Reconnecting the power supply

The full text of Matthew Taylor's annual lecture at the RSA.

Even during a double dip recession, in international and historical terms, Britain in 2012 is a rich country with capacity to become richer. Yet today hundreds of thousands of older citizens will fail to receive the level of care they need to enjoy dignity, let alone a reasonable quality of life; the individual prospects of British children will continue to depend more on class background than ability or merit; an estimated six million people who want full time jobs are without them, and despite our best intentions, we are still far from working out how to live within the limits scientists think we should set as a matter of global emergency on carbon emissions. There are as many reasons to believe these problems will get worse as that they will get better.

Most of us would like to live in a more caring, socially just, economically dynamic and environmentally responsible country. The challenge is to close the gap between our aspirations and the trajectory on which current thinking and action places us. But to do this we need to think afresh about social power, where it comes from and how it might be rekindled.

Responding to population ageing, increasing social mobility and achieving environmental sustainability are examples of what some analysts call ‘wicked’ issues. They have complex causes, multiple stakeholders and in the foreseeable future they are unlikely to be fully ‘solved’. Most importantly, while most policy interventions seek merely to adapt an aspect of underlying patterns of public attitudes and behaviour, significant progress on wicked issues may demand much more far-reaching changes in social norms, expectations and capabilities.

It is more than fifty years since John F Kennedy’s injunction: ‘And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country’. In the decades since, our understanding of what drives citizens to do the right thing has advanced. Insights from behavioural economics, social psychology and social marketing led in 2008 to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit publishing a paper exploring ‘culture change’, looking at how to encourage healthy eating, educational participation and environmental responsibility. David Cameron’s concept of the Big Society also focused on encouraging people to act together for social good, particularly at the neighborhood level. But the Big Society idea has floundered and, rather than engaging with deeper systemic challenges, the insights emerging from Whitehall’s focus on behaviour change remain at the margins of policy-making.

The impression is of politicians gingerly prodding, but failing fully to confront, a wider problem of social aspiration. The lens through issues are viewed can be telling. A recent report on failing care for frail old people in hospital blamed managers and lack of compassion in nurses. Yet neglect is more likely when a vulnerable person has no advocate. The problem is, therefore, not just about public service standards but also the isolation of many older people; an issue which goes to much wider questions about society and our responsibilities to each other. A facile debate about social mobility focuses almost entirely on how to get talented poor people to be upwardly mobile (even though this may simply concentrate disadvantage in those left behind), but questions about the characteristics of a just society or the fierce resistance of the privileged to downward mobility are avoided. Because significant progress on wicked issues involves challenges to current ways of thinking and current ways of perceiving our best interests, it seems hard even to debate these issues openly and honestly.

Social pessimism

Nearly two decades after Kennedy’s inaugural speech, in a powerful but now largely forgotten Presidential address, Jimmy Carter alerted his country to a phenomenon new to the modern era – most people thought America would get worse not better in the future. At the time Ronald Reagan and others attacked Carter’s concern as being ‘un-American’ but in the decades since speech social pessimism (contrasting with higher, albeit somewhat unrealistic, personal optimism) has tended to deepen across the West. People explain their gloom in terms of specific grievances, a sense of unfairness or disillusionment with politicians: but is there something more fundamental at play?

Conventional politics focuses almost exclusively on arguments over who should have power and how it should be used. Social pessimism is a symptom of a deeper feeling of powerlessness, the focus of this article; not only that the power to make society stronger isn’t being used effectively, but that there simply isn’t enough constructive power available to tackle some of the most important and difficult issues. Instead the power we have seems more suited to blocking change. Political systems are silted up by vested interests and a determination among interest groups and better off citizens to protect assets accumulated in earlier, easier, times.

Defined simply, power is the capacity to achieve desired objectives. It can be expressed in various ways; through coercion, explicit persuasion or an ability to shape norms and assumptions. We can also think of social power having three distinct forms: first, the downward power of hierarchical authority associated most strongly with the state; second, the lateral power of solidarity and shared values generally associated with the idea of community; and third, the upward power of individual aspirations, which tends to be associated with markets. Wicked problems are by definition both tough and multi-faceted so we need to draw on all these forms of social power to tackle them. When progress seems impossible, we revert to a fourth way of thinking about power and change; fatalism.

Across history different ways of viewing and exercising power have been more or less dominant. For example, despite some commercial hotspots and occasional outbursts of solidaristic rebellion such as the Peasants’ Revolt, the medieval period was characterised by a combination of religiously fatalism and feudal hierarchy. In the wake of the reformation, the 17th century Golden Age of the Netherlands saw a powerful combination of forces create an unprecedented flowering of prosperity, culture and scientific inquiry; an effective devolved form of governance, strong solidaristic bonds of nationalism and faith (in the face of threats from Spain and nature) and the ambition of an emerging merchant class whose acquisitive industry was legitimised by Calvinism. In the twentieth century the decades after the Second World War also saw substantial gains in economic growth and social provision, as the confident bureaucracies of big government and big corporations crafted the modern welfare state and mixed economy while social liberalism and consumerism offered unprecedented individual freedom. This era came to an end as the oil crisis of the seventies exposed both the frailty of many Western economies and the perceived failings of large welfare states. Since then, British society has come to be dominated by different ways of perceiving and exercising power.

Power shortage

As we saw in the wake of the credit crunch, and in other emergencies, there are many times when only decisive top down leadership will suffice, but beyond such exigencies, hierarchical authority is beset by doubt. From MPs to bankers, from the Catholic church to newspaper editors, those in authority have seen their behaviours subject to aggressive scrutiny and have been found wanting. Whilst there is a danger in exaggerating previous levels of faith in politicians, the 2012 Annual Edelman Trust Survey found the proportion of people inclined to trust government across 18 countries had fallen to a new low of just 38%. Several factors combine to generate this loss of faith.

First, after the growth of the post war decades of full employment, rising family incomes and social wages, the current economic and fiscal crisis is exacerbating long standing problems of high unemployment and stagnant living standards for most workers. In the corporate sector too the rate at which big companies fail or lose their reputations is also accelerating, while the post war employers’ promise of a job for life and secure pension have long since been abandoned.

Second, post war affluence, rising levels of education, innovation in consumer markets and mass migration have all contributed to changes in the make-up of the public and in its norms and aspirations. The result is a more complex society and a public with more differentiated needs, more gains to protect and more personalised expectations. Finally, information technology has now increased the pressure: easier accessibility to information, the importance of flat networks and the speed of on-line mobilisation all represent challenges to top-heavy bureaucracies.

What about the second form of power; social solidarity? Private affluence, population mobility, mass-cultural exchange and most of all social diversity are implicated in the decline of solidaristic institutions and impulses. For 99% of our time of earth it has made sense for human beings to trust people they know and who are like them more than those who are different and unknown. A wealth of evidence from social psychology shows this instinct continues to be powerful even in those with the most inclusive and liberal of worldviews. So it is hardly surprising in an ever more footloose and diverse world to find evidence of falling levels of trust in strangers, particularly in areas which have become rapidly more diverse.

The last thirty years have seen a rapid decline in active membership and even nominal allegiance to a set of civic institutions such as the organised church, trade unions and political parties all of which offered ‘congregational’ spaces and opportunities for cooperative actions across significant boundaries of interest and identity. Also important have been changes in class: A fracturing both of working class communities, most vividly illustrated by the shift of social housing from a mainstream tenure of choice to a residual sector for people without work, and of the middle class as the most well off have detached themselves into a global elite. 

In contrast, to the declining power of authority and solidarity, individualism is the strongest force of our times, but it is of a form that is problematic not just for society – driving inequality and unsustainable levels of consumption - but also for the individual. While many indicators point to social progress, for example, rising life expectancies and a greater tolerance of diversity, there are others, such as the incidence of diseases of overconsumption and of mental illness, which can be seen as evidence of the pathologies of consumerist individualism. Furthermore, a wealth of behavioural research has not only shattered the economists’ myth of utility-maximising rational man, but challenged many of the ‘common sense’ self-perceptions which feed narrow individualism. Research shows, for example, that most people systematically exaggerate their intellectual consistency, their talents and their virtues.

A number of overlapping explanations have been offered for the dominance of this kind of individualism, but the problem may not be so much with individualism itself: personal ambition and self-confidence are the corollaries of achievement and enterprise, and concern for the unique individual is at the heart of much religion doctrine as well as the human rights movement. But individualism unrestrained by the bonds of social obligation and the constraints of wise hierarchy is prone to myopia, hubris and self destruction. In the absence of countervailing forces that fatalism that has filled the gap in our view of society and its possibilities. It is this combination – individualism and fatalism in the context of a loss of faith in hierarchy and a loss of solidaristic capacity – which gives rise to the trend toward social pessimism.   

Clumsy solutions

The relationship between the different forms of, and perspectives on, social power is the focus of a group of researchers drawing on the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas. Under the unhelpful banner of ‘Cultural Theory’ they argue that when it comes to complex and contested change, the hierarchical, solidaristic, individualistic and fatalistic perspectives are ever-present as competing diagnoses, dispositions and prescriptions.

Each form of power has distinctive qualities. The strategic capacity of hierarchical approaches are set in the balance against a tendency to be controlling; solidaristic cultures foster selflessness but can also breed insularity and sectarianism; individualism is creative and dynamic but can also be selfish and irresponsible. Exponents of cultural theory make the case for ‘clumsy solutions’, which combine the three purposive forms of power whilst recognising the ubiquity of fatalism. Rather than seeking to resolve or suppress the inherent tensions between different ways of seeing and exercising power, by acknowledging and working with those tensions clumsy solutions are designed to be both more holistic and resilient.

Organisations or strategies which rely on only two of the three active forces of change are likely to be sub-optimal in the face of complexity. For example, public sector organisations tend to have strong hierarchical and solidaristic tendencies but find it difficult to value or develop the capacity for risk taking and innovation associated with individualism.

One-dimensional cultures or approaches are inflexible and prone to collapse. An example is provided by the intense individualism of investment banks. Not only did these institutions eschew any sense of value-based solidarity, but the pace and scale of the transactions carried out by individual brokers defied effective hierarchical oversight. At the other extreme, an historical study of communes (avowedly solidaristic institutions) found poor survival rates except where strict rules and obligations were enforced, presumably by some form of hierarchy. The failure of the Soviet empire can be seen as a case study in the pathologies of a predominantly hierarchical culture (belying its solidaristic claims).

Cultural theory implies two intersecting routes to greater ambition in the face of wicked issues: fostering forms of hierarchy, solidarity and individualism which better fit 21st century challenges and combining these into clumsy solutions.

A number of examples suggest how this approach might have helped policy makers achieve greater success, or avoided strategic errors. The progress made by the last Government in pursuit of its ambitious goal of eradicating child poverty should not be underestimated. However, not only could more progress have been expected given the benign economic and fiscal environment, but a noble and transformative objective, which could have tapped into social solidarity and individual aspiration, was presented as something government could solve alone. A contrasting narrowness is illustrated by David Cameron’s Big Society appeal to new forms of solidarity and social responsibility. Important reasons for the idea’s loss of credibility were the absence of a coherent model of change for government or any explanation of why individuals might be expected suddenly to become civic activists. Crossing both parties the approach taken to economic policy up to the credit crunch– from fawning over financial capitalism to encouraging mass property speculation - not only assumed but encouraged a form of narrow individualism and in so doing largely ignored the economic role of social solidarity and national industrial strategy (factors present in countries which have fared better through and since the crisis).

In contrast, a clumsy approach to the wicked problem of providing for a growing frail elderly population would seek to mobilise all the forms of social power. The national and local state, and other agencies working through hierarchical channels, would frame the issue to inspire, engage and educate and thus provide a rationale for difficult strategic policy choices (funding long term care, better targeting benefits and tax breaks). Furthermore, hierarchical interventions would be painstakingly designed so as not to crowd out but to enhance the scope for solidarity (inter-generational and local) and individualism (personal responsibility) to contribute to a new social settlement.

However, while the sources of social power on which a clumsy solutions should draw are clear, it is, as we have seen, less clear that these sources of power are currently fit for purpose.

Power renewal

The contemporary frailties of hierarchy (in terms of performance, trust, responsiveness) demand a different form of leadership, combining clarity and ambition towards priority social ends with openness and flexibility in relation to policy means. Exploring this topic Professor Keith Grint has argued for leadership that is; ‘about questions not answers’, ‘relationship not structures’ and ‘reflection not reaction’.

Authority today must be earned in new ways. Modern politicians excuse a lack of clarity or courage by referring the vagaries of public opinion or the vested interest within their own shrinking political powerbase. Similarly, in a system lacking effective stewardship, corporate leaders feel constrained by investor short-termism. Yet still, despite paying lip service to consultation, top-down policies continue to be sold by leaders as if they had no limitations, risks or drawbacks (if such policies existed they would have been implemented long ago). Instead we need leadership that is bolder in its aims and clearer in its values but also more candid about the limits of central control and knowledge.

As this implies, government needs also to shift from seeking primarily to deliver policy outcomes itself (or through sub-contracting) to refining a supportive framework upon which civil society can develop its own solutions. There are echoes of this principle in the model of the ‘post-bureaucratic state’ articulated by David Cameron and his allies before and after the 2010 General Election. Devolving power, opening up official data and encouraging new forms of results based payment are all important steps but need further refinement. However, the exigencies of Coalition Government operating in a very difficult economic environment have rendered the promised revolution in governance as yet limited and inconsistent. In particular, the shift from a consumerist to a relational mode of public services is partial and half hearted.

As hierarchies search for ways to connect and manage, their leaders often seek to invoke solidaristic values. The debate over the nature of ‘Britishness’ and the advocacy of a Big Society are recent examples. Meanwhile consistently high levels of public concern about immigration are reminders that concerns about belonging and fairness are as likely involve fear of change as hopes for the future.

Solidaristic impulses exist at every level, from national celebration to good neighborliness, the challenge is to articulate or channel the capacity needed to confront wicked issues.

At the national level there is, for example, an absence of the kind of sustained social partnership that has enabled Germany to manage its economic cycle more successfully than the UK. In comparison to the post war model, a new corporatism will need to be more open in its goals and methods, more engaging in its communication and decision-making processes and more accountable for its performance. The price government should demand from partners for a role in collaborative policy formulation is not only that they sign up to goals that go beyond narrow self-interest but also they continuously engage their own constituency in debate and action.

This is likely to be as challenging for the hierarchies of civic organizations as for those ministers and civil servants brought up to view corporatism as an anachronism. Despite new forms of networking, most people are members of one or more traditional membership organizations, ranging from small local sports clubs to the four million members of the National Trust. But while there is huge variety in the sector, among the major national organisations consumerist techniques for fund raising and mass marketing are much more developed than strategies for membership engagement and collaboration.

With evidence that even the third sector’s legitimacy is starting to erode, the leaders of civic organisations need to confront tensions between the difficult process of negotiating change in partnership and the special pleading and shroud waving which achieve short term mobilisation. An interesting initiative is the Common Cause alliance of development and environmental charities that is exploring how to go beyond traditional social marketing to have a deeper impact on social values. There are also new types of civic group. London Citizens has been the most high profile example of a renewed interest in community organisation. However, as the rise and fall of the Occupy movement demonstrates, there is a substantial challenge in moving from a mode of protest and campaign to a broader movement with greater normative depth and organisational reach.

As some forms of associational life have declined others have flourished. The internet is awash with new mothers, patients with long term conditions, hobbyists, technology geeks and campaigners offering advice, support or proposals for collective action. Yet on-line communication is more effective at short-term mobilisation than long-term co-operation, and at bringing together people who share interests and beliefs, rather than providing a basis for more diverse groups to debate, organise and develop solutions. We need a deeper understanding and more experimentation in turning on-line networks into loci for real world organisation, especially ones that engage disadvantaged communities.

Also, in seeking to foster stronger local solidarity and develop solutions that span different social groups it is important to understand modern communities and how they function. The fast growing discipline of social network analysis– of which the RSA is a leading practical exponent – offers ways of mapping face to face and on-line networks, and exploring their potential as the foundation for improving life chances and collaboration. Unlike more traditional social data, network analysis seems also to be a tool with which community members themselves can engage and purposively shape through their interactions. 

More credible hierarchy and stronger solidarity will also contribute to better aligning the power of individual aspiration with the kind of social ambition and responsibility necessary to solve wicked issues. Signs of a questioning of possessive individualism can be found in diverse places. Amongst public thinkers there is a growing revival of interest in neo-Aristotelian ideas of virtue, for example as the cornerstone of Catholic social teaching. In the wake of the credit crunch and subsequent scandals there seems to be genuine attempts in some quarters to explore the foundations for ethical capitalism. There is the case being made in many parts of the world (although not currently by English schools ministers) for a greater focus on life skills and philosophical reflection in children’s learning. And there is the interest among policy makers about the determinants of well-being (especially given evidence linking sociability and volunteering with individual contentment).

A different angle

For those who live in the rich two thirds of the globe, modern life offers opportunities and protections beyond the dreams of our ancestors. Yet many of today’s problems feel intractable and social pessimism is in danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Politicians, policy makers, and all of us who seek to influence them need to look up from the often thankless task of applying the currently fragile or distorted tools of social power to the more fundamental and exciting challenge of renewing these tools and combining them to design clumsy but ambitious solutions.

This article is a call to look at society and its problems from a different angle. The search for clumsy solutions is more akin to a form of design than to traditional policy making. In seeking to engage each dimension of power its principles are holistic and systemic, but in response to the inherent complexity generated by tensions between hierarchical, solidaristic, individualistic and fatalistic perspectives, its practice is experimental and pragmatic. Like design sometimes the best solutions emerge from adaptation or instinct.

In the Olympic Games we have seen a vivid example of the scope for clumsiness. At the heart of the success lay strong and effective hierarchical leadership, the powerful solidarity of national pride and the Olympic spirit, and, of course, the enthralling efforts of individuals competing to be the world’s best. Rarely, if ever, are the ingredients so richly available as they were for London 2012, nevertheless to see a nation prone to skepticism and pessimism amazing itself, and impressing the world, with its capacity for engagement, mobilisation and collective joy is to get a glimpse of the alignment of forces that could enable significant progress on wicked issues.


Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.