Reflections on New Think Tank – 4. Alex Kenmure

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. This post: Alex Kenmure. Thanks to Alex for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only recently started voting. For 12 years I’ve been a part of that nebulous and condemned portion of the electorate who have (in the eyes of many) forsaken any right to have an opinion on how the country is run. It’s an unusually emotive issue – in some ways I’ve wondered whether people have had more of an opinion on my non-vote than they would have if had voted for the British National Party (note: I didn’t vote for the BNP btw). So, tired of the judgement, I made my way to the voting booth a few weeks ago to have a vote on who should be our local councillor. It turned out to be an oddly pleasant but also dispiriting act. I was taken aback about how low-tech it all was – volunteer with a clipboard, pencil, paper, makeshift booth all enclosed within a quaint village hall. I felt like I could have been voting in the 1950’s and quite enjoyed the quintessential British-ness of it all.

And then it hit me. My vote, my say in how my local area is run, had been boiled down to a simple “X”. Was that it? What on earth could people read into that? It doesn’t say why I voted, if I have any reservations, my own thoughts on what could be changed in the area – in a simple act of participation I had actually disempowered myself and traded my own views for a validation of someone else’s policies. It would seem that at the end of the day, I am trading my research and opinions for a “best fit” generic model. My conclusion – voting, our single greatest tool in shaping the destiny of our communities, is enjoyable but rubbish. No wonder so many people don’t vote!

Where am I going with this?

Well, the challenge above is the main reason I like the idea of the new think tank project. I really like the concept that instead of a system that discards all the interesting stuff everyday individuals have to offer, a mechanism could be set up to capture the thoughts, solutions and challenges residing within all of us –  the “lightning in a bottle”. As part of the branding workshop, it was interesting to hear the language we used to describe people: users, stakeholders, customers, frontline workers, policy wonks etc. I think we found it difficult just to use the word “people”, which to me is a little ironic given that the real “customer base” for this project is people plain and simple. There is a very cool opportunity here to create something that isn’t just about undermining a policy industry, but provides a genuinely refreshing alternative for people who have something to say to be able to contribute to a challenge and see how what they bring to the table makes a difference.

I’m not sure how it is going to work out – one day I think it’ll be a massive success, the next I think it’ll be a terrible flop (!), but as I watch it develop the one thing I would like to see is that it retains a sense of fun. Can it capture my unhealthy giddiness at voting, while at the same time being a million times more effective? Impactful, but a little bit cold doesn’t really cut it for me, nor would it for a lot of my friends I shouldn’t think. It doesn’t have to have the quaintness of a village hall, but it would be nice if something can be developed in such a way to make the act of participating feel as important and enjoyable as the result.

Who knows… maybe one day someone might post about the first time they engaged with the new think tank model as an important moment in their life.

Alex Kenmure from Camden Council has worked in policy and performance roles within local government for the past 6 years and is interested in developing new relationships, perceptions of value and outcomes-based delivery models between voluntary sector organisations and local authorities.


Reflections on New Think Tank – 3. Crispin Oyen-Williams

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. This post is from Crispin Oyen-Williams. Thanks to Crispin for contributing this post, and we welcome your comments.

I think the New Think Tank is a really innovative and brave idea. Getting real people from the front line of services to input into policy ideas gives findings a new potential level of authenticity and relevance – something currently lacking in the public policy process.

As I said above though, opening the process up to any potential input takes courage, as what will come back will be unknown. Managing potential tensions between a sponsoring client and some views that come back that are uncomfortable will undoubtedly occur. In reality, though, gaining real input should be seen as the measure of success for the New Think Tank – that real people feel comfortable enough to deliver some out-of-the-box left field thinking.

This theme of real people with real thoughts (warts and all) cannot be understated. It must shine through though in the brand, the ethos and the work of the New Think Tank. This is key, both to its credibility, as well as the new Think Tank’s ability to differentiate itself from competitors.

This is a blog and I am writing informally, so forgive me if it sounds like I am going a bit over the top about the ‘get the real people in here’ point. But, I feel that this could be a sizeable challenge, as moving think tanks away from the idea that the dog wags the tail and not that the tail wags the dog (the tail being a small group of policy experts to the body that is the everyday ‘Joe Blogs’ public) is easier said than done.

I was fortunate enough to be invited to a workshop looking into ideas around the formation of the New Think Tank. The workshop was an exciting session where all attending came up with lots of innovative thinking about the way forward for the New Think Tank. Only problem for me, was that the entire table was made up of public policy experts and not the real people the New think Tank seeks to engage.

Now, having met the founder Mike, I have no doubt that he has made sure that real people do have ownership of the formation of the New Think Tank; with this table being just a branch of a much wider process. However, the workshop did point out to me a very clear illustration of the very large challenge that awaits in trying to make sure that real people from the frontline of services are always involved in all aspects of idea creation in the New Think Tank.

Stepping out onto a less travelled path, let alone cutting out a new path is always tough. But I have real admiration for Mike and the goal of the New Think Tank to involve real people and their expertise in creating ideas for policies that affect them. I am a world-weary student of the political theory realm, where many arguments portray the importance of representation as being in conflict to the brightest idea winning. But rather than see them as mutually exclusive, I have always seen representation and good idea generation as interdependent and mutually reinforcing. I therefore look forward to seeing the innovative ideas that the New Think Tank generates. Best of luck on the journey!

Crispin Oyen-Williams

 


Reflections on New Think Tank – 2. Stephen Bediako and Emily Littlewood

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. This post is from Stephen Bediako and Emily Littlewood from The Social Innovation Partnership. Thanks to Stephen and Emily for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

Existentialism holds that the starting point for any (philosophical) problem must be the experiences of the individual. When many individuals come together the combination of their perspectives starts the process of ‘group think’. This group think is then, in turn, the springboard for community and group mobilisation.

The world has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. We have irrevocably integrated our entire lives together, opinions and ideas pass around the globe in a matter of seconds. Individuals can now create groups on a host of social media including: Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Free and instant communication on a world-wide scale means that a single quiet voice can now be heard. And if it gets enough hits or likes – the same voice can become louder than ever before.

While the New Think Tank is still taking shape bear with us for a minute while we indulge in what we think it should or could be. There are three areas where we think it can add to the policy landscape. Each of these additions has already taken place in other industries or facets of our lives – so the precedent has previously been set. Therefore the New Think Tank will be an exercise of diffusing innovation across from other areas of our existence, rather than generating new innovation per se. In other words, the New Think Tank will be keeping the world of policy in-step with the rest our lives.

The first is democratising the voice of the critical mass. There are thousands (even hundreds of thousands) of exceedingly valuable public and social sector voices that are never heard in the policy reports of Government or leading think tanks. On a rare and lucky occasion there will be a consultation with a small group of workers, but they will represent a fraction of the overall workforce. The New Think Tank provides a real democratic opportunity for key workers to develop the policy that will shape their lives. The result is supremely relevant and political party neutral policy which is couched in personal experience.

Secondly, this democratisation should create some truly brilliant and shockingly innovative research. The research will also be of much greater variety – from the weird to the wonderful. For an example of democratisation, look at the music industry. The 21st century saw the collapse of the traditional record label business model and the ‘Big 5’ record producers. Some would say that since then the industry has taken a turn for the worse. We would argue however, that the music industry has never been better and is now thriving. The rise in digital music and file sharing sites, such as Spotify, combined with inexpensive recording software has changed the music landscape. It is now possible to produce quality music in your bedroom one evening and distribute it over the internet to a worldwide audience the next day. The rules have changed and barriers to entry are low, resulting in a vibrancy and variety of music that has not been seen before.

The final, and crucial, point is that this think tank provides a route back to democracy. The genuine participation of public professionals in developing policy feels like an empowering and invigorating idea to me – if it works – the message it could send to the general public could be even bigger. The production of policy that drives our country needs to be opened up and the internet and crowdsourcing is the route for it. In the same way that access to music, goods, information and people has all been revolutionized by the internet. The time has come and it will be unstoppable.

Stephen Bediako is a Director at The Social Innovation Partnership where he works with clients to innovate and implement new ideas and services, deliver evaluations of their projects and manage the delivery of programmes.

Emily Littlewood is a Research Analyst at The Social Innovation Partnership where she works on evaluations and innovation projects related to young people, education, and criminal justice.

The Social Innovation Partnership – ‘Research, Evaluation, Outcomes’ – www.tsip.co.uk


Reflections on New Think Tank – 1. Phillippa Rose

This is a new series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to the New Think Tank project. First up: Phillippa Rose from Redfront. Thanks to Phillippa for contributing this post, and we welcome your comments.

Last month I was invited to contribute to a branding workshop for the currently described ‘New Think Tank’ – an experiment to develop new ways of making, and influencing public policy, from the ground up.

The notion of a bottom up think tank is in itself a bit of anomaly. People associate think tanks with ivory towers, white cubes, sometimes intimidating, and organisations steeped in high-level thinking, in all senses. Think tanks are associated with thorough research practice, sometimes publishing insights or data which influence policy, and challenging the status quo. They are rarely associated with people actually delivering public services, testing assumptions in the policies of the day. New Think Tank however advocates that “the people who experience the effects of social policy should have the opportunity to help shape it.”

At the branding workshop we looked at driving forces behind the initiative, role play, future scenario setting etc, to get a sense of the driving forces behind New Think Tank, perceptions in the room, and where this thing is going. It was a fascinating afternoon, with 20-30 people with varied views on the subjects raised. The room was made up of people working at the forefront of policy, business, charities, social enterprises. For me there was only one missing link – front line practitioners and service users. I think there was only one person there who worked in social services.

As a service designer, I have found it refreshing to see the New Think Tank testing assumptions online, consistently iterating and revising its approach in response to contributions and feedback in such an open and transparent way. I believe in Minimal Viable Product and Agile Development – trial and error, learning by doing, and involving user input from the very start. For the New Think Tank to be meaningful and make lasting impacts on policy, it needs to move to the next level, to specifically target service users and practitioners, and involve them on key areas to focus on, and practical action.

The concept and the thinking behind New Think Tank is new, exciting, fresh and has the potential to make a significant impact on policymakers, practitioners, and end users, experiencing these services. The messages are strong, the communications channels are established. With the official launch date June 1st, fast approaching now is the time to focus, perhaps one policy area at a time, or one locality at a time, who knows. It’s time to ask the people working with, and using public services.

Phillippa Rose from Redfront has enjoyed over ten years developing strategies, services and projects in the public and private sector. She has special interests in the following areas: innovation, co-creation, talent development and enterprise. At Redfront, Phillippa specialises in user-engagement, strategic partnerships, service innovation and networks.

http://www.redfront.co.uk/

https://twitter.com/#!/phillirose


Why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 10. It’s the right thing to do

This is the tenth 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 welcome your comments on the whole series.

In this series we’ve suggested that we need a new approach to developing social policy, one that involves the people who use and provide public and voluntary services in the research and development of policy. We’ve put forward a range of benefits that we think this approach would produce – namely policy that is better quality, more implementable, more representative, more inclusive, more timely, more cost-effective, more innovative, and would help to produce the better public services we want. For these reasons, and because it reflects social and technological change, we think this is the future. There’s one last reason to add to this list: it’s the right thing to do.

Public and voluntary services don’t belong to policymakers or policy wonks. Public services belong to all of us. We pay for them, and although it might not always feel like it, we own them – literally if they are publicly provided services, and figuratively if we rely on them. They’re our GP surgeries and hospitals, our schools and nurseries, our police forces and courts. More than this, we are all public services. Co-production reveals that the people who use services are as critical to their effectiveness as the practitioners who deliver them. Indeed, services wouldn’t exist without the people who use them – they’d just be buildings and equipment and staff standing around.

All of which leads to the point that it’s our policy as well – not one person excluded. This challenges some deep-seated (but rarely articulated) notions about politics and policy – about who has the ‘right’ to be involved in policymaking and who is sufficiently ‘expert‘ to be brought into the charmed circle.

Talking about this project with a lot of people over the past few months, we’ve been encouraged by plenty of positive reactions and offers of support. But we’ve also heard some ‘concerns’. These usually start with ‘yes I love the idea of course, but how are you going to…’, followed by one or more of the following:

  • …make sure that people will want to be involved;
  • …make sure that they will continue to want to be involved;
  • …go beyond the ‘usual suspects’ who get involved in anything;
  • …manage people who are unmanageable;
  • …manage people’s expectations when the world doesn’t change overnight;
  • …find money to develop the project when there’s no money around;
  • …respond when other think tanks don’t like the idea;
  • …react when you realise that no-one actually wants better social policy, rather what they really want is more funding for their prejudices;
  • …produce policy given that practitioners and service users can’t write (this was actually said to me);
  • …feel when you discover that it’s been done before, and by implication, hasn’t worked.

Some, any or all of these ‘concerns’ might be true. Some of them could be considered patronising to what the media refers to as ‘ordinary people’ (i.e. anyone who doesn’t work in the media or isn’t interviewed regularly by those who do). But ultimately, none of these concerns matter. Even if they were all true, it would still be worth trying to develop a new, more inclusive way to create better social policy – because it’s the right thing to do.

No piece of policy will make everyone happy, but then this project isn’t about policy reflecting what practitioners and the public feel, rather it’s about policy reflecting what they know. It’s about policy research and analysis that engages more of the people who know what they’re talking about because they experience the services and issues at first hand. It’s about examining a problem, developing policy options, evidencing the best option, and considering how this option could be implemented most effectively (the kind of thing that few think tanks actually do that often). Not everyone will be happy with the outcome, but everyone should have the right to contribute to the process.

In the main then, as we’ve suggested throughout this series, this project is about harnessing the practical benefits that we think would derive from the greater involvement in policy work of the people who use and provide public services. But then, even if none of these benefits were realised or realisable, even if there were no other reasons to support this approach, and even if the problems and barriers often seemed insurmountable, we still think it would be worth trying – because it would still be the right thing to do. Join us from 1st June if you agree.


Why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 9. It’s the future

This is the ninth 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’re publishing the last in the series on Monday, and we welcome your comments.

According to How Stuff Works, the top five future technology myths are:

5. We’ll all be driving flying cars soon

4. We’re approaching the technological singularity

3. Moore’s Law will always hold true

2. Robots will be our friends

1. We can stop climate change.

In the case of policy, the equivalent myth is the inevitability of policy development and determination dissolving into some kind of ever-rolling 24/7 technology-enabled plebiscite, and that we will all feel perfectly represented. Of course, the future is not inevitable. Despite the obvious benefits to opening-up policy research and development (at least from our point of view), the future is something we make, and innovation is mostly about implementation. At the same time, and at the risk of falling into the myth trap, it also feels inevitable that policy research and development is going to change – for two main reasons.

Firstly, social change. Politics is changing and our political institutions aren’t changing nearly quickly enough to keep up. We’re in the middle of a long-term cultural change, flowing away from deference and attachment (to a community, to a class, to a party) and towards individualism, autonomy, and self-determination. This is often assumed to mean that we no longer want to be part of anything, that we’re all just self-acquisitive, selfish individualists. We hope it means the opposite.

We increasingly expect and demand that our voice is registered and (to some extent) listened to. We want to be involved – where institutions can demonstrate that they recognise who we are and that we have something to say. We want to exercise individual self-determination, but we want to do it together. We want to represent ourselves, rather than be represented. It’s not incidental that the President of the United States was a community organiser. Look also at the rapid growth of communities and movements such as Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees, Citizens UK (London Citizens), and Make Poverty History (returning in 2013). We’re only at the beginning of finding new ways to mobilise people in order to change policy. Any existing institutions – from charities to companies as well as political parties – that don’t provide meaningful ways for us to participate will surely just fade away.

Secondly, technology. Many of the communities mentioned in the previous paragraph wouldn’t have been possible even a few years ago; now because of the internet and social media anyone can establish a socially purposeful social network (which is what we’re doing here). These platforms represent the principles of community organising made digital, but our conventional political and policy processes haven’t begun to reflect these various forms of digitally enabled community organising.

Part of the public’s disengagement from politics is certainly about structural issues – the decline in the efficacy of the nation-state in an age of globalisation and transnational corporations, the increasingly widely shared view that whoever we vote for, the government we get is of, for and by the 1 per cent, and so on. But part of it is also probably due to the fact that our democratic processes are in the dark ages technologically speaking, on the apparent assumption that applying even twentieth century tools to the business of taking part would be tantamount to ‘letting light in on magic’. So we can vote instantly for something as inconsequential as a Saturday evening TV talent show, but we still trudge to an empty school on a week day to exercise our democratic rights. Institutions that don’t use the technologies we use everyday quickly seem out-of-date and out-of-touch.

From this perspective, the UK Government’s moves towards openness are welcome but limited. Initiatives such as open data, e-petitions and opening-up publicly funded research are innovative but, given the extent of public disengagement, also insufficient. Alongside open data and open services, the third dimension of open government – and we would argue the most important of all – is open decision-making. This isn’t about developing better forms of consultation, rather it has to be about cooperative problem-solving. The future of national policymaking, the only way we can resolve the crisis in trust and legitimacy facing us, paradoxically lies in the ethos and practices of community organising.

In this project, this means developing new ways that policy development can be informed by providers of public and voluntary services, frontline practitioners and the public who use services. It’s their expertise and experience that’s largely missing from policy development at the moment, and policy is poorer as a result. The working title for the project is ‘new think tank’ (at least for the next couple of weeks), but it’s not really a think tank as commonly understood – rather it’s an open public platform for policy research and development. We’ve suggested here before how many think tanks neglect social media and how in particular they miss the opportunity to use it to host conversations. We think that a social network could be used to work with frontline practitioners and service users, in order to draw directly on their expertise, experience and insight to create better policy.

It’s not inevitable that our approach will work, but it’s inevitable that the way we develop policy has to change. In the future we might not all be perfectly represented, but we definitely need to be much better represented. This project is about what we can do right now to improve policymaking, but it’s also about anticipating and responding to this future – starting today.


Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 8. Policy would be more innovative

This is the eighth 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’re publishing the rest of the series over the next week, and we welcome your comments.

With less money and, in the case of ‘rising tide’ issues such as an ageing society, less time as well, we need plenty of new ideas in social policy – but where they come from matters. Steve Jobs said that: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” True, but a lot of innovation is sparked by seeing people’s needs close-up and figuring out better ways to meet them. This is why practitioners have created many of the best new approaches, and why we should distinguish between two types of innovation – those that seem like a good idea on paper but should stay there, and those that are good in practice because that’s where they’ve come from.

Firstly, paper innovation, or as we’ve it called it here before the ‘blueprint approach‘. A few years’ ago Demos pointed out that government holds a ‘pipeline’ view of innovation, meaning that:

  • new solutions are mostly developed in Whitehall departments and R&D labs in large technology firms (and indeed sometimes in think tanks);
  • innovation grows out of major hardware solutions implemented at scale and business process re-engineering;
  • process innovation (or ‘lean systems’) is the most effective way of improving efficiency;
  • innovation is driven only by market or quasi-market competition; and
  • the primary job of public servants and frontline practitioners is to implement what emerges from this pipeline.

The current Government would claim to have moved decisively away from this kind of thinking with its emphasis on ‘open public services‘, in which decentralisation, localism, choice and outcomes-based payments will create many more opportunities for grassroots-led innovation. But it continues to push ‘solutions’ such as lean and shared services, adheres even more than its predecessors to the importance of competition, and can’t restrain itself from introducing big ‘top-down’ reforms such as universal benefits and the Work Programme, Academies and free schools, Police Commissioners and the NHS reforms – many in the name of greater localism, it says, but with the obvious irony that they all are being pushed (imposed) from the centre.

Innovations dreamt up by civil servants and think tanks can be whizzy but can also lack groundedness, practicality, a proper analysis of possible bad outcomes, and a constituency of support necessary for successful implementation (pace the NHS reforms in particular). It would be tragic as a result if ‘innovation’ became a dirty word amongst practitioners – something that’s largely ‘done to’ them rather than ‘done by’ them. Fortunately however, there is a better way.

Secondly, then, practical innovation. Many of the most exciting ideas in public services over the past few years have come from practitioners and service users – personalisation and direct payments, family friendly policies, user voice (from the disability rights movement in particular), Nurse Family Partnerships, the Expert Patients Programme, The Swindon LIFE programme (developed by Participle with 15 local families), Keyring and Shared Lives in social care, the Richmond Fellowship’s RETAIN programme and Star Wards in mental health.

This isn’t surprising. Practitioners and users are much closer to problems, and they can see for themselves the ways in which existing services aren’t working (especially ‘failure demand‘ and where this stems from). Unlike most policy wonks, practitioners find it difficult to insulate themselves from the frustrations of services users, their families and local communities. Consequently, practitioners’ intelligence is akin to what W. Edwards Deming called ‘profound knowledge‘, rather than the partisanship and prejudice that often characterises policy debate in the Westminster bubble. Practitioners can also test out for themselves the viability of alternative approaches (though they often do it surreptitiously, which tells you something about how far we still have to go to create a system that supports frontline innovation).

This has important implications for policy. Practitioners and service users experience policy – they see firsthand how the approaches designed at the centre, from funding and commissioning to regulation and performance measurement, actually operates at the frontline. They are better positioned to anticipate how it will be interpreted and implemented, not according to the perfect blueprints of its creators but based on what happened when previous policy encountered reality. This includes the likely unintended consequences, for example, how measurement and targets can be ‘gamed’. From this, practitioners are also better placed than policy wonks to identify ways that policies act as barriers to better provision (whether the policy in question derives from central government or their own service or organisation), and so how policy could be reformed to create a more suitable and supportive environment for services including innovative approaches.

Think tanks can and have supported some of the practitioner-developed innovations mentioned above, and this has been important. But more often than not think tanks neglect others’ ideas in favour of their own (as part of the ‘battle of ideas‘ they cling to), and don’t do enough to build alliances with charities and campaigners. We might also wonder why it is that receiving a ‘seal of approval’ from think tanks matters so much, given their typical remove from the reality of life on the frontline.

What’s out-of-date then – what should be our priority for innovation – is the way we innovate in policy, including challenging the largely closed ‘innovation industry’ that inadvertently reinforces the idea that innovation is a specialised ‘elite activity’ beyond the reach of the rest of us. Instead, to get more fresh new ideas we need to go beyond the same old suspects. Focusing more on practitioner-led innovations will mean a greater practicality in new ideas. It will also – if we chose to listen – mean policy that’s better suited to frontline innovation. After all, if government can ask practitioners for suggestions of where to save money, there’s no reason it can’t ask them for their ideas to improve policy – which is also what this project is about.