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Some childhood experiences never leave us. The experience of humiliation is particularly hard to forget. Back in the sixties, at the age of eight, I was the only southerner attending Park Grove Junior School in York. To add to my general discomfort I also had a pronounced lisp. Maybe this was why I had a relatively modest part in that year’s nativity play. I was a wise king and my script in its entirety consisted of the word ’myrrh’. I suspect my father knew this when, barely concealing a snigger, he offered to hear me read my lines.

I only had one word but I appeared in two scenes and it was this that led to my humiliation. The rather unsympathetic deputy head in charge of the production came to visit my class to discuss arrangements. Perhaps to compensate for my various inadequacies (or was it was just an early manifestation of my lifetime habit of talking too much) I always put my hand up when it came to questions:

‘Miss, will we change our costumes between the scenes?’ was my innocent but looking back on it, ridiculous question. Even now I can see the sneer on the Deputy’s face. I can’t recall her precise words but it was something along the line of ‘ oh yes, Matthew, of course, we will and we’ll also have a make up assistant on hand to refresh your face paint, unless that is you want to bring your own staff in your own limousine’.

I thought again about this experience on the way from an event today. I had been asked to contribute to a lunchtime seminar about social innovation at Northampton University (if only those cruel teachers could see me now, oh yes!). It occurred to me too late that we had perhaps been a bit too structural in our account of the barriers to innovation (you can imagine the list: silo working, wrong incentives, lack of capacity etc): Because, in reality, one of the biggest inhibitors to innovation is a fear of humiliation.

The simple truth is that many – and it may even be most - people would rather take the small risk that they have wasted a great idea than the big risk that their idea will be greeted with a mix of indifference, scorn and hilarity.

If this seems unduly pessimistic look at the mauling given today by the health select committee to the idea that Sainsbury’s might use shopping habits to identify customers who have caring roles in order to offer them information and advice. The criticism seems to be based on the lazy and spurious idea that the Department of Health is asking Sainsbury’s to test out this idea instead of professionals using more traditional public service channels.

I know the Coalition is a bit tight with money and can even sometimes seem a little unsympathetic to the plight of the disadvantaged, but can you really imagine a Departmental letter to GPs along these lines:

‘Dear colleague, instead of the usual policy of seeking to notice when patients have major informal caring roles and offering them support we would like you to ignore people’s needs on the basis that they might get spotted at the local supermarket’.

That shop assistants could be given a bit of training to spot the shopping habits of carers and then offer these customers information about local services is only a small idea but it is sound, it is free and (unlike many other policy initiatives) it is difficult to see it doing any harm. But judging by the reaction of the select committee perhaps whoever developed the initiative in Government and Sainsbury’s may be tempted in future to keep their good ideas to themselves.

Part of the reason I feel defensive for this scheme is that RSA is itself soon to publish a report about the role that B and Q stores are playing in increasing social capital and engagement in localities. We’re just waiting for a foreward from a minister or Government policy advisor. Let’s just hope they aren’t now put off for fear of being made to look trivial or uncaring.

And on the subject of compassion it may be that the staff of Park Grove weren’t quite as cruel as I paint them: with my speech impediment it must have been tempting to make me the king who proffers the frankincense.

 

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