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Policy, politics and human motivation

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In the fourth of a series of blogs posts – part of the RSA Living Change campaign – Matthew Taylor explores how ideas used to understand human motivation and organisational change might also be applied to politics and policy.

Over the first three posts in this series I have explored the set of ideas I call ‘co-ordination theory,' built around four forms of social co-ordination; hierarchy, solidarity, individualism and fatalism. I have also described the major similarities and some differences between my framework and influential ideas in psychology and organisational theory.

If the forms of coordination are related to basic human motivations and to cultures and modes of change in organisations, we should not be surprised to see them exhibited again in the worlds of politics and policy. As in previous posts, I’ll first illustrate the forms with a hypothetical, but realistic, scenario.

How might you respond to the following debate among the panel of a politics show on TV?  The discussion is over immigration, its impacts and whether it should be constrained. There are two politicians, one from the right, one from the left. For the former, the worry is about national cohesion and identity, which the politician claims are undermined by too much diversity and the presence of people with different attitudes and even some who, she claims, are openly hostile to English values. Unchecked migration, she argues, tends to particularly impact disadvantaged communities.

From the opposite end of the political spectrum, the speaker from the left urges us to recognise our common humanity. While immigration rules must be fair, they should also recognise our responsibility to the world’s poor and vulnerable and the debt we owe given our own colonial past.

Even though they are advocating contrasting policies, both these arguments appeal to group values and speak to the importance of morality and fairness. Although they define it very differently, the idea of community is important to both. These are two narratives designed to tap into solidaristic feeling.

Next to speak is a think tank researcher. He opens with a barrage of statistics showing that immigrants are net contributors to the public purse, that higher immigration does not necessarily drive down wages and that most migrants quickly adopt the values of their host nation. His key point is that immigration is neither inherently good nor bad; the question is how it is handled. He cites the effective controls put in place by other countries and advocates more action locally to help people resettle. With a well-designed policy framework and consistent leadership, even tricky problems can be managed. This is a technocratic, hierarchical way, of approaching the issue.  

The final speaker is a business leader. Claiming to avoid the politics, she focusses on what is good for the economy. She asks the audience whether they want affordable goods and services; if so, they need migrants willing to do the work at the going rate. While she understands public concern, like many entrepreneurs she is the child of immigrants. There may be some problematic incomers, she admits, but the vast majority of people coming are simply seeking opportunities to strive for a better life. Ultimately a bigger, younger, more diverse and aspirational population is bound to be good for the country. At core, this is the voice of individualism; let people pursue their own ambitions and society will benefit.

The audience is becoming restless. The presenter turns to a man in the front row for an initial comment. “This whole debate is pointless,” he declares, “whatever you say, people will find a way to come here and the rest of us will just have to live with it”. This may not be constructive, but as the audience applause attests, these comments reflect the perceptions of many people. This is how fatalism presents itself. And today we live in a pessimistic society.

Whatever we might make of the specific points, none of the perspectives that underlie them is inherently wrong. Every issue is different and most of us are reasonably pragmatic. But, take note, the speakers are not simply offering different answers; they are also appealing to different ways of looking at the world and different parts of our psyche. Each implicitly rests on assumptions about what matters: respectively, identity and justice, efficiency, freedom, realism; and, also, what does or should make the world go around: values, rules and evidence, individual choices. 

Protestors protesting outdoorsIt is not that traditional ideological differences are illusionary but that they are overlaid by the categories of motivation, value and change that I have described and that - as I have shown in previous posts – recur in influential research in psychology and organisational theory.

I am on the centre-left but I will find it easier to talk to someone on the centre-right who shares my interest in evidence and policy design than a radical idealist for whom the battle of values is all that matters. Just as there are different reference points for left and right-wing ideas of solidarity, there is also a left liberal individualism that emphasises rights and personal development and a right liberal version which prizes autonomy, competitiveness and acquisitiveness, not just as personal virtues but as forces for social progress.

Pioneers, Prospectors and Settlers

An echo of the forms of coordination can also be found in a widely used index of socio-political values. The ‘Values Modes’ framework was first developed in the UK by Pat Dade and Les Higgin in the 1970s and is used in the British Values Survey conducted annually by the Cultural Dynamics organisation. It divides the population into three roughly equal segments: pioneers, prospectors and settlers.  

    • Pioneers are motivated by self-realisation; their views are governed by values of collectivism and fairness.
    • Prospectors are driven by the esteem of others; they are motivated by success, status and recognition, and are usually younger and more optimistic.
    • Settlers are motivated by resources and by fear of perceived threats. They tend to be older, socially conservative and security conscious and are often pessimistic about the future, and are driven by immediate, local issues affecting them and their family.

Women running in a cityAll of us will be driven by different motivations in different parts of our lives. I may tend towards a hierarchical mind set at work and be solidaristic in political values, but when Park Run starts again my inner individualist will be desperate to be the fastest in my veteran category. But, as the Values Modes suggest, our characters and the context of our lives may give us certain predispositions. Pioneers lean towards solidaristic ideals with a focus on collectivism and values, pioneers are more individualistic, while settlers seem most to combine hierarchical and fatalistic instincts. I am reliably informed that the Labour Party is using Values Modes to think about how it can best appeal to different types of voters, particularly the settler-inclined population of ‘red wall’ seats.

The perspective of coordination theory can give us a more three-dimensional view of political positions and responses, but what about policy? Could it be relevant there too? Before I turn to this question, it is time to restate one important assumption of coordination theory. Namely, that the optimum way to get things done – whether in groups, organisations or through policy – is to find a way of combining our core motivations (and their associated methods of change), but that this is – for reasons I will explore in future posts – inherently difficult to achieve.

The many disappointments of public policy and a general decline in trust towards governments have led to a variety of initiatives aimed at reducing the failure rate of policy. One of these is the Centre for Public Impact, established as an independent foundation by the Boston Consulting Group. In late 2016 the Centre published the findings of a major study that combined a synthesis of existing academic analysis of public policy effectiveness with a study of over 200 individual public policy initiatives.

The Centre found that the most successful interventions involved the combination of three elements, which it labels ‘policy’, ‘legitimacy’ and ‘action’. The research further breaks down these three factors into nine components. ‘Policy’ is fundamentally about ‘authority’, which aligns with the concept of hierarchy. The concept of ‘legitimacy’ reflects the sense among citizens that a policy is fair and in the public interest; this links to the values and communitarian aspects of solidarity.

Finally, at the heart of ‘action’ is the question of how policies incentivise individuals to act, which connects it to an individualist emphasis on personal choice and self-interest. A subsequent RSA analysis of the Centre’s data also found that the most effective policies didn’t just score highly in aggregate across the dimensions but also exhibited a balance between the elements.

Complex social issues and successful policy

Discussion in an officeAmong the relatively rare examples of outstanding policy success in tackling complex social issues, there are many that seem to confirm the precepts of coordination theory. The London Challenge programme is one of the most successful policy interventions in the UK. Running roughly from 2001 to 2010, the programme helped take inner London schools and local authorities from close to the bottom of national league tables of performance to close to the top.  While the policy involved substantial investment, this did not guarantee success; indeed in developed countries there is only a weak correlation between education spending and outcomes.

The scale of progress achieved was not only unexpected but unprecedented in its impact. Education policymakers around the world dealing with the many challenges of inner-city schooling have taken notice and tried to replicate elements of the policy.

The three core goals of London Challenge were broad and overlapping. First, to raise standards in the poorest performance schools, a typical, hierarchical, quality regulation goal. Second, ‘to narrow the attainment gap between pupils,’ a solidaristic, social justice goal and, third ‘to create more outstanding schools,’ an aspirational, quasi-competitive, individualistic goal.

The figures who led the London Challenge exemplified the active forms of coordination. Government minister Andrew Adonis emphasised school autonomy and leadership, and the value of individualistic interventions such as failing schools being ‘taken over’ by successful head teachers, or being turned into more autonomous Academies. London schools’ Commissioner Tim Brighouse tended to put great emphasis on social justice and school-to-school collaboration, which helped to bring professionals and key stakeholders on board. Third, and just as vital, was career civil servant Jon Coles, the hierarchical actor focusing on the data, detail and delivery of the programme.

The methods used by the Challenge also combined motivations. Using the tools of hierarchy, the programme benefitted from powerful data to convince the public and professionals of the scale of the problem and was enabled by central coordination from the Department of Education. Although schools had little choice but to participate and strong incentives to succeed, the Challenge’s approach also emphasised the need for buy in from school leaders and allowed them to develop improvement strategies and collaborations that were suited to the own circumstances.

The programme’s glowing evaluation by the Institute for Government emphasised the importance of school leadership and the experienced team of advisors brought in to work with the schools. It also recognised that the solidaristic values that underpinned the strategy were as equally important. As the assessment states: “A recurrent factor in our interviews with those involved in the London Challenge – at all levels – was the sense of ‘moral purpose’ that was both tapped into, and reinforced, by the policy."

London Challenge suggests that impressive progress can be made by systemic policy interventions that mobilise all three forms of co-ordination. A more radical and far-reaching example comes from Brazil. ‘Bolsa familia’, which means ‘family allowance’ in Portuguese, was scaled up from a small regional scheme to a major federal initiative in 2003. At its heart was a monthly cash payment to all low-income families. Immediately following its inception there was a significant reduction in poverty. Ten years after the introduction of the scheme, extreme poverty had been cut in half and inequality had fallen by 15 percent. The policy has been lauded and frequently replicated internationally.

Again, the policy can be seen to have worked on each of the dimensions of coordination. In terms of hierarchy, the policy was truly visionary and strongly associated with then President Lula. It was promoted as part of a strategy for a modern, fair Brazil. But also, unlike the more paternalistic programmes, which had tended to be used in Brazil and other countries, Bolsa Família minimised bureaucracy and the scope for corruption by being very simple in its design. Evaluations of the programme have found that nearly all the money ended up in the hands to those who were supposed to receive it. Indeed, it could be argued that by assuming more complex poverty reduction strategies were bound to fail despite their good intentions, Lula was applying a valid fatalism about the capacity and reliability of the Brazilian state apparatus. 

In relation to individualism, the core principle behind Bolsa Família was that families themselves were the best judges of how to spend money in their own interest. Furthermore, by putting money into the hands of the poor, funds were then able to circulate around the local economy stimulating further market based economic activity. Indeed, the idea of cash transfers as the best way to tackle poverty is one that has been associated with free market thinkers like Milton Freidman.

Finally, solidarity; Bolsa Família is at its core a policy for social justice. Its central aim is to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty and inequality, a goal helped not just by a minimum income floor but also the programme’s companion policies and complementary services. Crucially, however, Bolsa Familía acknowledges another dimension of solidaristic concern: reciprocal fairness. Families only receive the cash transfer if they have their children vaccinated and send them to school. This key element has been part of most of the replications of the policy as it not only aims to achieve good outcomes in itself (health and education), but also to legitimise the policy in the eyes of a Brazilian electorate, which is as prone as any other to blame the poor for their plight.

The story of Bolsa Família speaks to the need for an adaptive approach to policymaking and implementation. The programme suffered a crisis early in its implementation when it became known that the conditionality criteria of vaccination and school attendance were not being consistently applied. Lula responded quickly by strengthening implementation. Subsequent evaluation showed very high compliance rates.

Over the past few weeks I have sought to show how, again and again, we can see the outline in theory and practice of a basic typology of human motivation, organisational and social change. In the next post I will explore some of the implications of the theory I have been outlining but also address a question that keeps nagging away at me. Given that this way of thinking about people and society seems to be reinforced from so many different directions, why isn’t it more widely known and applied. And what might be some of the benefits if it were? 

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  • When it comes to the implementation of such theories, or to further paraphrase, mobilise the theory, would Bottom up organisation, or linear hierarchy be more successful than the top down hierarchy of the many institutions tied up in bureaucracy? Perhaps this is what Start-ups are all about? Is it possible for both to co-exist? I’d like to believe Milton Freedman and fellow Free Market Thinkers laid out their designs with the best intentions, but when does a model reach critical mass? Or a market become prone to manipulation to serve the interests of a comparative few?

  • Could we extend this social policy framework into organisational design? To paraphrase the article move from analysis to action.

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