“Something for Something” – Is reciprocity now the key public policy debate?

TCC‘s research into community cohesion has led us to better understand community perceptions and narratives of ‘unfairness’ within communities with low levels of cohesion. One of the problems we identified is a values gap where public sector organisations often hold values where they might see fairness to be one of big picture social justice concepts, when the communities they serve are looking to see visible and tangible forms of fairness before they are prepared to trust those in charge.

A few weeks prior to recent News International phone hacking furore, Times columnist Danny Finkelstein wrote on the issue of differing perceptions of fairness, which I think is relevant to a wide range of public policy debates such as pensions, social care (on this issue, for example, read the blog and comments here) and welfare reform, through to political issues such as the philosophical debate around Blue Labour and Red Tory concepts. As Finkelstein comments both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have talked in recent weeks about public expectations over fairness and responsibility.

Finkelstein locates fairness in the social psychology concept of reciprocity and talks about the need for social policy to address ‘something for something’, which perhaps can also be expressed as ‘rights in exchange for responsibility’. In the early 90’s this was sometimes expressed as Communitarianism. For much of the past ‘rights’ had to be fought hard for in order for them to be secured for the vast majority of people. But with so much achieved in terms of ‘rights’, perhaps in a modern, complex developed western society, are some of these now taken for granted? As I blogged recently, those in the ‘squeezed middle’ of low to middle incomes, may measure their status not by looking at those within the top 1% of earners, but by observing those they see around them. The same may also apply in terms of their perception of rights and responsibilities and benefits received and given? There is a perception that past forms of reciprocity may have broken down and that this is seen as unfair by some – especially in those communities which have been most impacted by globalising economic forces. Thus addressing the implications of this is a significant public policy issue for organisations delivering services in an era of tighter budgets.

Finkelstein refers to Ben Wattenberg, who wrote the book Values Matter Most.

A liberal Jew from the Bronx, Wattenberg had been a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and had begun to appreciate something other liberal Democrats were missing. His party was losing touch with the values of the people who voted for it. Together with another Johnson adviser, Richard Scammon, in 1970 he published a bestselling book, called The Real Majority, which sought to explain how this had happened.

The Democrats, Wattenberg argued, were able to address the economic concerns of working Americans. But they had missed entirely the rise of social concerns — crime, order, drugs, morality. On these they had no language, no policy, yet these concerns, as least as much as the economy, now drove voting behaviour. They were a large part of the reason why the Republican Richard Nixon, who understood the voters’ fears only too well, had succeeded Johnson as President in 1968.

Finkelstein recounts a conversation that Wattenberg had with Bill Clinton in 1995 after the Democrats had lost to Newt Gingrich’s Republican’s Contract with America and Clinton was seeking a new strategy:

Here’s what the President had to say. He had read Values Matter Most and he realised that its central argument was right. Within its covers lay the explanation for his heavy defeat in the midterm elections of 1994. On becoming President, he had grappled with the budget deficit, employment and interest rates, but he had “lost the language” that had made him a new kind of Democrat and president. He was no longer showing hard-working, law-abiding people that he was on their side on social issues, that he shared their values.

And so came a new Clinton agenda. Toughening up on crime, welfare reform, school discipline. It helped to produce his victorious re-election campaign in 1996.

I recall this strategy from the time and it was seen as a shift to small-scale issues that voters could directly relate to fitting in with Clinton’s homespun southern governor style and helped make up for policy failures of his first two years around issues such as healthcare reform.

Finkelstein argues that an understanding of values is applicable to current public policy debates and says research means we can look at this in more sophisticated ways, which I agree with:

Since Wattenberg wrote Values Matter Most, we’ve gained, from many different pieces of scientific work, a much better understanding of what drives attitudes to social issues. Yet all this work — the papers on reciprocal altruism, the books on the mathematics of co-operation — are brilliantly summarised in an old Clinton slogan: “No more something for nothing.”

Social relations are underpinned by the idea that you put something in and get something back. And we are constantly anxious, suspicious — or even plain certain — that we are putting something in and getting too little back and that other people are getting something for nothing. What are the hottest social issues? Welfare fraud, crime, illegal immigration, public sector waste, MPs’ expenses, banking bonuses. Each involves somebody receiving a benefit without having, to many people, made a contribution that justifies it. This feeling is sometimes unjustified, and often ungenerous, but it is a strong political fact nevertheless.

Finkelstein then covers the future political impact of this for the Government around crime and the NHS reforms. He also refers to the challenges faced by the opposition around immigration and welfare reform and its impact on how it will in future define equality in a modern complex society when the issue is one of relative and not absolute poverty. Current efforts to define what is now meant by inequality may require a better understanding of public perceptions of fairness and reciprocity as well as addressing motivation and self-efficacy on top of traditional public service interventions around improving people’s ability. I won’t go into those political debates here, but want to just pick up on his concluding sentence.

However level of reciprocation itself may vary by the values described above. For some it is about tangible and material things, for others the reciprocation may come in less tangible forms

I think this is an important point. We know from our research the different values that exist and can now be mapped more widely as the World Values Survey also shows. Those values will mean some people want to see direct and tangible demonstration of fairness, whilst others will be satisfied in it in a more conceptual way. As TCC have often shown through our research and recommendations,  the challenge for public policy is to communicate to all the various concepts of fairness that exist within the community.

If you did want to see the full Danny Finklestein article you would need to pay the Times paywall. Clearly they want something for something!

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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5 Responses to ““Something for Something” – Is reciprocity now the key public policy debate?”

  1. Dangerous Crowds? Riots, Anonymity and Deindividuation. « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] to prevent these scenes happening again. This is not just about addressing emotions, but also about reciprocation – ‘something for something’ – as many amongst the public have the expectation that the state will properly guarantee the […]

  2. Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team sets out its work « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] reciprocity (ie something for something which we recently blogged on) to assist create opportunities to enable more ‘people helping people’ exchanges […]

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    […] incentives are set far too low. However if larger incentives are created there is likely to be a perception from those who do have higher levels of self-efficacy that they are losing out. Thus one of the most important elements is to firstly gather insight into the attitudes of the […]

  4. Community Cohesion: the views of white working class communities – new report from JRF « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] on Community Cohesion, would broadly agree with those findings. A lack of voice, disconnection, sense of unfairness, values determining identity and criticisms of community cohesion that is often driven by people or […]

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