Social Animals and the Bigger Society

Yesterday’s speech by the Prime Minister launching the Giving White Paper was interesting for three reasons.

Firstly he talked as much about building a “Bigger Society” as he did the “Big Society” itself. Perhaps he is recognising the difference between “means” and “ends” that we have blogged about here. A recognition of the difference is important so expectations are not raised through a wrong message that is communicated at a difficult time. This might even reduce the inevitable cynicism towards what are perceived to be Big Society “relaunches”. Communicating the difference between means and ends is important in the areas where there is political consensus on this subject, as it will take years to build community capacity, as well as to address the perceived broken social contract between the government and those who perceive they are unfairly affected by current public sector expenditure reductions, which are characterised by Twitter tweets like this:

Relaunch of Big Society yesterday fell flat. Why should individuals give more when Govt crucifies their jobs and lives? #BigSociety

As those who work in the field of behaviour change and values will testify, full reciprocity in this current area of controversy will only come when many people feel they are being treated fairly by any of the changes suggested by the Prime Minister, in order to respond positively to it.

Secondly, David Cameron made two references to humans as a social animal and also referred to David Brooks  and his recent book of the same name on how public policy can address people at an emotional level. We would argue that this is also the place where social networks and values interact – both reinforcing and changing people to various degrees.

For too long, government policy has been made without enough understanding of the things I’ve been talking about today – family, community, relationships.

When it comes to decisions about how and where to spend money, how policies are designed and implemented, how reforms are carried out…

…government has sometimes seemed to carry on oblivious to the fact that we are human beings, behaving in ways that ministers and officials can’t possibly plan or predict.

Government has ignored the fact that at heart, as the American writer David Brooks eloquently points out in his new book – we are social animals.

In this past decade we have surely tested to destruction the idea that a bit more state action here, a welfare payment, law or initiative there will get to grips with the crime, the drug addiction, the family breakdown that plagues too many of our communities.

Social problems need social solutions.

And in a way that I don’t think has been sufficiently appreciated, we are bringing that insight right into the heart of the business of government.

Right across Whitehall we are today applying to the design of policy the best that science teaches us about how people behave – and what drives their well-being.

The need to address people at an emotional level is a subject close to the hearts of us at TCC as we have been making a similar point for a number of years. This is why criticisms of the book not telling us that much new are a bit unfair; what Brooks was doing was not making simply a rationally objective pitch to us, but also bringing together the most recent scientific findings within a more emotionally constructed narrative to get across his points.

We also know the Prime Minister was meeting David Brooks as the author himself referred to the meeting last Wednesday at his RSA “Social Animal” lecture (audio file here) that we tweeted about on Twitter at the time.

It is also welcome news that the Treasury Green Book is being revised to take account of some form of Social Return On Investment (SROI) and that this might also be linked to the new well-being measures that we have blogged about here. Matthew Taylor, head of the RSA,  has also blogged about the importance of this point here.

We are revising the ‘Green Book’ – the basis on which the Government assesses the costs and benefits of different policies – to fully take account of their social impact.

We are developing a new test for all policies – that they should demonstrate not just how they help reduce public spending and cut regulation and bureaucracy – but how they create social value too.

And, the Office for National Statistics is developing new independent measures of well-being so that by the end of the year, we will be the first developed country in the world that is able rigorously to measure progress on more than just GDP.

Taken together, these may be the most quietly radical things this government is doing.

Thirdly and finally, he also addressed current political debates. Was this passage below a response to the current Blue Labour approach that was initiated by Maurice Glasman and a big subject for debate?

In the past, the left focused on the state and the right focused on the market.

We’re harnessing that space in between – society – the ‘hidden wealth’ of our nation.

The idea that the centre right is simply about the philosophy of individualism – of personal and commercial freedom – is a travesty of our tradition.

From Edmund Burke and Adam Smith in the 18th century, from Hegel and de Tocqueville in the 19th, to Hayek and Oakeshott in the 20th – all have been clear that individual freedom is only half the story.

Tradition, community, family, faith, the space between the market and the state – this is the ground where our philosophy is planted.

The things I’ve spoken about today – modernising public services, rebuilding responsibility, strengthening family and community all this represents a massive cultural change.

But if we get it right, it will not just benefit our society, it will benefit our economy too.

Going beyond the party politics, its shows that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are beginning to recognise that rapid changes over the last twenty years are proving very disconcerting to those who hold values around sustenance, safety and security needs. In the coming years that will be an increasing area for debate, not just for politicians, but also for many people working in public policy; to ensure that interventions across public health, community cohesion, service transformation, social mobility and many other areas address and resonate with people who hold those motivational needs and values.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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