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I know some of my blog posts are a bit silly or obscure but - if even if I say it myself - this one is worth reading ...

In the next few weeks, the RSA will be publishing two reports: a first year conclusion of our Connected Communities project and an RSA pamphlet on social networks and public policy by the distinguished economist, Paul Ormerod.

I have read both reports in draft.  They are fascinating and make an important contribution to the Big Society debate.  Two general points stand out:

  • Social networks are important; understanding and using them can make a significant contribution to tapping into civic capacity and meeting public policy goals.

  • Social networks are complex and the way they operate unpredictable.

Together, these findings suggest a major shift in the methodology of public policy.  Traditional policy interventions - particularly in relation to social problems - have these characteristics:

  • They are large scale and expensive

  • They aim for relatively marginal improvement in outcomes e.g. a few percent lower unemployment or higher pupil attainment

  • They seek to minimise risk through systems of regulation, audit, and accountability

But these design features do not fit the characteristics of social networks interventions, which are:

  • They will usually fail

  • Occasionally small interventions will have major impact through contagion effects

  • Sometimes interventions will have an impact very different to those planned (sometimes good, sometimes not)

An emphasis on social networks changes not just the focus and design of public policy, but the whole way we think about success and failure.


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