The parochialism of politics

June 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

All politics is local. So we are told. Over and over again. Like most political clichés, this is highly flawed as a general rule.

Politics has become both too local and not local enough. It is not local enough when it comes to the politics of local representation. A political class has emerged- and not one based necessarily on any merit. The proposal to have a right of recall if an MP betrays the trust of his/her constituents could give some power back to local communities – if structured right. Candidate selection through primaries could help too in cutting through the group-think and political nepotism of party politics. One of the most impressive backbenchers in this Parliament is Dr Sarah Wollaston. Without an open primary she would probably not be an MP.

But in important respects politics is also too parochial. At a question and answer session with the soon to depart David Miliband organised by Progress last night, one theme consistently emerged. This is a politician (technically ex-politician actually) who has an ability to frame local issues and anxieties in a global context.

He was asked the normal sorts of questions you get at these events. What about localism? Well, look at the rise of the city: the top 40 cities produce 65 per cent of global wealth, and 85 per cent of its innovation despite only having 18 per cent of the world’s housing units. How can a city like Birmingham succeed in this environment?

What of jobs? It’s a global issue: Miliband had just been to a Kenyan refugee camp where the biggest concern after the refugee status was access to jobs. The same sorts of issues people in South Shields are anxious about.

Living costs? Well, the price of non-energy commodities has risen more in the last ten years than they fell in the previous hundred. Without understanding the rise of China, we can’t understand our current predicament. That goes for Europe too. Geo-politics, the environment, global imbalances, poverty, innovation, issue after issue was presented in its global context.

Across the political spectrum, UKIP, Labour (especially Blue Labour), Conservative, there has been an inward turn. It’s not that national politics shouldn’t respond to its own citizens. It’s that there is no way of understanding challenges let alone resolving them without a global perspective.

In fairness to David Cameron, he does place our economic challenge in a global context. But the language he uses is a superficial one of the ‘global race’. It’s also a race he seems rather too happy for the UK to run alone.

So David Miliband leaves for New York in a few weeks’ time. He is one of the few of his generation who acts and thinks on a global scale. This week, his (ex-)colleague Liam Byrne publishes a book on China and our challenge as it prospers and grows and that is encouraging. On the Tory side, Rory Stewart demonstrates a grasp of geo-politics. There are a handful more but the global-local politician is a rare breed in politics right now. We are becoming smaller. And that will make local politics all the harder.

Anthony Painter is Director, Independent review of the Police Federation. His twitter feed is @anthonypainter.

From Chicago… to the RSA: two group facilitation methods to help you put an end to ‘aimless drift’

November 8, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Chicago gave rise to the radical community organising approach of Saul Alinsky (made famous by its Barack Obama connection – and a rather unexpected endorsement by David Cameron).

Grassroots neighbourhood planning, in a near-derelict black community on the West Side of Chicago, was also the seedbed for the group facilitation approaches developed by the Institute of Cultural Affairs (a global network focusing on the human factor in world development) – such as the Focused Conversation method and the Consensus Workshop.

A huge amount of brainstorming goes on in groups, but not nearly enough clustering and naming
- Martin Gilbraith, Chief Executive, Institute of Cultural Affairs: UK (+ co-trainer)

This Chicago work became “a prototype for citizen participation in community renewal around the world”, with the methods being used in thousands of communities and organisations worldwide.

Both of these easy-to-use techniques aim to “apply structure to group process, preventing a group from drifting aimlessly” – and could certainly be a help to anyone seeking to enable groups of RSA Fellows to become as effective as possible.

As Sam Thomas, RSA Networks Manager, puts it: “One of the challenges we have is how best to support Fellows who want to work with each other to turn their ideas into projects and practical initiatives. It’s really helpful to see (and try out) some different approaches that we can pass on.”

Sam was one of the RSA Networks Managers who had the opportunity to be trained in using these two ‘Technology of Participation’ facilitation methods which promise to enable “deeper levels of commitment, greater capacity for sharing wisdom and ownership of decisions arrived at collectively”.

One of the challenges we have is how best to support Fellows who want to work with each other to turn their ideas into projects and practical initiatives. It’s really helpful to see (and try out) some different approaches that we can pass on
- Sam Thomas, RSA Networks Manager

The Focused Conversation Method

This provides a structure for discussion and reflection, encouraging diverse perspectives. It uses a four-step structure to open up discussion, examine people’s reactions and then move to decision.

The four steps go by the the acronym ORID:

  • Objective (Senses: getting the facts. What?)
  • Reflective (Heart: personal reactions/images/associations. Gut?)
  • Interpretive (Head: meaning, implications. So what?)
  • Decisional (Action: resolution, next steps. Now what?)

Each step plays an important role: the Objective level, for instance, helps to get everyone on the same page and to avoid confusion. And when Reflective level material is not allowed its expression then meetings will often go round in circles.

For each of these levels, the facilitator will have thought of some appropriate questions. Of course, this description gives only a very basic flavour of the Focused Conversation method.

The Consensus Workshop Method

Finding it impossible to come to a consensus? The Consensus Workshop Method helps groups to reach a consensus in a short time (between 30 and 90 minutes), by integrating the ideas and wisdom of all the participants. It can be put to use in setting team priorities, motivating volunteers, developing policy and much else besides.

What are practical ways to build effective teamwork?Above: the outcome of our trial workshop using the Consensus Workshop Method.

The bare bones of the method are that it begins with an open-ended ‘Focus question’, to ignite the group’s creativity. Individuals then brainstorm answers to the question. The best ideas are written onto cards, individually or in teams/pairs.

Read more

Earth Hour! Saturday March 26th 8.30-9.30pm

March 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

What is your favourite hour of the year? If you don’t know, make it 8.30-9.30pm, just after dinner tomorrow and do something worthwhile to justify your choice. Most of the British population will be watching television, but you can buck this languorous trend by observing ‘earth hour’. The idea is to switch off the lights, use as little electricity as possible, and use your own energy in a more creative and satisfying way. Katee Hui at the charming site recently asked me in my capacity as a chess Grandmaster to write a blog for them on why a game of chess was a good way to spend the hour, but there may be even better ways, including cuddling or indeed similar movements of that nature.

The genesis of earth hour was Sydney 2007, where 2000 businesses and over 2.2 million individuals turned their lights off to make a stand against climate change. Far from being a forgettable token gesture, in just one year earth hour went global, with 50 million people across 35 countries taking part. In 2011 it’s even bigger, and this year are asking people to use the hour of engagement to think about the one thing we all have in common- our planet- and what we are going to do to protect it from ourselves. Our Prime Minister David Cameron gave his backing to the importance of the hour and the wider purpose it represents.

There is plenty more to say about this hour, including curmudgeonly critiques outlined on the wikipedia page about candles not being very eco-friendly and large scale turning off and on of electricity possibly increasing carbon emissions. One feels they are rather missing the point, which is of course about reminding ourselves that on the issue of climate change, unlike defecit reductions, we really are ‘in this together’. Indeed, I would be curious to know if the researchers of the Global Consciousness Project pick up any interesting statistical noise during this hour when several million across the planet are focussed on the same thing.

Above all, earth hour made me think of one my favourite scenes from the third Lord of the Rings film. At a tense moment, shortly after Denathor, Steward of Gondor, has refused to call for aid, Gandalf hatches a plan. In the days before internet or telephones, there were still ways to communicate across long distances, and it doesn’t do any harm that this scene was filmed over spectacular scenery in New Zealand. Earth hour is about turning lights off across the globe rather than lighting the beacons of Minas Tirith. Nonetheless, this scene represents the same goal as earth hour- to use our relationship to light to shed light on ourselves, to wake us up to our shared predicament, and to help each other to protect our only home.

Youtube have removed the code that would allow me to show the video on this blog, but if you want to be reminded of this evocative scene, please click here.

What do Political Speech Writers have against Paragraphs?

March 16, 2011 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

While looking for a quotation by David Cameron, I came across the transcript of his recent speech at the RSA.

Whatever you think of the content of Cameron’s speech, the written form of the speech is pretty striking. Most points are expressed in single or double lines, with three line points being the exception, and one or two deviant ideas spilling over into four lines.

It seems the key not to dwell on one point for too long. I am not sure what to think about this yet, but the next time you listen for a political speech, look out for this structure of sentences without paragraphs, ideas without qualifications, facts without sources.

Who writes his speeches?

Is this particular to Cameron, or are all political speeches written this way?

If so, why?

Does it make them easier to deliver?

Does it make them sound better to the audience?

Should we be worried that speech writers filter political ideas in this way?

Is it part of our the relentless dumbing down of political culture?

Is there an rhetoric expert out there who can enlighten us?

Thank you.

Big Society(6): Building the Shire in Mordor?

February 1, 2011 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

After writing about the challenge of building the Big Society in the context of economic austerity, it became clear to me that any discourse about the Big Society had to be framed in this particular British early twenty-first century context, and not in abstract.

But between concrete and abstract there is allegory, and the following parallel occurred to me.

JRR Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and creator of Middle Earth, conceived of the Shire, the home of the hobbits, as a gentle, rural, and quintessentially English place, like the West Midlands before industrialisation and perhaps not dissimilar to a tory heartland like Buckinghamshire, the kind of place where David Cameron was bred.

The Shire is a land of plenty, with a flourishing civil society, no state to speak of, and lots of informal mutual support. The Shire  embodies the principles of minimal government and localism and barely even needed law enforcement, because it was a voluntarily orderly society. The only government services were the Message Service (the post) and the Watch, the police, whose officers were called Shirriffs, and whose chief duties involved rounding up stray livestock.

Mordor, on the other hand, is the home of Sauron ‘the accursed’, the nazgul, and innmuerable orcs. In fact it’s so bad it’s called dying land not yet dead”. The vegetation clinging to life in this area of Mordor included “low scrubby trees”, “coarse grey grass-tussocks”, “withered mosses”, “great writhing, tangled brambles”, and thickets of briars…Not a happy place.

Mordor is all but barren, the orcs are slaves and resources are not well distributed. Things may not be that bad here, at least not yet, but our conditions are arguably closer to Mordor than the Shire.

A recent NEF report argued that the problem with the Big Society is that the severity of public and third sector cuts militates against all of the best things about the Big Society.  Joining groups, volunteering, becoming more politically active and collectively solving social problems all sounds great, but such things require social and economic foundations that may not be available.

So perhaps, at an allegorical level, the challenge of the Big Society is as follows:

Is it possible to build the Shire in Mordor?

Big Society(5): When the Squealing Starts…

November 12, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

In the context of broader public service cuts, yesterday’s Guardian featured a chilling headline regarding Wednesday’s direct action against student tuition fees:  This is Just the Beginning. Partly from watching this relatively benign, but portentous protest, it has become clear to me that whatever form the Big Society takes, political conflict will be part of it.

At a recent RSA event on the subject, BBC Home Editor Mark Easton opened by reminding the audience that the Big Society was fundamental to Cameron’s political vision, and not just a passing fad buoyed by a catchy phrase. He alluded to a meeting between Cameron and senior civil servants in the summer:

“Let me be very clear”,  said Cameron.  “I do not want you to think your role is to guarantee outcomes of public services. Nor to directly intervene in organisations to directly improve their performance….You should simply create the conditions in which performance will improve….replacing bureaucractic accountability with democratic accountability…If you want to make targets, set new rules, impose restrictions, don’t bother.”

The implication was that Cameron sees ‘the Big Society’ as a place with radically decentralised accountability, and with Whitehall public servants creating the minimal facilitating conditions.

Mark Easton also used the striking expression “When the squealing starts” to refer to protests over public service cuts. Wednesday featured some squealing, but as the Guardian suggested, this may just be the beginning.

In the context of accountability and squealing, I found Anna Coote’s take of the promise and perils of the Big Society informed and sophisticated (based on NEF‘s recently released report.) The two core lines that caught my attention were:

“The phrase may sound like apple pie and motherhood, but is actually a major programme for structural reform. It’s the social policy that makes the economic policy of the spending review politically possible.”


“The Big society story makes the public sending cuts possible, but the cuts make the best ideals of the big society impossible to realise.”

“The phrase may sound like apple pie and motherhood, but is actually a major programme for structural reform. It’s the social policy that makes the economic policy of the spending review politically possible.” -Anna Coote

The core argument seems very sound to me, and is built on the idea that what is needed to engage in the Big Society- capactiy, access and time, are unequally distributed.  Moreover, as Anna Coote indicated, people opt to volunteer when things are optional, convivial, small scale and life enhancing. But the Big Society sounds conditional, formalised, complicated, and hard graft. And if Volunteering doesn’t take off, the Big Society is in peril.

I found Jonty Olliff-Cooper‘s response somewhat obtuse, given the acuity of the critiques. By his own admission, his appreciation for the Big Society was based on a theory of civil society, rather than the intracacies of practice, but he seemingly failed to recognise that this was precisely Anna Coote’s point- that the best of the theory- the things that can genuinely get people excited, will not, perhaps cannot, be realised in practice.

The Guardian’s Patrick Butler took a similarly sceptical line, fearing the naivety of the vision of ‘Pre-lapsarian self-help nirvana’ and saying that in place of Big Society idealism, he would like to see some Big Society realism.

Like many at the RSA, I instinctively like the idea of the Big Society in abstract, because it encapsualtes so many of the major themes of our work. However, in light of NEF’s report we need to concede that whatever the Big Society is, or could be, it cannot be adaquately understood or appreciated outside of our current economic context.

Big Society(4+) “You can call it internal combustion, I call it baked beans.”

October 28, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

I haven’t given ‘the Big Society’ much thought for a few months, but it seems it has retained its status as a fledgling proto-idea that commentators love to mock, perhaps because it is clear that the public are not yet warming to the notion, or even understanding it.  Rather than properly develop the previous blog series I’ll inch it along by referring you to the following paragraph from an article by Timothy Garton Ash in today’s Guardian, which I found particularly amusing:

“Take David Cameron’s slogan of the “big society”, for example. In his speech presenting it this summer, he said: “You can call it liberalism. You can call it empowerment. You can call it freedom. You can call it responsibility. I call it the ‘big society’.” In its evangelical incoherence, this is a passage worthy of Tony Blair. Liberalism, empowerment, freedom and responsibility are all good things, but they are not the same thing – and none of them are the same as “big society”. So this is like saying: “You can call it milk. You can call it cheese. You can call it socks. You can call it internal combustion. I call it baked beans.”

Somewhat harsh, I suppose. To be charitable, we can assume Cameron was just being pragmatic, suggesting that the conceptual proof of the big society pudding is in the practical eating (baked beans or otherwise). That said, when you launch a new idea into the world, it is incumbent on you to distinguish it from existing ideas. An idea needs a place to stand, with just enough wiggle room to flirt with other ideas, but not so much that it collapses and loses its shape.

They say that nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come. The end of slavery, the march of civil rights, the spread of female emancipation, Glasnost. All these ideas had theoretical parameters, historical context and practical implications. The Big Society has that potential too, but not if its proponents allow it to be completely protean.

The Big Society is a flag that needs to be ironed out in certain ways before it can fly in any way. Our Connected Communities report tried to do this with the following line: “Social capital is the currency of the Big Society and social networks hold the reserves of that currency.”   This may not be right, but at least it is clear enough to be wrong.

Big Society(4): Families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities

May 26, 2010 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

To paraphrase Mark Twain: contrary to my previous blog, reports of the death of the Big Society are grossly exagerated. The Cabinet Office recently released an outline of their plans to give the Big Society legs, and there is a distinct possibility that they will run all over the country, although to stretch this already strained metaphor, the idea may take some time to get its shoes on.

"I don't really want to build my own school or my own hospital – I appreciate it if someone else does that for me" Zadie Smith

A noteworthy conceptual point is that the document made reference to “Society – the families, networks, neighbourhoods and communities that form so much of the fabric of our everyday lives”. That’s not quite a definition, but it’s good to see the idea given some tangible structure. As I indicated previously, Margaret Thatcher’s contention that “there is no such thing as society” is often wrenched out of context, because she actually said:

“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.” (My italics).

So families and neighbours are already part of the otherwise purportedly nebulous notion of “society”, and now we have the explicit recognition of networks and communities too. This is the core turf of our Connected Communities project, which is, by the way, currently looking to recruit an Associate Director and Researcher.

Recent updates on the unfolding Big Society include the fact that Nat Wei, the founder of Teach First, has been appointed as the new Government advisor on the Big Society. Meanwhile, Ed West at The Daily Telegraph fears the idea is too New Labour,  and author Zadie Smith doesn’t think the idea makes much sense:

“The big society? I don’t know. I don’t really want to build my own school or my own hospital – I appreciate it if someone else does that for me,” she said. “I am not so keen on that kind of people action. I think most people would like their services prepared for them. I am not a great fan of that concept.”

You may not have to build a school or a hospital, but the question still remains – to make society bigger and better, what exactly do you have to build?

Big Society(3): shape and size matter

May 17, 2010 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Is The Big Society toast?

Writing in Friday’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins suggests that it might be.  It has emerged that “The Big Society” idea was difficult to sell on the doorstep, and another report in the Guardian featured “a senior and normally loyal Tory MP” who complained that Cameron’s big idea for the campaign under which armies of volunteers would come together to tackle the country’s ills – was “complete crap”.

When the "Big Society" idea was finally tested on the electorate late in the campaign, it received a thumbs down

“We couldn’t sell that stuff on the doorstep”, he said, “It was pathetic. All we needed was a simple message on policy. We could have won a majority if we had not had to try to sell this nonsense.” This frustratingly anonymous source may have a point, given that when the “Big Society” idea was finally tested on a sample of the electorate, surprisingly late in the campaign, it received a thumbs down.

Time will tell whether Cameron’s Big Society, like John Major’s Back to Basics Campaign, will be a fleeting aspirational notion, or whether the  Liberal Democrats are willing to help resurrect an idea that, as Simon Jenkins and others have pointed out, may be perfectly sound in theory. As Mathew Taylor indicated, the RSA have been working to make society “bigger” for some time,  and when it comes to “bigging up” society, the Connected Communities Project in particular have some useful ideas on the kinds of size and shape that matter.

It is so easy to slip from talking about "neighbourhoods", to reminiscing about "communities", to lamenting the various ills of "society"

A big society needs good social networks, and “good” does not merely mean a ridiculously high number of friends on Facebook, but rather links to important source of information and power, and access to people and institutions that offer skills and resources that are relevant and meaningful to the groups and individuals who seek them out.

Such connections can be measured, and networks have sizes and shapes with  qualitative as well as quantitative aspects, but to get a feeling for what is “big”,  we need to be clear about what “society” means in terms of network scale. This clarity is particularly important in the discourse surrounding community regeneration and social renewal, because it is so easy to slip from talking about “neighbourhoods”, to reminiscing about “communities”, to lamenting the various ills of “society”. Such terms will always be fuzzy edged and contestable, but at each level of scale we need different kinds of measurement.

The Young Foundation appear to be focus their community work at the neighbourhood level of a few hundred people, our Peterborough Project is city-wide, relevant to scores of thousands and therefore closer to “society”,  while The Connected Communities project, currently focussed on New Cross Gate, aims to be relevant to the roughly ten thousand residents who live there, and to serve as an example or prototype for work at a similar scale.

David Cameron seems to have a vision of a society of reciprocal altruists, proatively seeking to help each other and seeking help through friends and neighbours, rather than the state. His innaugural Downing Street speech clearly reflects a view of people with a shared sense of belonging who are essentially cooperative and helpful. In this respect, when Cameron invokes the big society, he means he wants to rekindle “Gemeinschaft” in the classical sociological terms of Tonnies, in which people bond over shared social mores.

This is a curious point, given that Gemeinschaft typically translates as “community”, while Gesellschaft, in which people’s associations are motivated by self interest and controlled by legal sanctions, typically translates as “society”.  Even more curious is that Gesellschaft is problematic precisely because of its scale, which leads to the breakdown of shared norms, which is another reason to think that, as the expression of an important idea, “The Big Society” may be somewhat misconceived and poorly expressed.

Indeed,  it is possible that the underlying motive for the idea of the singular “Big Society” is actually multiple communities of various shapes and sizes, in which people are connected through interests, norms and mores, and not through contracts or the happenstance of geographical proximity. Our Connected Communities project will try to make this case clear in our report that will be released this summer.

See also:
Big Society(2): What’s Blue and Yellow and Red all over?
Big Society(1)

Responsibility and Response-Ability

October 9, 2009 by · 13 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

David Cameron’s speech at the conservative party conference indicated that the conservative party might be interested in the work of our connected communities project, so I decided to take a closer look.

The RSA is a charity, and strictly non-partisan, but Mathew Taylor has previously given his thoughts on Progressive conservatism and it seems important to engage with the main ideas of the would-be next government as fairly as possible.

Cameron repeated one of his more memorable signature lines: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the State.” This line sounds like a suitably respectful departure from Margaret Thatcher’s most famous “There is no such thing as society” quote, but in fact, when you read Thatcher’s original, and typically decontextualised quote, in full, she was saying something quite similar (to women’s own magazine October 31 1987):

“I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

Ten years later Tony Blair spoke of the need to combine rights with responsibilities, which again makes you wonder if they all mean much the same thing, with only slightly different degrees of emphasis. However, the tone of Thatcher’s quote is rather different, and more combative in spirt than Cameron’s distinction, or Blair’s juxtaposition. When Thatcher says ‘there are individual men and women and there are families’, I don’t sense she is thinking of community, and her vision of the social world does sound relatively atomised.

Cameron clearly sees community ( “the ultimate warm fuzzy” as a recent RSA seminar attendee put it) as part of the picture of a healthy society, as he made clear in his speech:

There is such a thing as society, its just not the same thing as the state.

"There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state."

So no, we are not going to solve our problems with bigger government. We are going to solve our problems with a stronger society. Stronger families. Stronger communities. A stronger country. All by rebuilding responsibility.

The use of ‘responsibility’ has a more Thatcherite feel, but detractors could point out that calling for responsibility entails ensuring response-ability too. Patterns of inequality make some people and some areas much more able to respond than others. Indeed, it has recently been argued that the growth in inequality over the last decade is a legacy of Thatcherism.

Such political claims remain contentious, but at a conceptual level it seems clear that you cannot be responsible if you are not able to respond. So while it may be legitimate to encourage greater responsibility at an individual and community level, there is presumably also a role for goverment to enable such responsibility.

Part of what connected communities is about is understanding the basis of response-ability at a community level. Many local government departments and third sector projects are likely to face actute financial shortages soon. They will have the same responsibilities, but in the absence of adequate financial capital, we need to understand how to harness existing levels of social capital so that people are genuinely able to respond.

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