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Steve’s Journal Article

Little heads-up to you all that Steve has written a very fine piece for the Spring RSA Journal.

He explains the thinking behind us setting up Connected Communities in depth, and explores some of the research that will be informing our work.

We’d love to hear what you all think about it, or about your own ideas and projects; do leave a message here or get in touch on communities@rsa.org.uk. We’re also going to collect case studies via our RSA webpages, so if you’re working on something that has used social networks as an integral part of the project fill in a downloadable template and send it in!

March 30, 2009 at 3:24 pm Leave a comment

Predictors of Beaconicity – A load of old wonk?

I know the LGA’s list of banned council jargon has been about for a few days, but this is a story that deserves to run and run.

You know you’re in trouble when you can recognise every single word on there, and you believe it makes perfect sense. I and my colleagues have become fluent talkers of policy wonk, and it’s rather like joining a cult. You start to suspend your reservations and inhibitions, your judgement begins to become distorted, things that two years ago seemed outrageous, perverse even, start to seem utterly normal.

Take these, all used in anger in documents I have recently written:

  • innovative capacity
  • potentialities
  • situational
  • transparency
  • synergies

The LGA have helpfully provided an alternative where an alternative exists. Much of the time, they’ve merely commented ‘Why use at all?’. They attach this to most things to do with networks and innovation, I note with interest.

And that’s surely got to be the acid test – if you had to explain a phrase to someone in words of one syllable, could you do it? And if not, what the hell are you doing saying it? Most of the words I have a sort of tacit understanding of, but I struggle to explain them convincingly.

There is a point to some of this jargon, to be fair. Words do matter, precision counts, especially when it comes to doing research that will shape public policy. Some of the banned words are actually hugely important to social scientists and really do mean a very particular thing which doesn’t have any other name – indicators aren’t just measurements as the list suggests, they’ve got a much more complicated hinterland than that. But whether that word should ever be on a leaflet that comes through your front door is another matter.

Surely part of any policy person’s work is to make what they do as accessible to as many people as possible, without making it simplistic? It’s lovely to create a little clique who share a secret language, but the job of these people is to serve the public interest at the end of the day. This is really the thrust of that list – you lose people’s attention and trust pretty quickly if you use words that, frankly, sound like they’re from David Brent’s inbox. That, and the matter of personal pride that one shouldn’t be caught talking bollocks in a public place.

March 19, 2009 at 12:23 pm 1 comment

Heroes

When the clock strikes one today, thousands of people across Northern Ireland are going to gather together in silence. They’re going to mark their revulsion at the murders of three men – two soldiers and a policeman, two Englishmen and an Ulsterman, one Catholic and two men whose main source of identity would never have been their religion.

They’re paying their respects to these men, of course, but they’re also marking their deep fear for the fragile Northern Irish peace process. This is mourning for nothing less than the hopes and the futures of an entire country.

There are many impromptu memorials to the self-elected heroes of the Troubles. Over here, the only people that make the news are men of violence of one description or another; they come in many guises but they’re all destructive, mostly men and successfully portray themselves as the vanguards of some revolution of the oppressed.

The impression in the London media is that you have to sign up for one group of them or another if you’re going to have anything to say on the subject. It’s a question of being clear-sighted enough to sieve through the propaganda and work out who the freedom-fighters really are. This is balls of the first order.

Northern Ireland’s true heroes are indeed freedom-fighters, but they fight on a very different front. Ordinary men and women have done incredible things in the name of preserving liberal democracy, civil society and some semblance of a shared communal future.

Some of the bravest people I’ve ever met are volunteers and community workers in Belfast’s poorer districts, but they also include local journalists and a university professor, who offered his home as a safe house for people wanted by paramilitary organisations. Even just couples who fell in love with someone from the wrong street. For their moral courage they suffered beatings, kidnappings and death threats.

These people will never be remembered or written about in the same sweeping, awe-struck way as the McGuinnesses and the Paisleys of this world. They will almost certainly have no statues dedicated to them. But today at one o’clock, I will be silent to show my respect for them. The way that ordinary people choose to live their lives is Ulster’s greatest hope, and greatest achievement.

March 11, 2009 at 11:51 am Leave a comment

Twenty five years on – or: Ynysbwl, its part in my downfall

A still from 'A Diary For Timothy'

A still from 'A Diary For Timothy'

So, it’s twenty five years ago today that the Miner’s strike kicked off. I’m not going to write a fiery opinion piece, because other people are better qualified than me to do that. Certainly many more people have the right to, on both sides. This post is going to be more anecdotal than polemical. But just as Steve has had his Meso Soup moment, this anniversary needs marking for me. In a bizarre, indirect way, the Miner’s Strike changed my life and it’s why I do the work I do.

I’m pleased the Today programme has marked it in style – albeit without Scargill, who is nowhere to be found and would appear to have adopted the Osama Bin Laden approach to media relations.

As for Norman Tebbitt I was expecting a je ne regrette rien moment. Or at least a je ne regrette pas grands choses. Turns out that regrets, he has a few. Chief among them was the terrible effects the strike and its aftermath had on pit communities.

I don’t remember the strike, of course. Twenty five years ago I had just turned two. I grew up in the Sussex countryside and there aren’t many pits round there. My abiding memory of public opinion in the eighties was of total incomprehension and frustration: what was the fuss all about? Why not just become an accountant or a dentist or start your own business? Why not take the opportunity to get out?

But my parents were both born in shipbuilding cities far, far away from Sussex, and the course of their families’ history had been deeply altered by the slow death of that industry. Their reaction was mostly sadness, spiked with a sort of Dave Spart fury. I never really understood why.

It was a BBC Wales assignment that changed that. I’d found myself in South Wales as a trainee, and knew virtually nothing about the area. In classic English style, I didn’t think I was missing much. It was a Lesser North: grimness without the grit.

A cameraman came to me suggesting we work together on an unusual project. It was the sixtieth anniversary of Humphrey Jenning’s seminal wartime docu-essay, ‘A Diary For Timothy’. One of the four home-front heroes he had featured was a Welsh miner from a tiny village in the valleys. Why not go and retrace Jennings’ steps?

It was a bit arty and would take me out of the office, so I jumped on it. We started by watching the original. Jennings was, by all accounts, a classic One Nation Tory of the old school; his films feature more bicycling spinsters than is defensible, even for a wartime propagandist. So his treatment of Goronwy Jones and his fellow miners is quite remarkable.

The camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how horrific conditions in the Welsh could be. A few minutes in, there’s an explosion and Goronwy is hauled to the surface badly wounded. His wife and large family live with the constant fear he won’t come home that evening.

Jennings even gives considerable airtime to Goronwy’s formidable brand of socialism; even as he’s being patched up and heading off down the mines again, he and his comrades are plotting welfare reform and the NHS, vowing that peacetime is going to mark a more compassionate, mutually supportive future. But he worries for the families that have lost so many loved ones, and whether peace might bring change that will also bring the death of his community.

So what did happen to Goronwy’s village of Ynysbwl? In 2005 we tracked down his grandson, and I set about interviewing him. Goronwy remained a union man all his life, and regarded the NHS as the greatest achievement of the post-war years. His grandson was furiously proud of his grandad and his friends’ life and work, and clearly felt he was the inheritor of a remarkable tradition, a community that he was lucky to have been born into. These people with literally nothing had come together to create a movement of extraordinary dignity and power, nothing less than world-changing.

But. I and the cameraman walked up the hill to replicate a shot at the beginning of Jenning’s film, a panorama of the valley with the pithead in the distance. The pit was pretty much gone, of course. So too were the mountainous slag heap and the clouds of soot. Time moves on, I thought. The pit had ceased to be viable, and besides, even Goronwy was clear it was a terrible way to make a living. The Welsh Valleys are actually breathtakingly beautiful minus the industrial filth.

“Your Grandad was quite worried for the future of Ynysbwl, even during the war,” I said to the grandson. “Do you think he was right?”

Jones Junior’s answer wasn’t quite what I was expecting. I was familiar with the IPE and environmental arguments why deep coal mining just couldn’t continue in the UK. I had also known a few Spartists in my time at Edinburgh, and had had a few run-ins with the Scottish Socialists on the subject of mining. I was beyond caring about the unreasonable Tories and the unreasonable Unions.

I’m paraphrasing here, but essentially he said that what really hurt, what was so insurmountable, was that being a man had got so much harder now the pit had closed. This made me sit up.

The only work that was to be had was away from the village along the M4 corridor, and it was mostly in call centres. There was this proud tradition of extraordinarily tough men looking over your shoulder, and you were supposed to go and sit with a headset and undergo “empathy training” on a rolling short-term contract. Women were just better at it, and male unemployment outstripped female worklessness considerably. Jones Junior considered his generation of Valleys men to be lost – and lost to their sons and partners too.

When I got back to the office, I started going through the stories of the last couple of weeks. A JRF report saying Merthyr Tydfil was the worst place to be a child in Britain. Police records showing a child suicide rate five times that of the UK average. A circuit judge complaining that Valleys juries gave wifebeaters the benefit of the doubt. Something was starting to come together for me.

It had never occurred to me that our welfare was about more than voter turnouts, trade balances and the daily press. Ynysbwl and the Jones dynasty showed that human relations and they way we belong to one another can change lives for good and ill. The events of 1984-1985 had disturbed all that. 

And that’s how I became obsessed with understanding how communities can work together for a common future, and with supporting that Goronwian sense of solidarity. The film never aired in the end; the slot kept on being used for something else and I moved away. But it’s how I became a pointy-headed policy wonk.

March 5, 2009 at 2:09 pm 1 comment

Who needs mortgages anyway?

 

I'm English, so where's my damn castle?!

I'm English, so where's my damn castle?!

All this brouhaha about getting banks loaning to homebuyers, especially the banks like Northern Rock that have been bailed out by the government… Let’s step back and ask ourselves if owning your own home is really all that it’s cracked up to be. I’m coming to think that it’s not.

I’m not talking about the micro- or macro-economics of this. I’m not an economist and I invite my economist friends to tell me the financial pros and cons of renting all your life. But from a social point of view, from a community point of view, it’s interesting to look at which makes for more resilient, cohesive societies – renting or owning.

Napoleon got it only half-right. A nation of shopkeepers we may be, but we are perhaps first and foremost a nation of homeowners. We’re collectively obsessed with property. But it was not ever thus. Until 1953 only 32% of us owned the houses we lived in. That rose steadily throughout the 2oth Century until it hit a peak of 75% in 1981, the dawn of the Thatcher era. The absolute number has been in gradual decline for the last few years.

I’m too young to remember it of course 🙂 but the Right To Buy was a large plank of the Thatcher project. Asides the financial benefits of owning a long-term investment like a house there were supposed to be all sorts of social benefits, everything from more stable family lives, to greater educational attainment, to more civic pride in our neighbourhoods.

But does owning your own home really make you a better citizen? Perhaps unsurprisingly the American interest group Homeownership Alliance reckons that the evidence is overwhelming. Homeowners in the US, they say, are more likely to vote or be active in civil society and to be more satisfied with their lives overall than non-owners, even after controlling for socioeconomic status.

But hold on. If home ownership is all its cracked up to be, and we’re most of us home owners, then why are we so worried about declining social capital in the UK during precisely this golden era of mortgage lending? And are we really saying that countries with much lower ownership rates such as France (54%), Germany (43%) and Denmark (53%) are blighted with communities in terminal decline by comparison?

When you sit down and think about it, it’s unrealistic that all of us can own our own homes, and it becomes even more unrealistic as this world of ours becomes more crowded and polluted. Nor do simple correllations between home ownership and desirable social traits mean that owning a house makes us all great neighbours – when it comes to policy, you’ve always got to ask “so what?”.  What are the processes behind that data? Maybe family stability, high educational attainment and so on are conducive to home ownership, regardless of background, rather than the other way round?

Housing Associations and housing cooperatives have been proved to be great banks of social capital and economic development in our communities. The Darnhill Estate in Manchester is one example of this. When this estate was transferred to the Guinness Trust in 1999 it had to find a way of engaging  local people in managing and regenerating the area. The residents had “consultation fatigue” – they’d all been interviewed bazillions of times by the council, the trust or a third party.

In the end, local people were recruited to carry out the social audit in a method piloted in Africa in which they were involved in creating the research tools. The legacy of this was considerable; many gained NVQs through this, some stood for elected positions and marginalised people formed connections with others on the estate. Other forms of ownership are not necessarily inferior to owner-occupation. In fact, they can provide platforms for communities to think about themselves and their futures.

I lived in huge Scottish tenements for years and I found it impossible to get away from my neighbours. Our shared close provided us with endless little shared projects (all of them involving junkies in the bike shed and broken front doors). I don’t think that had anything to do with whether we owned our own homes, but came from a variety of factors including the design of the close and a culture of living on top of one another.

Being an engaged, active citizen is about so much more than owning your own bricks and mortar and many of the things its supposed to provide – stability, civic engagement and so-on – are about how we live together. From a social point of view at least, maybe it’s time we moved on from this collective obsession with home ownership.

February 23, 2009 at 3:25 pm Leave a comment

Kingston Upon Hull: Digital capital of Britain?

Land of the white phonebox: a Kingstonian kiosk

Land of the white phonebox: a Kingstonian kiosk

No, really. Of all the odd Things We Have Learned This Week, this one takes the biscuit. When it was privatised, BT was charged with maintaining all the telcoms infrastructure in the UK and ensuring that everyone everywhere had access to decent basic internet and phone services. With one exception: Kingston Upon Hull.

The East Yorkshire town is its own miniature telcoms fiefdom, served by its own telcoms group, KCOM. Founded in 1882 after councils were invited to bid for the first telephone exchange contracts, it was entirely owned by Kingston Upon Hull Council until it was floated on the stock exchange in 1999. They still retain a 44.9% share of the company.

But being small didn’t limit this company’s ambitions. They were the first to create an all-digital infrastructure, serving East Yorkshire. They launched a pioneering local interactive television service in 1999 which delivered user’s emails, video-on-demand and local information as well as the usual television services. And so on.

The moral of this tale seems to be that where there is a synergy between local people, local institutions and technology-savvy nerds, great things can happen. KCOM is not just a successful business, it’s given its community all sorts of useful things over the years.

It’s also interesting to note that although the digital revolution opened up a dizzying number of possibilities for KCOM, it was harnessing technology for the public good in innovative ways for over a century before the internet was widely available. One might hazard a guess that it was able to capitalise on the potential of digital technology because it knew its users so well. In other words, they’d spent time getting the people part right so they knew exactly what to do with the wires and flashing lights.

Involving communities and councils in pioneering projects doesn’t have to take the edge off them. Sometimes local knowledge and local people are the edge.

February 20, 2009 at 2:16 pm 2 comments

Ms Rimington’s right: fear itself is a fearful thing

 Stella Rimington is right to conjure up the spectre of an Orwellian police state in the same breath as anti-terrorism legislation. She’s right because she identifies the way that fear is a political currency in our society, and that in recent years we have seen its value inflate several times over.

Does it matter? Yes. Fear and the way it spreads, reproduces and morphs was perhaps the shared mental crisis of the twentieth century.

The study of fear has long preoccupied social psychologists. Some of their research has yielded disturbing results. For example; if something is seen as unbearably fearful, we start to allow it to affect our perceptions of the world and its risks. These “fear appeals” form the backbone of most public health campaigns.

At its most basic this can be seen in social psychological studies of the impact of American oral hygiene classes in schools in the fourties and fifties.  The research found that they were too effective and terrifying; some kids were so freaked out that they just stopped looking after their teeth altogether.

That may seem trivial, but this behaviour has been recorded playing out in other, bigger contexts.

There is a theory that we actually respond to fear in two, parallel ways. We act to control danger (brush your teeth, use a condom, join a picket to protest job losses); these are usually the behaviours fear appeals try to induce.

But we also act to control our fear itself, and that’s where all sorts of bad behaviour can come into play; denial, avoidance, projection of the danger onto innocent people (so never brush your teeth, avoid the smear test, join the National Front and go about telling people to f*** off home and stop stealing your job). Add up the effect of an entire population doing this stuff, and the stage is set for some gross abuses of our fellow humans and ourselves. Sadly, the history of the last century is littered with this sort of behaviour.

Fear appeals have a venerable history as a rhetorical device. These social studies show what Cicero could have told you anyway; to be effective fear appeals need to arouse real panic. That’s why politicians use them; they’re a superb way of  mobilising huge numbers of people. They’re one of the most consistent mass communication techniques we have for changing attitudes and behaviours. But of course, in acting to control the danger, we often act to control our fear in unintended, disastrous ways.

In the case of our response to the threat of terrorism we have accepted infringements of our hard won civil liberties that in Ms Rimington’s own words are disproportionate to the risks involved and might not have been allowed in another climate. It will be truly disturbing if it turns out our decision-makers did not act to expose alleged torture being used in the “War On Terror“, even if it wasn’t carried out by our own intelligence agents.

This is a good time to stand back and ask searching questions of our use of fear as a way of weilding power. Espionage and torture may be the sexy stuff, but things as banal as the dwindling number of children who are allowed to play outside their street are indices of how much fear rules our lives and changes our communities.

“It would be better that the Government recognised there were risks, rather than frightening people in order to pass laws,” says Ms Rimington in her La Vanguardia interview. These are sound and sobering words, and they actually throw down a challenge to all of us. We all need to develop a capacity to understand our responses to fear, and create social structures that mitigate our more neurotic responses to it. Something for my colleagues Matt Grist and Jamie Young, perhaps?

February 17, 2009 at 12:26 pm Leave a comment

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