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22 September 2012

The Power to Act

Tag(s): Politics & Economics

Last week I attended the Annual Lecture by the Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Arts of which I am a life Fellow. Mathew Taylor chose as his theme The Power to Act: a new angle on our toughest problems. In outline he argues that a power deficit is at the heart of some of the world’s most pressing problems and sought to propose an ambitious new framework to address this. Defined simply, power is the capacity to achieve desired objectives. Social power, he explains, comes from three sources. First is hierarchical authority to which the individual’s response is to do what he’s told. Second is social solidarity to which the individual’s response is to do what everyone else does. And third is individual aspiration which for the individual means he’ll do what he wants.  The first is normally associated with the state, the second with the community and the third with markets.  As these are permanently in conflict it normally requires an alignment of all three to solve a difficult problem.

If we take the issue of climate change as an example we can see how these tensions play out. Those in political power, having belatedly recognised the problem, seek to solve it by agreeing treaties that bind us all to reductions in carbon emissions and other targets by certain dates long in the future and usually beyond the electoral cycle. Social solidarity breaks down here because we see that some big polluters have not signed up to these targets and so few of us are willing to make the sacrifices that are needed so we won’t change our own behaviour. The individual needs to protect his own standards of living and behaviour and so not enough happens.  Indeed the overbearing power of the individuals is at the bottom of the financial crisis too. The hierarchical authority broke down as neither boards nor regulators knew what was going on. Social solidarity broke down as the greed of individual traders and their bosses reined supreme.

On the other hand the recent success of the Olympics shows how the three sources of power can work together effectively. The hierarchical authority won the bid, organised everything pretty well and on time. The fact of an immoveable deadline assisted this process unlike the issue of London’s airport capacity which keeps getting deferred beyond the next election. The social solidarity kicked in in spades with a vast volunteer force whose only motivation appeared to be benevolent and benign. And the games themselves were powered by the amazing motivation of the athletes and their coaches, funded by another social phenomenon, the Lottery.

There is a fourth type of behaviour which is fatalism. President Jimmy Carter gave a great speech in his final year as President when he warned the American people of a grave danger that faced them, a crisis in confidence. People don’t like to hear this and he lost the next election. But he has been proved right as living standards for the great majority of Americans have not improved in the thirty odd years since.

The solution is to bring all three factors together but at present that is difficult. Trust in leaders is at an all-time low.[i]Institutions have tended to respond to their own crises by battening down the hatches. We find examples of this with the Catholic Church over the abuse of minors, the MPs over their expense claims, the police over their actions at Hillsborough. Technology which used to be controlled by hierarchical authority is now a tool which empowers the individual. Trust in strangers has never been lower and congregational institutions are also breaking down. Membership of political parties, trade unions, churches has fallen dramatically with dire consequences for social solidarity. As political party membership declines they become less representative and their leaders more out of touch.  The vacuum created by these changes is again filled by individualism which tends to be materialistic and narrow. The individual systematically exaggerates what he believes he will achieve.

The consequence of these trends is that society is failing to develop solutions to real problems. Thus when it is recognised that old people are lonely in hospital beds the proscribed solution is to teach nurses compassion when the best solution would always be visits by loved ones. Politicians may be alive to the problem but will be loud in their rhetoric while proposing small steps in solution of them.  Matthew thinks the idea of the Big Society is good but the implementation incompetent. Firstly, it alienated all those already giving generously of their time. Secondly, it seemed to pretend that it could all be changed in two years when in reality it will take much longer.

We need to think about society as a whole but recognise it is unstable as these three elements are perpetually in conflict. Our leaders are more popular if they are closer to their electorate. One reason for Boris Johnson’s popularity is his position as Mayor of London. If he was Prime Minister, even with his charisma, such popularity might not last. We need to renew solidarity. Social networks are vital to the resilience of a community. We need to renew institutions. Some have done this usually by taking risk.  And we need to reorder individualism to be less narrow in outlook. President Sarkozy may have performed a great service by setting up a commission to investigate the sources of happiness, a move that has been followed by other political leaders including David Cameron.

Public services fail to satisfy because they are no good at individualism. Banks fail because that’s all they can do. Communism always fails because it is excessively hierarchical. When Matthew Taylor worked in No 10 Downing St he concentrated on policy. He now sees he should have concentrated on the design framework, not the policy framework. In other words we need to ensure in thinking through the implementation of change what combination of the three sources of power are going to be enlisted to deliver that change.

Since he had invoked the Olympics to illustrate his theme, and I confidently predict that over the coming months many public speakers will do the same, I asked him if we could not also learn from the Paralympics. I used the analogy I outlined in last weeks blog i.e. the success of the Paralympics is based on the classification of competitors according to their level of impairment. However, in society at large we have rejected classification and seek to impose one size solutions on everyone. Matthew agreed and remarked on the emphasis on participation in the Paralympics rather than the glorification of winners in the Olympics. Yet another example of where individualism might have gone too far.

Further reading: Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology  Mary Douglas First published 1970, later editions 1973, 1982, 1996, 2003. It was also published in 2003 as volume 3 in Mary Douglas: Collected Works



[i]In a recent poll , when asked the extent to which consumers trusted the following professions to act in their best interest the response was:

Politicians 7% Journalists 7% Bankers 11% Estate Agents 11% Builders 19% Civil Servants 25% Accountants 29% Lawyers 35% Engineers 56% Teachers 69% Doctors 80% Nurses 82%  

Copyright David C Pearson 2012 All rights reserved

 




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