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.
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!
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.
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.
Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 8. Policy would be more innovativePosted: May 16, 2012
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.
- 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.