On 5th May British citizens will be asked to vote on their preferred voting system; First Past the Post (FPTP) or the Alternative Vote (AV). One of the boldest claims that the proponents of the AV make is that it will give voters “a stronger voice”.
If this were true (I have no idea if it is true I’m afraid) it would be an attractive offer to a lot of people. According to the Citizenship Survey just over a third (37 per cent) of the UK adult population believes they can influence decisions in their local area whereas almost three quarters (73 per cent) feel that it is important to have an influence and 44 per cent said they would like to be more involved in decisions made by councils affecting their local area.
Of course voting is only one part of this problem. There are a number of ways that we can influence the world around us ranging from voting to campaigning to getting out our brooms and cleaning the pavements ourselves.
The government has recognised this and have announced that they will fund the training of 5,000 community organisers; to act as “catalysts for community action at the neighbourhood level”. This has proved to be a controversial decision. There are even those who argue that community organisers should never take money from any government, ever.
Tessy Britton has written a couple of blog posts (here and here) with an interesting take on these questions. I think she is arguing that an Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) (http://abcdeurope.ning.com/) approach is preferable to an Alsinky style community organising approach if you want to build stronger communities.
You might crudely boil the question down to; “do we want to run projects or campaigns?”
I think the discussion can usefully be split into three parts (As Matthew Taylor has written it always seems to be three parts…); building campaigns, building stronger communities and building more empowered communities.
The main achievement that the London Citizens like to boast about is their success in securing the ‘London Living Wage’ for a number of workers, for example cleaners at major banks. This campaign used a number of classic Alinsky style techniques including focusing their campaign on one individual (normally the CEO of the bank in question).
These campaigns are able to achieve certain types of change. They are good at changing the practices of organisations that benefit from a community but are not rooted in that community (e.g. slum landlords, employers that pay low wages etc…).
Building Stronger Communities
The Alinsky model for community organising brings together existing organisations (e.g. churches, trade unions etc…) and gets them to focus on campaigning. Part of Tessy’s argument is that this approach is not conducive to building better connected, creative and stronger communities. Since the campaigns are designed around conflict and attack there is little space for creative collaboration. Instead, she argues that we should use an approach that brings people together in shared spaces in a way that celebrates and builds on those things that people already value. An example she gives of the type of project she supports is the People’s Supermarket.
This type of approach can be very successful, especially in areas that have a large amount of “hidden wealth” i.e. community assets (broadly defined), that can be connected or mobilised.
Building Empowered Communities
This suggests the tricky question; which of these approaches will give people the influence that they seem to want and that AV is promising?
Alinsky’s supporters point towards visible changes that happen directly as a result of their campaigns, whereas the ABCD enthusiasts point to the spontaneous emergence of new projects that arise out of their approach.
You will have to make your own mind up on this question. However, I do see a deeper similarity between the approaches than might be apparent.
Both approaches rely on building and utilising relationships within communities.
The Alinsky model works on the assumption that there are more or less formal associations already in existence within a given area. The organiser’s job is to bring these associations together, to connect the connectors, with a sense of purpose.
The ABCD model also tries to make new connections, although these are often between individuals rather than formal associations. Once these connections have been made the creative collaboration can take place.
One might even speculate that a community organiser using the Alinsky method would be much more successful if they worked in an area that had benefited from one of Tessy’s Traveling Pantries than if they worked in an area where there was much weaker levels of social connection.
But perhaps I am drawing connections where none exist?
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?
I was going to make these points as a comment on Tom Neumark’s recent post about taxes and benefits, but since they also pick up on something written by Emma Norris a couple of weeks ago on the politics of TINA, I thought I’d post them in their own right.
As we all know, George Osborne has just announced that Child Benefit will be cut for families where one (or more) parent pays higher rate tax. On the face of it, cutting a benefit for people who earn enough to be liable for higher rate tax seems like a no-brainer, an ‘easy win’, and we’re invited to ask ourselves whether they should have been getting it in the first place. In reality, of course, it’s not so simple: the lack of a taper makes the change easy to understand and administer, but it also means the cut will hit some types of family harder than others. Extreme but presumably fairly rare examples of this inequity have been widely touted, and the opportunity to criticise has been seized upon, often strongly.
So far, so predictable. But in this flurry of comparisons between families, a couple of important wider points seem to have been missed. First, universal benefits like Child Benefit or indeed the Winter Fuel Allowance recognise that there are periods in people’s lives when their circumstances mean their disposable income is lower than it might otherwise be. Having dependent children and being retired are the two main examples. Removing or restricting an existing universal benefit inherently involves targeting people who have less disposable income simply by virtue of their lifestage, while sparing those who have more. This hardly seems fair, no matter how much money the people involved have. Shouldn’t higher rate tax payers without dependent children be asked to contribute as well?
Second, perhaps more insidiously, cutting a universal benefit removes one of the few obvious stakes the affluent have in the welfare system – one of the few things they feel they ‘get back’ in return for the substantial contributions they make to it (I don’t count free access to the NHS, as this tends to be taken for granted, and you don’t see it in your bank account every month). These stakes, however small, remind the affluent that there is something in the welfare system for them, that they get some ‘return on their investment’, and it’s not all give, give, give. Withdrawing them risks breaking this relationship between give and take completely, subtly increasing resentment (and decreasing understanding) of the ‘benefits culture’ and people who are felt to take without giving, and widening social divisions at a time when we’re all supposed to be in this together. This would not be helpful.
The real rub in all this lies in the fact that, taken in isolation, the idea of Child Benefit for higher rate tax payers is pretty indefensible in the current economic situation. No one would countenance it if it did not already exist. But it does exist, and the reason why cutting it has caused such uproar is that it has become the status quo: families have come to take it for granted, to expect it and, in many cases, to depend on it. Ironically, removing Child Benefit ought to increase levels of empathy with those on benefits, as it forces parents who feel they can’t do without it to reflect on the fact that ‘benefit dependency’ can affect them as well. But I don’t expect people will see it like that.
And what about TINA? Apart from raising VAT, at the moment cutting Child Benefit is the only substantial fiscal measure on the table, and once again TINA has been brought out to argue its case. We’re told it’s a difficult but necessary choice. It may well turn out to be a necessary element of a wider suite of cost-saving measures, but whatever the politicians may say, it’s surely not the case that ‘there is no alternative’ to it at this point.
I’m no economist, but increasing higher rate income tax a little would presumably raise/save the same sum, and do so by targeting all higher rate payers, not just parents with less disposable income. And it would be linked to income, so be fairer than an all-or-nothing benefit cut that will hit those earning just over the tax threshold harder than those on higher incomes. There is always an alternative, and the Treasury must have considered this and others. Further cuts and tax rises may well be introduced in due course, and changes to Child Benefit may prove necessary as part of this, but it would be nice, as Emma suggests, to know why there are no alternatives right now.
Just for the record, I have two young children, and so receive Child Benefit. In answer to Tom’s question, I would prefer to make my contribution to reducing the deficit through higher levels of income tax and have Child Benefit continue as a universal benefit. But you probably could have worked that out for yourselves. And incidentally, my wife disagrees with most of what I’ve said here, so please feel free to tell me I’ve got it all wrong!
Ed Miliband has only been leader of the Labour Party for 48 hours and already the taunts of ‘Red Ed’ are beginning in the press. The editorials of the Mail, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Sun all counsel the importance of the centre ground in British politics. Labour’s old guard is emphasising that the party’s appeal to the swing voters that occupy this centre-ground is a crucial element of electoral success.
Who are the swing voters that the press and politicians are so worried about? Swing voters are people who are undecided about how they will vote. Political parties target these voters, particularly in the most marginal constituencies, in order to win elections. But swing voters are a tiny minority of the potential vote. For instance, the Conservative Party only needed to persuade 2 million swing voters to back them to win a full majority in the recent election. That’s 2 million out of a potential 44 million voters.
Our current political orthodoxy on the importance of swing voters means that all parties try to appeal to the same small minority of people who change their mind. It means that policies can only be as radical as the swing voters will allow for, and important debate is stifled. So, is it a foregone conclusion that the new leader of the Labour Party will have to put these voters at the heart of his agenda? Perhaps even more importantly, is it true that he cannot win an election without them – or is there another group of voters who could push Labour over the finishing line?
Of the 44 million people who were eligible to vote in the last general election, a staggering 15.5 million failed to do so. Roughly 7.2 million of these were 18-24 year olds. If Ed Miliband can find a platform that appeals to these voters, that inspires even half those young people to turn up to the ballot box and cast their votes for him, then politics defined by the centre-ground swing vote might well be a thing of the past.
To stop myself from writing mini-essays pretending to be blogs, I’ve set myself a 30 minute limit to knock this out. Let’s see how it goes.
I ask this question with more than a little tongue-in-cheek and not entirely seriously. He would probably want to vomit at the very thought of it. How many people, let alone political conservatives, really believe, like John Rawls, in the ‘difference principle’ (i.e. the principle that the only social and economic inequalities that are morally justifiable in society are those that work to the benefit of the least advantaged in society) and the radical egalitarian project this belongs to?
But perhaps the question is not so silly. Read Osborne’s first budget speech and listen to Clegg’s recent response to the IFS analysis of that budget and you’ll come across core Rawlsian concepts of justice. Osborne tells us that fairness is the first principle of the coalition’s economic policy. For Rawls, justice and fairness amount to the same thing. Indeed, he later described his theory of justice as ‘justice as fairness’. The government’s social and economic policy agenda is progressive and fair, or so we are told, because it will improve the lot of the least well-off in society in the long-term, while ensuring that they’re protected more than most from the forthcoming fiscal cuts. Why? Because this is only fair.
This would seem to be classic Rawls. The IFS analysis and the battle between the Treasury and DWP over welfare reform would seem to suggest something very different. The reality is that the coalition government lacks any obvious substantive philosophy of fairness. It desperately needs this if it’s going to be the transformative government it says it wants to be. We are told that Steve Hilton meets every policy proposal in Downing Street with a question I rather like: ‘but is it transformative?’ Great – but for what purpose? This question cannot be adequately answered without a coherent philosophy or conception of fairness. I doubt any government can have strategic direction or be socially and economically transformative without this.
The concept of fairness is being emptied of content – this is certainly not specific to the coalition government. Fairness has become a kind of mantra for politicians who want to sound at once socially progressive and in tune with the basically centrist instincts of the British electorate. But fairness is not an unambiguous concept government or political parties can appeal to when wanting to legitimise their policies. Fairness, or so it seems to me, is really a less morally charged way of talking about justice. What we consider to be fair inevitably reflects some of our basic views of what the just order of society and social relations should be.
Like a tautological circle, this leads us back to Rawls. I’ve just finished re-reading chunks of A Theory of Justice for a pamphlet I am writing on how we might develop a more progressive view and set of policies around citizen rights and responsibilities. It is nearly forty years since the book was first published. Like other versions of contractarian liberalism (and Kantian liberalism), his political philosophy has always seemed to me enormously powerful but also too state-centric, and his view of the world and social relations too legalistic and bureaucratic for my liking. Rawls also prematurely brackets questions of the good, which seems to me an impossible ask of both individuals and any government. But reading him again, I find myself in awe of the sheer intellectual force and conceptual rigour of his thinking. And who could fail to be moved by the moral conviction of what remains a radical political and moral philosophy we can all learn from and argue with? Only those without a heart or mind.
Finished. 37 minutes. Fail.
If you still don’t know who you are going to vote for, you could do worse than read the manifestos of the three main political parties. I recently read the three tomes for the first time in my life and was impressed by their scope and level of detail.
With respect to yesterday’s blog on “The Big Society”, all three parties have policies relating to revitalising the civic sphere, but they differ in emphasis.
The Conservative Manifesto, subtitled: “An Invitation to Join the Government of Britain”, has a large section called “Change Society” and relevant policy proposals include public service reform (changing the “civil service” to a “civic service” – encouraging civic servants to walk the talk on social action; introducing a “big society day”- I guess it’s like a big picnic but more serious…; creating a National Citizen Service so that 16-year-olds get inculcated into the spirit of volunteering and service. There is also the intent to use sport in general and the Olympics in particular to strengthen social bonds. The Conservatives also promise to redirect National Lottery funds back to their original purpose of community development.
At a more macro level, they see the family as the core unit of society, and they seek to support them accordingly, through tax credits and an extension of flexible working, as well as an interesting but underdeveloped promise to protect “childhood”, rather than just “children”.
The Labour Party seem to have decided to link communities to creativity, reflected in the section of their manifesto called: Creative Britain: Active and Flourishing Communities. Community activism is grounded in a commitment to arts, sports and culture….and the volunteering such activities engender. They also promise to protect post offices and pubs as community “hubs”. Likewise they promise £235 million for “play areas” like adventure playgrounds. Labour hope to encourage a vibrant voluntary sector and to develop a National Youth Community Service in which youngsters complete at least 50 hours of community service before 19.
I am surprised I haven’t heard more of their emphasis on “The New Mutualism” i.e. people buying shares in local pubs, football clubs etc so that they become stakeholders in key aspects of community life. This strikes me as a conceptual counterweight to ‘The Big Society’, but the first time I came across the idea was the manifesto, so either I have been looking in the wrong places, or Labour decided they didn’t need/want to push the idea.
The Liberal Democrat Manifesto makes no big thematic claim on the big society other than to reiterate their longstanding commitment to localism, and to emphasise, as all parties do, that strong communities are important. They do have a section on communities that focuses on crime, housing and immigration, and they promise to put more police on the beat, make the immigration system more transparent, rail fares cheaper, homes affordable, keep post offices open, protect and restore natural environment, and scrap council tax and make it on the ability to pay. They also propose a community owned energy scheme, but I couldn’t trace the details.
So with respect to building the big society, the parties are all the same… except for the ways that they are different. The Conservatives are explicit about ‘using the state to remake society’, Labour’s manifesto suggests that communities flourish most tangibly through sports and art, and the Liberal Democrats want communities to be ‘strong’ and more politically active, with a host of policy proposals to make them so.
Two main reflections come to mind:
1) Obliquity. If all parties agree that we need stronger communities, a more vibrant civic sphere, or even a “big society”, does it follow that we should seek these things out? John Kay argues quite forcefully that we rarely achieve social and personal goals by seeking them out directly because the world is just too complicated. Maybe the Big Society is something that has to emerge indirectly from a succession of small gains rather than something that can be created on a national level.
2) Associational Life: In this respect, while all of the parties mention sport, none of them seem to place much emphasis on other forms of informal social life, mother and toddler groups, book clubs, chess clubs, writing groups etc. All parties seem to support the strengthening of social bonds that arise through these less glamorous forms of associational life, but there seem to be few policies in place to support them. In this respect, such aims may be informed by research at My Tribe , a site run by Henry Hemming which is a Nationwide survey of Clubs, associations, societies and informal groups in Britain. This survey will inform a book to be published in 2011, when we may or may not explicitly be trying to build a big society.
I’m putting together some ideas for a short pamphlet on behaviour change policy and designers (mostly service and product designers I suppose). Here’s a precis:
Civil servants, politicians and their advisors have been fascinated to hear how knowledge from psychology can give insights that may lead to more effective ways to encourage people to change their behaviour. How to use such knowledge to generate policy options is a different question, and developing behaviour change interventions could be risky. These risks may be mitigated by adopting working practices more usually found in the creative industries than Whitehall and Westminster.
What I’m trying to say is that politicians, political advisors and civil servants interested in the effect of social proof and other nudges lack a process that allows them to move from this theoretical knowledge to putting such insights into practice in a way that is fun, transparent and effective.
From my perspective, I think that design could contribute a lot to this discourse – especially designers’ ability to come up with creative ideas, their reliance on social research and their experience in co-design and social prototyping.
I’d love to know what you think – do drop me a comment.
Bill Gates has scattered quite a few nuggets of remunerative star dust over the years, but one quotation should be more widely known:
“The first rule of any technology used… is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”
But is it true?
Discerning readers may have guessed that the dot dot dot above replaced ‘in business’, but Gates’s point might apply to the labour market. How efficient are the mechanisms that connect labour supply to labour demand? If there are generally inefficient, will using technology merely compound matters, or are we missing important tricks that might radically increase Britain’s porductivity?
These thoughts amount to a quick cyber shout to anybody watching about tomorrow’s RSA Thursday Lunchtime event:
How can we use online markets more effectively to ensure we create value and opportunity for the low-paid and unemployed?
The Speakers are Wingham Rowan, project director at Slivers of Time Working; Jerry Fishenden, founder of the Centre for Technology Policy Research and there will be a “contribution” (presumably verbal) by Rt Hon James Purnell MP. The event will be chaired by Mathew Taylor.
The blurb from the RSA events team is below:
E-marketplaces have developed exponentially in the last 15 years, and financial institutions now turbo-trade billions worth of assets every day. But the benefits of these new marketplaces are primarily concentrated at the top levels of the economy, and have neglected the resources that people at the bottom of the economic pyramid could sell. A new generation of marketplace could utilise the time, potential and skills of the less well-off or unemployed – simultaneously creating value for the individuals concerned, and flooding the market with hitherto untapped products and services.
Creating ‘modern markets for all’ should now be a priority, but the private sector can’t work alone to create the marketplaces needed. Is it time for policymakers to make modern, inclusive marketplaces a priority across multiple sectors at the bottom of the economy?
Matthew Taylor’s thesis that a more engaged citizen (as opposed to a consumer) is required to reform government, one that will understand the need to make trade-offs and one that takes personal responsibility for their actions, is perfectly exemplified by many of today’s activist geeks. Individuals like Tom Steinberg and MySociety, a voluntary organisation of technical experts donate their time to the challenge of scraping data from public sector websites (like Hansard records) and re-published it in websites that are far more engaging, allowing others in turn to become more engaged.
Today, principally because of their example, and reports like the Power of Information review, both the present government and the opposition fully recognise the value of making such data available online, where communities of people linked by the internet can ‘get excited and make things‘. This appears to be causing the enormous pent-up enthusiasm to be released; indicated by the membership of the new http://data.gov.uk/ site’s discussion group reaching 1,464 (at time of writing) with some extremely active discussions.
Stephen Timms recently spoke at the RSA, highlighting the success of the government’s effort to open up more data, and the efforts made are likely to remain, with the Conservative party also showing enthusiasm for the idea. When it comes to opening up government data, the most ambitious example I’ve seen so far is http://www.recovery.gov/, the website for the US Government’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – Obama’s stimulus package.
I often write about ”persuasive technology” on this blog, which has, as a pretty foundational tenet, that allowing people to see the effect of their actions, or “self-monitoring” can enable and encourage them to change their behaviour (a la real-time energy displays). Freeing public sector data is simply this on a much more ambitious scale.
“There is nothing new under the sun”, said a depressed Solomon. That’s certainly true of government using psychology to influence their people, notwithstanding the excitement among policy makers around behavioural economics. An example is the good story about Frederick the Great’s attempts to introduce the potato into Prussia in the 18th century, or the shift in public health during the 50s and 60s from “a culture of secrecy to a culture of communication”.
The other example that not too many people mention is propaganda. I’m not yet quite sure where government interest in behaviour change policy stops and propaganda begins. This is a question that arises in an article by Conrad Bird for the Foreign Office, when applying lessons from domestic policy to public diplomacy. He says:
Strategic communication has a key role to play in securing behaviour change. Although the examples used above are from the UK domestic policy context, the principles that underlie strategic communication can be applied universally. Where there are people, there is insight to be generated – all the more so if we are working with peoples of differing cultures, ethnicities and religions. And we will always need to work out how to segment our audiences so that we can craft and tailor compelling propositions.
One review of Bird’s article picks up on the theme that the public diplomacy that Bird speaks of is really propaganda (apparently an old argument to diplomatic types) under a new name and is skeptical about how appropriate a strategy it is:
“If all this [behaviour change / strategic communication] is public diplomacy or is, at least, on the minds of some of those practicing it, then I would not like to be one of their targets”
The FCO response to the review is worth a look – and among the points it makes is that one distinction between behaviour change (or public diplomacy in this case) and propaganda is that the latter is one way and doesn’t seek a dialogue with its target. But I’m not yet convinced that this distinction is upper-most in the minds of policy makers keen to experiment with the new knowledge of behavioural economics.
Where do you think “behaviour change” stops and propaganda begins?
On a related note, one piece of public health advice that looks uncannily like propaganda tried to put a face on AIDS – and ended up using an image of a mass-murderer. The campaign has attracted a lot of criticism, and the linked image is quite strong [link].