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How can new models of Basic Income provide not only a safety net for those who need it but also a springboard to a better life?

Talk about the concept of universal basic income (UBI) and the various models that are emerging in different parts of the world is becoming increasingly mainstream. The pressures of austerity and a failing benefits system in the UK together with an increasingly fragile or precarious nature of work are demanding new thinking around the complex challenge of how we, as a society, should support those who, for whatever reason, are at a critical turning point in their lives. At the RSA we believe there is a richer conversation to be had when we move beyond talking about UBI purely as a response to current inequalities or of the threat to jobs of automation. We are therefore looking to experiment with basic income as a civic, relational, empowering system that is grounded in community and enables individuals and their families to respond to their unique circumstances and context. What might this look like in practice?

Many have rehearsed the need for new models of public service that are fit for purpose in the 2020s, models that overcome the deficiencies of highly centralised control, of a market-driven ideology, of a path dependent approach to planning and delivering services, of the lack of responsiveness to complex issues. Alternatives to legacy systems are needed now more than ever, systems that redistribute power and agency from those offering the service, to those who should be the beneficiaries of it. From old power to new power models, as Heimans and Timms describe it.

Of course, new models of public services are unlikely to be found in a single, universally applied solution; rather, it is crucial to experiment with new ideas in manageable contexts. This is the approach we are taking in Scotland through our work to develop a basic income experiment that has civic engagement at its heart. Through this we seek to address a range of core questions. What type and nature of social safety net is needed when people experience a ‘social shock’ such as illness, a housing issue or unemployment? What might this look like for the more vulnerable in society, who perhaps can’t call on capital, family or a strong social network when they most need it?

How can such a model provide a springboard for people to transition into better circumstances or pivot their situation for the better? As Hilary Cottam says in her book Radical Help “our welfare state might still catch us when we fall, but it cannot help us take flight.” How can we experiment with more relational and rebalanced systems that help people ‘take flight’? Whilst the solutions will inevitably run counter to the ways such support has traditionally been designed and delivered, the answers are needed now more than ever.

To help us in this work we look through the lens of the RSA’s ‘think like a system, act like an entrepreneur’ approach to change, in which we increasingly draw upon two models to help us think through social challenges in their context. First, an interpretation of Mary Douglas’ cultural theory, which at its simplest says that any given situation is governed by the power dynamics between the individual, the group and the hierarchy. We also use the three horizon’s model developed in detail by the International Futures Forum, which allows us to look at such power dynamics and emerging innovations within a system over a longer time horizon. These models shed some light on the dynamics at play, as follows.

Our hypothesis is that the current system (the ‘first horizon’) serves the needs of the hierarchy first and the needs of the individual second and has no account of the role of community. As a result we see that the system is not fit for purpose. A ‘civic’ basic income model represents the third horizon, an idea of what might be possible in the future. The shift to a new system in horizon three requires a rebalancing of these power dynamics in which the role of both community/belonging and the individual are more prominent and the hierarchical is less so. Beyond this theory, what might this mean in practical terms?

To significantly ‘dial down’ the hierarchical, institutional power would involve removing or simplifying the set of rules, conditionalities, sanctions and incentives which govern the horizon 1 system. This would free-up a significant proportion of resources – time, emotional, financial, administrative, creativity, reporting etc - from within the system that can be directed elsewhere. At its best, therefore, a basic income model could liberate individual agency, capacity and choice. The incentives for the recipient shift from meeting the requirements of the system - or gaming it - to spending time and efforts on things that benefit them and their family in their current circumstances, not the system. For practioners within the system, the incentives are not to adjudicate, administer and audit, but to help identify and mobilise the support the individual needs.

Such work would clearly be value-adding for the individual, leveraging the assets, support and knowledge within our communities. This would be both informal, through friends, family and neighbours, and more formal, through the voluntary and community sector and other providers. Strengthening the role of community provision and belonging in this way would require new models of funding and support for the voluntary and community sector and for emerging social enterprises. It would enable people to identify their own needs and draw down support to help meet those needs or achieve their aims.

In practice, this might result in people having more time to support a young family or look after an elderly relative. Perhaps volunteer with a community organisation. Set up a business. Undertake skills training. Become a school governor. Smooth out irregular working hours. The number of opportunities is limited only by the imagination of those engaged and the support they can access. The impact of such interventions might, in turn, include development of self-confidence, reduced stress, increased sense of worth, more hope for the future... Is this not the nature of a ‘third horizon’ future that characterises a civilised society, one in which everyone is supported to reach their potential? 

The real challenge is that the support for people needs to be ‘pulled’ by the individual (more power for the recipient), not ‘pushed’ by the system (less hierarchical control), and grounded in community (stronger, more solidaristic networks). To achieve this, those working within the system require a different skillset and mindset. They need to be able to manage new and flexible commissioning processes, invest in community support and enterprise, mobilise local voluntary sector providers and leverage relevant statutory sector services. This is what we at the RSA identify as the new breed of ‘public entrepreneur’ – those with the new skills, knowledge and attitudes required to help shift legacy systems that are no longer fit for purpose towards new, response systems that have the individual beneficiary at their heart. This is the core of our work to develop blueprints for new civic basic income experiments. 


Ian Burbidge is an Associate Director in the RSA's Public Services and Communities Team

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