There is only one town in England to have been awarded city status as part of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations – that town is Chelmsford.
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
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
RSA Connected Communities has started a new project with Nathan of the MIT Center for Civic Media to create a new, cost-effective way to measure the social impact of public services and civic interventions and to allow people to see their own personal networks. We’re designing a mobile and tablet app for recording real-life social networks: your friends, families and contacts. The open source software we build will also be useful to journalists, ethnographers and anyone trying to make sense of rapidly changing social phenomena. Here I illustrate how we are currently recording this data, and why I think it is important that we change the way that we do it.
What is data?
Data is a rushed researcher putting together a survey to capture the full extent of a human life on paper. The scales are based on someone else’s testing. The newly combined scales are then re-tested on new people. Any newly invented questions can change as a result of piloting; the old questions – based on someone else’s testing – must remain constant. These newly tested combined scales – with the odd bit of cut and paste – are then recalibrated and re-launched.
A community researcher goes door to door. “Hello! My name is… “ Door shuts. “Hi! I’m… Some version of a person’s social network and social world is transferred from local person, to community researcher’s ear, to RSA paper survey. Interesting anecdotes and unusual answers are scribbled in the margins, for few paper-based-surveys have the space to fully annotate human complexity.
Back at the RSA HQ a data entry scribe enters these reams upon reams of human data. Comment boxes are full of the annotated scribbles, although some anecdotes are lost to time, bad weather and even worse handwriting. Data entry becomes data book; data book becomes social network; social network might become a Guardian Society supplement.
We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them.
And so what? Your social network, your human network, is a map of you. And maps need to be used in the now, not in a year’s time when the roads have changed and bridges have been broken. The social app I am working on with Nathan from the MIT Center for Civic Media might allow us to do just that. It will be a means of researching somebody’s human networks and then playing it back to them, in real time.
Here in the RSA Connected Communities team – when not dealing with 4000 peoples’ worth of social networks and wellbeing, community health networks and the innovation networks of various councils – we are trying to help social network analysis become a real life tool. For this to happen it needs to make sense to people.
We already know that people with more diverse networks are healthier and happier. Our human networks help us to find work, with those with more diverse networks tending to have higher status and better paid jobs. We have found that allowing people to see their own networks and understand them allows them to feel they can change them. Poor networks are a real form of poverty: lack of mainstream social capital slows you down and closes off options.
You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers
Through visualisation work to make network outputs more intelligible and the creation of network toolkits that hopefully make the subject more intuitive to people, we are trying to open up social network knowledge so it can be part of every individual’s personal toolkit. I really hope that the tool we are working on with Nathan will be a big part of this.
It will allow researcher and researched to really co-produce.You can paint me your social picture and I can ask “Does this look right, does this look like you?” before I join up the numbers. It will make the data better and it will do what the data protection act tried but failed to do: it will make you own your own data, because you can see, feel and change it.
This might become a way for people to check in on their own social networks every once in a while, or a tool that might measure your isolation and suggest a local reading group or walking club. I can imagine GPs using this kind of tool to help them socially prescribe local activities. Any organisation which acts with social networks – such as the NGO Tostan- could use this as a low-cost way of measuring the impact of their interventions.
Organisations which rely on interviewing broad sections of people to understand new social phenomena – such as Human Rights Watch or any news organisation worth its salt – could use the tool as a prompt in interviews, a means of recording data and a way on ensuring that they have actually managed to ask a diverse group of people and not just people who float in similar circles.
So over to you. These social networks are your human networks. And these human networks delimit that which is possible in your life. What does this tool need to do, if it is to be of real use?
The Social Brain team has been brainstorming ideas for new projects recently. One idea that came up was to do some work developing ‘civic chat up lines’. Making connections with people around us is a key ingredient in our wellbeing, so being able to start conversations with strangers is surely a useful skill. Avoiding doing so in a way which makes the recipient of your chat up line think you’re weird or feel their space is being invaded is obviously of some importance. The writer and director Miranda July addressed this subject in the Guardian this weekend, but I’m not going to recommend testing what she suggests as I think grabbing hold of the nearest stranger by the arm might not lead to the kind of meaningful and rewarding social encounter we’d like to promote. So, how do you start a conversation with a stranger?
I’m a Northerner, where, by reputation, everyone chats to strangers all the time, and people generally are much friendlier than in an anonymous city like London. Having spent the last few years living in Manchester, I arrived in London to take up my job at the RSA in September, and in the six weeks or so since I’ve been here, I’ve actually had several encounters which have gone quite a long way to subverting the stereotype of Londoners being standoffish and aloof. Walking back to the office after popping out for coffee one afternoon, I was stopped in the street by a man who noticed my RSA lanyard and asked if I worked there. This led to a brief chat about how beautiful the house is, and what it’s like to work at the RSA. Sure enough, the fact that this conversation had taken place gave me a good, warm feeling of connectedness. At a lunchtime concert a few weekends ago, I got talking to someone in the queue for coffee who had the same bike pannier as me. We continued chatting and discovered we had overlapping research interests and exchanged email addresses so we could share resources. One morning on the bus I overheard two women having an animated chat, and would have assumed they were firm friends until one of them got up to get off the bus and exclaimed how nice it was to meet the other, and the two introduced themselves. I don’t know how their conversation started, but it was obvious that both of them had enjoyed it very much. So, connections between strangers are clearly possible, even in a metropolis like London.
The internet has made communicating with strangers routine for many of us, whether it’s on Twitter, or through commenting on blogs or news stories. Kristin Hugo writes effusively about making connections with strangers through lift share websites, and resources like Couch Surfing. In these cases, the ice is broken by making a specific arrangement over the internet, which then leads to meeting in person. Online communication on its own is just not the same as face to face interaction, and doesn’t reach the same places as making connections in the flesh. Sociologist Theodore Zeldin says that as we live in the technological age, our need for real conversation is ever more pressing. His foundation, The Oxford Muse, organises events in which complete strangers are invited to a public place and then paired up. The pairs select topics from a ‘conversation menu’ and engage in discussion which is designed to take them beyond the superficial, with the exchanges typically lasting two hours.
Depending on your disposition, this might sound like a lot of fun or the most excruciating ghastliness imaginable. Either way, it does sound rather time consuming. But, my recent experience demonstrates that a question or point of common interest are pretty effective as conversation starters, and the effect of talking to strangers is certainly gratifying. Why not give it a go? And do let me know if you’ve got any good chat up lines…