Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 1. Policy would be better

This is the first in a series of posts on why social policy should be developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services. We’ll publish the whole series over the next two weeks, and we welcome your comments.

Social policy would be better researched, more credible, more reliable, and more grounded in real life if it was routinely developed by and with the people who use and provide public and voluntary services.

Six million people work in the public sector, 765,000 people work in the voluntary sector, we all use public and voluntary services, and we could all help to create better social policy – yet we are a largely neglected resource when it comes to policy research and development. It’s tragic that part of the dominant ideology underpinning central government’s approach to developing social policy over the past 35 years or so has been to discount the views and perspectives of service providers and users as ‘interested parties’, when this is precisely what makes them so valuable for policy development.

Instead we have social policy researched and developed by a relatively small coterie of people and organisations. Too often the result is policy that is poorly evidenced, badly designed and difficult if not impossible to implement. This is the ‘blueprint approach‘ to policy which makes for slick policy unit and consultancy slide decks but doesn’t reflect what actually happens when policy meets practice. As a result of policy failure (or under-achievement), we lurch from one hoped-for ‘magic bullet‘ to the next but seem to accumulate little wisdom along the way.

Take the history of populist ‘anti-social behaviour’ initiatives often aimed at young people – from ASBOs (Anti-Social Behaviour Orders) and ABCs (Acceptable Behaviour Contracts), CRASBOs (criminal ABSOs), dispersal orders, fixed penalty notices, parenting classes et al., to the new Criminal Behaviour Orders and Crime Prevention Injunctions, family intervention programmes, and fines and benefit reductions for parents as punishment for their children’s truancy from school or bad behaviour (one of those bad policy ideas that just won’t die). The practitioners and the people targeted by these policies could have told policymakers why many of these interventions wouldn’t work as intended (and why their replacements are also likely to struggle without better research, design, development and implementation) – but of course they weren’t asked (or weren’t listened to).

With an ageing population, increasing obesity, rising unemployment, deepening poverty – but “no money” – there’s never been a more important time to develop better social policy, but we’re not going to do it like this. Instead of seeming to believe that not listening to frontline workers is somehow a badge of political principle, we need to start listening to and involving the people at the frontline, both service providers and the public. This isn’t about basing policy on a collection of ‘anecdotes’ (although if it was, this wouldn’t be much different from what has informed many existing policies, including some of the initiatives noted above). Rather, it’s about drawing on the practical insight and inspiration, expertise and experience, data as well as personal stories, of the people who work within and encounter services everyday. Nor is it about replacing academic research and evidence. Rather, frontline expertise and experience represents a distinctive and valuable type of evidence which doesn’t inform policy research and development at the moment but has to if we want better and more cost-effective public services.

In effect, we need to reverse the order in which policy is often made – by starting with knowledge and insight gleaned from the frontline of services, then transmitting this back up through the system and into policymaking. This would be a less partisan, more authentic, and more inclusive approach to policy research and development. It would make for better policy.

This project is about developing a platform to help this happen. We know that service providers, from local government to voluntary sector organisations, often have the policy skills but can lack the means to engage frontline expertise, experience and insight. Meanwhile, frontline practitioners and users have the expertise, experience and insight but largely lack the ability to inform policy. Our hope is to provide a meeting place for these parties to work together to improve social policy for the better.


This is my truth, tell me yours

The title is (famously) from Aneurin Bevan, whose greatest achievement was leading the creation of the NHS. Bevan is the type of figure who people have in mind when they lament the current lack of conviction politicians – politicians who ‘tell the truth’ – in favour of what Bevan described as “desiccated calculating machine[s]” (widely assumed to be a reference to Hugh Gaitskell, who Bevan lost to in the Labour Party leadership contest after the 1955 General Election defeat). I was reminded of Bevan because I’ve been thinking about bravery recently, and how it’s important to politics – and also to this project.

A survey published this week by the Hansard Society revealed that only 42 per cent of people are interested in politics, down from 58 per cent only last year and the lowest since the survey began nine years ago. Ruth Fox, director of the Society’s parliament and government programme, quoted on the BBC news site said: “Worryingly, only a quarter of the population are satisfied with our system of governing, which must raise questions about the long-term capacity of that system to command public support and confidence in the future.”

We’re so used to hearing about public disengagement from politics that it’s possible you might have scanned over the previous sentence, so read it again to appreciate its full significance. Is this what the hollowing-out of democracy feels like? What solutions do we have to the malaise?

Some people suggest we need more openness and transparency about what government does and how it makes decisions. Disillusionment and disengagement isn’t reserved to the UK of course, though it differs from country to country. This week the annual Open Government conference has been taking place in Brasilia. The conference is organised by the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a global initiative towards openness and better governance established last September (the UK has just taken over as co-chair of the OGP). The initiative’s Open Government Declaration commits signatory countries amongst other things to increase the availability of information about government activities and use ‘new technologies’ for openness and accountability. There’s also a heavy emphasis on ‘open data portals’ and the like in the ten most common pledges for action made by participating countries by 2013, and the UK Government is particularly hot on open data and greater transparency.

These initiatives are unarguably good but also feel insufficient given the extent of public detachment. Open data can seem like a technical solution to what is ultimately a political, social and even economic problem – a stand-in for the openness we want in policymaking. Creating easier ways to find out what government has done after it’s done it is important, but we also want to determine more directly what government does in the first place. In the UK at the moment this mainly means debating the case for directly elected mayors and a reformed House of Lords (elected or otherwise). But plenty of other ideas have been proposed for new ways to participate in decision-making. Here’s a couple of recent examples from thinktankland:

  • This week Green House think tank staged a mini mock version of its Guardians of the Future ‘super-jury’ as proposed by Rupert Read from the University of East Anglia. The idea is that the council of Guardians, chosen like a jury from the general public, would sit above existing law-making bodies and have two core powers: to veto legislation that threatened the basic needs and interests of future generations; and to force a review, following public petition, of any existing legislation that does the same.
  • At the beginning of April, Policy Exchange announced the five finalists for the Wolfson Economics Prize, which challenges the world’s brightest economists to prepare a contingency plan for a break-up of the Eurozone. Finalists will be given until the end of May to develop their entries and the winner(s) will be announced on 5th July. This might not be targeted at the general public as such (though having said this, an eleven year-old boy from the Netherlands did receive a special mention from the judges for his proposal – and a €100 gift voucher for his efforts), but it’s easy to see how the prizes could be extended to other areas of public policy.

So, we have ways of making existing institutions more open and transparent, and ways to create new opportunities for participation and engagement. We need both. But, to go back to Bevan, we also need new ways to talk in politics and policy – we need more truth. Here’s Bevan’s full quote about ‘calculating machines’ (taken from the excellent Aneurin Bevan website):

“I know that the right kind of leader for the Labour Party is a desiccated calculating machine who must not in any way permit himself to be swayed by indignation. If he sees suffering, privation or injustice he must not allow it to move him, for that would be evidence of the lack of proper education or of absence of self-control. He must speak in calm and objective accents and talk about a dying child in the same way as he would about the pieces inside an internal combustion engine.”

Speaking with greater truth and authenticity is not the same as being more partisan and ideological. The latter are collective ‘truths’, but authenticity is personal – it’s my truth, based on my experience. As members of the public we look to our politicians to be authentic and often blame our disengagement from politics on their reluctance to risk being more genuine (surely a vicious spiral). But we also have a responsibility to be more authentic ourselves, to be more willing to form and express views based not on what is comfortably cynical or generally accepted within our social and professional circles, but rather from what our own experience tells us. I can love the principles behind the NHS, but at the same time I can also say that it treated me terribly in a particular instance, or that its staff were rude and unhelpful when I felt particularly vulnerable, and so on. If we’re not prepared to step-up and be honest ourselves, what gives us the right to expect politicians to be any different?

As Nye Bevan also said:

“I started my political life with no clearly formed personal ambition as to what I wanted to be, or where I wanted to go. I leave that nonsense to the writers of romantic biographies. A young miner in a South Wales colliery, my concern was with the one practical question, where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers? No doubt this is the same question as the one to which the savants of political theory are fond of addressing themselves, but there is a world of difference in the way it shaped itself for young workers like myself. It was no abstract question for us. The circumstances of our lives made it a burning luminous mark of interrogation. Where was power and which the road to it?”

This is from Bevan’s most famous book, published in 1952, called In Place of Fear.


Delivering public services that work depends on staff and public engagement – the same goes for public policy

John Seddon published his latest book yesterday on ‘delivering public services that work’. When all of the other fashionable ideas and theories have come and gone, hopefully we’ll recognise that John’s approach (described below) is one of the few practical and proven ways to produce more effective, and so more cost-effective, public services. But his approach also suggests something crucial about how we can reduce more practical and effective public policy as well.

John is, to put it mildly, no fan of performance targets and the ‘performance improvement’ agenda. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see better public services of course, rather that he thinks that setting targets from on high is completely the wrong way to go about it. Being critical of targets is not unusual. What’s important is that John demonstrates why targets (and all of the other apparatus that has dominated public service reform for years, such as ‘choice’, inspection, incentives and back-office ‘economies of scale’) actually lead to poorer performance, and how an entirely different approach can produce much better results.

The answer, according to John, lies in systems thinking – ditching the ‘command-and-control’ mentality that seeks to impose the same (usually largely unproven) ‘solution’ anywhere and everywhere, and replacing it with a method that analyses where waste and inefficiency come from in any system and so how services can be both improved and costs reduced at the same time. The answer is ‘design against demand’ – essentially, to meet the actual rather than the imagined demands that service users have, that is, to focus on doing better the things that add real value to people’s lives.

There are two points from this, in one sense a simple but also incredibly subtle approach, that I want to pull out here. The first is that this relies on putting to one side whatever the ‘latest thinking’ is in public service reform and focussing instead on the practical matter of what is actually going on in any particular service and how it could be improved – in a non-partisan and evidence-based way.

The second is that the process of doing this requires that public and voluntary sector service managers have to engage frontline staff and service users, because these are the people who know most of all where things are going wrong – they see it directly everyday. This helps to explain why targets are counter-productive. Imposing targets inadvertently creates a purpose for a service (to achieve the targets) and constrains the methods (the way the service is designed). In contrast, deriving any targets (or preferably just performance measures) based on the purpose of the service as seen from the customer’s point of view helps to ‘liberate’ the method, and from this improvement and innovation can flow in better designing the service.

If you’ve read this blog before, you’ll know where I’m going. We make policy in much the same way – and indeed the ‘accepted wisdom’ about what needs to be done to save money and improve outcomes (shared services, social impact bonds etc) and the policy frameworks (funding, regulation, targets etc) established by central government are often related. Further, whether they want to or not, think tanks often reflect and reinforce this command-and-control approach. A relatively small group of people develop an idea that they (genuinely) believe – often on the basis of little evidence but with a seemingly compelling logic – will finally solve the problem that we’ve been grappling with for years. All we need to do is x, because the single underlying problem all along has been y. And off we go again.

In this way, think tanks too often inadvertently act as the intellectual equivalent of what John calls the ‘inspection industry’, with their lack of practical intelligence about what is actually happening on the ground and their lack of engagement with the people who deliver services and those who use them. In a Systems Thinking approach, individuals come first, waste is reduced and responsibility replaces blame. We need the same approach to delivering better policy as we do to delivering better public services.


More than words – why think tanks should be more visual

At our branding workshop a couple of weeks’ ago one of the participants suggested that if we wanted to be accessible to a much broader audience than think tanks traditionally are then we should be much more visual. This struck me as a really interesting idea, and it’s worth considering more as we develop this project.

After all, the web is increasingly visual rather than textual. Think about the sites that are building massive communities – Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr. But most think tanks, most of the time, are fairly conventional in how they communicate their ideas and arguments. Words – presented in the traditional ways (reports, pamphlets) – still dominate as the ‘respectable’ means of communication, perhaps with the occasional map or graph thrown in when required.

This neglects that pictures, though they can be more time-consuming to create and produce, often present information and data much more powerfully. Of course there are some really good exceptions to the generalisation that think tanks neglect thinking visually – for example the work Danny Dorling has done with IPPR, how the new economics foundation has increasingly been using video (see the vampire squid), and the short film Number Games commissioned by Runnymede and produced by Feedback Films. Special mention also has to go to the RSA, with its RSA Animate series created by Cognitive Media.

Pictures would also be more accessible to a much wider audience than think tanks traditionally talk to, and could invite more people to participate in what think tanks do (for example, by posting pictures to illustrate their experience of public services) – something which is crucial to this project of course. It’s something we’ll think more about and we’d welcome your thoughts, for example links to great examples you’ve come cross of visual ways of presenting information and arguments. In the meantime, here’s a few well-known advocates and experts of visual thinking and presentation that spark our imagination about what might be possible:

For our own part, Stephen Lee Hodgkins has been kind enough to create a visual record of the discussions at our branding workshop, posted below. Stephen calls what he does – a colourful method for capturing ideas and information visually in real time, for example at a meeting or event – ‘graphicking‘. Check out his site by clicking on the link.

Remember that still we’d love to hear your suggestions for our name as well – we hope that Stephen’s graphic inspires you (you can click on the picture to expand it for a better view).


Exit, voice or loyalty – what matters most in building online communities?

We’re creating a platform for people who use and provide public and voluntary services to inform better social policy. For this to be a place they want to come to, and invest time and energy in, it will have to feel like – it will have to be – their community. How can we ensure that our community becomes theirs? The answer lies in an essay published more than 40 years ago.

The Guardian has been running an interesting series of articles this week on the ‘battle for the internet‘. Wednesday’s articles considered the growth of ‘walled gardens‘ such as Facebook and iTunes. The usefulness and increasing ubiquity of these privately-owned ‘public squares’ raises important privacy, censorship and accessibility issues. These might not matter much to most of us, most of the time, but they still matter – both personally (for example, when they use our data in a way we didn’t anticipate) and politically (given the economic, social and cultural power such companies now wield). This has led some commentators to suggest that these platforms are effectively public utilities and should be regulated as such, but this (highly unlikely) proposition has only been put forward because of our lack of influence, as ordinary users, over how these platforms operate and what their policies are.

The only way we can really hope to influence how they act is to leave (with all of the obvious downsides of doing so). This is the ‘exit’ option described in Albert Hirschman’s oft-cited 1970 essay Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. Facebook’s owners – which could be you if you’re intending to buy some of their shares – must at some level exist in a perpetual state of fear that their users can simply up sticks, and in this way the threat of exit is a powerful driver for improvement. It leads to new features, better services etc – indeed it’s the basis of free and competitive markets. But this doesn’t make these communities ours – quite the opposite, it distances us from them.

Exit isn’t the only ‘option’ we want in relation to the communities of which we’re part. This is why Hirschman notes that, in addition to leaving, people can try to use their ‘voice’, that is they can attempt to repair or improve matters through communicating their problem and/or proposing a solution. What’s clear, thought about in this way, is that platforms like Facebook are highly unlikely to listen to our views unless they are accompanied by the threat of exit. We can judge this because Facebook et al. have  failed (or haven’t cared) to develop mechanisms and processes by which we can effectively express our voice and influence how they operate.

Hirschman suggests there’s a third factor at play, which is loyalty. This can slow exit (for example, people feel very strongly attached to a particular brand), but perhaps only for a time. Loyalty can drive people to use their voice – to suggest changing things and improving them, so that they aren’t forced to exit. You’re more likely to use your voice if you have some degree of loyalty to a community, institution or company – otherwise why would you bother?

Hirschman’s model, though in one sense pretty simple, is the kind of idea that once you read about it sticks with you and you find yourself applying to all sorts of situations (which of the three aspects of it you think matters the most can also suggest a particular political persuasion). My own view is that exit matters – a lot. If you don’t like something, show how you feel. If you want to use a social network that doesn’t own all your data, then support the development of Diaspora. If you don’t like Microsoft’s (often tardy) programs, choose open source software (like we’ll be doing for our demo platform). If you’re tired of being prompted and pushed around by iTunes, use another music player. And if you want to support the development of a new way of creating better social policy in a community that you shape – if you want to break down the ‘walled garden’ that is most policymaking – then watch this space.

But surely a better way to build and retain a community – and so strengthen loyalty – is to enable and encourage people to exercise their voice. It’s this that ultimately determines the health and sustainability of (online) communities, because it determines the extent to which people feel that they own a community. It may be less tangible, but it’s much more meaningful, than holding a few hundred shares out of a few million. In this spirit, I’d be interested in what you think about what makes communities work – what attracts you to them, and why you stay.


Here’s to the crazy ones – what public and voluntary services can really learn from Apple

Considering our branding recently made me think (of course) about Apple, and in particular how one advertising campaign marked the turnaround in the company’s fortunes and the start of its journey to become the biggest company in the world. What can we learn from this ad?

Many people think that advertising is superficial, but you can’t suggest it’s inconsequential when it can help to save a company and inspire a whole organisation with the same spirit. In September 1997, Apple was by some accounts just six months away from bankruptcy. Steve Jobs commissioned the campaign to remind people (including within Apple) of the philosophy underpinning the company he co-founded (and was then thrown out of) but which was struggling despite his return. It was based on a recognition that the spark that drove Apple existed long before the company, and that a good way to show what kind of company Apple was would be to celebrate the people it admired. In the space of only a minute, the ad helped give Apple back the counter-culture attitude that it had lost over the preceding decade and a half.

The campaign was ‘Think Different’. The most famous single ad in the campaign was ‘Here’s to the crazy ones‘ (this link takes you to a special version of the ad with a voiceover by Steve Jobs himself). It’s a great piece of copywriting, worth quoting in full (and this is the fullest version):

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward. Maybe they have to be crazy. How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels? We make tools for these kinds of people. While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

The words ‘Think Different’ were created by advertising firm Chiat/Day art director Craig Tanimoto, and the advert’s text was written by Rob Siltanen and Ken Segall. Segall consulted for Apple until 2007 (he also came up with the name ‘iMac’); when he subsequently started working for Dell he found a very different culture (this is from an interview on the Cult of Mac website):

“Dell and Apple: It’s night and day. It’s a transactional world Dell lives in. It’s all about numbers. Everything they say about Apple making products for themselves is true. Apple — it’s about changing the world. For everyone else, it’s about the money.”

This isn’t one of those ‘what we can learn from how Apple innovates’ articles. Providing public and voluntary services is very different from making and selling computers. But what would happen if we ‘sold’ the idea of serving the public – at all levels of the state and third sector – with the same passion as Apple talks about what it does? Instead of effectively denigrating their own staff (as pointed out recently by Benedict Dellot on the RSA blog), what if more public and voluntary sector organisations inspired the same culture of creativity and commitment in their employees? And instead of becoming more like Dell, what if the lesson from Apple was about motivating people by focusing on changing the world first and ‘efficiency’ second?

Apropos of this, let’s quote Steve Jobs again (this time from a 1994 PBS documentary):

“When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is – everything around you that you call life, was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”


What should we call this thing?

We held our branding and communications workshop last week – thanks to all those who participated, and we hope you found the discussion as interesting and worthwhile as we did. Thanks especially to Todd and Carl at Fireplough for their great facilitation of the session, it was much appreciated.

The purpose of the workshop was to kick around ideas for the name of the venture (it won’t be called ‘New Think Tank’), based on the purpose, values and ‘personality’ of what we’re attempting to do.

We’d love to hear your ideas as well. Have a look at the presentation here – New think tank 13th April 2012 workshop – which isn’t final by any means but represents part of our current ‘pitch’, then tell us what you think, either by posting a comment below or sending us an email via the Get involved page.

All (nice) suggestions are welcome – no idea is too stupid, as they say – but we want to avoid anything too think tanky (‘institute’, ‘centre’ etc) or too obvious (like ‘frontline‘, which is also a flea spray for pets of course). So get creative and we look forward to your ideas.