This is a guest blog from RSA Catalyst supported West Midlands Fellow John Blewitt. He reflects on the impact of Catalyst and the new Library of Birmingham on his work to connect spaces and people with democratic actions.
Over the last couple of years I have been working closely with the library service in
Birmingham and Worcester and have been fortunate to have become a Library of Birmingham ‘Face’. The Library of Birmingham is a prestigious public project at the heart of the city centre aiming to animate the city socially, economically and politically. Architecturally engaging and ‘iconic’ in the true sense of the word, it is most importantly a major investment and commitment to the public sphere and citizens’ right to the city.
Libraries need to become event spaces for democracy, culture and learning
Public expenditure cuts have led to the closure of many libraries in the UK but these financial pressures have also coincided with a need to completely rethink the nature of public libraries as a public space and place. Mobile digital technologies, tablets and smart phones, the Internet, e-books, Twitter, Facebook and the like are shifting the way we socialize, communicate, access information and learn about the world around us. They offer us all sorts of amazing new opportunities unimaginable only a few years ago, but there are problems.
Some of those problems are well known – lack of skills or access and perhaps a growing passivity that comes with the ease of clicking here to buy, to vote or to think, or watch the aftermath of a hurricane or Strictly Come Dancing. The term ‘clictivism’ has now entered our language. In some ways, of course, it was ever thus and I’m sure there were analog equivalents.
What is really worrying is the sense that civil society needs reactivating. It needs to be given a life that is not completely composed of 0111001001111 and commodified entertainments. There has been a great deal of talk about the need for increased literacy and numeracy, social engagement in volunteering, and a more responsive political democracy and a less disaffected citizenry. The Big Society has come and gone as has the Occupy movement, the flurry of student protests over £9000 per annum fees and the urban riots that targeted mobile phone and fashionable shops.
Public libraries, a space for active debate?
We no longer seem to have spaces and places where we can come together physically, openly and freely to discuss issues and events that are in essence political. Democracy needs an informed citizenry. It needs public spaces and places that are connected to other spaces and to people as citizens who want to learn and discuss issues that are not filtered and framed by News Corporation, Google, or Jeremy Paxman. Public libraries are such places. In fact, they are one of very few public spaces and places left in our increasingly commodified and privatized world where this can occur.
Democracy needs an informed citizenry
I recently used the wonderful Library of Birmingham to run two public events supported by the RSA Fellowship and Aston University. The first was focused on the concept of resilience – a term used with increasing frequency in business, sustainable development, society, urban government and education. How the term resilience is being used was the topic of a book I recently wrote with Daniella Tilbury, which served as the basis of a genuinely interesting discussion on what we humans want to do with our future. People from business, education, charities and from the city came together on the evening of Halloween to deliberate, think and learn. It was a public event, in a public place and it was free. You can get an idea of what was discussed at the event here.
Two weeks later I ran and chaired a larger event held in the Studio Theatre at the Library of Birmingham. The topic was the future of our public services in an era of austerity and ecological limits to economic growth. The Green House Think Tank presented its views as expressed in Smaller but Better? Post Growth Public Services, and a panel consisting of Matthew Taylor (CEO, RSA), Heather Wakefield (Unison), Cllr Stewart Stacey (Birmingham City Council) and Josie Kelly (Aston University) responded energetically. However, it was the questions and comments coming from the audience that produced the most interesting and thoughtful contributions of the evening. The event lasted two hours but could have easily gone beyond. As I was preparing to leave the reasons became for this became obvious. Some departing audience members said to me, “why don’t we have discussions like this more often?”, “what are you putting on next?”, “you don’t get this on the TV” and, from one of the theatre’s A/V technicians, “that was really interesting – most things are so boring”.
Given the opportunity, the experience, the place and space for democratic discussion many people do and will engage with enthusiasm, commitment and intelligence. Far from being disaffected I believe there is actually a hunger for public spaces where public democracy can be enacted. And, public libraries offer such spaces because they are trusted, respected, neutral and, most importantly, PUBLIC. But to prosper in our consumerist digital age they need to remain public, remain relevant and remain committed to public education and public democracy. They need to become event spaces for democracy, culture and learning
As an RSA Catalyst Award winner I am concerned to connect these trusted spaces and places to a range of activities that will help engage people as citizens rather than as consumers, as active learners and as creators and producers of a vibrant civic public sphere. Public libraries are an important but threatened element of our public sphere. My Catalyst project titled Connecting Spaces and Places, recognises the very important physical spaces libraries offer can be complemented by digital technologies but cannot be replaced by them. Thus, public libraries are becoming culturally open ‘event spaces’ and they need to be promoted and used as such if they are to survive as democratic spaces.
The Library of Birmingham has a space, ‘Brainbox’, on the first floor which could conceivably be used for any creative and innovative activity. What it will be used for will be determined by the people using it. No predetermined plan, no strategy, no prescriptions but genuine innovation and free exploration. The RSA funding I received has enabled me to practically encourage people to use and view library spaces in ways they would not previously have done. It has attempted to make real that global call to make real our right to the city.
OK, my two recent events involved talking but talking is doing too as we must all talk democracy to make democracy happen. I intend to initiate other library based events, activities and hopefully exhibitions in the near future. If you want to join me and continue this debate please get in touch via email.
The economic geography of the 21st Century is different from the last. We are at the dawn of an age of unprecedented global connectivity driven by technology. The channels of economic growth and participation this century provide a virtually bypass to the world’s traditional hubs, entrepots and gateways. Bangalore – a sleepy university town 20 years ago – is now India’s booming IT capital. German factories hum in Poznan and in Puebla, and as Bruce Katz highlights, the US is experiencing a metropolitan revolution, as small and medium post-industrial cities capitalise on their rich inheritance.
Globally, “small middleweight” cities – those with 200,000 to 2 million residents – are home to 7% of the world’s population, but McKinsey estimates they will generate 19% of global GDP growth to 2025. The UK, as the seventh largest global economy, must act now to realise the potential of its cities: the ONS defines 32 urban areas in England with populations over 200,000. Despite decades of urban regeneration initiatives from civic and business leaders, only London currently makes a net contribution to the Treasury. In the last 15 years, no cities outside London have grown their proportion of national Gross Value Added.
The neglect in developing a national urban growth strategy by national government must be in part due to the complacency that Westminster feels, comfortably astride the prosperity flowing up the Thames. This wealth doesn’t provide sufficient irrigation for business and industry nationwide. Our river of capital streams into non-productive investment in housing and consumption, led by southerners borrowing to fund both. Will Hutton made this plain in 1995: Britain needs to invest more in its future. Since then the ONS has warned that investment, as a proportion of the economy, has fallen to its lowest level since the 1950s, and 30% lower than the G7 average.
As Mariana Mazzucato has recently highlighted, the wider supporting environment for growth is influenced heavily by government. No entrepreneur is an island. Cities need autonomy in regulating and taxing business, and in supporting a skilled and fluid labour market. This reform is needed at a time when local authorities are hugely challenged. They must redefine public services in an era of constrained spending and increasing demand for health and social care. Public services must be fundamentally transformed to support people to thrive in 21st Century cities, matching contemporary social geography. This isn’t a competing agenda to the challenges of stimulating productive economic activity – it is fundamental, complementary and necessary.
Over 15 million people live in England’s 15 largest metropolitan city-regions outside London. If they are to lead socially productive and fulfilling lives, investment must be attracted and enterprise must flourish, providing jobs that pay sufficiently to raise living standards. Growth needs to deliver for all who propel it, and adapt to the increasingly apparent environmental limits.
The potential for people to work, to learn, to find funders and collaborators, will only be realised at scale in cities. Cities offer critical mass: providing enterprises the breadth of markets – labour markets and consumer markets – to grow. Currently, getting people back to work is not delivering growth because worker productivity is stagnant; we have returned to pre-2008 levels of numbers of people employed and number of hours worked, but not of GDP. If we are to address labour market challenges, this must mindful of the scale at which these markets operate.
A London growth strategy for the UK will not suffice. We must develop a network of cities to serve as centres of productivity, home to businesses which power the UK on the world stage. We face a delicate balance between capitalising on agglomeration effects and concentrating economic power, and providing assistance to people and areas currently less competitive – potentially undermining that power.
Last week, the RSA launched the City Growth Commission – chaired by Jim O’Neill, outgoing chair of Goldman Sachs Asset Management – to develop a comprehensive roadmap to deliver a programme of change. Recently the Heseltine Review, the City Deals, and the London Finance Commission have suggested an array of levers that could alter the relationship between our national government and our cities, and the current RSA Journal brings together several innovating voices on the power of cities. There is a growing consensus that cities represent the best scale at which prioritise investments and redesign the political economy, thus unleashing the potential of the innovators, social entrepreneurs and active citizens to pull the UK through its current challenges.
A century ago, municipal government in the UK was among the most progressive and ambitious in the world, pro-actively investing in the transport infrastructure and human capital to fuel an industrial economy. The next national government of this country must empower urban authorities and urban residents to join the global momentum of city-led growth for economic, social and environmental benefit.
This is a guest blog by Mark Power FRSA. Mark is an architect and a member of the Fellows Artists Network.
As I recently discovered at this summer’s RSA Reboot event-Re:Engage, creativity is in plentiful supply within the London Fellowship network. The event focused on how Fellows could use the 4 ways to engage model to find and support each other in their work. It also featured a lightening talk by a member of the cross-disciplinary Fellows Artists Group which myself and a group of other Fellows have set up. Our members range from film-makers to sculptors, architects to writers and we meet seasonally and informally to visit exhibitions, discuss artists, discuss each other’s work and discuss ourselves and what makes us tick. We also encourage creative ways of recording our responses to the Reboot events, such as this stop-motion video which shows the buzz surrounding new connections being made.
Reboot events are organised by the London Region Fellowship Councillor, and are an excellent platform for getting to know other Fellows; getting to know what they do, what they believe in and getting them tipsy on whatever they bring along. However, running parallel to this social exchange, as RSA Fellows we have a more urgent and vital agenda: to engage in the current debate on public funding and support for the Arts, a debate which so often excludes the artists themselves and tends to emphasise instrumental over intrinsic value. We pursue this in various ways, the London Region has supported a range of events including a debate at the ICA a and a celebration of the 160th Anniversary of the Royal Photographic Society, founded at a meeting held at John Adam Street in 1853.
For me, as a member of the Group and architect running my own practice I am interested in the tension between instrumental and intrinsic intents that makes architecture what it is. At the first FRSA Reboot event I showcased our design for the Jubiloo, a marvellous new public convenience temporarily moored on the historic Thames riverbank, 100m from the London Eye; a dramatic image for a dramatic setting.
As a result, I was able to invite a group of RSA Fellows to experience the Jubiloo, which according to Mary from Manchester was ‘the best toilet I’ve been in’. Fellows heard about the rich historical allusions embodied in the floating barge-like image of the pavilion, admired its flush detailing (automatic of course), whilst also learning of its capacity to turn rainwater into greywater. Although the project was funded by a private company who built and now operates the facility, public funds were contributed by Lambeth as part of its efforts toward landscaping and integration in the public realm. The Jubiloo serves as an amenity for the Jubilee gardens and Queen’s walk, both of which are part of the ‘continuous foyer’ of London’s South Bank, hence the public contribution could be justified on instrumental grounds. The formal and material allusions integral to the design which give the building its intrinsic cultural value interestingly, were paid for by the operating company who felt they would attract more people to use the toilets.
Responses to the Jubiloo have been both instrumental and intrinsic; at the launch, the South Bank Community Choir sang “Up, up and away in my beautiful Jubiloo”. In Summer 2012 a specially convened Jubiloo Shakespeare Company performed Act II Scene 2 Antony & Cleopatra “The barge she sat in, like . . .” remembering the Bard’s sighting of Elizabeth I in her golden vessel on this stretch of the Thames.
Looking back at the activities of the last year, I can truly say that the partnership between the RSA London Region and the Fellows Artists’ Network has given me some highly sought-after opportunities to meet and exchange ideas and experiences with other Fellows. I am looking forward to continuing the conversations with Fellows from around the world in our new Artists Group on the RSA social network and seeing what events we can come up with for the London Region Autumn programme.
As the sharing economy is booming (Part 1 – Sharing our way to prosperity), its millions of participants now face a choice. There are ways of swapping and collaborating for free, and there are also ways of commercialising idling capacity.
In reality, many of the most successful sharing economy platforms are simply commercial platforms with a personal touch. eBay works because buyers and sellers leave feedback for one another; enough to grease the wheels on $175bn of transactions in 2012. In an era of self-checkout supermarkets, it’s ironic that it is through internet applications we’ve reawakened to the fact that business can be personable and customised. Airbnb now call themselves a “community marketplace”. Etsy is an online shop for $1bn of products sold direct by artists and craft-workers who make them. Every sharing platform seems to have spawned a commercial sharing platform: eatwithalocal might be devoured by eatwith and Google Hangouts (video chats) looks set to expand to Google Helpouts where people buy and sell services via video link.
Should we commercialise sharing? In working with Benoit Passot investigating the logic of impact investments, I became convinced that we all place values on achieving financial returns and social outcomes, but those values vary. What we need are opportunities to discover what our values are. Technology makes it easier for us to join timebanks, and easier for us to make a living selling our skills. When money is involved, obviously, these values are made explicit. There are platforms which will enshrine free sharing as principle and policy, and there will, simultaneously, be ever more sophisticated commercial platforms – with a social dimension – making up an ever greater proportion of economic activity. In other words there is sharing, and there is the economy. We will vote with our feet and vote with our money.
Commercial sharing platforms can’t be fully inclusive if some potential participants are excluded by a lack of money, but commercialising traditionally non-monetary assets such as spare bedrooms could support someone to pursue other socially productive activities in a volunteering or caring capacity. We know sharing gives us a feeling of solidarity and identification, more than selling and buying, and can (re)build social capital in a way that traditional market transactions can’t.
Does this mean money contaminates exchange relationships? Not always. People form meaningful relationships with their bosses, and the people they manage. Shopkeepers befriend their customers, consultants get chummy with clients. In each case, physical interaction and proximity usually matter. Money-free sharing platforms are probably best realised at the local scale. There is stronger potential for ongoing reciprocity in dense urban areas. Money, as it has always has been, becomes a unit of trust which can reduce the friction of distance. Whether free or commercial, the promise of the sharing economy is about the alignment of self-interest and common good; at distance, the ability we have for realising common good together diminishes, and money is more helpful as a proxy for trust.
However, there is a fundamental challenge to achieving collective and inclusive “common good” if the sharing economy continues to grow: non-monetary activity doesn’t register as GDP.
The more we try to gain economic and environmental efficiency through generating activity outside of – or reclaiming activity from – the market, the more we stifle the monetary economy. While we already know GDP is an insufficient measure of progress – as Rachel Botsman says we need to measure the number of holes drilled not the number of drills sold – our primary system for realising life opportunities is built on it. One of the buzzwords of tech recently has been disruption. In this regard, the sharing economy is highly disruptive.
As a society, we tax consumption, employment, income and profit. More money on the books and circulating in the economy – i.e. rising GDP – generates more tax revenue. Tax then gets spent on government services, further contributing to GDP. Government, therefore, has an implicit incentive to both formalise the informal economy, support recorded and taxable economic activity, and bring online commercial platforms, and their users, into the tax regime. Government in fact represents the ultimate level of sharing: we are practicing collaborative consumption through societal organisation of public services.
As Caron Suchecki says, “paying tax is participating in a sharing economy, dodging it is not.”
Public services in 2020 need to look a lot different – in their structure, relationships, delivery and funding – and they have a long way to go. There is a lot to learn from the sharing economy in unleashing idling capacity. But collaborative consumption doesn’t work in every context: a recent report found that it is difficult to reconcile the need for personalised care and support packages with the economic advantages of collective purchasing power: “service providers and commissioners can’t impose collective approaches or assign people to groups that don’t matter to them”.
We therefore face competing quandaries. On the one hand, the more we rely on each other in non-monetary ways through systems of mutual aid and support, turbo-charged by new innovations, the more we withdraw from the circulating flow of money which ultimately funds public services: our democratically-controlled, societal support network. (The prevalence of the informal and undeclared peer-to-peer economy may already be undermining public institution-building in the developing world.)
On the other hand our GDP treadmill is increasingly frustrating: its failing to improve well-being in rich countries. The cost of our basic requirements – for example housing, food and childcare – are increasing faster than wages for most people. Many work all day to make enough money to pay someone else to work all day looking after children, elderly parents, or others needing care, and the primary destination for our tax money is to subsidise low wages and provide health, education and social care.
In conclusion, the expansion of economic activity in its current form is eroding our time, quality of life and environment. The sharing economy has some promise to challenge this by making better use of existing assets – through monetary and non-monetary sharing. But unless GDP is uncoupled from the funding and delivery of the public services, and environmental resrouces are valued properly, simultaneous efforts to personalise public services, stimulate economic growth and expand the non-monetary sharing economy risk undermining one another and stifling the realisation of our collective aspirations.
Yesterday Detroit became the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy. The fate of public services for 700,000 residents is uncertain. The statistics we’ve read are horrific: the average police response time is 53 minutes, the city has shut half its parks since 2008, 38% of revenues went to servicing debt last year and 47% of properties didn’t pay their property tax bill. But as Neil McInroy wrote, “feeling the pain is not enough. We need also a thorough analysis of the economic and socio-political forces which cause it.”
In recent years Detroit has led the dubious club of shrinking cities providing post-industrial ruin porn. The images of decay are mesmerising: promising a futuristic glimpse of what a city looks like when capitalism and government fail together. Most accounts assume Detroit’s problems stem from severe de-industrialisation. This is entirely insufficient. The root cause of this is administrative geography: growing suburban wealth has mirrored urban decline. American political geography and property-based tax collection colludes against Detroit: local authorities rely heavily on local property taxes, which are dependent on property values. The rich have literally bought into relatively small well-funded local administrations on the outskirts (see map below). Across the US, such enclaves can protected through “exclusionary zoning”, preventing low-income residents through ordnances which require minimum housing sizes and limits on land use density.
Let’s recap the story but ensure our geographical lens zooms out. Detroit was once metonym for the American car industry (“Motown”). Detroit attracted economic migrants rapidly between 1900 and 1930, including many African-Americans from southern states. Like other American cities, Detroit’s suburbs grew rapidly after World War Two, and mass ownership of cars made that possible. By 1956 the last streetcar line in a 500 mile networks was ripped up and Detroit pioneered the construction of motorways which carved through dense urban neighbourhoods. Those with jobs followed the relocation of companies to the suburbs. Many poor black people were left behind. Social challenges and physical decline have a long and painful history: the Army was deployed in riots which killed 43 in 1967. 80,000 people left the city in 1968.
But in the Metro Detroit region today – the city including its suburbs and exurbs – lives 5.2 million residents spread over 6,000 square miles. The car industry is not dead, and is recovering from its 2009 bailout and still employs 130,000. Half a million people still work in manufacturing in the state of Michigan; many of these jobs are unionised, paying wages typically 75% above the state average. Other sectors are growing around Detroit – science, technology and finance – while one of America’s top universities sits 40 miles west of Detroit. Some companies have recently chosen to consolidate their offices in the city centre, but city residents have remained poor through the decades.
Metro Detroit highlights is the inability of America’s economy, government and social infrastructure to offer social-economic mobility. In the country where people believe most frequently that personal determination can overcome disadvantage, the poor more often than not remain poor through generations. They receive poor public services because their local government is poor. Incomes have stagnated as productivity growth hasn’t been distributed to workers through wages: the minimum wage is far below historical precedent.
Regional inequality is the crucial context for Detroit’s bankruptcy. In short, as the economic geography of Metro Detroit evolved, the geographical administration of government did not evolve with it. The localised nature of the tax base meant the city became stuck in a downward spiral.
One of the negative feedback loops in racialised poverty is the education system. Arguing that education policy and racism in the housing market conspired to segregate the region’s children by race and class, the NAACP won a legal case in 1971 forcing Detroit to form plans with it 53 metropolitan school districts to integrate student. In 1974, the Supreme Court overturned this on appeal by the State and suburban districts.
The physical environment has been blighted with abandoned buildings and subject to mass arson on Halloween: depressing the property market and further depressing Detroit city government tax revenue. Declining prices (50% between 2005 and 2011) mean residents complain their property is overvalued by tax officials and refuse to pay their taxes. The city witnesses a race between blight-fighting bulldozers performing urban excision and investors who seek to land-bank them for as little as $500.
The only big effort in the US to proactively pool tax revenues locally are the seven counties around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. Even here redistribution is limited to 40% of growth in commercial and industrial tax revenue, not residential property tax. There is a precedent for cities in the US to annex nearby land and expand, but state government must consent. Phoenix has doubled in territorial size since 1970, allowing a broader tax base and for the city to profit from rising land values on its rural outskirts. Generally, its been politically impossible to force affluent suburbanites to share tax revenue and expenditure decisions through joint metropolitan government which includes poorer neighbours in the inner city.
Political administrative geography matters greatly in economic development, financial management and social integration. In the UK local authorities are experimenting with cross-borough arrangements and policy and investment based on “functional economic areas”, while new unitary authority status creates challenges and opportunities. The bankruptcy of Detroit calls into question the scales to which our psychological associations extend. Detroit remains the heart of a dynamic city-region. It seems unlikely that lawyers and administrators will be able to draw on that wider wealth in the resuscitation efforts.
I spoke this morning at the annual IBO conference for those schools who are piloting the career-related International Baccalaureate – the IBCC. We’re proud that our RSA Academy in Tipton is at the forefront of this exciting development. Nothing I have seen, in England at any rate, has come closer to breaking the academic-vocational divide. It demonstrates the power of schools and organisations bypassing policy fluctuations to take their own rigorous approaches to assessment. In a recent speech to Teaching Schools, Michael Gove signaled his enthusiasm for teacher-made GCSEs and other assessments. Today’s launch of the Progressive Awards Alliance is another intriguing example, although perhaps not what Mr Gove had in mind.
I was asked to talk about the future of 16-19 vocational education. Partly to avoid the morass of acronym-heavy policy reports, many of which aren’t relevant to the IBCC schools outside the UK, but mainly to cover up for my lack of detailed knowledge (if in doubt, broaden it out), I framed my presentation through a different question:
What would it take for the future of 16-19 vocational education to be bright?
Then, borrowing heavily from the OECD skills strategy, the Centre for Real World Learning’s report on vocational pedagogy, and a number of summaries of research on adolescence, I offered five possible responses.
1. Escape from the tyranny of the enlightenment.
2. Apply new findings about the teenage brain and behaviour.
3. Create a culture of evidence-informed and evidence-building pedagogy.
4. Turn vocational learning into an entitlement for 7-16 year olds.
5. Be clearer about the role of vocational education for the most disengaged learners.
To keep this blog short, I won’t expand on any of these, although if people ask me to via comments, I’ll be flattered enough to reveal more.
The photos above came from an RSA Area Based Curriculum blacksmith Project at Ark SCE School in Germany. They were taken by Windsor School SCE student Jack Turner to support his Arts Award Gold, with the support of photographer David Crausby.
Joe Hallgarten Director of Education @joehallg
Three weeks before the June 26 Spending Review, it probably feels like a civil service version of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ‘squeaky bums time’ down Whitehall way, especially for those Departments who haven’t yet settled with the Treasury. The seven departments who have settled are rewarded by helping to cast judgement on the others. However, with ringfenced budgets in place for two big spending departments, and the give and take of welfare reform rendering the DWP budget virtually untouchable, it probably feels more like tiller touching than any opportunity for radical re-engineering.
Rumours have been emerging that the Treasury might end the ringfenced budget for schools. Tony Dolphin’s blog last week argued that ringfencing the NHS and schools was no longer viable, pointing out that “by the time these [other] cuts are fully implemented, on the government’s current approach, other departments could have seen their budgets cut in real terms by one-third. This represents a massive reallocation of government spending to the NHS and schools.”
Any abolition of the ringfence for schools’ budgets might make the pasty tax and granny tax look like minor media scuffles. Unions such as the NASUWT are already screeching that the Chancellor is not, in practice, protecting school budgets at all. This is reinforced by the IFS’ 2011 analysis showing that, although the schools budget has been relatively protected (with the exception of the substantial cut in schools capital spending) as compared to other areas of education, the cash-freeze in per-pupil funding outside of the Pupil Premium means that the majority of schools at both secondary and primary level will see real-term decreases in funding per pupil each year to 2014-15. Schools with a high proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals are being protected from cuts, with a small minority – about 3% of secondary schools and 10% of primary schools – seeing an increase of 5 percentage points above inflation, as a result of the Pupil Premium. Increases in the Pupil Premium since 2011 have probably made little difference to these overall trends.
Despite this data, and although my RSA Academy headteachers and many Fellows won’t like this, I would still argue for a replacement of the ringfencing of schools’ budgets with a more expansive ringfence. The overall budget for government spending on 0-19 year olds should be protected for the next three years, but the schools’ budget should be open to redistribution within this ringfence. This would enable the DfE, Education Funding Agency and Local authorities to have the courage to have serious conversations about the most effective use of funding to achieve equitable outcomes for young people, and be prepared to make decisions that would be possibly counter-intuitive, hopefully evidence-based and probably unpopular. In doing this, education funders might want to learn from the principles of a social productivity spending review created by our 2020 Public Services Hub here at RSA.
My guess is that a proper ‘zero-based budgeting’ approach to could lead to significant redistribution: away from schools, towards broader services for young people; and away from secondary schools, towards the early years. The graph below from the DfE’s business plan shows how school spending dominates all, and leaves little scope for anything that might impact on the 80% of young people’s time when they are not at school.
Joe Hallgarten Director of Education @joehallg
Here is an interesting Guardian piece on a transnational YouGov-Cambridge study. The research compared attitudes towards responsibilities of the state versus those of individuals in the UK, US, France and Germany.
To summarise, when it comes to the role of the state on issues like ‘a decent minimum income for all’ or ‘helping poor children get ahead’, British views are significantly more continental than atlantic. With the exception of company pay – on inequity of salaries, Britons are more liberal than Germans and French, if not as liberal as Americans – the results put the US on the individualist side, and UK, Germany and France broadly on the statist side; which highlights once again that the conversation on public services in the US is a very different one to this side of the pond.
What is just as interesting as the results, however, is the way the study is structured. It takes a classic two-dimensional approach: state versus individuals.
What about views on the responsibility of, and for, communities?
They are a pillar of social power just as much as the other two dimensions. And given fiscal pressures on both sides of the Atlantic, an increasing amount of challenges will need to be dealt with via this ‘third dimension’ (e.g., as my colleague Matthew Parsfield pointed out recently, in Mental Health, or as our CEO Matthew Taylor has argued, in Care).
But as so often, communities get left out of the equation – what statisticians would call an omitted variable. Arguably, without taking this third dimension into account, there is a lack of depth in the insights generated.
My hunch is that we would see a picture emerge that is more complex and informative than the binary US/Europe divide. But perhaps there is already some comparative data out there, maybe even longitudinal – might a reader point me in the right direction?
The RSA is well positioned to work across all three dimensions internationally, as we have strong Fellowships in all four countries (altogether we have Fellowships in 101 countries, the US being the largest one with almost 800 Fellows), as well as Fellow- and staff-led projects in the US and Germany. I will elaborate on these in my next blog posts.
Also, I am looking forward to the upcoming RSA Lecture with Tim Smit, CEO and Founder of the Eden Project, who asks the very question: ‘Where does responsibility for community lie’?
When I was a primary school history coordinator (in those heady, deluded days before literacy and numeracy targets swept most other priorities away, and QCA schemes of work did the rest), I had the delightful job of planning a whole-school history scheme of work. One of the many attainment targets for history was for children to be able to ‘distinguish facts from opinions’ by the time they got to secondary school. Given their collective seniority and expertise, I am hopeful that the Education Select Committee has the same ability, even if some of their witnesses struggle with this distinction.
When asked this week by the Select Committee about the Academies Commission’s critique of some aspects of policy, former schools minister Nick Gibb claimed that the RSA had a ‘particular view’ and didn’t come from ‘neutral ground’. This contrasts to others who wondered aloud (via twitter) whether a commission led by an academy provider such as the RSA would ever be anything other than positive about academies.
These claims insult the independence of the commissioners themselves, and the process they led. The RSA’s Action and Research Centre, with the remit to act and think, show and tell, innovate and recommend, will constantly need to navigate healthy tensions between our practice and our research. In combining thought leadership and social innovation, we aim to create a virtuous circle between research and practice. The Commission’s findings will inform how we develop our family of academies model, Working directly with these academies gives us insight to which areas of policy need exploring, and provides us with both inspiration for and reality checks on ideas for practical innovations. And the practical innovations we lead with larger numbers of teachers and schools, for instance through our Opening Minds framework and our area based curriculum, also help determine our priorities for future RSA programmes of work.
At the same time, recent exchanges have caused me to reflect on that slippery word ‘evidence’. When committees or commissions ‘take evidence’, they are really collecting stories, some of which will be facts, others opinions. As Dylan William and others remind us all, evidence is not the plural of anecdotes. Stephen Gorard has distinguished between the legal use of evidence, which aims to push a single viewpoint, and the academic use, which, to quote Chomsky, aims to ‘tell the truth and expose lies’. In thinking about education, only the latter will do, alongside a recognition that most evidence is far less conclusive that we’d like (and the more rigorous the evidence, the less conclusive it will probably be, as Education Endowment Foundation-funded projects are likely to find out in the next few years).
After such a deep, rigorous progress, it’s a shame that admissions ‘gossip’ (as opposed to the carefully considered recommendations about admissions in the report) dominated media headlines. We hope that the RSA’s current project on in-year admissions, which will involve surveys and data collection, may help shed light on wider questions about the impact of academisation on admissions.
Those who still have influence over the future direction of academies have welcomed the commission’s findings and want to engage in serious discussions about next steps, Whatever people’s views on the Commission, lack of balance is not the issue. Whatever Nick Gibb said, the Commission was entirely neutral in its deliberations. Mind you, given Nick Gibb’s dislike of RSA Opening Minds, he would have said that, wouldn’t he?
This week the 2020 Public Services Hub at the RSA and the Social Market Foundation (SMF) launched a new report on the scale of the challenge for public finances ahead of this year’s Autumn Statement, and what this will mean for public services. The figures, based on Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projections and analysis by the SMF, suggest that an additional £48bn of tax rises or spending cuts will need to be made by 2017-18 in order for the Coalition Government to meet its aim of eliminating the structural deficit within five years.
The implications for public services are grim. If health, education and international development continue to be protected, we are looking at cuts of 23 per cent across remaining government departments – on top of the cuts that were already planned by 2014-15. For the Department for Work and Pensions, this would be the equivalent of cutting half of its spending on Job Centre Plus and all employment programmes.
In the report, 2020PSH argues that we need a new approach to public services to meet the challenges ahead. The pressures on public finances will remain even when there is a return to economic growth, as a result of an ageing population and rising demand for services. 2020PSH argues that more strategic spending, rather than unsustainable cuts and short term fixes, can alleviate these. We need real devolution of power from Whitehall to localities, alongside a serious attempt to manage demand for public services and smarter use of public spending and commissioning processes to catalyse social and economic growth. Legitimacy and consent are vital – without effectively engaging with citizens, policy changes on this scale are not possible.
A further three key points emerged from the event’s public launch at the RSA, at which the report authors were joined by public service veteran Lord Michael Bichard:
1. The scale of the challenge ahead has been understated. The dire state of current and medium-term public finances is troubling enough, but the long-term pressures of rising demand are even more serious. Lord Bichard argued that we are not taking this challenge seriously enough and are ignoring the “gaping hole” in the current public service model. There needs to be a far more serious effort at reconfiguring services around early intervention and prevention. We should be managing demand by creating services that strengthen the self-help capacity of citizens: not a smokescreen for cuts, as this has been interpreted, but to enable individuals and communities to take greater control of their lives and meet their personal and collective aspirations. The funding model for services also needs to be transformed, so that social investment and the mobilisation of new forms of social and economic resource are part of a new, more diversified spending model.
2. Localism and social equality can go hand in hand. One question raised in the audience discussion was whether centralism stifles local attempts to address the big issues facing communities. The argument runs that because local councils are assessed based on centrally-set targets, they are less accountable and responsive to local need.
Yet the central-local debate is often focused on the trade-off between localism and equality. There is an explicit or tacit assumption that greater devolution would produce unequal outcomes between different places – the ‘postcode lottery’ effect.
Instead, and as Lord Bichard and Ben Lucas both argued, perhaps the centre should give local government the capability to focus on issues such as inequality and economic stagnation that matter to local people, and which centrally set policies do not effectively address.
3. What type of growth is desirable? What was arguably missing from the discussion was the ecological component of future challenges. Everyone agreed that a return to economic growth was desirable, but there was no discussion of what type of growth this should be. It is clear that traditional consumption-based GDP growth is environmentally and socially unsustainable. To consider the long-term future of public services in the UK, we need to address the viability of the economic model which underlies them.
For this reason, 2020PSH’s argument for an integrated fiscal, economic and public service reform strategy is crucial. It highlights the need to think about growth not for its own sake, but in terms of how it can support and respond to the aspirations of citizens and the needs of society. We make this point in more detail in 2020PSH’s Business, Society and Public Services report on the productive potential of collaboration between businesses, public service providers and civil society.
As the fiscal outlook worsens and our policy options narrow, it is vital that we explore these issues now.