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This is a guest blog from London-based RSA Fellow Steven Trevillion. Steve is interested in connecting with like-minded Fellows with a view to establishing a framework for small, experimental social and community projects that could feed into the national debate about 'welfare reform'. He is an Emeritus Professor of Social Work at the University of East London and a visual artist.

We are constantly told that public services are in a state of crisis. The NHS, social work, Children’s Services, Adult Social Care, housing and even education are deemed by most observers to be in a state of more or less permanent crisis.

The search is on not just for ways of improving existing services but for ways of transforming them. George Osborne, Eric Pickles and a number of other government ministers have made it clear that nothing less than "transformation" is their goal. And this is not just the usual stuff about partnerships and collaboration. The big idea is that public services will become innovation hotspots. And a commitment to innovation means a commitment to creativity. Our own RSA has been at the forefront in recognising this as witnessed by the title of this year’s talk by Matthew Taylor: ‘The Power to Create’. This all sounds great. Who could possibly object to creativity as the way forward for public services? Unfortunately, the evidence suggests quite a lot of people. 

Who could possibly object to creativity as the way forward for public services?

We need to recognise that creativity creates problems for almost everyone with a vested interest in public services. Rather like ‘Love’ or ‘Goodness’ it is fine in principle but deeply unsettling in practice. For national and local politicians, creativity represents a challenge to accountability and their ability to set agendas and define targets; for managers it upsets power relations because creative workers will not operate according to agreed procedures; and for private sector suppliers it represents a threat to the existence of the large contracts for standardised services which are often seen by them as vital to their commercial viability. People who use services may not embrace creativity either, especially if it means they cannot be sure what kind of service will be offered to them. As for individual professionals, the demand for creativity in a context of scarce resources and on-going ‘austerity’ can be immensely stressful and potentially demoralising. So we should not be surprised if creative practices are thin on the ground.

But all is not lost. Many of the problems we have with creativity in public services are the result of a misunderstanding about what it is. It is not just a new solution to an existing problem. Creativity involves questioning assumptions and a willingness to look at things in a new kind of way. Failure to take this on board lies behind some of the problems people have with creativity. But my own experiences as a retired social work researcher and teacher now involved in the visual arts have shown me that there is also an even deeper problem. Creativity is a social process. It is not just a product of talented individuals. Artists connect with each other and with their audiences through a shared commitment to the possibility of creating something new and exciting. Without this social glue individual inspiration would not be enough.

Creativity works because all those involved feel that they are playing a part in the event. If we translate this into the sphere of social policy it is clear what we are missing in the current discourse about creativity. We do not have an equivalent to the artistic community and the wider community of art lovers.

In the absence of this kind of social rootedness, it is easy to see creativity as a problem rather than a solution. The long list of those who are sceptical about the potential of creativity in public services will not get any shorter until we start to address the need for an equivalent to the creative community in social policy. I would not pretend to have all the answers, but I do know that we don’t need a re-organisation or a new organisation or a new profession or even a new paradigm. 

We need to focus our energies on rebuilding relationships at a local level

If ‘transformation’ is ever going to be anything other than a political ‘soundbite’ we need to focus our energies on rebuilding relationships at a local level, so that creativity becomes part of the warp and weft of everyday life.

Steve is interested in taking this conversation further with other Fellows. If you'd like to be involved then please email Becca Massey-Chase, London Regional Programme Manager.


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