My time advising the Cabinet Office on inclusive economy came to an in April, just as the General Election was getting going. There’s a limit to what I can say about my four months, because of normal confidentiality of working within an organisation. Below are some thoughts I can share with you all.
So. I was involved in taking an initiative from ‘concept’ to ‘live’ (see here). That’s a critical step forward, where my contribution mattered – and was only possible because the concept was good, there had been a lot of pre-work (especially on the key relationships) and the quality of the people I was working with.
Part of the inspiration for the initiative was last year’s Mission-led Business Review. One of its key findings was that the issue landscape was fragmented and confusing. Even when businesses wanted to actively address societal problems, it was difficult to choose which ones to pursue. The initiative I was working was a direct response to the first recommendation: “Government to lead a conversation on responsible business and identify how the public, private and social sectors can work together to address societal issues.”
The concept in outline: a collaboration between government, business and civil society addressing key societal challenges facing those who are ‘just about managing’ so that the UK is a country that works for all. The exact mechanics share many features with a startup accelerator.
Moving from concept to live meant designing for systemic change across a couple of systems:
The UK economy
Like many countries in the Western world, we’ve had stagnant wage growth over the last decades. Different people have different explanations – from labour productivity, through regional inheritances and cultures to globalisation, technological change and ‘crowding-out’ by hyper-finance. Interestingly, your explanation says a lot about your core assumptions about the world.
It’s quite a tangle. My thought from the start was, whatever upstream drivers you specifically believe are driving inequality, two things are true:
1. Those drivers are massive, long-term and transnational. It will be difficult to address root causes of the drivers at a national level, and almost impossible in a single initiative.
2. If the causes are on-going and dynamic, it makes sense to have an on-going and dynamic way of addressing their consequences. The collaboration can have a systemic effect by operating as a constant ability to adapt. In system thinking terms this is addressing a different root cause of inequality: a rigidity in the social and economic fabric in which the ‘just about managing’ live.
Often we criticise ‘end-of-pipe’ solutions but in this case I think it is a necessary pivot, one that respects the scale of the drivers in play. If we can increase our resilience – the ability to bounce back better from our challenges – then we can get closer to an economy that works for all without having to solve for the mega-trends that are beyond our reach. It also means this initiative can be a rehearsal for a lot of adaptation we are almost certainly going to have to do during the bottleneck decade.
The UK social impact innovation ecosystem
The solutions that help the ‘just about managing’ cohort don’t just fall like manna from heaven. There is an ecosystem of social entrepreneurs, think tanks, charities, foundations, intrapreneurs (change agents in companies), businesses, government departments, public bodies of many stripes, universities and on, and on.
Here is not the place to unpack the many different views as to what’s going on in the ecosystem and why. Suffice to say, the design task here was for the activity of the collaboration to enhance that ecosystem, not accidentally stomp on it.
It was fascinating to be in government for the first time. I know it’s not fashionable to say this, but my experience was the civil service was no more or less bureaucratic than any large business I’ve worked with. The people I worked with were cared about doing their job well, from having impact to following due process (which is not the same as procedural box ticking). I was able to bring some outsider experiences of design for system change.
In my two days a week, the main thought I had in my head was: what does this initiative need now, in terms of balancing the managerial, the entrepreneurial and the visionary timeframes? So, taking very much a Three Horizons mindset. As with most organisations, the managerial pressures are obvious and constantly reinforced in the normal routines. I think of my contributions as mainly about bringing the longer-term into those deliberations. Now it is up-and-running, there is less of a need for an outsider. My intention was that the longer-term would become embedded informally, for instance in the ‘norms’ of the meetings, and formally, through the KPIs the initiative uses. I’m confident that will happen.
Now, I have come in for some flack from friends for working as a civil servant under a Conservative Government. I can understand why they would believe that anything in this space must be a figleaf. Lack of trust – especially of someone’s motive – is a feature of our times. All I can say is that I weighed it up beforehand and remain comfortable with my decision.
This initiative has a chance to help tens of thousands – maybe even millions, we’ll see – of people to have more control over their lives. It can symbolise government, business and civil society collaborating at scale, and signals collectively that an inclusive economy is a widely shared desire. If that signalling aligns the activities of other players – public or private – then there will be quite an impact. Also, it can help all those players increase our collective capacity for resilience – something which will be vital in the coming decade.
Finally, there was an extra dimension to the experience. It’s been a pretty newsworthy couple of months: Article 50 triggered, and a surprise general election called. I had a slightly closer seat to history as it was being made. Seeing the media gather in Downing Street in front go the Prime Minister as pretty much everyone wondered what she was going to announce. Also, walking through a gloriously sunny, sombre yet steadfast Westminster soon after the knife attack.
Overall, I’m grateful for the experience. A chance to apply my skills and experiences in a different context (government, rather than business) on a different issue (inclusive economy, rather than sustainability in the round). Also, a chance to work with some very conscientious people in a historic setting. But, most importantly, a chance to make a systemic difference to people’s lives.