Oligarchs, the fall of communism and the RSA

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For reformers history has a hard lesson. Those who offer the prospect of change can unleash desires and expectations which not only sweep away the old order but make the citizenry impatient with the attempts of those same reformers to manage transition.

This thought was provoked by seeing a full-page advertisement for Louis Vuitton luggage in the FT featuring former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. A man who history will no doubt judge as a great leader and reformer who was rejected by his own people in favour, first of the excesses of Yeltsin, and now the authoritarian nationalism of Putin and Medvedev.

It is, I know, risible to draw comparisons between the fall of Communism and the reform of the RSA. One involves overthrowing decades of central power and exposing an ageing oligarchy to openness and accountability, the other happened in Russia.

But seriously… The RSA has benefited from great leadership in the past. In recent years the decision to develop the vaults showed great vision, making John Adam Street an exceptional venue and helping to put the House on a sound financial footing.  Among other achievements, my predecessor Penny Egan oversaw the development of our research programme and worked with the Trustees to get agreement to our Academy (on which front things are going well). Now, the over-riding reforming goal is to enable the Fellowship to work as a powerful network of civic innovation.

Progress has been impressive. The open space day on November 22nd was a powerful launch pad for phase one of the project. We now have getting on for 400 Fellows and invited guests participating on the RSA Networks platform. Last week we had a very positive meeting of regional officers, who are clearly committed to greater Fellow engagement and real world impact.

But I also sense some impatience that the process of change is not even faster. 2008 will be a watershed year for the RSA Fellowship with momentum building as the year goes on. As I never cease to remind people, the 2007-8 budget contained virtually no money for Fellow engagement and organisation, in the year ahead we intend to spend upwards of £250k on Network organisers at JAS and fieldworkers to support Fellows' initiatives outside London.  In a few months we will see the regional websites integrated in the new national website. And as the year proceeds, first new Fellows, then all Fellows in selected localities will be invited on to the RSA Networks platform.

The Fellows' recruitment journey will be re-designed to stress the scope for networking and civic engagement. And I hope that on the Networks platform we will move from a fascinating discussion on how to make RSA Networks work to the development of projects about change in the outside world.

How far and how fast we go ultimately depends on Fellows themselves. Our role is to support the change. But creating the right infrastructure can't happen overnight. It requires a step by step increase in investment and for us to learn and adapt as the change develops. I have a Trustees' away day next week and will be working with them to agree ambitions goals for the next three years.

Transformation is possible as long as we all - Trustees, Fellows, regional officers - are part of the change, enjoying its highs but also working together through the challenges it is bound to present.

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