Blogs, dogs and Big Society cogs


  • Social brain

A few weeks ago my forthright friend Oliver turned to me outside The Harp (one of the very best pubs in central London) and said ‘anyway, what is it with the blogs? They have become incredibly dull!’. As someone who is interested in politics I think he particularly wondered why I had so little so say about the travails of the Coalition and Mr Miliband.

The fact is, following a complaint from a reader and a cautionary letter from the Charity Commissioners, I have been long since been banned from writing anything which could be construed as political commentary or strategy. It may be just as well. When Ed Miliband called for Ken Clarke to be sacked over his clumsy comments about rape I thought it was heavy handed and politically inept (instead of attacking the man he should have connected the gaffe to a wider sense of policy being made up on the hoof). But then, the next day, Labour’s leader got a ringing endorsement from The Sun: Goes to show how much I know.

Anyway, I can’t help noticing that comments on my posts have been drying up recently. Maybe it is time to hang up the blogger’s boots and make do with the less intellectually taxing task of tweeting. What stops me isn’t a fear I will deny the world my wisdom; on balance, I think democratic discourse will survive without my interventions. The real issue is addiction. Almost regardless of the merit of the post I feel much happier about my day if I have blogged. Sorry to be crude, but it’s the written equivalent of a dog peeing on a tree; a blog means I have left a mark on the world, staked out a tiny bit of intellectual territory. To quit blogging I will need some other way of feeling I haven’t wasted a day in meetings or reading or writing internal documents. I could write a book, of course, but neither deferred gratification nor extended concentration is an attribute I possess.

Funnily, enough I do have what might be half interesting thought today (Reader: ‘I’ll be the judge of that, thank you’). Following the conversation with David Brooks, which I described yesterday (no comments so far) it occurred to me that in policy terms new thinking about human behaviour has primarily led to the development of small, specific interventions: like the idea of putting questions on organ donation question into vehicle license forms so people have to answer to complete the form. The biggest nudge intervention is still opting people into pensions so that inertia works to increase savings.  

But if we thought more broadly about the insights of behavioural sciences surely the focus would move to whole systems. Take schooling. If the aim of schools is not just to cram through exams but to help children find their greatest passion and potential, for them to be happy and stimulated and for to leave with a deep love of learning which they will carry through life; well, it’s pretty clear the system is failing. Similarly, if the aim of health and social care is to give people assurance and dignity while at the same time encouraging them to live healthy lives and feel empowered to manage ill health then I’m not sure the dear old NHS, nor adult social care, is exactly hitting all the right buttons.

We are too busy nudging the trees to see the wood. The humanistic frame which is provided by a careful appreciation of new ideas about human cognition, and the specific insights the research offers into what motivates and inhibits people, represents a much more profound challenge to the core characteristics and purposes of our public institutions.

This week I read a great pamphlet produced by our social brain team here at the RSA (due to be published next month). It is called ‘the hidden curriculum of the Big Society’ and in essence it argues that building a Big Society is unlikely unless we attend to the core competencies and predispositions which lead people to be able and willing to be active members of such a society. It is an important insight and an example of how, as we move out of the shadow of the myth of homo economicus, we must think boldly about the kind of institutions the 21st century needs.

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