If only I could make a difference ... - RSA

If only I could make a difference ...


  • Behaviour change

Last week I posted on an aspect of the RSA’s quest to become the kind of organisation the 21st century needs.  As it’s the end of the year and I am in an introspective mood I thought I’d write about another.

Over the last few years – in large part as a result of coming to the RSA - I have focussed less on Government policy and more on practical innovations as a way to make the world better. This has an impact on a question that matters more to me than any other: ‘How important am I?’

One upside of a focus on social innovation is a sense of making things better right here right now, whether that’s the people in recovery from addiction we are supporting in West Kent or the pupils benefiting from attending RSA Academies.   In the policy world it is impossible to achieve anything significant without both luck and a massive job of political persuasion. Think tanks like the ippr or Policy Exchange may do great work in developing policy recommendations, but these are hardly worth the paper on which they are printed unless ultimately they lead to changes in the decisions of policy makers.

Even that may not be enough. My greatest achievement as its Director was to play a small part in ippr persuading the previous Government to introduce the Children’s Trust Fund. But as soon as the Coalition was elected the fund was abolished.

A downside of the world of social innovation is that it is very crowded. It is difficult to get noticed and with so many people claiming so many things, it is even harder to know which people and ideas you should follow and which you should ignore (most evaluation is so weak and self-serving it hinders rather than helps).

In policy fields there is a kind of hierarchy. If you are reasonably bright and work at it, it’s possible to get your head round key debates quite easily and to know who is most respected in that field and who is most likely to influence policy (ultimately, senior civil servants, policy advisors and politicians). Another social innovation challenge is the scale of impact. For good or ill, national policies tend to make a difference (although often not the one intended), but successful innovation in one case and place will often prove not to be replicable.

The landscape of self-importance in these two worlds is different but the topography is similar: occasional peaks when it feels like one might have made a difference, deep valleys of self- doubt and failure and flat expanses on which we hope we are on the way somewhere or have just enough grounds to claim more influence than we can ever prove to ourselves, let alone anyone else.

There is a now another approach to change, championed most strongly by the Behavioural Insights Team in the cabinet Office. Using ideas gleaned from behavioural science and a methodology relying largely on Randomised Control Trials the BIT uses innovative thinking and service design to change the practice of Government agencies.  Taken from BIT’s annual report here are some examples of what they do:

A trial which changed the messages conveyed to Doctors with outstanding tax liabilities, which has brought in an additional £3m in revenue this year.

A trial with HMRC that showed how telling late tax payers that most people in their towns had already paid their tax increased payment rates by 15 percentage points. When rolled out this will generate £30m of extra revenue to the Exchequer annually. Subsequent trials are demonstrating new nuances about how best to convey these messages.

A trial with the Courts Service showed how personalised text messages were six times more effective than final warning letters at prompting fine payments. The Courts Service estimate that this will save some 150,000 bailiff interventions and £30m per annum when this is rolled out across the country (which is now planned).  

As an organisation which is interested in policy, which undertakes practical innovation and which has its own behaviour change team (as well as specialists in design) the RSA’s aim is both to be able to choose the type of intervention which seems best and to develop approaches which could combine these different tools. For reasons I have rehearsed before, it is generally easier to do this at a local level.

The aim is also to have a team of researchers, innovators and organisers who feels confident to choose from a big tool box of ways both to influence people and shape society. Hopefully this means that we will develop a greater capacity to have original ideas and test them out in different ways.

But whatever we do I still recommend to all those seeking to change the world that they should reconcile themselves to the attitude recommended by Antonio Gramsci:  ‘optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect’.

But on a more positive (and less self indulgent) note, here’s something you can do


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