Freedom on the Tyne – an evening of history, drama and celebration

A beautiful cold evening in Newcastle and Gateshead on Sunday got me thinking about the inter play between the history of a place, its stories and its sense of self. Freedom on the Tyne – a vast and awe inspiring theatrical celebration of Martin Luther Kings brilliant speech as he received his honorary doctorate from the University of Newcastle fifty years ago – culminated in a celebration on the Tyne Bridge eerily reminding everyone of the infinitely more terrifying march at Selma. But it wasn’t the extraordinarily skills acrobatic dancers, the stilt walkers or the moving speeches that hit me most. It wasn’t even the experience of seeing a busy urban route free of traffic.  It was the huge joint commemoration of the Peterloo Massacre, the Jarrow Marchers, the siege at Amritsar, the Sharpeville Massacre as well as the decision to cross at Selma, which together fired a celebration of protest and resistance, of global connections, and of pride in a place that could put all this on. Our public square can be a desiccated place – here were people apparently from communities across Tyneside, reimagining history, remembering music, celebrating historic oratory, poetry and dance, and doing so in a way that made those apparently distinct unconnected struggles feel incredibly relevant today. Historic connections across time and space really matter – and they speak to all sorts of people.

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Could the algorithm kill our capacity for kindness?

We all want services to be kind. Nobody seriously disputes it. All social change starts with the  very personal relationship between two people, and yet, as I’ve commented before, we struggle to be kind, citing professional codes, financial challenges and regulatory restrictions to explain our rather cool, and sometimes frankly impersonal,  approach to the decisions that public policy makes. Relational seems to be OK in theory, but much more problematic when it encourages  us to break the rules. Rules help and protect the professional, reducing the discriminatory impact of discretion. They allow us to sensibly ration spending, make clear and transparent decisions – and create a framework that seems to be fair.

And we want our services to  be fair. We don’t want our outcomes dependent on whether the nurse likes us or not. We don’t want some children encouraged more than others because the teacher enjoys their company.

We also want our services to be transparent. We want to know that the choice of drug regime for  a particular condition  is not governed by hunch, but by sound medical rationale, linked to outcomes. We want university places to be awarded in ways that can be understood. We want to be cared for by people who we can trust not to have favourites.  We fear the discretionary and the partial.

We’re getting better and better at demonstrating fairness, and encouraging transparency. The algorithm provides a  powerful support. We’re all familiar  with the amazon algorithm – you bought this so you’d like that – and we don’t need to be terribly insightful to recognise that our daily scrolling and browsing and tweeting provides an enormous body of data that allows companies large and small to target their wares very precisely at our credit cards.  The predictive power of data analytics, and their capacity to shape services can be seen in every clinical pathway, every assessment form, every checklist – and they daily grow in power. Protocols and pathways ensure that intervention most likely to result in the right outcomes are always chosen, and that time – and money – is not wasted on experimentation and following hunches. It’s clean, its straightforward, it passes the test of legislation, and social media challenge, but is it kind?

Kindness requires intuition. It requires a personal relationship. It require both  warmth and risk. It probably involves personal liking, and empathy, and it may not always be fair. A doctor treating patients with warmth and humanity may not follow the prescribed pathway. A teacher may see a spark that would never register on any scorecard. Someone else might see the sadness behind the eyes. A care worker might understand the  grief and loss that is the source of  so much anger and frustration. They might all recognise the boredom and tedium, the fury, the fear – the raw emotions that drive us to need public services, and  sometimes to  loathe them too.

No algorithm in the world can replace human understanding. It can produce fairness. It can resist challenge. It can tolerate the bright light of public transparency. And it can protect  the professional from accusations of partiality. It can make sure that both money and services are carefully rationed (and in any system, at any time, that will always be needed.)

But if it can’t also allow for the warmth of human interaction,  we may need to recognise that sometimes kindness and human relationships trump mechanical approaches to fairness, and to transparency. It might not be the algorithm alone that challenges kindness. Our approach to fairness and to transparency might also be questioned.


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All Our Children – A Play for our Times

This website doesn’t normally host theatre reviews, and I know that  I have none  of the skills or experience  to be a critic. But last week I went to see All Our Children by Stephen Unwin (full disclosure, he is my brother). It’s a moving play and  it’s brilliantly acted. It describes a particularly  hideous episode in the horror of the holocaust, focussing on the Nazi murder of  disabled young people. Of course the audience was rapt with attention.

But what I hadn’t expected was such a profound exposition of what seems to me to be one of the biggest – unspoken – social policy dilemma of our times. By using the horror of the past, the play forces us to think seriously about  what we really think about people who are never going to make an economic contribution. Those of us who grapple with public policy dilemmas would never dream of  using the harsh rhetoric of the Nazi administrator, but in our pursuit of  supposed fairness, and our obligation to make spending decisions transparent and apparently equitable, we regularly  witness decisions that ascribe differential value to human life. When the zealous Nazi administrator contrasts the vast expense of maintaining severely disabled children, with the good that could be done for so many other children, it was hard not to think of the agonising commissioning decisions taken daily in local authorities. And this is not only about austerity, or recent policy. The need to allocate money to support, ‘the few, not the many’,  in a reversal of the current Labour party campaign slogan, is a daily decision, and one which we need to talk about. Otherwise, those who don’t contribute economically are seen as objects of pity,  and discretionary generosity, not fellow citizens with intrinsic value as human beings.


Civil Society Shaping the Future

I was delighted to launch the Inquiry into the future of civil society at the NCVO Conference, and both invigorated and reassured by the response received from the voluntary sector in the room and on social media. There does seem to be a real appetite for a good look at how we are going to adapt […]

How much insecurity can we stand?

We live in precarious times. Every conversation I have been part of this week seems to have been about insecurity, and uncertainty in the UK. People are facing the most extraordinary insecurity in their daily lives.

We have  a labour market which – at every level – offers uncertainty and the prospect of rapid change, and as this excellent piece in Medium demonstrates, insecurity packs a powerful emotional punch. People are working short term, with unreliable shift patterns, and have little idea what work they will have next week or next month. Pay packets fluctuate along with the hours, and the prospect  of self employment, while bringing great freedom and sense of self direction to some, feels pretty much like casual labour to others.  This is well documented for the poorest households. Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the organisation I used to lead, has along with others, researched and written extensively about the precarious nature of work that creates such devastating poverty among those who are working. But this insecurity affects all sorts of people: its the professional jobs that now seem destined to change or disappear in the face of machine learning and artificial intelligence.  Jobs for graduates are also part time, inadequately remunerated, if paid at all, and frequently short term. The high priests of supercharged capitalism may claim that the economy depends upon this insecurity,  but people living through it are suffering in ways that we may not even yet recognise.

It’s just possible that we could cope with this financial and employment insecurity, if our homes and neighbourhoods  felt more stable. But  increasingly people find  homes in the private rented sector, managing  on short term tenancies, subject to regular review and probable rent increases. Those lucky enough to be housed in the social sector – either housing association for local authority – are also threatened with fixed term conditional tenancies, and with the ever present fear that an increase in income could change the basis of their tenancy. And those who are trying to buy their own home worry that even a small increase in interest rates, could propel them into mortgage default.

Little wonder then that our political  leaders lament the lack of community cohesion. No surprise that people find it hard to contribute to a community where they may only be spending a short time. Not too surprising that employee engagement is the biggest challenge reported by British employers. After all, loyalty from the workforce requires loyalty from the employer too.

And no surprise either, about the human cost of all this uncertainty. Only this week the Children’s Society published compelling evidence about the educational impact of frequent house moves. Little surprise that families struggle to unite in the face of such insecurity. We can all imagine, if we only pause for  moment, the emotional price paid for not knowing what the future holds.

But on a national scale, is it any surprise that with this level of insecurity and uncertainty, people are sceptical, if not downright hostile, to the offerings of political parties? Is it any wonder  that a staggering 67%of people eligible to vote in the recent Stoke by election chose not to do so? Is insecurity the dominant theme of our time in England? and if so, is it any wonder that 52% of the population felt inspired by a slogan about ‘taking back control’.

We all need  personal security, and a base upon which we can build our lives, follow our personal desires, develop ourselves.

For civil society organisations, which want to develop well-being in neighbourhoods, create civil space for people to make tricky decisions, and build strong networks of support and action, the first step must  be to recognise the damage caused by this everyday exhausting insecurity. Then challenge it.

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Communities – 9 ways to break them

All my working life the call has been for stronger communities. Communities that could – depending on fashion and decade – care for their neighbours, enable regeneration, manage their carbon footprints, be more resilient, engage in community governance. You name it, reports of all kinds and all types have frequently concluded that stronger communities are what we need.

Most recently I have been very struck by work in Scotland, led by Carnegie UK Trust (where I have a fellowship,) and JRF where I used to be CEO, and by Lloyds TSB  Foundation for Scotland , where I chair the Observers Group, describing the web of support that enables communities to survive, and even thrive, in troubled times. In a lovely phrase, one of the participants described this as

‘spraying water on a spider’s web, and seeing the drops’

The metaphor recognises the strength, and the invisibility, of these webs of support and engagement that make life worth living. The challenge is to find out how such webs grow. We can see that they are just as important for well-being, happiness and a good society as the far more visible webs of economic flows, digital connectivity and a transport infrastructure, but we don’t know much about how to build them.

However, we do know quite a lot about how they can be destroyed. And the more I consider the vital significance of this human interactive web, rather than the one we access via our computers, the more I am struck by the things we have, almost systematically, done to extinguish them. Here’s my list of the things that make communities weaker rather than stronger
1. Make people so busy that they haven’t got time to take part. We know from study after study that people are working harder and longer, and that in particular poorer people are doing several jobs just to make ends meet. Shift work has always been a threat to community engagement – precarious, unreliable and irregular work is a formidable adversary. Make sure that financial survival requires that people are always either working or actively looking for work.
2. Keep them moving. Six months’ tenancies, rents that increase when the wages go up, short term tenancies with periodic review. All ways to make sure people have a minimal stake in where they live, and, perhaps even more fundamentally, believe that their neighbours have little stake too.
3. Take away the places people meet. Civicus have documented the decline in the amount of civic space. As we attend church less often, have an apparently limitless choice of places to eat and drink, and our community centres get more dilapidated and the public realm is either neglected or private, safe places for community engagement are vanishing. .
4. Make the rules scary. Work commissioned by JRF a few years ago made it very clear that the fear of regulation, and litigation, and uncertainty about both, was a real inhibitor to actively engaged communities. Why would you clear a path in your local park when you are told that that might make you liable for someone falling over?
5. Use architecture to divide How many new housing schemes provide genuine, informal places to meet and coincide? I have visited far too many estates that could have been designed to keep people from chatting casually, that privilege privacy over inter action, that make chance encounter extremely unlikely.
6. Dismiss engagement. Talk about those who try to organise as busy-bodies, phone leaders, trouble makers, angry and difficult people, persistent complainers or the ‘great and the good’. Make it unfashionable to want to get involved.
7. Punish those who do – unleash the power of social media and be hyper critical of anyone who expresses an opinion, or tries to do things differently. The modern face of public shaming  on Twitter and Facebook  seem to work well.
8. Introduce new policy without thinking of community impact. Plan the bus route so it doesn’t connect parts of the community. Charge for the collection of old mattresses and furniture so that the poorest parts of the estate look like rubbish tips. Design a lettings policy to make sure that people don’t live near people who are too like them. But also make sure that the people facing the biggest hcallenges are all together.
9. Demand the impossible. When you know that a community group is running a successful toddler group, ask them to take on the management of a dilapidated piece of public space and suggest that at the same time they could take on running a library. Lament their failure, and lack of ambition.

Talking about community self-organising, engagement, self-efficacy or just action can readily be dismissed as ‘motherhood and apple pie’. (Though in my experience, motherhood is fierce, incredibly hard and essential so I’ve never quite understood th point of that jibe). It is easy to see it as a spray-on bit of language and to continue to round off our reports with a call for a bit more of it. But agency in the community is essential if we are going to begin to  address the huge challenges we face as a society. We will never provide the mutual support that is needed, raise resilient and confident young people, and stand up to the tyranny of both state and market, without active, engaged communities .

It’s about time we put a stop to the practices that tear the web of engagement and weaken rather than strengthen the bonds of community. Unless we never really meant all those many recommendations.

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Kindness and public policy. Really?

There are words that are rarely used in public policy, or if they are used they come with an accompanying grimace. Kindness. Loneliness. Love. Relationships. And there are other words that trip off the tongue with so much more ease. Outcomes. Frameworks. GVA. Infrastructure development. Workforce Planning. I am  starting a Fellowship with the Carnegie UK Trust to use just these tricky, dangerous words, and in doing so I’m building on hugely important work already done by Jospeh Rowntree Foundation, Carnegie UK Trust, and so very many others.

Because the one thing we know both from deep academic  research, and from our own experience, is that it is kindness, love, relationships that make life worth living. We know that the outcomes for people in hospital are so much better if they are physically touched – and not just for the insertion of needles and tubes. We know that communities and neighbourhoods are only really revived and reinvigorated because of the active engagement, and frequently the furious anger, of people who live there. We know that  the biggest challenge facing people who need social care can often be the profound sense of loss and grief they feel. We know that for young people, their first experience of deep personal relationships  with people who are unrelated to them, have a  profound and non- negotiable impact on the rest of their lives.

And yet we continue to build housing developments that minimise the possibility of human inter-action, and kindness. We invest more in mapping the economic flows and investment returns than we do in noticing who talks to people in the local shop, and what role  the local taxi driver is already playing in reducing demand on the social care budget. We sign up – for very good reason – to regulatory frameworks that minimise risk by reducing the opportunity for human inter-action. We adopt – for very good reason – professional codes and protocols  that minimise discretion and so can  inhibit human relationships . We rely on front line staff who are frequently treated abysmally to provide just the sort of kindness and generosity that we too often fail to model. With grateful thanks to @CatherineB201 who drew this to my attention we also know, if we didn’t already, that the ways in which people relate to each other have a direct effect on those precious, vital outcomes.

We know that all social change comes from the relationship between people,  and yet we are nervous about talking about it. This isn’t because people are nasty. It isn’t because we don’t know this stuff.  It is not because planners, regulators, auditors and professionals are malevolent. It’s because talking about kindness, and talking about human behaviour is scary, and  requires us to think more deeply about motivation, and  behaviour, about friendship and love, and the things that make life worth living. To do so requires courage and focus, but a more humanised state is necessary if we are going to meet any of the huge challenges facing us. Dorothy Elmhirst, the founder of Dartington Hall Trust  where I am privileged to be a trustee, wanted us to try to live a ‘many-sided life’. The challenge for those of us engaged in public policy is to recognise that in our modern world the many-sided life involves us in recognising the human – and that can be messy and uncomfortable and challenging.  But we need to put aside the grimace. Stop treating this as extra, and recognise that how we treat each other is at the core of all public policy. Always and everywhere.



Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

The future of civil society

It has become increasingly commonplace to say that the world around us is changing and changing fast. The impact of the digital revolution, the rise of new populist forms of politics, globalisation, gender fluidity, demographic change – and everywhere there is a crisis of trust.
Devolution in the nations of the UK, changing powers and behaviours for the cities, new forms of governance, the impact of funding reductions are all transforming the role of the state. And the market too is changing too with the emergence of the platform economy. New ‘industrial’ giants like Air BnB, Task Rabbit and Uber, are making old notions of market power obsolete while the titan collectors of information and data, Amazon, Facebook and Google, now control assets that are more valuable than oil and diamonds were in earlier centuries. These market makers and disruptors have been joined by the B Corps, the activist investors, and the companies now loudly claiming the importance of their social value.
Wherever you look there is change, and civil society needs to respond and respond without veering between wild panic or a retreat to the eternal verities of the past.

But we should remember this.

Every social and economic change has seen a response from civil society that both changed our sector, and influenced the future. The Industrial Revolution turned upside down the lives of people who had previously eked out a life in the countryside. They flocked to the towns and burgeoning cities, encountering hardship, a new kind of squalor and a hazardous liberation from the rules and norms that had previously governed their lives. But the moral panic that ensued brought us some of our greatest voluntary institutions: the working men’s clubs, trades unions, the university settlements, rescue missions for children and hundreds of charities. They were the products of an active, engaged, and entirely voluntary response to the challenges of the times.

Later, in the interlude between the great wars, NCVO was born, as an association of civil society, along with institutions supporting injured returning service men.

Then, in the aftermath of that massive global catastrophe, the second world war, new forms of associational life and service provision were devised to support the displaced peoples of Europe, and the dispossessed of the UK.

Civil society observed change, organised to respond to that change and in doing so, altered the trajectory of our culture and social order. Successive waves of organisational forms, the women’s aid refuges of the 70s, the organisations for people with AIDS in the 1980s, rights groups for gay men and lesbians, ethnic minority bodies in London, Liverpool, Leicester and so many other cities, demonstrate the capacity of our sector to shift in response to huge change and also shape it. So too did the housing co-operatives, the Claimants Union, the organisations of parents of children with learning difficulties, campaigning for change.

Now the boundaries around our sector are shifting, even blurring. We witness the internet and the digital revolution altering not just how we do things but what we do. We can see that some of our global institutions are in peril. The most recent Edelman Index suggests a weakening of public trust and confidence in NGOs. This is the right time to revisit our ways of operating and examine whether our values match up to the imperatives we face. This is not a time to withdraw into nostalgia about the past, nor to simply do what we’ve always done, and get what we have always got. It is the time to examine our powers of connection and our capacity for association. To examine our accountabilities, and our relationship with others, and forge a new future, just as surely as our predecessors did before. We need to ask some fundamental questions about who we are, what we stand for and where we are going.

That’s why a group of grant-making foundations have created an Independent Inquiry into the future of civil society. We’re approaching this important task in a spirit of considerable humility, recognising that some of the answers to our questions will be found in the most surprising places, and that what we find may challenge our preconceptions. But I also approach it with considerable confidence that today’s civil society will develop and change to make a positive difference on our fast-changing world.

Julia Unwin
February 27.

Brexit is a burning issue. But poverty is still the big one

Three striking trends stand out from the annual state-of-the-nation report Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).

First, the inexorable rise of in-work poverty. A total of 7.4 million people are in poverty, despite being in a working family – a figure that has risen by one million over the last decade. This is despite record employment and the growth of full-time work. One in every eight workers in the UK is now living in poverty and 55% of people in poverty are in working households – a record high.

Second, the number of people living in private rented housing who are living below the poverty line has doubled in a decade, to 4.5 million households.

The third trend is an indication of how today’s “just managing” families can so easily become tomorrow’s poor: 69% of those in the bottom fifth have no savings whatsoever. Again, this increase over the past decade has been stark, up from 57%.

So how did we get here?

It began at a time of crisis. People were thrown into uncertainty by the 2008 global financial crisis, followed by recession, and austerity in the aftermath, with cuts to public services and the social security safety net. Insecure and low-paid work increasingly became a feature of the modern labour market. People and places in poverty were handed a raw deal, tearing away at the resilience that might have once held communities together.

It has created a toxic atmosphere for which the political establishment is now paying the price. Too many people did not feel the benefit of the boom years. The fantastic growth and revitalisation of our cities was rightly celebrated, but too many former industrial heartlands and outlier towns saw little of this rising prosperity. Places such as York, Leeds and Harrogate, close to where JRF is based, have enjoyed opportunities and potential. They were the islands voting to remain in a sea voting to leave.

In the 10 years I have led JRF, I’ve seen governments of all persuasions fail to address the seismic shifts in the labour and housing markets. The colours may have changed, but the approaches did not. Insecurity and mistrust thrived. The cost of failing to recognise and act on these changes and concerns has been dramatic, with a backlash at the ballot box from people who felt they had little else to lose. The cruel irony is the uncertainty and insecurity from the financial crisis risks being repeated a decade later.

It would be all too easy to be gloomy and fatalistic. A comprehensive response is required from governments across the UK, business and local leaders to provide short-term stability and support people with the foundations to enjoy a decent, productive and secure life.

This must start by supporting the millions of people who are evidently not managing. Cuts to the work allowance under universal credit must be reversed. Likewise, the freeze on working-age benefits are increasingly out of date, particularly as inflation is predicted to rise above 2% and real wages will falter.

Longer-term, stable and affordable housing needs to be a cornerstone of policy for reducing poverty. By investing an extra £1.1bn a year in the affordable housing budget, the government could go a long way to meeting its target of building one million new homes by 2020. Around 40,000 of these homes would be available at “living rent” level, making them affordable to people earning the “national living wage”. The remainder would be available for rent-to-buy and shared ownership, depending on local need.

Business must also play a leading role by taking on more apprentices, offering secure contracts and providing routes to better pay and job progression. Utility and financial services can reduce and end the poverty premium: the higher costs faced by poorer households for everyday goods and services.

And we must ensure growth reaches all corners of the country. Having control over adults skills budgets, for example, will enable the incoming metro mayors to connect unemployed people to training and jobs, and allow them to progress in work, helping them truly share the benefits of rising employment and prosperity. There are also new opportunities for mayors to build more affordable homes through land assembly powers, as well as using procurement and planning powers to create apprenticeships and job placements.

Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have powers and capability to reduce poverty and enable everyone to play their full role as citizens.

With energy focused on the process of leaving the EU, there’s a danger the concerns of people at home are ignored. This analysis should act as a warning for politicians who often talk about representing the concerns of those “just about managing” – or as is too often the case now, not managing at all.

First published on the Guardian.