I have always agreed with Groucho Marks, that I wouldn't want to join any club that would have me. On that basis I routinely reject all applications to join associations, clubs and business who's who's. I assume their motive is financial and the benefits minimum. On that basis I have turned down two offers to join the RSA, but attending an event there on Tuesday I had cause to rethink.
The event was a debate on the findings of the 2020 Public Service Commission sponsored by the RSA. It was pacy, packed and I think productive. It was one of those where many of the delegates, including me, were speaking, but that turned out to be a good thing because everyone had lots to say. The Director of the 2020 Public Service Commission Trust, Ben Lucas, formerly of LLM Communications, set the agenda by telling us that things have to change in public services, that the challenge was not just to shrink but reform and that despite the constraints, leaders had a duty to recognise their choices, be innovative and aspirational.
This theme was underpinned by Mathew Taylor, Chair of the RSA, member of the 2020 Commision and broadcaster. He said what many were thinking, which is that public services must reform from a starting point of being deeply institutionalised. A theme repeated many times throughout the day including from me, was that people would need leadership and support in making the necessary moves, otherwise we will simply get less, not more or at least different, just less. we heard from Lord Wei who gratifyingly said that the narrative on Big Society had all been about community engagement but there was a need for rationale around public sector reform, a point I made a few moths ago to the Cabinet Office (although I am sure that is unrelated). Unfortunately Nat used one of his lovely but complex charts to illustrate his view on this. What ever Big Society turns out to be, and for me its about giving people the freedom to demand more in exchange for their participation in the change process, it won't be communicated by a chart. Less Mckinsey me thinks, more poetry.
I tweeted up a storm and was thanked alongside fellow tweeters like Ruth Kennedy via twitter by the RSA. I think twitter is such a useful tool, it enabled us to send the key themes and statements out to a wider public and the comments and RT's (ReTweets) from folk during the debates were great. It extrapolated the discussion in real time and allowed comment from a much wider audience. As an aside I think the ruling yesterday against the poor old tweeter, Paul Chambers, who made a crass, infuriated joke about bombing Robin Hood Airport was a disgrace. It was clearly a joke, and incidentally not nearly as crass as a million I have made, and the price the bloke has paid already is to lose his job, his home and I believe, his relationship. The law really is an ass, and for clarification I don't mean donkey but idiot. Stephen Fry was absolutely right to speak out in defence of our right to flippancy, adding that it was important and he would pay the fine for Paul no matter how much it was. Twitter can be brutal, and those of us who have some twitter coverage you sometimes have to read comments that are tough, I have for instance been told I made one person feel sick (!?) But for any of this argy-bargy to end up in the courts is not the British way and should be mocked and shunned for what it is, Big State. Put that in your pipe and Tweet it.
Back to the RSA, Francis Maude's (above) thoughtful speech gave rise to the view that Government was giving some real thought to these issues. I was delighted to hear that he, Eric Pickles and Greg Clark were all working on a follow on from Right to Request. He was very positive about that policy, and saying that although it had its difficulties, the Government felt that something like it would be needed to enable the public sector reforms with Big Society vision that he wanted to see happen. He referred to the new framework as Right to Bid. He spoke of entrepreneurs within the public sector and so in a quick chat later I was delighted to be able to show him our Transitions booklet, distributed by SEL and the National Audit Office, produced for the public sector staff interested in setting up stand alone provision as social enterprise. He was amazed that it had been downloaded many thousands of times already, a hard and fast indicator that what he was saying was true, there is an appetite for this stuff within Government itself.
Other comments that caused a buzz were Stephen Greenhalgh Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council saying 'All Hail the postcode lottery', welcoming difference in pursuit of excellence. I have always found the postcode lottery debate a facile one. The truth is there should be a standard set which everyone has the right to expect in every service but beyond that folk need the freedom to innovate. If you aren't moving forward when the world is moving so quickly, you are in fact, in my view, going backwards.
Also Lord Adonis gave a very funny speech critising the Government's reforms along the theme of "Plus ca change (plus c'est la meme chose)" which he would have left thinking was popular, but in speaking to delegates his were the most unwelcome comments. People might laugh but really they don't want to hear that nothing can change and politicians will always remain the same. Given the view of politicians generally, staying the same is a very bad thing. As one delegate told me "Labour keep getting the mood wrong, they won't make progress until they sort that out."
Finally a quick shot from my office window of London Bridge in yesterdays torrential rain. Monumental in every sense.