one becomes secondary, similar to the layering of an onion.

Self-authorship means a person has internally chosen beliefs and a view of social relations that would support authentic engagement with others for the common good
Prof Marcia Baxter Magolda

Robert Kegan’s 4 ‘ways of knowing’ – their characteristics

  • The Instrumental way of knowing
    Has a “what do you have that can help me/what do I have that can help you” orientation; tends to follow rules and feel supported when others provide specific advice and explicit procedures to accomplish their work; struggles to take another’s perspective fully/consider multiple perspectives
  • The Socialising way of knowing
    Capacity to think abstractly and reflect on people’s actions; subordinates his or her needs to the needs of others; interpersonal conflict is almost always experienced as a threat to the self; acceptance by authorities is of the highest importance
  • The Self-authoring way of knowing
    Identifies abstract values, principles and longer-term purposes; able to prioritise and integrate competing values; competence, achievement and responsibility are uppermost concerns)
  • The Self-transforming way of knowing
    Less invested in own point of view; examines issues from multiple points of view and sees where seemingly opposite perspectives overlap; strategic – can understand and manage tremendous amounts of complexity; decisions based on the common good for organisations and society

The overarching shift seen in the progression through these four ways of knowing is from dependence to independence to interdependence.

(Interestingly, the latter three stages correlate with the Traditional, Modern and Postmodern mindsets).

A leading expert on education and adult development – Prof Marcia Baxter Magolda – shared with me her view on the importance to ‘active citizenship’ of enabling the shift from the socialised/Traditional way of knowing to the ‘self-authoring’ way of knowing.

Civic engagement courses that do not attempt to develop self-authoring capacities do not offer transformational learning
Prof Marcia Baxter Magolda

“A foundation of self-authorship is necessary for authentic responsible/active citizenship,” said Marcia.

“I say authentic, because self-authorship means a person has internally chosen beliefs and a view of social relations that would support authentic engagement with others for the common good. [People with the Socialised/Traditional ‘way of knowing’] could very well be responsible citizens if the external environment supported and affirmed them for doing so. However, if the external environment did not provide affirmation, they would not be able to sustain their citizenship role because they would not have an internal compass guiding them to do so.”

In one other way of thinking about this, Charles Leadbeater – often dubbed Tony Blair’s favourite guru – has described how such changes play out in the British public’s expectations of public services, as a shift in orientation from ‘I need’ to ‘I want’ to ‘I can’.

As we highlight in the report – and Matthew Taylor highlighted in his Twenty-first Century Enlightenment pamphlet – the OECD’s 5-year study into the key competencies needed in the 21st century found that this self-authoring capacity is crucial to the success of modern economies in the 21st century.

And yet amongst Prof Kegan’s most representative sample, 79 per cent of people do not yet reach this ‘self-authoring’ capacity.

So what?

From these insights we learn that active citizenship training will be very ‘brittle’ unless it also deliberately enables adult growth towards a more self-authoring way of knowing.

This finding is particularly relevant to the Big Society because those students who progressed developmentally were twice as likely to take on extracurricular ‘service’ projects, and three times as likely to take on leadership positions in community service organisations – as a control group.

A shift to a new way of knowing will require far more than the usual skills-based or informational learning, it will require transformational learning – that is, learning that aims to enable growth to more complex ‘ways of knowing’. So, not just changes in what we know but in how we know.

As Prof Baxter Magolda explains: “Civic engagement courses (or service learning or other learning experiences) that do not attempt to develop self-authoring capacities do not offer transformational learning” and the active citizenship training envisaged here “requires transformational learning (á la Jack Mezirow*, and thus requires “growth of the mind” (á la Kegan)”.

[*Jack Mezirow is the initiator of the transformative learning movement in adult education].

To be truly effective, citizenship trainings (such as the Saul Alinsky approach to community organising that would inspire Barack Obama and Maurice Glasman/Citizens UK) will need to fully understand the psychological changes that they are seeking to make.

Transformational learning: evidence of its success

Successful examples of this shift to self-authoring through the use of a transformational approach to education are available.

For instance, we highlight a transformational interdisciplinary curriculum (on earth sustainability) at a US college that successfully fostered psychological growth in students – compared to a control group on a traditional curriculum. Only those students on the transformational curriculum reached the stage of ‘independent knowing’, with other students remaining at developmentally prior levels as ‘absolutist’ or ‘relativist’ knowers (to use the terms developed by William Perry, a pioneer in student development research).

This finding is particularly relevant to the Big Society because those students who progressed developmentally were twice as likely to take on extracurricular ‘service’ projects, and three times as likely to take on leadership positions in community service organisations – as a control group.

The overarching shift seen in the progression through these four ways of knowing is from dependence to independence to interdependence

Prof Jake Chapman FRSA, author of Systems Failure – why governments must learn to think differently (download the pdf from Demos), has found similarly positive empirical outcomes emerging in his work training public sector leaders at the National School of Government. And a recent Australian study found significant change in participants’ developmental stages after a 10-week transformational course, compared to a control group.

Read more

The Silver Foundations of the Big Society

January 7, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Anyone over the age of 45 may have had the wind taken out of their sails this week. The findings of a longitudinal research study just released by UCL indicate that memory loss begins at a much earlier age than previously thought. The large study involving interviews with over 7,000 civil servants found that over a ten-year period, there was around an 8 per cent decline in the mental reasoning of 65 to 70 year olds, but unexpectedly there was also a 3.6 per cent decline found among those aged 45 to 49. Despite probably just confirming what many people already knew, it can’t help to boost the morale of anyone who is approaching or who has already entered into ‘middle age’.

Still, it’s not all bad news. This week the RSA released a new publication, Beyond the Big Society: Psychological Foundations of Active Citizenship, which the older generation may find is an unlikely source of solace. A central part of the report’s message is that active citizenship and its associated activities (philanthropy, decision-making, voluntary work, relationship building etc.) demand from people an unseen set of values, attitudes and competencies. It just so happens that these increase and become more sophisticated as people get older.

We argue in the report that being able to navigate the ‘hidden curriculum’ of active citizenship requires people to have a certain level of ‘mental complexity’. By mental complexity we mean how we know, not simply what we know. Robert Kegan, a developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard University, has outlined five orders of mental complexity, each representing a different ‘subject-object relationship’. Crudely put, the higher the order of mental complexity, the less we take as subject and the more as object. When we take things as subject, they ‘have us’; we cannot see them or reflect on them. When we take things as object, however, we can take a step back, have some perspective and consider things from a distance. All of which helps us to make more informed decisions, to be in control of our emotions and attitudes, and, as Kegan puts it, “to have a relationship to our actions.”

Our report argues that for people to be able and willing to contribute in a meaningful manner to society, it will require them to hold a certain level of mental complexity. Here we are talking about the fourth order (the “self-authoring mind”), where people are able to internalise the feelings of others and to subordinate their interests to theirs (see page 32 in the report for more details). The concern is that few people have actually reached this order of mental complexity. Indeed, an OECD supported study suggests that only one in five people have such mental competencies.

The reason this is relevant for the older generation is that age and mental complexity are shown to be correlated. Older people are far more likely to be at the fourth order of mental complexity than their younger counterparts, suggesting that their presence – particularly those long into retirement – will be critical in any efforts to build the Big Society.

How this could influence current practice, we don’t yet know. It may be, for example, that national initiatives like the community organising training scheme directly try to attract what Jennifer Berger, an expert in Kegan’s theories, has described as ‘village elders’. Alternatively, it may mean developing more initiatives like that of Senior Corps in the US, which connects experienced over 55s with non-profit initiatives that could benefit from their talents and expertise, or supporting new UK social enterprises like The Amazings. The one thing we do know is that the success of the Big Society and of wider attempts to nurture more vibrant communities over the coming years will be dependent to some extent on whether or not we appreciate and tap into the perspectives and judgement of our older generation.

The Big Society: for the third sector the devil is in the detail

December 16, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Earlier this week I attended Progress’s Purple Book event on the future of public services. Despite something of a sparse turnout – in fact, perhaps because of it – what emerged during the session was quite a thoughtful, pragmatic and detailed reflection on both the previous and current governments’ attempts to radically transform the way in which public services are delivered. It was particularly nice to see speaker Patrick Diamond’s intelligent critic of policy from a No 10 perspective being grounded by the views of Peter John, leader of Southwark Council, who had some interesting insights on the kind of nuanced impact that Coalition policy is having on service users and staff.

Of all the things that emerged during the session, I found Peter John’s simple rebuttal of the Community Right to Challenge scheme the most salient. Introduced last year through the Localism Bill, the purpose of this new initiative is to allow community groups and other third sector organisations the chance to bid for and to take over the running of public services typically provided by the local authority. According to Peter John, the difficulty with the Community Right to Challenge scheme is that once a third sector group puts forward a request to run a public service, the council then needs to automatically put the service out to tender to everybody else. This comes with both a price tag and a risk that the community group who challenged for the service may not even get the contract, either because they don’t have the time and data to put together a compelling case, or because the process takes so long that by the time they do hear back on their application they will have already gone under.

What is seemingly a simple process for opening up public services turns out to be riddled with unseen caveats for smaller third sector organisations. The same is true for something like payment by results, where new providers from all sectors are encouraged to come in, deliver a service and be paid according to their impact, whether that’s getting unemployed people back into work or helping drug users make their way out of addiction. As many have already pointed out, payment by results often leads to the problem of ‘skimming’, whereby the organisation with the prime contract (typically large private companies) take the easy cases and leave the intransigent ones for smaller organisations to plug away at. Worse still, many small charities are sent little or no referrals at all from these prime contractors.

Another case in point is the increasing number of volunteer centres that are being used as free training centres by Work Programme providers. According to Patrick Butler, what these providers see in volunteer centres is an easy and practically cost-free way of giving their clients work experience and making them ‘work-ready’. In one case, a WP provider was said to have asked a volunteer centre if it would round up a team of volunteers to help it run a CV workshop for those on its books. In a sign that WP providers do indeed recognise this as exploitation, in some cases they have explicitly told their clients not to mention that the provider sent them. No doubt this presents something of a moral dilemma for charities; should they support these genuinely needy individuals, or should they say no, given that they would be footing the bill for something somebody else is financially benefiting from? In a tough financial climate, it is not surprising that many opt for the latter.

What all of these examples remind us is that with public policy (and in particular the Localism Bill) the devil is nearly always in the detail. On the face of it, the third sector has never had it so good; more opportunities to provide public services and greater access to new sources of finance. But ask anybody on the frontline and the picture is radically different. In reality, crude exploitation by private companies and an ill thought through system of public service delivery handover mean that many third sector organisations are buckling under the pressure, with some questioning whether they are likely to make it through the coming months, let alone the next few years.

And there was everybody thinking that the third sector was the future. If this really is still to be the case, perhaps it’s about time we began reading the disclaimer and talking seriously about the detail, however politically unattractive that sounds.

The Big Society: a battle over cognitive dissonance

December 10, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

The results of the latest British Social Attitudes Survey revealed this week appear to indicate that as a society we are becoming more atomised and increasingly judgemental about one another. According to the survey, 25% of individuals say the reason people live in need is because they are lazy or lack willpower. Likewise, 63% believe that one of the reasons why children live in poverty is because their parents don’t want to work.

In straitened times, it is not surprising that the pressure many people are facing will cause them to feel that others are not pulling their weight. As the load becomes heavier, we inevitably look for those who could do more to shoulder their fair share of the burden. Sadly, our gaze more often than not falls on the needy and disadvantaged, despite many doing as much as they can. As research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation continually shows, people in poverty are very often working; we just can’t see them because we don’t mix in the same social circles or work in the same environments.

The problem always seems to be that we don’t tend to consider the load itself i.e. the burdens and pressures of modern life and where they originate. Rather, we’re just interested in who’s doing their bit, a sentiment summarised nowhere more clearly than in George Osborne’s claim that “we’re all in this together”.

But why don’t we look at the structural issues causing many of our problems? Perhaps the reason is because, at our very heart, we really do want to believe that life is fair. Oliver Burkeman recently wrote that many of us fall for the “just world” trap, whereby we “bring a more appropriate fit” between someone’s fate and someone’s character. The greater the injustice, the more we believe people get what they deserve. As Burkeman points out, the source of these “just world” feelings may lie in our tendency to search for a feeling of security. If we tell ourselves that people deserve what they get, we feel there is less likelihood of ourselves experiencing the same circumstances. In effect, by blaming people for their misfortunes we are eliminating our “cognitive dissonance”.

To return to the British Social Attitudes Survey findings, by saying that people’s experience of poverty is a result of their own actions, whether consciously or not we are creating for ourselves a greater sense of security. Though many of us may have a creeping feeling that our society and our economic system are witnessing deep and ever increasing systemic fractures, it is far more comforting to believe that the disadvantaged are responsible for their own problems (and thereby shore up the legitimacy of the system), than it is to accept that our system is not fair and to acknowledge that misfortune could happen to us at any point.

The concern is that our craving to reduce this “cognitive dissonance” will hamper any chances of the Big Society emerging, one which sees people contributing more out of a solidarity, respect and sympathy for those in need. The irony is that although the Big Society is presented as something as an antidote for the worst effects of the recession, in truth it is actually a small society of feckless individuals that is what people really want during a time of financial crisis; enough to distract them from the ills of our systemic failures. Judging from our progress so far, it may just be what we’ll end up getting.

Social Attitudes Survey shows Big Society is getting smaller

December 7, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey is a blow for the left. 54% of respondents think employment benefits are too high, 63% blame parents for child poverty and fewer people are willing to give up their own hard-earned cash to reduce the income gap. People appear to be becoming more individualistic. As Penny Young, the Chief Executive of the National Centre for Social Research, says, ‘In a time of economic austerity and social unrest, the big question coming out of this year’s report is whether we really are in it together, or just in it for ourselves?’

The results are a reminder that in hard times it becomes more difficult to make the case for tackling shared problems. When resources are tight, people are concerned with protecting the little they have. But the results of this year’s survey are not only a concern for progressives. The thread of individualism that runs through this year’s survey presents real challenges for the Government’s Big Society vision of stronger, more resourceful communities in which people work together towards common goals.

There are two lessons for Government here. First, its emphasis on individual blame (e.g. ‘welfare scroungers’ or ‘greedy public sector workers’) as a means of building public support for austerity has had the effect of damaging social ties and made it harder to persuade people to work together to tackle social problems. In this sense, the Government’s own rhetoric is destroying the ground on which a Big Society should be built.

Secondly, the Government has characterised civil society and the state as being at odds. For Government, public services are themselves partly an expression of a dependency culture and a suppression of the ability of citizens to generate bottom-up solutions to public problems. In reality, the reverse is true. Whilst there is space on both the left and the right for the argument that the skills, ideas and enthusiasm of citizens and charities need to play a stronger role in society, the state and public service institutions have a crucial role to play in helping communities thrive. From funding charities and local groups to commissioning more inclusive services. This was the strong message from charities and public service representatives present at the launch of a recent RSA report on public service reform, Communities Connected. Citizens, civil society organisations and public services are interdependent. The answer lies in finding new ways of working together to tackle challenges in education, health and social care, not breaking these different institutions apart from one another.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey shows the ties and institutions that bind us to one another are losing traction. People are becoming more self-involved. If the Government does not change course and start emphasising the values, institutions and rights we have in common, people will become more individualistic and atomised, and our ‘big’ society will start to feel very, very small.

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