Publication: Using digital tools to engage the public in the policy process

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A paper I was commissioned to write exploring the use of online tools to engage the public in the UK policy process. It looks at:

  • The current UK context (including the recent PASC report)
  • Examples of opensource technology that have been successful, especially for policy
  • Opportunities and next steps to move this forward in the UK

Feedback and critique welcome!

 

Opensource policy platform brief

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Publication: What’s Holding Us Back?

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I recently wrote a short paper critiquing the way we practice social innovation and social enterprise, based on observations and conversations from both the UK and Australia. It is borne out of growing frustration that despite huge amounts of time, finance and talent, we are not seeing any significant change in the underlying problems that people are trying to solve.

It highlights the mistakes that I have seen time and time again made by people and organisations trying to tackle social and environmental problems. It also presents opportunities for us to be more effective, and outlines potential steps we could take.

The paper can be downloaded below:

What’s holding us back

On the privatisation of public services: An objection on principle

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Amidst all the excitement surrounding the recent privatisation of the Royal Mail, the delivery of public services has been on my mind*. It’s long given me a sense of unease watching the current government increasingly privatise our public services, and up until now I’ve been unable to put my finger on why. I’ve begun to realise that it’s essentially the contrasting bottom lines upon which private and public these sectors operate that troubles me.

Fundamentally the bottom line for private business is profit maximisation, rather than provision of quality services. To some extent the two go hand in hand, but it is crucial to acknowledge this motive for profit, because it prompts decision-making all the way down. Public services should be, as the name suggests, a service for the public, not a service provided to maximise private profit. Don’t blame the people at the top of corporates for making decisions with profit at heart, blame the legal business model (company limited by share) which means they are legally obliged to maximise shareholder profit. They’re just doing what they must.

You can see the problem in other public services e.g. provision of healthcare. There is no money in prevention, and from a business point of view prevention makes no sense – if successful enough you put yourself out of business. In contrast, there is a lot of money in pharmaceuticals though – a point made by a healthcare professional in a seminar I went to recently. In order for these pharmaceutical companies to survive they need to sell more drugs, it would be bad business if they prevented health problems from arising in the first place as they would soon find themselves out of business. There’s a real tension there between what is good for people and what is good for business.

A justification for privatising services is that competition drives up quality, and so the market naturally filters out all but the best services. There is truth in this, but it is a blinkered perspective. The market also favours companies with the best advertising, who are the best at making people feel inadequate without their product/service. The market favours companies manufacturing products with a short lifespan, so that people have to keep replacing their products every year irrespective of whether they are actually still adequate for the job (iPhone 11 anyone?). The market favours companies who use whatever methods they can get away with to maximise their shareholder profit, including exploitation and tax evasion. The market is not a barometer of what is in the best interests of the public, and a blunt tool when it comes to ethics in decision-making.

There is also the question of ownership to consider. Public services remain in the hands, in theory at least, of citizens. How do we feel about the Government of Singapore being one of the biggest shareholders in the Royal Mail?

Of course, I am in danger of taking a blinkered anti-business view myself. The private sector is less susceptible to the political infighting and jostling that can so harm public services. And it does open it up to competition, which drives up innovation and efficiency. Without this the quality of service can stagnate. Another advantage of using business to provide service for the public, is that if it is an effective service then it stands a good chance of making profit, and thereby growing as Michael Porter points out in this talk, and CSR is gradually becoming a much more fundamental part of how we do business. It is also important to acknowledge that government is responsible for regulating industries too, although it is debatable where the power of balance really lies here.

Public services have weaknesses too. They can end up as government cash cows, as occurred with our eastern rail services. The government, like business, is concerned with its economic turnover and operates each year with a budget deficit. The loans they attain from banks to make up this deficit grow in interest every year, increasing the pressure and forcing them to compromise around their implementation of public services.

In my view, social enterprise could have a crucial role to play here in the future in terms of providing a better balance of service. Community Interest Companies are worth keeping an eye on, as they balance public interest against economic goals. However, the social enterprise sector is not yet generally big enough to take on large public service contracts. B Corporations are also opening up the opportunities for business to serve the public.

Public sector, social enterprise and charity all have their flaws, but to me all are preferable models when it comes to delivering services for society compared to for profit business, simply because of the bottom line. So my objection is a philosophical one. Public services at least are somewhat democratic, and if the public are not happy they put pressure on government to improve. Charities will likely die out unless they are having a significant and demonstrable social impact now, likewise social enterprise. However business, at the moment at least, has one bottom line – maximise shareholder profit. In my view, that’s not a good enough motive from which to create a service for the public.

*This article has a good debate on the pros and cons of privatisation: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/debate/royal-mail-privatisation-the-pros-and-cons-8814217.html

Changemaking: A flaw and an opportunity to do good better

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This recent article from Nesta sheds light on a worrying observation for those working to create social or environmental change. Despite the consistent increase in resources (human, financial, tech) invested in social and environmental issues, the underlying trends that we are trying to reverse continue to worsen. The article ends by asking whether we are willing to ‘abandon Business-As-Usual approaches’ and embrace new approaches to social innovation. In attempting to ‘do good’, ethics dictates that we must be critically assess our approaches, and aim to invest resources in the most effective manner possible.

I’ve observed a clear and worrying trend during the time I’ve split between Australia and the UK. It’s certainly not the root of the issues outlined above, but it is a clear opportunity. It is as follows:

The concept of being an agent of positive change, of ‘changemaking’ has become far too synonymous with social entrepreneurship. I see this as a fundamental flaw in our approach to generating change, and with that an excellent opportunity to do things better. I will explain.

I define ‘changemaking’ as the act of generating social or environmental change with the aim of improving upon current circumstances. Or more simply if you like, trying to make the world better. There are clearly a great many techniques one could use for achieving this, but one approach has taken on an excessive and unjustified prominence; social entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship is the act of building a new organisation with a social or environmental purpose. I have nothing against social entrepreneurs and would apply that label to myself – I have  founded two organisations myself and have had a significant hand in the establishment of two others. The title of this blog is a bit of a giveaway. I would, however, suggest that this makes me well-placed to critique.

In Australia I searched for programs that develop my ability as a changemaker. Overwhelmingly, they support or prioritise social entrepreneurs; The Foundation for Young Australians’ Young Social Pioneers program, Centre for Sustainable Leadership program and of course the School for Social Entrepreneurs. When I was invited to attend the Foundation for Young Australians’ ‘Young and Extraordinary’ event, most of the delegates were attempting to start their own initiatives. Likewise as I have searched further afield for leadership development programs or networks, it is rare to find one that doesn’t expect you to be working with an organisation that you have founded. In other words, they expect you to be a social entrepreneur.

This learning towards social entrepreneurship is not just evident in the programs that cater for them, but also in how we praise them. Founding an initiative is seen as a stamp of approval, and to some extent I felt as though I wouldn’t be perceived as credible within the changemaking community unless I did so. In Australia, many of the winners of the ‘Young Australian of the Year’ awards had founded their current organisations. Social entrepreneurship is seen as sexy and we place these people on a pedestal.

And yet…social entrepreneurship is just one piece of the complex puzzle that is changemaking. It has its place yes, but setting up a new organisation is hardly the solution to every problem we encounter. In fact, I feel it irresponsible to assume that it is, given the resources we then expect people to put in to it, and given that every positive step will have some negative side effects. There are only so many resources to go around, so splitting them between ten organisations (there are over 50 breast cancer charities in Australia) with identical missions is hardly ethical or efficient. A little competition is healthy and valuable yes, but it has gone to to absurd levels. We must weigh up our options carefully if we are serious about generating positive change, and there are other approaches we can use. Perhaps this particular social or environmental problem needs more public awareness. Perhaps it needs corporate resourcing. Perhaps it needs a different systemic approach from government. Perhaps what it definitely doesn’t need is a new organisation launched to tackle it.

So what about intrapreneurship – generating powerful change from within an organisation that already has resources waiting to be put to use? There’s collective impact, which recognises that real change is only possible when corporates, governments and nonprofits are all sat around the table. And what about politics? Whether we like it or not, government and politicians run the country (along with banks and heavyweight corporates, depending on what you read). What about campaigning and rallying people around certain issues that matter – empowering social movements? Or how about producing and publishing research that moves our understanding forward? There are other subtle ways too, like speaking or writing where we can reach many people and have a positive impact. These are the different techniques I speak of.

I’ve had to search out these other areas myself. There is no School for Social Intrapreneurs. No course for people who want to make a positive difference through politics (and my goodness could we do with one). I’ve learned about collective impact by searching out organisations who have this at their core and getting involved. I’m learning now about politics by chasing up and spending time with my local Councillors and MP. There are two barriers here:

1) We do not encourage changemakers to explore these areas.

2) We do not have the programs to cater to these interests.

These issues I feel are especially poignant for young changemakers entering the space with good intentions and uncertainty around how to channel them. Currently, they will get pushed towards social entrepreneurship as a default, which I firmly believe to be a mistake.

Ok, so I’ve mostly covered the flaws. What’s the opportunity? The opportunity of course is to channel the tremendous energy, skills and good will of people to make things better in a much more effective way. I have some suggestions for how, but I would turn to people with more experience in changemaking to critique these and generate their own. So in the context of the two issues I highlighted above…

Encouraging changemakers to explore other means of generating change

I’d like to see individuals who are using these other techniques to generate change celebrated more and given a higher profile. Intrapreneurs, those working in government, campaigners, speakers. Leaders in change who are not just social entrepreneurs. I’d like to see these other techniques given more attention at changemaking events. I’d like to see programs and organisations that cultivate changemaking build in to their program at an early stage a lot more learning and information about these techniques. To critically ask; ‘is setting up a new organisation really the best and most responsible way to tackle this issue?’

Catering to other means of generating change

Here I’d love to see existing programs for changemakers start to build in these other techniques. To give those on the program a flavour for collective impact, for politics, for intrapreneurship. In time, to see programs in place that specialise in these other techniques, just as there are so many excellent programs now that specialise in social entrepreneurship.

If we are serious about generating change in a more efficient and effective manner, then we need to move away from our flawed obsession with social entrepreneurship and take advantage of this great opportunity to do things better.