Over fifty years ago, in a famous lecture, CP Snow identified and bemoaned a gulf between the two cultures of science and the humanities. In particular, he berated the liberal intelligentsia for its ignorance of scientific basics.
In the world of public service reform there is another cultural divide, one that stands in the way of change and may even contribute to the ever growing cynicism about mainstream politics.
The divide is between the ‘networker innovators’ and the ‘hierarchical managerialists’. On the one hand, there are more and more people wanting to be innovators for public good. These are the budding social entrepreneurs to be found meeting up at RSA Engage events or tapping away on their devices at Impact Hubs. They tend to be young, impatient of the old ways of doing things, sceptical about traditional politics. They love big data, social media, hackathons and service design. They spend hours a day on Twitter sharing information about new apps, social movements and examples of clever ways of doing things developed in Scandinavia, South America or San Francisco. If only they could get some start-up funding and prove their concept, it could be scaled up to change the world.
On the other hand, there are the politicians and bureaucrats who run public service institutions and systems. They are middle aged, care worn, always tired and rarely with time for anything more than coping. Somewhere deep down they retain their idealism, but they have long since become reconciled to fulfilling their public service ethic through crisis management and marginal improvement. They don't have time to read about social enterprise in the Basque Country because they are focused on local conditions, relationships and power structures. They see the biggest barrier to change not as the absence of new ideas, but the preponderance of old politics. When they do hear about bold new ideas they question whether they would work here.
The zeitgeist honours the former group and disparages the latter but arguably true heroism lies in the grind of making systems work against the odds. The bureaucrats openly envy the youth and enthusiasm of the networkers, the networkers silently crave the power and inside info of the politicians.
Into this divide falls a huge amount of potential. Bright people and bright ideas fail to mature. Big systems and institutions fail to improve. Innovators add their voice to a lazy cynicism about 'the system’ while bureaucrats pay lip service to innovation but think it is marginal to their day to day lives. Second rate ideas and second rate practices survive unchallenged, each justified by their own self-serving discourse.
The RSA spans both cultures. Too often when we have been asked to foster change in large scale organisations we have found our work hampered by institutional inertia and parochial politicking. Equally, sitting in my top floor perch in John Adam Street, I hear many interesting ideas from networking innovators whose naivety or ignorance when it comes to large systems means their impact is likely to be marginal at best.
So what can be done? Simply, we need to find ways of sympathetically crashing the two systems together. The networkers need to be challenged to understand the constraints of big systems, big budgets, complexity, risk and public accountability. The managers need to admit that many aspects of politics and public service are only the way they are due to historical accident or the positioning of vested interests.
As the General Election campaign sees national politicians fail and fail again to put either the strategic needs or the country of the moral claims of the most vulnerable first, progress relies increasingly on board level and street level change-makers.
The RSA’s top strategic priority for this coming year is to achieve a qualitative step change in Fellowship engagement, making Fellows absolutely integral to our model of change. But this is not just about our desire to improve as an organisation.
The RSA Fellowship contains literally thousands of members of the two camps I have described. A key social purpose of richer Fellowship engagement is for the RSA to provide multiple spaces and platforms for the innovators and the managers to listen to each other, appreciate each other and start making change real for the people who need it most.
Decisions made today shape the lives of future generations. It is vital we take a long-term perspective when it comes to planning public services.