Can Government be more effective as the ‘first follower’? - RSA

Can Government be more effective as the ‘first follower’?


  • Future of Work
  • Leadership
  • Philosophy

Many people are despairing of our government.

In the UK at least, we have found ourselves in a chain of irresponsibility. Government behaves inconsistently and then points the finger at random groups when it is under pressure. (Currently it’s students.)

Encouraged by the media, we’ve all joined in the finger pointing. We criticise each other, trying to spot the free-riders, the irresponsible, those who have it easy when the rest of us don’t. We resort to caricature and sometimes seek to excuse our own inaction.

Something has to break the cycle or more anger and fatalism await. How do we create a virtuous circle of trust?

The answer is to look to ourselves and each other. When it comes to the changes we need, it’s time to stop pinning all our hopes on government solving the problem. Instead of looking to government as the prime mover, we should see it as providing the final piece of the jigsaw in a process of change started by citizens: ‘first follower’ rather than erratic leader.

Who’s in the lead? We could be.

Government as enabler  

We’ve been struck in recent months by a number of countries that, on infections and deaths at least, seem to have been better able to limit harm. In each, individuals, civil society and government at different levels have been more or less fully engaged – often with government in the passenger rather than driving seat.

  • In Taiwan, the Government sought to harness the creative energy of the digital and design sectors and supported creative solutions which reinforced collective commitment. Citizens were invited to submit ideas to improve response and communications systems. Inventories of essential supplies such as toilet roll and masks were managed and communicated online for reassurance.

  • In Germany, there was strong co-ordination between all levels of Government and consistent communication. This has been exemplified by Angela Merkel’s combination of honesty about the scale of the risks and confidence that citizens will do the right thing.

  • In New Zealand, the Prime Minister artfully cultivated a sense of a ‘family’ responding to threat together. Citizens and Government in these cases mutually enabled one another with clarity, consistency, trust and solidarity.
  • South Korea persuaded people to sacrifice data privacy in return for open transparency in how that data would be collected and used. And across East Asian countries, people generally wore masks from the off, a signature of deeper solidarity and sophisticated test and trace systems were rapidly put in place with the lessons from the SARS public health emergency already having been learned.

Too often we have looked to Government to provide all the answers. In this, our own Government has failed, both spectacularly and predictably. The spectacular failure was in its knee-jerk short termism, torn between public health, libertarianism and economic harm, and absence of measured consistency. It failed to properly evaluate risks and harm such as between keeping schools open and opening up wider physical contact settings as well as failing to properly understand the inter-relatedness of different risks. Some of this was exacerbated by institutional silos within Government.

The predictable failure was the absence of wider governance capacity to deliver on ministerial promises or meet citizen expectations whilst failing to appreciate virtuous mutual dependencies such as between health and economic well-being that some countries have unlocked.  

Six months ago, the RSA responded to crisis by launching our Bridges to the Future programme of essays, reports, events, podcasts and Fellow activities. This pivot helped us develop powerful insights and frameworks, as well as engaging existing Fellows and attracting new ones. Our aim was to open up the conversation to wide variety of perspectives to help us as citizens, as practitioners, as policy-makers to seek to understand and navigate the present, as well as begin to imagine a better future.

We wanted to contribute alongside the contribution of many, many other organisations to society, collectively, continuing to work through and beyond Covid-19. At a time when despair, pessimism, finger-pointing and anger may all be justified responses, it is vital to offer more constructive responses.

Balanced society

In a functioning democracy the elected government has a unique legitimacy. Not only in the use of force, but in intervening and adjudicating between conflicting opinions and interests within society.

If we all wanted the same things, we might not need democratic process or the government action that results from it. But as we don’t agree, we need accountable institutions to find ways of resolving our differences while keeping the peace. (Assuming we don’t want to fight it out or live in separate bubbles.)

When it comes to social challenges which require citizen engagement, we need intermediate institutions to find a way forward – local government, trade unions, faith groups, business, local and national charities. But this ‘institutional architecture’ is weak in the UK, especially in England.  

To make a bad situation worse, the UK government’s engagement with these institutions during the pandemic has been ambiguous and erratic.

  • Local authorities were initially shunned and attacked, but are now relied on to take the lead on local lockdowns.
  • There has been a negligent failure to harness the massive display of public solidarity that was seen through a million NHS volunteers and the mutual aid movement.
  • Trade unions have been welcomed into Treasury discussions about the economic policy response, but has had virtually no contact with Downing Street.
  • We have turned to voluntary and community organisations in an hour of need but, suffering from endemic underfunding and lack of support over time, they have often struggled to respond.

The problem is not just the competence of government but how it, and how we, see its role.

Although cause and effect can be debated, historically, governments have been most able to drive ambitious and progressive reform when there has been broad-based civic consensus about the need for an approach that balances social interests and perspectives.

The demands citizens make are varied, complex and often contradictory. The deepest and most recurrent conflict is between the cause of liberty and the cause of solidarity:

  • those who prefer individuals to keep their money vs those who want more spent on the collective good
  • those who champion the market vs those who say it must be directed to social good
  • those who want to make their own rules vs those who see virtue in greater community spirit.

Today, with Covid-19, we see this age-old conflict reflected in the debate between those who worry most about the economy and constraints on our freedom vs those who are most concerned about public health, particularly of the most vulnerable.  

Of course, these two ends may not be the opposites we assume. But for now, the UK government’s zigzagging strategy seems to be based on wanting to avoid being trapped in either of these camps, as well as the desire to be seen to be in charge of events. Clearly this latter objective has been less than successful.

Even before Covid, the challenge for governments of reconciling different interests and demands has become substantially harder.

The reasons deserve an essay in themselves, but include: the decline in class affiliation, the impact of neoliberal ideology and policy as they weakens essential societal glue, the information torrent of social media, the rise of cultural and identity led politics, aspects of globalisation, and the pace of technological change. None of these factors operate in isolation. Where politicians have released the populist genie they remain at its behest - as do we all. It’s an impulse that can’t ultimately be sated.

Such forces, features of what Ulrich Beck called a modern ‘risk society’, often feel to be overwhelming us. Covid is the latest significant global risk we face. It will not be the last or even the most severe. A feature of risk society is complexity: problems are not resolved by ‘solutions’. They require strong collective action, deft deployment of power and resources in support of such action, and relentless innovation.

Covid and its challenges are one such complex problem. The climate emergency, economic insecurity, and the weakening of democratic norms and institutions are others. All require experimental collective action and government in support.   

If we are incapable of responding collectively and effectively to Covid, then we are defeated before we begin in our response to these wider complex challenges.   

Civil society first?

The nature of government and politics needs radical renewal. Greater devolution, electoral reform, more deliberative democracy, reform of party funding, different models of policymaking are just some of the things we need. But constitutional reform isn’t the best place to start a difficult conversation like ‘how do we deal with Covid?’ It creates another set of contested demands.

Instead, civil society needs to take the initiative. The scope to do this may be much greater than we imagine. As Sunder Katwala has argued, the public may not be as polarised as the media often presents.

The lack of creativity and responsibility in government contrast with the vibrancy and generosity of tens of thousands of community organisations and social entrepreneurs. This has been powerfully illustrated during the pandemic as food parcels appeared on doorsteps, people checked in on their vulnerable and lonely neighbours, and communities came together to ensure that access to outside space was something that could be enjoyed.

None of this devalues the importance of government but it has been more capable of big interventions, sometimes successful ones as in the case of the furlough scheme, than supporting and scaling the creativity of smaller civic institutions and communities.

We are a very long way from harnessing the potential of civil society. The overwhelming majority of social problem-solving effort goes into developing solutions for traditionally defined problems, ones where there is a problem and answer rather than really understanding complex, systemic problems in which action at scale requires constant knowledge development, adaptation, innovation and interaction with a wide field of actors from the individual citizens to global legal defaults.

Genuine collaboration is rare. Most social change funding is for more ‘bricks’, not for the vital ‘cement’ that brings people and interests together. The scale and ambition of innovation within sectors and places is usually inadequate to the task.  

We’ve also begun to see big business increasingly recognise they need to step up to the plate in bid to win back legitimacy and self-interestedly make sure they have a world which they can operate in. There is, however, a long road to travel.  

Take two of the UK’s largest consumer-facing manufacturing sectors: food processing and fast fashion.

The problems in these sectors (even parking Covid and Brexit) include:

  • major adverse environmental impacts
  • low paid, poor quality, frequently non-compliant work
  • problematic impacts on public health and wellbeing
  • consumers seldomly willing or able to see the wider impacts of the choices they make

These industries cannot change without a combination of new leadership, different business and technological models, new metrics for success, a bigger say for workers, ethical investment, a change in customer’s expectations, and targeted regulation. This will only happen by bringing business together with their stakeholders and starting to re-imagine the entire system.

Of course, all of this applies to social care too where again the problem is one of complex, collective action and better public systems of support: there isn’t a neat ‘solution’.

In her powerful new book Reimagining Capitalism: how business can save the world, Professor Rebecca Henderson explores the real difference that businesses have made by working with charities and NGOs. Her examples include reversing de-forestation and improving pre-school outcomes in St Paul, Minneapolis, USA.

Alongside this, the online clothes retailer BooHoo is announcing record profits even as severe deficiencies in conditions workers face have been identified in its supply chain. As BooHoo seeks to address its failings, it is a timely reminder of the pivotal role that business plays in taking action to promote and secure public good.    

We can’t rely on consumer action or investigative journalism alone; business must embed ethical action deep into its governance and operations. And there are many examples of this as Professor Henderson identifies. Business has a powerful role to play in designing better systems of social and environmental support as influential players in wider social systems.  

Innovation for good work

Central government, for its part, has less power than it perceives if it seeks to provide all the answers. It will not suddenly become brave or able to wrap its collective brain around the challenge of system change. Nevertheless, many of this government’s stated aims – on net-zero, levelling up and improved public services, and improving technical skills across the population - are widely shared.

Government action has been vital, but often by enabling and responding to collective initiative rather than leading the change. If ministers were offered the means to make change, and the reassurance that key stakeholders will stand up and argue for that change, they would be impelled to listen.

For most politicians, making a difference is a bigger motivation than ideological purity. Just last week Danny Kruger MP, political secretary to the Prime Minister, published a well-received report on a new ‘social covenant’ between Government and civil society. It was packed full of practical and policy ideas from a range of civil society organisations showing the way.

The challenge now for the voluntary and community sector as well as government at national and local level to stress test the ‘social covenant’ in service of responding to complex challenges. The challenge for government is to far more determinedly support the capacity of civil society, a lesson from the failed ‘Big Society’ experiment. If civil society leads will government be willing to follow?    

Now the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced a new support scheme for jobs, a major test of a civil-society-first approach could be an open and generous offer for those with ideas to create and support good jobs over the coming months and years.

As the Resolution Foundation has shown, the new job retention scheme may work for those with a reasonably strong attachment to their jobs, who tend to be less disadvantaged workers. But it may even be counter-productive for lower skilled and casual workers. Much more is needed if workers are to navigate a changed economy. But the answer is not only a better designed national scheme. Instead, a bigger, civil society first response would be a better bet.

Where employers, social entrepreneurs, local authorities, training bodies, unions, and charities demonstrate that they can create and support sustainable good work, government should provide an innovation support fund to enable programmes of support - particularly local ones - to get off the ground. Government must be willing to fund the jobs – and the skills that go with them - we need in energy transition, greening of our neighbourhoods, care, and sustaining culture and the arts. Civil society must show where and how these jobs can be created as an essential element of a new ‘social contract’ as our Future of Work team have advocated.   

It could be an open offer of support, mission-led but open to partnership and innovation, unlocked with public imagination.

Let’s be leaders, not spectators

It is not hope that leads to action but action that leads to hope. Focussing on civil society as the cradle of renewal demands the energised mentality of the participant rather than the passive one of the spectator.

At the RSA, we are working to continue developing programmes that bring together all our resources to create deep and enduring partnerships for change, using our ‘living change’ model which is designed to help citizens, social innovators and entrepreneurs, business, and policy makers at local and national level navigate the complex and sticky problems we are faced with.

Ultimately, we will need change from the top. But instead of hoping for national politicians to solve our hardest problems, we need to ask them for the final pieces of a puzzle we have together started to solve.

Let’s get to work.

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