Disabled? Say hello to hard times

April 8, 2013 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain 

Today marks the beginning of the end of Disability Living Allowance. As of now, new applicants in the North East and North West will be assessed for the coalition government’s replacement for the non-means tested benefit, the Personal Independence Payment (PIP). Anyone whose award is up for review will go through the PIP assessment process, and the plan is that by 2018, more than 400,000 people who currently get DLA will not get PIP. This means that around 20% of people who currently receive DLA will lose the benefit all together.

Image via willstleger.wordpress.com

Image via willstleger.wordpress.com

The narratives attached to the need for welfare reform and benefits cuts are powerful, and the government has done a reasonably good job of convincing the nation that it is essential to reduce spending on welfare if our economy is to recover. The particular focus on disabled people, and DLA especially plays into our distaste at the idea of anyone languishing on a ‘lifetime’ benefit with no checks to see if they continue to be disabled ‘enough’ to deserve it.

DLA is also ripe for being framed as unpalatable because of the fact that it isn’t means-tested. It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same. This was designed to reflect the fact that being disabled is expensive, whether you have a visible, physical disability like multiple sclerosis, an invisible, chronic condition like lupus, or an intermittent, unpredictable illness like schizophrenia. In any of these cases, and regardless of a person’s income, DLA can make the difference between being able to work or not, eat properly or not, get around or not.

It makes no difference if you are a banker, barrister or a barista, your right to claim DLA remains the same.

This excellent personal account shows how DLA has made it possible for Mark Harper to continue working and illustrates the many small ways in which it enables him to have a better quality of life in spite of living with a painful neurological condition. As Mark points out, the obsession with employment as the panacea for all our nation’s economic ills is actually undermined by removing the sorts of benefits that make it possible for some people with disabilities to work at all.

DLA certainly wasn’t perfect, and the one-size-fits-all approach to assessing disability has always been ludicrously inflexible. For example, one of the measures of disability the distance a person can walk. Under the old DLA structure, 50 metres was the crucial distance that determined whether or not a person was eligible for the higher rate of mobility allowance. The PIP framework is more than halving this to 20 metres, and there’s plenty to say about the arbitrariness of this heavy handed and unfair change, but to focus on that would overlook the ridiculousness of using the ability to walk a certain distance as a key way of assessing a person’s mobility.

There are many serious physical disabilities which don’t affect one’s ability to walk. There are many disabilities which threaten people’s mobility even though they might be assessed as being physically the same as a non-disabled person. For someone with a learning disability, for example, being able to get around the world safely is not necessarily about moving one leg in front of the other so much as understanding dangers posed by traffic, navigating confusing routes through cities, and social vulnerability. What about a person with agoraphobia or extreme depression?

The transition from DLA to PIP is happening in phases, so those who were once promised ‘lifetime’ DLA support, or who are in the middle of a fixed term award have another couple of year’s grace before the major changes kick in, unless they experience a change in their disability. But the process has begun, there is no stopping it, and hundreds of thousands of disabled people are fearful for their futures because of it.


RSA helps early-stages of the National Funding Scheme – a donations platform for arts and culture

August 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

RSA Catalyst awarded a £2,000 grant to life Fellow William Makower to support his development of a national funding scheme for our arts and cultural institutions and venues. The Catalyst panel was impressed by the strategic idea of a national digitial solution, the work done to date and the level of commitment gained across the sector, such as Director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne FRSA. The RSA grant was used to develop the graphics for the launch including a representative movie of the scheme in action. In this guest blog William sets out the thinking behind the idea, what’s happened to date and how Fellows can get involved.

The thinking

Arts and cultural institutions are going through a critical shift. 30% cuts from the Arts Council due to a reduction in funding by £350m for the next three years, resulting in over a hundred organisations with their future threatened, coupled with reduction in spending by 24% by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, paints a bleak landscape.

National Funding Scheme

But hope is budding despite the recent downpours; new figures from Arts and Business highlight a growth of 6.4% in individual giving to £382.2m last year.

The task for institutions now is to grab hold of this growth in individual giving and build its momentum. The key to doing this? Digital fundraising, utilising mobiles, tablets and new technological platforms.

The National Funding Scheme, available from March next year, will provide a means for visitors and supporters to use their mobiles and tablets to direct funds to the arts and cultural institutions they wish to support. The scheme’s aim is to raise new funds for the sector through mass giving.

The scheme will address the following issues:

  • Introduces new donors to cultural institutions by providing a national, simple and accessible means
  • Giving needs to tap into the point of high emotional impact (in the cafe after the exhibition, reading a plaque, at the encore etc.)
  • Providing additional means for international tourists to give to our cultural institutions and organisations
  • Providing a means to collect donor details and therefore begin a conversation with the donor
  • The need to ‘change the language’ around giving – it is not just for the wealthy, but something all can participate in

The National Funding Scheme will provide a means for visitors and supporters to use their mobiles and tablets to direct funds to the arts and cultural institutions they wish to support

Institutions will be provided with a web portal and brand guidelines to develop appropriate signage for both individual exhibits and entrances/exit ways etc. Subject to donor data opt-ins, institutions will be able to purchase donors’ details. Additional marketing will be provided both by national communication campaigns and, again subject to opt-in, text messaging to registered users.

Findings to date

Panlogic, with grants from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, Rothschild Foundation and others carried out over 85 face-face interviews with senior individuals across the cultural landscape and had nearly 950 responses to their online consultation. These findings, along with those identified by Ipsos Mori’s independent research found out:

  • That for 48% of respondents something that shows what is being done with a donation will increase giving
  • 73% of respondents want to allow donors to understand specific things that individual institutions want to raise money for
  • 44% of respondents said a system with flexibility would encourage them to give more to arts and cultural institutions
  • 31% of  respondents said they had made a contribution to an arts or cultural institution in the last 12 months

The launch

On July 2nd 2012 Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media, Olympics and Sport, Sandy Nairne FRSA, and I announced the scheme at a launch event hosted by the National Portrait Gallery.

National Funding Scheme - launch

The launch was attended by arts professionals, journalists and other industry observers. Sandy’s speech was followed by the Secretary of State giving a warm welcome to the initiative followed by me giving the details behind the scheme. The RSA grant paid for the graphics and illustrations of the product at the event.

We are looking for Fellows who can provide expertise with data, licence sales, mobile payments and marketing and communications. In addition we are looking for Trustees for the charity we are setting up to run the solution, who have the following experience/expertise:

  • A senior figure with arts/cultural/heritage background that could possibly chair the trustees
  • An ex-development director of a UK arts/cultural/heritage organisation
  • Strong financial expertise and controls

we are looking for Fellows with expertise in data management, licence sales, mobile payments and marketing and communications

If you have (or know anyone who has) this experience, please (encourage them to) register in the SkillsBank, quoting ‘National Funding Scheme’ when you register and you will be matched to the project.

More information, including photos/transcripts/invite list and the full research can be seen at www.nationalfundingscheme.org

William Makower is founder of the National Funding Scheme and CEO of Panlogic. you can contact him via william.makower@nationalfundingscheme.org

If you have an idea to tackle a social problem in a new way, visit www.thersa.org/catalyst 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To read the 2020PSH report, click here.

The crack is how the light gets in

December 7, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Design and Society, Social Economy 

The Guardian and the LSE have just published findings from their research on the riots. This is really really worth a read and a watch. However, anyone with any experience of youth work with marginalised young people will not be at all surprised. This is a bit of a reflection of some of my own work and a call for better ideas!

A digested read, digested, of the topline tells us that “Widespread anger and frustration at the way police engage with communities was a significant cause of the summer riots” with deep-rooted “distrust and antipathy toward police”.  A feeling of injustice and alienation pervaded the various reasons cited for the riots- from lack of jobs and opportunity; to scrapping the EMA; to how they felt they were treated compared with others.

It was acknowledged that the form the riots took (e.g. looting) was essentially due to opportunism given a “perceived suspension of normal rules”- people felt this was an unusual chance to get away with it. Social networking sites were seen as mere corollaries to the main facts – although Blackberry messenger was seen as being crucial – and it was found that far from being centered around gangs, the riots were actually a reflection of an unprecedented ‘truce’ which allowed people to cross postcode lines.

“Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

This all took me back into work I conducted in Camden on young people’s social networks with the fantastic charity PanArts. The social world inhabited by the young people in the Synergy project – which aimed to unite young people divided by endz gangfare- was typical of this. If they wanted young people from, say, NW5 to go to a youth centre in NW3, they needed a mini-bus.

 The young men that took part in the arts projects were incredibly affectionate between themselves – playing with each other’s hair and clothing – but untrusting of others: “they do have to look over their shoulders all the time” (PanArts worker, 2010). They were never still, always on the look-out for danger, and always in friction with the police.

 This friction might be expressed in police de-facto stopping youth club meetings by imposing a curfew on the area, or the anger-inducing story of a young man who left all his friends and networks behind to go on to bigger things, yet found that once he had left Camden to  learn new skills, Camden could not leave him. Whilst in the centre of London attending a prestigious arts training course he was stopped and searched by police who informed his new friends who knew nothing of his background that he was a ‘repeat offender’ who they should not be spending time with.

Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities… Gangs are not the problem

 As expressed by PanArts in an interview with me at the time:

“ A lot of the kids we work with don’t have that belief that society is working ultimately for their good, so those micro-systems [of trust] are what they latch onto, well possibly because it is all they have got… and because they like being able to trust people… and tell their secrets and have fun”

Human beings need identities, and when they are shut out from mainstream society, they form their own. Youth culture has historically always been about forming identities: our identity is what we barter our social capital on.  Social capital is not always ‘positive’, it merely describes human interactions. A sense of community is not solely about geographical proximity, it is about who we recognise as ‘like us’.  

 Gangs are not the problem. What is worrying is marginalised groups who feel they are not part of mainstream society, who feel that they are treated different to everyone else, handed a rawer deal than everyone else, who experience suicidal levels of disinterest in what happens to them as they feel they have nothing to lose. Anger at police, is essentially anger at how representatives of the state interact with you.  Researchers for the LSE/Guardian reported being repeatedly asked “This is nothing to do with the government right, this is nothing to do with the police, right?

We are seeing the formation ofsome neighbourhoods that are effectively somewhere else from the rest of society, and we can all see the cracks in the perfect offering of a supposedly meritocratic ‘open-opportunity’ society. The question is, what are we going to do about it?

We’re looking for ways that technology – particularly the web – can play in helping young people: whether it’s helping them access advice and information, seek support from others, or connecting them to hidden job and training opportunities

I would love to see what would happen if we were to run a service re-design project with young people affected by the riots or gang violence. Co-production has been used to great effect in many arena: what happens if you ask people “Right, this is our budget, these are all the people we need to provide for: how would you do youth services? How would you ensure something of a fairer deal?”

Or maybe you have a far better idea: the RSA has just launched a interactivism challenge with Google ” asking people of all backgrounds – software developers, young people, professional practitioners, teachers and policymakers of all levels – to put forward innovative ideas for how the internet and technology could support young people.” What can you build?

We have heard the bells, and we have seen the cracks. Is it maybe time to let the light in?



Rewriting the rulebook at the New Cross People’s Library

December 6, 2011 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Fellowship 

This summer, five libraries in the London borough of Lewisham faced closure as part of an £88 million savings drive by the local council. One of these was the library in New Cross – the south-east London community where we’ve based much of our Connected Communities research. Now, thanks to a group of local volunteers (working with the support of local charity Bold Vision) it has reopened as the New Cross People’s Library.

The group (led by RSA Fellow Catherine Shovlin) were awarded £2,000 from the RSA’s Catalyst seed fund to create a collaborative artwork that will announce their presence on the high street. I visited the library recently to speak with Catherine and other volunteers about that project, and the impact that their hard work is having on the local community.

One way of looking at what’s happening at the People’s Library is as an example of how committed and resourceful volunteers are stepping in to fill the gaps where the public sector is in retreat. At one level, that’s no doubt true (although funding remains a serious issue for the group, who are fundraising furiously). I’m not sure that’s the lesson I’d draw, though.

In the video, you’ll hear volunteers talking about how the library has changed. More activities are taking, such as a popular weekly Baby Bounce session, and the opening hours are now more flexible – it stays open at lunchtimes, for instance. As well as this, though, Tina (who runs the bookshop) hints at a more subtle change: that the space – although largely unchanged in its physical fabric – appears less dark, more welcoming.

When I visited on a sunny Friday morning – and despite its complement of well-thumbed books and industrial grey carpets – the People’s Library didn’t feel like the stuffy municipal libraries of old. Nor, though, is it a ‘twenty-first century learning space’, or a ‘knowledge hub’, or a ‘digital literacy centre’. Certainly, it doesn’t have a striking new form like the polygonal new library at Canada Water. Instead, what strikes you is how friendly and informal the place seems – people wander in and out, lingering to chat or browse through the (very good) second hand bookshop.

Keeping a local library open is an impressive achievement – but I think what’s happening at the People’s Library is a lot more interesting than that, because they’ve managed to build on what was already there. Do pay them a visit and see for yourself – and buy a book or two, as there’s plenty more they’d like to achieve yet.

Sam is @iamsamthomas on Twitter

The UK Economy: time to get angry with a crass political debate

May 11, 2011 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: Adam Lent 

Not a happy day for the UK economy.  The Bank of England’s quarterly inflation report  forecasts high inflation and weak growth over the “next year or so”.  And an analysis from the FT reveals that recovery will remain “muted” due to capacity that has been lost for good in the banking sector.  And just to rub salt in the wound, the analysis also concludes that unemployment failed to rise as far as expected  not because of anything benign like managers wanting to hang on to skilled workers but because it was the less labour intensive parts of the economy that shrank the most.

Which all got me rather angry suddenly.  It’s easy to forget when reading these very high level analyses that high inflation, failure to grow, lost output are all proxies for more hardship, greater joblessness and lives not reaching their full potential.  There is real human misery behind all the wonk talk. And my annoyance was directed towards the politicians.  But not because one side is introducing supposedly unwarranted cuts or because the other side supposedly overspent but because the level of policy debate about these issues of such importance to millions of peoples’ well-being is conducted in such a narrow, thoughtless fashion.

We currently have two of the main parties (Conservatives and Lib Dems) committed to a very tough austerity programme while remaining vaguely of the view that sorting out the fiscal mess is the best route to growth.  However, these two parties aren’t quite as sure as they once were about that and so have falteringly introduced some rather limited pro-growth measures such as technology and innovation centres and an under-capitalised green investment  bank .

And we have the remaining main party being deliberately light on wider economic policy while trying to run as the champion of the anti-cuts agenda despite still, theoretically, being committed to a deficit reduction plan which may be less austere than the Government’s  but could certainly not be seen as anything other than a major exercise in fiscal consolidation.

Given the possibility that we could face a ‘lost decade’ or more in the UK if we don’t get this right, this really doesn’t seem good enough to me.  Surely the country has a right to expect a more serious, honest and reflexive debate than this.

Just to highlight how weak the debate is, there is an obvious and important policy position which is entirely missing because of the political and policy choices being made.  It might be called the “German Position” (if that didn’t sound faintly lewd). 

This is the argument that the best way to secure the UK’s economic future is to commit to a fiscally conservative position that would require some pretty tough medicine for the public finances.  This commitment would be made to keep interest rates low, hold taxes to a reasonable level and because running large deficits is high risk in an unpredictable world. However, because such necessary austerity will damage the economy and create joblessness, and because the global marketplace is ever more competitive, we also need a very bold and proactive growth strategy based upon state investment in new business, a major skills programme and a relentless focus on reshaping tax and regulation to spur innovation. 

In short the position is fiscally austere but very pro-active on growth.

Why no-one is taking such a position given it is staring us in the face when we look at the most successful export economy in Europe is baffling and represents a narrowing of political debate on an issue of fundamental public interest.  I wouldn’t nearly expect every shade of political opinion to like the approach, and it can certainly be challenged in some respects, but surely there must be a place in public debate for such a stance. But while the Government position remains so undeveloped and the Opposition’s position remains deeply political rather than meaningful, I’m not holding my breath.

IMF Forecast: growth is not just a short-term challenge

April 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Adam Lent 

So the IMF now agrees with practically everybody else that growth in the UK is going to look much more sluggish this year than expected. Cue a round of political ping-pong between the parties and yet more debate about whether the cuts are good or bad for the economy.

Leaving aside the confusing irony that everyone is arguing about forecasts as though they are facts when those forecasts are merely revisions of previous forecasts that turned out to be wrong (maybe), there could be a deeper problem here.

It’s a problem highlighted by the law firm DLA Piper that has just published the first of three reports on how “traditional business models” are being challenged by the online world.  The report shows straightforwardly how the internet is making factors such as business size less relevant and product authenticity more so.

Admittedly, this is only the first offering but I hope the next two reports are able to communicate more clearly quite how significant the changes are. For as Matthew Lockwood and I explored in a recent pamphlet, the rise of Web 2.0 does not merely demand new business strategies but will ultimately demand a totally new way of doing business.  And the core of that shift is to recognise that the once firm dividing line between producer and consumer has broken down. Consumers increasingly expect and have the resources and skills to design, shape, manipulate and even sell the products and services they purchase.

This matters enormously to the future growth of the UK economy.  The major technological transformations that capitalism has experienced since the mid-eighteenth century – such as  the growth of railways and canals, the use of electricity, the rise of mass production – have tended to focus on manufacturing.  Web 2.0 is the first general purpose technological transformation that is revolutionising the service sector and this is of course where the great bulk of the UK’s GDP growth comes from.

Unfortunately, our record on dealing with previous technological transformations is not strong: the UK never became a very good mass producer in the first half of the 20th century, nor did it do very well in adopting flexible production techniques in the second half – perhaps the major reason why we became so dependent on the service sector.  If we miss this boat, however, there really isn’t another sector to turn to.

Which brings us back to the current rather short-term debate about growth.  Of course, it is vital that we have the right policies to boost our growth rate over the next year or two but it will in the end be for nothing if we haven’t identified the right public policy framework and business practices to sustain growth in the next decade or two.  With the development of our new strand of work on enterprise and innovation , I hope the RSA can do its bit to identify and promote these new policies and practices.  In the meantime, a debate from our political leaders that looks beyond the next twelve months whenever these forecasts hit the headlines might be a start.

Can you cut it when the cuts come?

December 16, 2010 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

With the recent publication of the Localism Bill and the release of information about cuts to funding from central government, local authorities and local communities now have a clearer idea of what the future looks like.  It’s hardly news to say that many will not like what they see, and that the poorest areas are facing the largest cuts.  But it is perhaps worth dwelling on the impact that the combination of these two developments might have on communities in different parts of England.

Ironically, councils with the most deprived residents seem to be facing the deepest cuts precisely because their residents are the least affluent.  They receive less council tax than local authorities with more affluent residents, which means that not only are they more reliant on funding from central government (which is what is being cut), but also that they are not eligible for so much subsidy from central government to compensate for the coming freeze in council tax payments.  As a result, inner-city councils such as Tower Hamlets and Southwark in London are facing cuts that are twice the size of the national average, and larger still than in many affluent areas.

There is plenty to suggest that the empowering effect of the Localism Bill will be weakest in the very areas where cuts are to be deepest.  If this is the case, the effect of the Bill is likely to be to widen the gap between communities, not narrow it.

The effects of these cuts might be mitigated by the provisions of the Localism Bill, much of which seems to focus on releasing councils from the control of central government, and releasing local people from the control of their council.  Basically, councils will have greater flexibility to spend their (reduced) budgets as they see fit, and local people will have more power to take on services themselves, buy up local buildings, exert greater control over planning decisions and so on.

In theory, this double removal of red tape and restriction might soften the impact of the cuts on the local services people receive, and perhaps allow communities facing more stringent cuts to narrow the gap between themselves and those in areas where cuts are to be lighter.  But I think there is plenty to suggest that in practice the opposite will happen, and that the empowering effect of the Bill will be weakest in the very areas where cuts are to be deepest.  If this is the case, the effect of the Bill is likely to be to widen the gap between communities, not narrow it.

I’m guessing that people are most likely to take advantage (if that’s the right way to put it) of the extra power offered by the Localism Bill if they are a) part of a strong community and feel it will be worth making the effort on behalf of others, and b) used to taking the initiative and getting involved in council-type issues, and know how to go about this.

I’m also guessing that these kinds of communities and people are more likely to be found in affluent areas than deprived areas.

Evidence for this comes not least from the RSA’s Connected Communities project, which is looking at social networks and access to power in New Cross Gate (a multiply deprived area in Lewisham, right next door to Southwark and Tower Hamlets).  Social network analysis has revealed that large numbers of people in the area not only feel that they have no direct access to sources of local power and influence, they also do not know anyone else who might be able to put them in contact with such sources.  A quarter of the people interviewed effectively felt unable to change things locally, either directly or indirectly.  The analysis also shows the extent of social isolation in the area and the sparseness of local connections more generally.

All this suggests that many people in New Cross Gate are not used to getting involved, do not know how they can access power and are unlikely to feel it will be worthwhile trying.  Contrast this with well-publicised middle class efforts to set up free schools and the well-known phenomenon of the pushy middle classes getting better services because they know how to ‘use the system’ and make themselves heard.  These are the people who appear to be most able to use the provisions of the Localism Bill to mitigate the effects of the cuts – and they tend to live in more affluent areas which will be less seriously affected in the first place.  By comparison, the residents of Tower Hamlets and New Cross Gate are in for a double whammy of deeper cuts that they can do less about.

The Connected Communities project is looking at ways to reduce social isolation and improve access to power in New Cross Gate and elsewhere; it seems that the events of the past few days have made this more important than ever.

Where’s our ideology when we need it?

November 17, 2010 by · 8 Comments
Filed under: Social Economy 

Ideology is an amazing thing.  Take the examples of France and the USA.  Both liberal democracies which permit their citizens to express their views by voting, organising, demonstrating, discussing and publishing.  Both states up to their eyeballs in debt.  And both polar opposites in the way in which those views are being expressed and that debt addressed.

France has been living beyond its means for decades, providing an enviable state-subsidised lifestyle for its citizens that has simply been unaffordable.  President Sarkozy’s determination to change this situation and bring the state finances under control, most famously by raising the retirement and state pension ages, has been met with widespread protest as French citizens seek to protect their privileges regardless of the reality of the situation.

The USA, on the other hand, is dealing with a financial crisis of much more recent gestation, but which has nonetheless placed the state under enormous strain.  President Obama’s determination to deal with the situation by spending more rather than less, and to provide a better level of public service and welfare to a wider section of the US public than ever before, has also met with widespread protest, most famously through the Tea Party movement in the Republican party and the recent shift from blue to red in the mid-term elections.

What both divides and unites these two nations and their citizens’ and politicians’ attitudes to state services and welfare is ideology.  France and the USA may be guided by two very different concepts of state responsibility: they are about as divided as they can be on the question of how far a democratic state should support/intrude into (delete as appropriate) the lives of their citizens.  But the passion that underlines these beliefs, these ideologies, is also what unites them: their citizens have in common the fact that they know what they like and want, and they are prepared to get active and organised to protect and achieve it.

How different we are in the UK.  Until the student demonstration of last week, the British public has been accepting its government’s handling of its own financial problems with barely a murmur.  Indeed, the student demonstration, which focussed on a single aspect of the government’s plans, only serves to highlight the lack of public reaction to the rest of the package.  I find this rather worrying, not because I think we should all be out on the streets or setting up radical political movements, but because it shows how socially and politically apathetic we are, or can be made to be, and how unwilling or unused we are to organising ourselves for our own good.

The combination of spending cuts and moves towards a Big Society means that many people in the UK will find life harder and/or have to play a more active role in their communities and local services.  I can imagine citizens in France, once they had made their feelings about the change felt, channelling their passion and organising zeal and coming together to accept and work with such a new reality.  But will citizens in the UK do likewise?

I have argued elsewhere on this blog that this convergence of spending cuts and the Big Society agenda is unfortunate.  I still think the current confusion of the two issues, which allows the Big Society to be portrayed as a ‘fig leaf’ for cuts, threatens to undermine public support for what could be a great opportunity to foster and encourage pro-social behaviour and attitudes, with all the benefits around social capital and quality of life that that would bring.  But, nevertheless, might the cuts actually be needed to inject some life into the Big Society idea?

At the moment, it looks as though we are sleepwalking towards a world with fewer services and less public support than what we have come to expect and rely on, without taking the initiative needed to strengthen communities and fill in the gaps left by a shrinking state.  That’s partly because as a nation and as a collection of localities we have never in recent memory needed to do this before, and unlike France and the USA we have no recent track record of doing anything  similar.  Perhaps the cuts, when they start to bite, will be what’s needed to spur us into action, and give us some of that organising zeal and ideological determination to look out for ourselves that we’ve seen across the Channel and the Atlantic.

When soundbites bite back

October 14, 2010 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain, Social Economy 

‘We are all in this together’ and ‘Your country needs you’ – two soundbites that sum up much of government policy at the moment. The thinking and logic behind both is clear; the situations they are invoked to address are familiar and important to us all; and the sentiments behind them are, on the face of it at least, motivating and ‘very British’. Yet neither seems to have caught the public imagination, and indeed both are facing considerable backlash at the moment.

Why should this be? Perhaps part of the reason goes beyond reactions to the perceived fairness and necessity of individual policies and measures. Perhaps we in the UK are predisposed to resist and even to fight against messages like these. Perhaps while they may have been ‘very British’ in the past, they are not any more.

An excellent and potentially very important new report from the WWF, Common Cause, certainly suggests this may be the case.  Although primarily concerned with how to motivate individual action to address environmental and human problems on a global scale, it’s not too much of a leap to apply its conclusions to the UK scene as well.

So what are today’s British values, and how do they help or hinder acceptance of the government’s messages regarding the country’s own ‘bigger-than-self’ problems?

The ‘traditional’ approach to motivating individual action and behaviour change on issues such as global poverty and climate change involves putting the facts in front of people, on the basis that ‘if only they knew’ about the scale of the problem, they would do something to help.  Common Cause argues that this approach to what it calls ‘bigger-than-self’ problems is fundamentally flawed because the way in which people respond to facts is determined by their underlying values.

It seems that ‘individuals are often predisposed to reject information when accepting it would challenge their identity and values’, and that for these individuals such information ‘may simply serve to harden resistance to accepting new government policies or adopting new private sphere behaviours’.  This sounds relevant to the UK situation, so what are today’s British values, and how do they help or hinder acceptance of the government’s messages regarding the country’s own ‘bigger-than-self’ problems?

Common Cause classifies values as extrinsic or intrinsic, the former being associated with image, status and self-advancement, and the latter relating to the importance of relationships, community and self-development.  Importantly, these values are not innate, but rather a product of culture and experience, generated and strengthened by the media, the services, the policies, the attitudes and all of the other influences that individuals are exposed to in daily life.  The two sets also act in opposition to each other, with strong extrinsic values making people less likely to value community and relationships, and strong intrinsic values making worldly success seem less important.

Values are formed by experience, but they are underpinned by what cognitive scientists refer to as ‘deep frames’ – long-held, stable conceptual structures that contain particular values.  Once established, deep frames (and the values they espouse) can be ‘activated’ very easily by mentioning key terms and phrases, and a frame (and its associated values) is strengthened every time it is activated.  This makes established frames durable and difficult to shift, but not unchangeable over the long term.

Common Cause gives the examples of ‘War of Terror’ and ‘tax relief’ as phrases that instantly activate frames regarding security issues and the proper role of government respectively.  As soon as you hear them, your views on the underlying issues are brought to the surface, and the nature of those views depends on the deep frames to which you have unconsciously subscribed.

I’d say that ‘We are all in this together’ and ‘Your country needs you’ are two more examples of soundbites that activate deep frames and bring to the fore values that will influence the way they are received.  These messages are inherently associated with intrinsic values, and on the basis of the Common Cause’s argument will be well received by people who hold such values and resisted by people with extrinsic values.

It may be that 50 years ago, the dominant frames in the UK were intrinsic – certainly the experience of the two World Wars is likely to have been an influence in this direction.  In that context, the soundbites we are considering, and a more general appeal to the ‘British sense of fair play’, would have gone down well – indeed, ‘Your country needs you’ went down very well when accompanied by Kitchener’s face and pointing finger.

The focus on celebrity, rich lists, competition and market forces has promoted a deep-seated emphasis on the self at the expense of the community.

The trouble is that, as George Monbiot has pointed out in a recent Guardian piece, in the past two decades or more extrinsic values have been continually activated and reinforced by the media, advertising and government policy, and as a result the frames that espouse these values have come to dominate in UK society.  The focus on celebrity, rich lists, competition and market forces has promoted a deep-seated emphasis on the self at the expense of the community.

Fast-forward to the 21st century, then, and the dominant frames have changed, so it is perhaps unsurprising that messages which appeal to intrinsic values and community feeling are now not only falling on deaf ears, but are being counterproductive and actively hardening many people’s resistance to issues on which action is vital.

Common Cause’s solution to this situation is for campaigns to acknowledge the importance of frames and to try to activate and strengthen intrinsic values, rather than fighting against extrinsic attitudes with facts and soundbites.  The report presents a powerful argument for this, but it is a long-term solution.  The problems these soundbites are trying to address are all too evident in the here and now.  Perhaps a different approach to motivating change in people’s attitudes and behaviours is needed?

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