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In an age of economic insecurity, it’s becoming clear that technocratic solutions on their own won’t address the big challenges we face. Is it time to get small ‘p’ political?

This week the RSA’s public services team published a prospectus outlining our emerging vision for a new social settlement that responds to today’s big giants, updating the ‘giant evils’ that spurred William Beveridge’s conception of the modern welfare state in the 1940s.

Despite high levels of interest and engagement with the ideas underpinning our prospectus, there was one common refrain (from some quarters, it should be added) that really caught my attention. Some urged caution in our construction of a narrative for a new public service reform agenda. There was a risk that our work may become too “political” if we address policies – such as austerity, universal credit and housing reforms that favour the asset-rich – that are influenced by the politics of power.

Our decision to include ‘power’ as a thread that runs through our work may have raised some eyebrows. But as my colleague Ed Cox articulated at an event with RSA Fellows, we can’t talk about transforming our institutions without getting small ‘p’ political (that is, not party political). How much can we really say about the welfare state without mentioning the fact that we have proportionally some of the lowest levels of spending on public services in Europe – and that this is the result not of economic necessity, but policy preferences? How can we talk about devolution and the extreme regional inequalities in the UK without calling attention to the way in which public money and public policy disadvantages certain areas while entrenching the privilege of others? How can we campaign for deliberative democracy without confronting the deficiencies of our current model of Westminster-driven politics?

I’m convinced that part of the unease we have with getting ‘political’ is closely linked with the influence of technocratic ideas over public policy, which accelerated with the emergence of so-called New Public Management (NPM) in the 1980s. The most widely recognised outcome of NPM was that it led to a managerially driven culture of targets and “efficiency” in the public sector, undermining the relationship between citizens and the state. But the effects were far more profound than this. NPM also transformed how we thought about social challenges. Deeply political dimensions of problems – money, distribution, power, exclusion – were stripped away, leaving us only with a world of deep, abstract complexity that only technocrats had the tools and the know-how to manage. It’s important to note that I’m not questioning the role of experts in policy-making here, but rather the way in which society’s problems have become de-politicised and reframed narrowly as technical challenges.

As a result, understandings of issues such as inequality have become muddled. In explaining the explosion of inequality in the 1980s, many economists and policy wonks deploy bizarre descriptions such as “skills-biased technological change” – as if these were somehow uncontrollable outside forces unconnected to politically-driven events such as de-industrialisation, deregulation and economic liberalisation. An entire industry of systems thinkers, public managers and change consultants has since emerged. Unfortunately, they have often offered minor, over-engineered solutions that merely tinker at the edges of the systems they so eloquently describe. Without license to get political, we are left to rely on human ingenuity and innovation (with things like challenge funds) to find breakthroughs. But we won’t design our way out of austerity and inequality.

In a recent report, I traced the roots of economic insecurity to a “political economy” characterised by three mutually reinforcing elements: “market fundamentalism” (Mark Carney’s words, not mine); a flawed economic model; and a punitive welfare state. My point was that to understand economic insecurity today, it wasn’t enough to look at macro-economic and technological trends: we have to study the political choices underpinning them. To understand and respond to today’s modern giants, we may need to get political again. 

Atif Shafique is a senior researcher in the public services team. You can find him on Twitter @Atif_Shafique.

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