State or society - where does power lie? - RSA

State or society - where does power lie?


  • Public services
  • Social productivity
  • Leadership

The think tank, ippr, has an unconditional place in my heart matched only by West Bromwich Albion and the RSA so I have been trying to work out why the Institute’s recent pamphlet ‘Many to many – how the relational state will transform public services’ didn’t grab me in the way its reports usually do.

The report (which follows two others in similar vein) is in essence an appeal to the centre left to abandon its centralist assumptions and adopt a set of ideas about devolved, joined up, empowering public services; ideas which have in truth been around for decades.  The spur is not so much state failure - indeed, the report is at pains to list policies the state has successfully implemented - but that modern policy challenges – like managing chronic health conditions or reducing long term unemployment – are ‘complex’ requiring the state to use its power in different ways.

Thus the report seeks to adapt the social democratic political economy of the state. But what if the starting point for that political economy is wrong? Might that wrong starting point help to explain why ideas like the relational state are so often talked about on the left but so rarely amount to anything much when Labour runs central or local government?

The key issue concerns the location of power and definition of value.  In the conventional social democratic model - implicit in this report – power resides in the state and value in the capacity of the state to achieve its political and policy objectives. The source and nature of these policy objectives is assumed to be relatively unproblematic, being seen as an expression of a Government’s democratic mandate and progressive purpose.

However, an alternative model sees power residing in society and the evidence of Government’s value lying not in its capacity to achieve its goals but in the degree to which it is able to to mobilise social power towards aims to which citizens explicitly aspire. A successful Government is not merely one that has implemented is objectives (indeed the relationship between policy implementation and social capacity may be inverse) but one which has increased the capacity of society to improve itself.

In my annual lecture, for example, I suggested ,firstly, that social power had three forms (the individualistic, solidaristic and hierarchical); secondly, that the most powerful societies, organisations and policies mobilised all three sources; and thirdly, that the UK is currently suffering from a deficit of solidaristic and hierarchical power (Read 'Power Failure' p.10). From this perspective the way the central state operates as a dysfunctional and mistrusted hierarchy is as likely to sap as enhance social power.

To look at a more specific dimension: levels of social trust and trust of  institutions appears to be a better predictor of a nation’s future economic dynamism than levels of human capital (defined primarily in terms of education and skills). Yet the very way the state operates can undermine social trust. Bo Rothstein is not alone in arguing that welfare means-testing reduces trust by making state bureaucrats intrusive and often arbitrary judges of claimants, by encouraging claimants to game the system and also because claimants are seen to game by non-claimants. This is now a suppurating wound in the UK social body: we are simultaneously experiencing unprecedentedly high levels of sanctioning of benefit claimants and of public hostility to claimants.

In work on reintroducing the contributory principle to welfare, ippr has recognised this issue, but it also intrudes into public services. ‘Many to many’ explores how a more relational state might better encourage people to be active in managing their own health and social care needs but – as a carers’ representative pointed out at a recent RSA seminar - the needs testing of social care eligibility continues to provide an incentive for people to focus on their incapacity.

In a blog post I can only offer a highly truncated exposition of a bigger argument but to get to the core of it: if the goal is a state which has good relationships with citizens which in turn generates capacity for social progress there are several profound and inter-related problems:

The increasingly problematic idea of policy-driven change (as laid out in my last post).

The oppressive logic of bureaucratic working (identified by the ippr report but in rather technocratic terms)

The frequent lack of alignment between the interests of political decision makers (with their increasingly weak mandate) and the public good

There are no easy answers. Replacing a statist with a social political economy is only the starting point for a long iterative journey to an as yet only hazy reform agenda, an agenda which is likely in many ways to be more radical than anything currently on offer. My concern is that this report, like recent speeches from Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas, doesn't recognise the deep, endemic, structural failings of the modern state. Thus while the principles and reforms it proposes are largely sensible (albeit not that different from the aspirations espoused by Coalition ministers) the reasons they have proved so very hard to act upon is left largely unexamined.

This morning at an RSA seminar on demand management the inspirational chief executive of a genuinely reforming and innovative local authority shared her experience of spending sustained time looking at services from the point of view of citizens and front line workers. ‘We talk about troubled and chaotic families’ she said ‘but what about troubled and chaotic public services?’. It reminded me of something once said by Professor Stephen Coleman: 'the problem of civic engagement is hard to reach groups, and there is no harder to reach group than politicians’.

The vehicle of state is not working; its engine unreliable, its steering awry. Most social democrats seem still to hope we can get away with replacing parts of the body work.

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