Reflections on New Think Tank – 6. Zoe Vickerman

This is a series of posts in which we’ve invited people to give us their reactions to Guerilla Policy (formerly the New Think Tank project). This post: Zoe Vickerman, Director, Centre for Social Justice Alliance and Awards. Thanks to Zoe for contributing the post, and we welcome your comments.

A few weeks ago, I sat conspicuously in the front row of an excellent panel discussion on child poverty, hosted by Policy Exchange. Worthy adversaries, including the Rt Hon Frank Field MP, set out their views on what they felt the measures of child poverty should be in this country. I became increasingly aware of the agitation of the gentleman sitting next to me. His physical twitching turned into muffled bursts of outrage, and it wasn’t long before I could predict exactly which comments were going to elicit what responses. The more a speaker extolled income transfer as the best way to lift a child out of poverty, the more this gentleman leaned forward in his seat, nodding aggressively. But an uncontroversial suggestion from Fraser Nelson that giving an extra £10 to an addict would do little to lift their child out of their impoverished standard of living was met with eye-rolling and headshaking. Concerned that others might confuse my physical proximity to him with any kind of intellectual proximity, I put on my best condescending expression and shuffled to the furthest edge of my seat.

What surprised me was not the Mediterranean nature of his expressions. In fact, I find it rather impressive that he should have retained such a quality in a country that prefers to squash at infancy such displays of passion. Child poverty is an emotive subject, and I believe it should make us all equally hot under the collar. However, I have great objections to the notion that someone representing a prominent and well-regarded organisation (which turned out to be the case) would be so entrenched in their view that they are unable to accept what is plain fact – an undeniable truth. A child growing up in a home with a single parent who is addicted to drugs will not live in any better circumstances if the family has a little extra cash. We all know where the money’s likely to go.

The Centre for Social Justice is a social policy think tank, working on issues that range from education to welfare, debt and addiction. We think, but most importantly we listen. Our team of policy experts become experts thanks to hundreds of professionals, front line charity workers, academics (yes, they are important too) and people who have been affected by the situation that we are researching. For any given report that we publish, say community cohesion, the team leading the research will have taken hundreds of hours of evidence from what we call our CSJ Alliance – a network of over 300 local charities that are changing lives in communities across the UK, and which have been assessed as particularly outstanding and effective.

To the CSJ, these charities are not a take-it-or-leave-it source of sad personal case studies, offering illustrations to make a policy document not quite such a dull read. Rather, we recognise these charities as pioneers of innovation and effectiveness, the best of which are changing lives more successfully and more rapidly than any alternative public or private sector offering. They don’t just highlight problems to us – they give us solutions and prove that these solutions work. We need to listen to them.

For if we don’t, then we end up rolling our eyes in policy discussions, knocking about theoretical arguments where people ‘take sides’ that are determined by their broader political leaning, which may or may not bear any relation to reality. The starting point must surely be evidence. Only evidence from the ground has the power to shake policymakers out of their ivory towers.

The CSJ recently surveyed our 300 Alliance charities, asking what single aspect of early childhood had the greatest bearing on that child’s life outcomes. The near unanimous response was that growing up in a stable and loving family was the primary determining factor. Yes, money is important, but people and relationships are more so. That is the voice of people who face every day the issues that policy makers are trying to fix.

New Think Tank’s principles of engaging with those on the ‘front line’ are right. They are the ones with the answers, so let’s start listening.

Zoe Vickerman, Director, Centre for Social Justice Alliance and Awards


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


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.


Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 6. Policy would be cheaper to research and develop

This is the sixth 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 a half, and we welcome your comments.

Innovation means that products and services get faster, better and cheaper – but only generally and only over time. On any given project, engineers say you have to ‘pick any two’ – that you can’t cut costs and improve quality while delivering in less time. In 1992, then NASA administrator Daniel Goldin disagreed. Under his ‘faster, better, cheaper‘ management philosophy, NASA launched 146 payloads worth a total of $18 billion, and all but 10 were successful. The problem was that the ones that were unsuccessful were hugely embarrassing – among them the debacle of the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter, which was lost because a contractor failed to convert from imperial to metric units when coding its software.

In previous posts in this series we’re suggested that a lot of policy research and development could be conducted better and faster than at present, by being conducted collaboratively by and with provider organisations, practitioners and the public who use services. But we also think that this approach could prove cheaper as well, and that in this case instead of working against each other, faster-better-cheaper could be mutually reinforcing.

First of all though, why does ‘cheaper’ matter when it comes to policy? At the moment, many valuable contributors to better policy research and development are effectively priced out of the market. No organisation that conducts or commissions policy and research work has money to waste, but smaller charities typically don’t have sufficient resources or capacity to undertake much policy work themselves or to sponsor a think tank or a research consultancy to do it for them. The result is a narrower set of voices in policy – and policy is poorer for it.

The heart of the problem is the business models used by policy and research providers such as think tanks. We’ve suggested before that the business model behind think tanks is ripe for disruption. The reasons for this echo why incumbents in so many other sectors, from retail to media, are being disrupted by new market entrants based around the internet and social media: high fixed costs; incumbents focusing on existing ‘high-end’ customers; over-specified, often expensive products; and limited use of cheap, commonplace ICT. Most of the time, most think tanks operate as part of the old economy rather than the new.

As a result, and because of a lack of suitable alternatives, think tanks have in effect played a gatekeeper role in helping only a minority of organisations to develop and strengthen their policy messages to government and introducing these organisations to policymakers. Think tanks provide a platform, but not to everyone. It’s not that they want to exclude smaller organisations, just that most smaller organisations can’t afford to commission them.

However, the lesson from other sectors is that the internet and social media can offer routes around existing gatekeepers, by creating faster, better and cheaper ways for smaller ‘producers’ to reach new audiences. And for many charities and other organisations, the engineers’ dilemma  is actually less significant, since if ‘good enough’ policy work was faster it would also be better (for example, so that they can input to a current policy debate or media story).

The key is this is finding and building a better business model, which is what we’re attempting to do here. Our approach is based on building an online platform – a social network – so that organisations such as charities can work directly with frontline practitioners and service users on policy issues, and harness the time, commitment, expertise and support of these groups in order to produce more credible, independent policy.

What’s certain is that if we don’t manage it, someone else will – that’s the inevitability of innovation. Like other sectors before it, policymaking is about to be disrupted.


Ten reasons why we need a new approach to developing social policy – 2. Policy would stand a better chance of achieving its objectives

This is the second 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.

In the policy world we sometimes appear to forget that ‘policy’ doesn’t stop at writing a pamphlet or publishing a bill. Whether policy ‘lives’ and fulfills the objectives set for it depends in part how easy it is to implement and operationalise, and whether a community of stakeholders who want it to succeed has been recruited to champion it. The best way for both of these to happen is to open-up policy research and development to a much broader range of participants.

On making policy easier to implement, the expertise and experience of those who work at the frontline in public and voluntary services – as well as those who use and rely on them – is largely neglected in current policy research and development. This expertise could help to design policy that stands a better chance of being implemented effectively. This doesn’t just apply to those at the frontline of course, but to anyone at any level of ‘the system’ who is responsible for taking policy from pamphlet to pavement.

Part of the reason for this neglect is that, for all the talk of performance improvement and ‘deliverology‘ over the past couple of decades (or ‘Mickey Mouse command and control’ if you’re John Seddon), there’s often still a gulf between those who develop policy and those who are responsible for making it real. Few people in the policy world (by which I mean senior civil servants, special advisers, think tankers and the politicians drawn increasingly from this narrow ‘political class’) have much practical experience beyond ‘thinking’, and they especially tend to lack any ‘doing’ experience in the sense of managing the delivery of programmes and services at scale.

The day-to-day demands of delivery might not be as glamorous as writing and publishing policy papers (on the policy wonk measure of desirability at least), but it’s equally if not more important to policy success. Despite this, delivery remains largely a mystery to most people in policy – something that ‘someone else does’. A civil servant who contacted us described the problem in the following way: while there is at least some public visibility when it comes to policy development (with consultations and so on), there is little transparency and political ownership of the implementation phase. The result, they suggest, is that when promised outcomes or savings are not achieved, it is the policy rather than the implementation that gets the blame. This sets off another hunt for ‘new ideas’ – what David Walker calls a restless ‘neophilia‘ – rather than the collective learning which might focus on how implementation, delivery and administration could be improved.

The most obvious way to capture this kind of learning would be to open-up policy research and development to more ‘doers’ – those nearer to and at the frontline. After all, implementation is necessarily a shared endeavour; it’s not about a single organisation winning the contest of ideas (or ‘think tank of the year’). Collective development of policy could also help to reduce the amount of policy that currently gets ‘lost in translation’ between the centre and local implementation.

This is why the Government missed an opportunity by not releasing at a much earlier stage a version of its NHS risk register (I recognise that they don’t see it this way). It’s likely that the quality of the risk analysis would have been greatly improved if it was conducted publicly and openly, by inviting medical professionals, managers, patients and other interested parties to use their experience and expertise to identify potential implementation problems and propose solutions – and remember, this is to help implement a policy (GP-led commissioning) that most practitioners agree with.

This brings us, briefly, to the second reason to open-up policy research and development – building a community of stakeholders to support successful policy implementation. If policy was developed more collaboratively, it would in all likelihood have many more champions amongst the frontline practitioners and the public (including service users) that had played a role in shaping it. This might be thought of as ‘naive’ by McKinseyites, but it’s been identified as one of the factors in policy success by an Institute for Government report published earlier this year, and illustrated by examples such as the ban on smoking in public places, the Climate Change Act, Scottish devolution and the introduction of the national minimum wage. Ironically, open and collaborative development might even be a hidden success factor in policies that the ‘deliverologists’ point to as proof for their ‘blueprint’ approach – see for example this review of Michael Barber’s book on education reform. Participation and collaboration is also how we want to develop this project – so let us know your thoughts.