I should feed back some impressions from last Thursday's lively Q and A session with Fellows here at the RSA house.
The session took place after a meeting of regional representatives, which I approached with some trepidation as relations between John Adam Street and the regions have often been strained in the past. Indeed, some critical points were made, leaving us at HQ with issues to address, but overall I was very impressed by how positive the people I met were. It seems to me that more and more of our regional activists see the measure of success not just in terms of the activities at regional level, but their success in getting local groups and Fellows' projects off the ground. One Fellow told me there are now getting on for twenty active local groups in his region, while another boasted about the number of successful bids for Catalyst (our seed corn fund) which had come from her area. The regional tier is absolutely vital if we are to encourage and support Fellows to network and to develop ideas.
The Q and A later, which was attended by about 60 Fellows overall, felt like a game of two halves. Those who most critical of the direction the RSA has been taking were very vocal at the beginning. Maybe it's self obsession, but I find it strangely compelling to be the victim of an elegant put down: I trace it back to an old school report which said 'O Levels are for the mediocre and accordingly Taylor passed'. My collection of ego-puncturing insults got another entry when a long standing activist from the London Committee said 'the RSA used to be run by people who were modest and wise now, Matthew, it is the reverse', ouch!
The second half of the discussion was more positive with many Fellows saying they think the Society is now thriving. An interesting bone of contention focused on one Fellow's criticism that the RSA has become too political (not party political I hasten to add). This caused several other Fellows to jump in to argue that if the RSA wants to change the world, and if this involves trying to influence public debate and decision makers, then we have to be political, while always maintaining our overall independence (something which is helped by having a Chair of Trustees and Chief Executive with very different backgrounds and perspectives).
I was pondering the Q and A on Sunday afternoon trying, a mere three days late, to come up with some brilliant reposts to the charge of being arrogant and stupid, when I got an e-mail from David Shriver, another London Fellow. He wrote to tell me about a project he and a group of Fellows from South West London got going back in 2007 as part of the Coffee House Challenge (CHC).
The project involves young people producing short films under the title 'If I were in charge for the day'. David tells me the project - which was a CHC grant winner - was very successful. But it has now lost the support it received from Merton Council and he and his colleagues are keen to ensure the idea doesn't just fade away but gets more widely known and possibly replicated in other places. I will meet with David and see if there is any help we can give, but whatever happens it is good to hear this example of Fellows working together for a sustained period.
The very next e-mail was from an advisor to a potential candidate for Mayor of Birmingham (what a great job that would be). The candidate is keen to promote a Brummie version of the area-based curriculum which the RSA piloted (in a very modest form) in Manchester and is now developing (more ambitiously) in Peterborough. Generally, public policy innovation is more interesting at the city and local level than at the national so it is great to hear RSA ideas influencing potential city leaders.
I am a great fan of the West Midlands (partly because it is so unfashionable) and was disappointed to find a few years ago that it was one of the less active Fellowship regions. Given the success of the RSA Academy in Tipton (which I am visiting tomorrow for the Royal opening of its new building) and our continuing involvement in the Birmingham Book Festival it looks like the RSA's is building a really strong presence. It was great to meet two people from the region at the meeting last week.
So, while I will carry on searching for a brilliant defence of my own ability and character, celebrating the progress of the Society and its Fellows feels like a much safer task.