Monday, December 6, 2010

Wonking Versus Doing

If you haven't read Tony Blair's book, then consider giving it a try. Even if you think you can't stand him, it is compelling reading. For me the most interesting bits are the passages on public services. Quite early on he felt uneasy that his Government didn't have what it took to reform public services. Labour was, in its DNA, always going to find it hard to challenge what had become a massive vested interest.

Now Blair sensed this and looked around for answers. He went to the Thinktanks, academia and experts. He found plenty of political stuff but very little, in his own words, of practical value. I was stunned by this. London is stuffed with the cleverest, most competitive and politically savvy people around. I have always assumed that, although a lot of what is produced by them is useless shit, there was always enough red meat for policy-makers to feast on.

Not so, it seems. I found Blair's comments strangely comforting. Didn't he have Matthew Taylor sitting downstairs? Geoff Mulgan down the corridor? Tony Giddens up the M11 in Cambridge? Although I have now overcome my complexes about Very Clever Metropolitan People, I kind of believed that these guys and women tended to deliver. Turns out they didn't and the poor PM of the time was left riffing through the Number 10 library for ideas. Quite a thought.

Perhaps one reason I took a small satisfaction in Blair's confession was that my own approach has always been a funny mix of dong stuff, writing about it, networking it and improving it. Speaking Up was a bit like that - try things, fail a bit, adapt and so on - or 'iterate' to use the vogue term. I was never one for sitting in a quiet room trying to come up with the answers. My hunch was that this wasn't the way social progress happened. Progress isn't mathematics, it is a much messier business.

Stepping Out is kind of the same. While there are plenty of people bashing out clever-sounding ideas about public sector reform, conjuring frameworks and pathways, you can be sure that most of them haven't set foot in a surgery or ward for a long time - except, possibly, for botox. This isn't the stuff out of which change is made. You end up, as Blair said, with a lot of fairly superficial, political short-term stuff that never really gets to the heart of things. Just expensively conceived crowd-pleasers such as all the crap 'tools' being brought out around the Big Society - itself a biddable idea, stuck in with many of the wrong kind of people working on it.

But this blog is not a simple 'Out there in the Real World' piece. Far from it. What I am trying to say is that we gain most useful knowledge about making change, and even grand-theories, from the mucky business of doing it, then theorizing it, then doing it again. However, somewhere on the road in our intellectual tradition we seem to have lost that fascination with getting stuck in. The thing we remember people like Michael Young for. These days, that is for the Boring Folk (possibly like me!) to do once the Clever Ones have done their work. Bland implementation versus Grand Policy.

"Oh but what about NESTA, Carnegie, RSA, Young, other 'Do-Tanks'?" I hear some of you shout. Well, yes, these lot are more engaged and doing some fascinating work that we can learn from. This is 2010 not 1998, when Blair was feeling adrift. Thank Goodness for them indeed.

But I am pretty confident that in 50 years time, the stuff that is seen as the key to change won't be the outputs of 'Do-Tanks' but other stuff, quite outside this world. Things that have grown, in the first instance, out of experience of people close to the issues and for whom getting the policy right is far from the first concern, when pushed. Change starts with action not policy. In the 2010s, new policy ideas, like new pop tunes are rare. There will never be another Beveridge just like there will never be another Beatles. The big set-pieces have been done. These days, policy can only underpin what's good out there - and give it a wider framework. This is what we seem, along the way, to have forgotten.

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