Charles Leadbeater interview - RSA

Beyond Beveridge - An interview with Charles Leadbeater

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  • Picture of Paul Buddery
    Former Deputy Director of Public Services and Communities
  • Communities
  • Community engagement
  • Localism
  • Public services

In an interview with the RSA, Charles Leadbeater, a leading authority on creativity and innovation, discusses how public services can respond to a context shaped by cuts and growing demand. The findings form part of a research project with the Virtual Staff College exploring a changing narrative in the relationship between citizen and state.

Hello Charlie.  Thanks for taking the time to talk to us.  The RSA and the Virtual Staff College are looking at the changing relationship between citizen and state, and what it means for children and young people.  You have been very critical of the relationship today, resting as it does on the Beveridge settlement.  What do you see as the problems with the Beveridge settlement?

Well I think it had a number of shortcomings that grew and become more evident over time, some of them architectural, some of them more circumstantial.  One was clearly that it was shaped around the idea of full employment; and actually what we’ve found is that through repeated recessions and unemployment, poverty has a tendency to hysteresis.  In other words, short-term shocks lead to long term, deeply engrained cultures.  That’s one thing.  The second thing is that it had a relatively crude and standardised way of assessing need and dispensing benefit which was insensitive to the very different circumstances that families face.  And it also it enshrined the professional judgement of the social worker as allocator and provider – the person who knew what was needed – really not allowing for the possibility that people might know what they themselves needed.

Beveridge at the time was concerned that the Welfare State might lead to these kind of shortcomings.  It led to a deficit model where you are trying to respond to need, so clients are encouraged to present need in order to get attention.  The delivery of ‘stuff’ to them can then actually come in a complete blizzard when they get eligibility, and is rarely joined up around their needs or integrated to provide them with a solution.  In its later incarnations, the Beveridge Welfare State has seemed just to shuffle problems around rather than solve them.  There was very little sense of what success was. 

Whatever its flaws, the citizen state relationship of the Beveridge model seemed to offer security.  Cradle to grave was the promise.  We know from research that this idea of security is incredibly important to citizens in how they think about the job of the state.  If the Beveridge model is too flawed to continue, where will we get our sense of security?

I actually don’t think it offers many people a sense of security today.  It offers some people almost a sense of insecurity in that they can feel they can go suddenly from being outside a system to being the subject of a system which brings them multiple things, but that don’t necessarily add up.  That doesn’t necessarily bring security.  So in the lives of troubled families, for instance, I don’t think it does bring security.  Actually, the system can add to the mayhem.  It can also feel punitive because it is increasingly means tested and conditional.  It induces incentives to behave like the system wants.  If security is a sense that your life is going to unfold in a way that is under your control, has a kind of trajectory, I don’t think it gives people much sense of that at all really.  Today’s system might at best hold them for a bit. 

So where can security come from in the future?  I think it will come, I think from a mixture of public action, to some extent, – as a safeguard, backdrop, a source of knowledge, an orchestrator; from private action - saving provision, self-help; and from mutual action - which might be a combination of the social enterprise economy, but also a kind of coping / caring kind of economy.  And some of the solutions may combine elements of all of these things together.

You mention social enterprise as being part of this new economy, this new set of relationships.  What do you think is the role of local authorities themselves in doing things differently?

I think that authorities which have the responsibility for a population have no option but to lead innovation.  And what they’ve got to think about is that they are not necessarily just innovating their services.  They’re helping to create within the population that they’re responsible for the right set of solutions for people with different incomes, different needs, different circumstances.  They need a whole mixture of things to work for them.  So I wouldn’t say that necessarily the most important thing is for public services to innovate, but to ensure that that other people are innovating and finding new ways of working with people in better ways, using resources in more effective ways.

You’ve done a lot of work recently on ‘frugal innovation’, looking at how in the developing world especially people have been finding agile, collaborative and low cost ways of meeting social needs.  Have you spotted solutions that could be brought back to the UK?

There is a real problem in transplanting many of them into especially heavily regulated areas like health, but I think in other areas there’s more scope - more openness and more of a sense of the need to do things differently.  The important thing about many of those solutions is to think about the questions they ask rather than the solutions that they get to.  They ask fundamentally ‘where does it have to happen?’  Does it – the intervention, the service - have to happen in a building, or a place provided by the state, or can it happen in the community or in someone’s home, or in some other place?  Often these frugal solutions find better ways of doing it that are closer to communities. 

And who has to be doing the intervention?  Does it have to be professionals?  Can it be para-professionals?  Can it be peers?  Can it be enabled by technology?  Frugal solutions tend to use much more collaborative, co-operative approaches to getting to the outcome.  It’s not just something that’s delivered – it’s something that’s created.  I think if you were to follow some of these ideas and then apply them to the problems of children’s services in other areas I think you’d find and mobilise resources in better ways at lower cost.  That means thinking in different ways about people, technology and buildings; but also about social resources that you can pull on.

You think that regulation and inspection are significant barriers to this kind of reform?

Certainly in health.  There are fantastic examples of how you can do much more through community based interventions.  But there are three enormous barriers in the UK.  One is the power of regulation.  Another is the power of doctors; and the third is incumbent institutions.  They would all make it very difficult to switch resources into a more distributed, mobile and community based health system. 

The power of professionals is a theme in your work.  In social work there is an argument that roles have become ever more specialised and risk-focussed.  What type of skills should we look from in the future children’s services professionals if they are to be part of this more enabling relationship that you’re envisaging?

The most important relationship will be citizen to citizen, rather than citizen to state.  That’s a big shift - one of the most important shifts in how we govern ourselves, particularly in cities, where life is so fast moving, complex and dynamic, that beyond the provision of basic infrastructure and core things, the state struggles to keep up.  A lot of the time citizens have to get on with it and get on with each other.

Behind all of that is an argument about how and where innovation thrives – whether it is a lack of resources or the provision of resources.  So yes, I think a lot will turn on who gets to control budgets, what solutions they want, what they see as the good life.  By and large when normal people get budgets they won’t be wanting to use them on social workers or officials like them.  They will want people they trust, and they might to buy bits of time from lots of different type of people.  What they may want is the kind of therapeutic advisory skills that social workers can bring, but they probably don’t want a social worker in today’s terms.  They will want a partner, a peer, a member of a programme of which they’re part.  Basically, they will want a relationship with somebody that has some degree of – if not equality – then of reciprocation. 

If local authorities are serious about forging a new relationship between citizens, and between citizens and state, what should they have stopped doing in five years’ time?

Fundamentally, I think that local authorities need to have different goals about what they are trying to do with families.  I think they need a different sense of what success is, so they can go about moving families on rather than supporting them in chaos.  They would have to judge themselves against that and show that that is a better way of spending and mobilising resources.

Finally, where are we in the journey?  Professionals and thought leaders have been talking about a new relationship with citizens for many years now.  Co-production and asset based approaches have been in vogue for over a decade.  So are we reaching a breakthrough point, or is austerity pushing us off course?

I think it’s still a contest.  I see and hear of pockets of interesting stuff that – say – Essex is doing; or Plymouth’s strategy to reduce teenage drinking. Or you could look at the violence reduction unit in Glasgow.  I see people through the Virtual Staff College programmes asking questions like ‘How would you prevent or lower domestic violence, and organise not just the resources of children’s services, but the resources of many others to reach that goal?’  So you do see people trying to develop these much more collaborative, almost movement based approaches.  But it’s hard to turn them into large scale action.  It’s easy to do them as, effectively, some sort of little add on – 10 people here, 20 people there.   It’s much more difficult to transform mainstream services and budgets.  That, I think, is the real problem.  And in the meantime everything becomes – rather like banking – more regulated and as a result more risk averse, more concerned to protect the organisation.  I haven’t heard of anyone who has really transformed the ration of paperwork and administration to work with clients, for example, which is at the core of what social workers do.  They spend so much time filling in forms that protect them and the system.  To really have a different system you would focus on solving problems and creating value.

The RSA's new research project with the Virtual Staff College explores the citizen-state relationship.

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  • Compelling.... but please provide more concrete illustrations of what these would mean "on the ground" 

  • I hope the definition of 'family' might extend beyond the traditional ideas of the family unit. 

  • More regulated and more risk averse chimes absolutely with my experience. Buurtzorg and their self management model in the Netherlands seems to address much of what Charlie is advocating. I would be interested to hear his views on that.