Think big, think human capability


It has been fascinating to read open letters from two former Number Ten advisers to Jeremy Heywood who is the new Cabinet Secretary and - as both Phil Collins and James Purnell suggest - effectively the head of the civil service.

It has been fascinating to read open letters from two former Number Ten advisers to Jeremy Heywood who is the new Cabinet Secretary and - as both Phil Collins and James Purnell suggest - effectively the head of the civil service.

Phil’s piece is, as always, entertaining and full of cleverness but while it is primarily focused on statecraft, I found James’ call for a genuine national strategy more arresting. In various forums I have been saying for at least a decade that we need to change a political discourse in which values are bland, and ends opaque, while controversy focuses on exaggerated differences over the technocratic detail of reform.  But I will repress my desire to shout ‘I had that thought first!’ and welcome someone much more important than me making a similar point:

Whitehall’s secret is that it never has a discussion about what the big choices should be. Are we going to be a larger Sweden, with world class public services but no military aspirations? Or a more successful Ireland, with low taxes but targeted welfare? Or a smaller Brazil, creative, unequal but flexible and prosperous? We avoid vision and don’t attempt strategy.

But what should be the focus of a national strategy? Here I think Purnell is in danger of falling into the same trap as Collins and seeing the starting point as what kind of state we need. Instead I think we should focus on the question; what kind of people do we need? This is to put the RSA’s core concern - human capability – at the heart of the debate.

The starting point here is our old friend ‘the social aspiration gap’, which exists between the future most people aspire to for Britain and the course upon which current modes of thought and behavior have set us. Or to put it another way: ‘how can we enable people to be the people they need to be to create the future they say they want?’

This question poses challenges for the right and left. The right will worry at its social interventionist tone (the main reason so many Tories are suspicious of the Big Society) while the left will find it hard to shift their focus from a state-centric to a citizen-centric model of change. 

So here is my suggestion to Jeremy Heywood: I agree with Phil and James, you need to think big (and, by the way, having worked with you I suspect this may be a challenge precisely because you are so brilliant and assiduous when it comes to detail). How about suggesting to the Prime Minister that he frames the long term challenge for Britain in terms of the capabilities our citizens need to meet our shared aspirations? (By the way, this is much salient to the nation’s prospects than levels of wellbeing).

To get you started, here is one way you could frame the core metrics needed to shape a national capability strategy. As the basis for an annual index, I suggest a set of equations. This enables you to balance both aspiration and the need to focus on the most disadvantaged. Try these for starters:


The rate of business start-ups minus the rate of first year business failure


The proportion of young people getting decent level three qualifications (by far and away the most important level for employability) minus the number without level two qualifications


The proportion engaged in sport or physical activity minus the proportion that are obese


The proportion of people who volunteer regularly minus the proportion who have been the victim of crime


The proportion of people with significant assets or savings versus the proportion in serious debt

I can already see problems with this list but at least most of the data is easily available, so you can get stared quickly. Over time you’re bound to identify and collect better measures. But the key point is for Government to have a set of strategic goals which, by their nature, can only be delivered by citizens themselves. This means an active Government but one that knows its actions must ultimately be judged by the degree to which they mobilise civil society. 

Perhaps, to help, the RSA could even develop such an index itself.

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