The path from crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic is generating momentum for change in many parts of society. But perhaps the biggest shift of all would be an appetite for new leadership.

The RSA
The RSA
Apr 24, 2020 · 10 min read

by Matthew Taylor @RSAMatthew

During the Covid-19 crisis there is inevitably a divide between those whose jobs are at the frontline saving lives and protecting the vulnerable, and the rest of us. Some people have crossed that divide by volunteering, whether formally or simply by supporting neighbours. But for those of us who have to focus on non-essential work, perhaps combining this with children at home, it is hard to fend off a sense of impotence and irrelevance. In whatever role we entered this crisis, we must make ourselves as useful as possible.

From the beginning — after we had put in place logistical contingencies like closing our HQ — the RSA decided to pivot our research, communication and Fellow engagement around the concept of Building Bridges to the Future; how could society’s response to the crisis prefigure a better world after it has passed?

As well as reconfiguring the RSA’s action research, we are hosting online public events, podcasts and publishing a series of Fellows’ blogs and long-read essays responding to some of the longer-term implications of the impacts of Covid-19 and what is has revealed.

This has led to some important work, including proposals for an emergency basic income scheme for the self-employed, a poll on public attitudes showing that people do not want things to go back to how they were. A leading a local authority has brought forward plans to maintain the improvement in urban air quality, while our popular podcast series is asking influential people how they think the world could and should change after the pandemic.

For some time, the RSA’s overarching concern has been impact. Our core idea of ‘thinking like a system and acting like an entrepreneur’ emphasises the contingent nature of change and encourages policymakers to ask not only what they think needs to be done but what might be possible in any specific context. We have consistently argued that change often comes from unexpected and unpredictable sources; a thesis which is now poignantly confirmed.

As the far reaching impact of the pandemic started to become clear we identified three conditions that make it most likely that the crisis will have long-term intentional impacts.

  • First, where this is a pre-existing demand and capacity for change.
  • Second, where the crisis not only strengthens that demand but prefigures alternative mindsets and practices.
  • And third, where there are political alliances, practical policies and innovations that are ready to be deployed in the period after the crisis when people and systems are more open to change.

But we must move beyond concepts. Talking to those focused on responding directly to the pandemic, my sense right now is that only some types of contribution are useful.

While there will be many searching questions to be answered when we look back on the UK government’s management of the pandemic, the obsessive search among parts of the media for grounds for blame and condemnation (which is, I suspect, how they displace their own sense of pointlessness) does not always feel either appropriate or helpful.

Our political leaders have revealed many failings. Some are clearly finding it hard to shoulder the heavy weight of responsibility. But unlike normal times, most people want to believe that ministers are doing the right thing and there continues to be strong support for lockdown and the measures to mitigate its effects.

If cynicism is out of fashion, conversely, high-flown idealism about how people will emerge from the crisis transformed into selfless communitarians willing to sacrifice anything for their fellow citizens, or to save the planet, may be comforting but is also probably fanciful.

Instead, there is a desire for concrete insight into how people, communities and institutions are responding to the crisis; what new ideas and ways of working are emerging? How has the crisis exposed systemic weaknesses and identified hidden potential? Using this knowledge, can we start to identify more precisely where the impetus and potential for progressive change may be greatest?

My RSA colleague Ian Burbidge has developed a useful matrix to help distinguish between one-off crisis actions and interventions that have longer-term potential, and between innovations resulting from new activities and those enabled by putting a hold on business and bureaucracy as usual.

Understanding crisis-response measures

Wherever there is action there is reaction. Social change is difficult. The world is complex and fast moving, vested interest and institutional inertia are powerful; inevitably there are trade-offs and risks.

The short-term downsides can be more obvious and attention grabbing than the longer-term gains. Given this, the aspiration to build a better future out of the crisis must be grounded by analysis of the obstacles to change and how they might be overcome.

Different possibilities face different barriers. It might be useful to think of three domains for post-crisis change: the emotional/communitarian, the institutional and the governmental.

In the first, we should be realistic about the viability of initiatives that are based on feelings specific to the crisis. Sooner or later we will stop opening our windows and standing on our pavements to salute NHS and care workers. However, many people will hope that at least some of the spontaneity and solidarity expressed through the 750,000 NHS volunteers and the Mutual Aid movement could be preserved and repurposed for calmer times.

Over the years, various well-meaning initiatives to boost volunteering and social integration have had only marginal impacts; remember David Cameron’s Big Society? To achieve a substantial and permanent increase in volunteering levels, with all the benefits it could bring, would almost certainly involve a major, multi-faceted strategy.

This might encompass stronger incentives for employers to offer volunteering opportunities and employees to take them. It is likely to require enhanced funding for organisations who recruit, manage and train volunteers and a much more comprehensive and integrated approach to public services volunteering (demanding considerable culture change). It may even mean making volunteering a part of the school curriculum. In short, if we want volunteering to become a norm for normal times, we need to start planning now.

At the institutional level too Covid-19 is leading to rapid and radical adaptation:

In an essay for the RSA, Axel Heitmueller, the Managing Director of Imperial Health Partners — whose team has been working flat out through the crisis — describes how the London NHS has been operating like a single integrated organisation, putting aside the fragmenting dynamics of the internal market and trusts as semi-independent business units.

Eddie Copeland, Director of the London Office of Technology and Innovation, has listed an array of innovations being put in place by the capital’s councils, ranging from digital committee meetings to much more agile ways of working with citizens and voluntary organisations.

Meanwhile, Adam Groves, design lead at The Children’s Society has described a range of institutional innovations in the charity. These involve not just moving services on-line but also the rapid prototyping and implementation of new practices, spontaneous lateral working across organisational lines and a step change in both internal and external collaboration (including with organisations, which in normal times, may have been seen as competitors).

Groves’ summary echoes the view of many managers:

“An unprecedented transformation represents an unprecedented learning opportunity. As an organisation we recognise that we — and the systems we operate in — will not have the option of reverting to ‘business as usual’ after this outbreak”.

Just as we need to be realistic about channelling emotions aroused by the current crisis, we should not underestimate how certain institutional logics will reassert themselves when things return to something like normality.

Prompted by government, various regulators have adopted a permissive approach to adaptation in areas ranging from the use of data to allowing face to face identity checks to take place on-line. But this is temporary.

Indeed, some of the organisations we have spoken have emphasised that must keep their temporary adaptation unofficial or even confidential.

While the reassertion of regulation may slow down change and reduce the appetite for risk, the logic of markets or quasi markets (such as public sector service commissioning) could reduce the appetite for, and permissibility of, collaboration.

Innovation in the crisis can be driven by blood, sweat and tears; sustaining it will require structural change within organisations and the domains where they work. As Copeland writes of putting council meetings on line:

“Elected members will soon experience what digital teams have always known; shifting a process on-line is not a matter of doing the same thing through a browser; it requires changes in policies, processes and practices as well”.

As they respond to the emergency, many organisations are finding employees and citizens are willing to adapt to generate better outcomes from limited resources. But the crisis will not change human nature.

Both the defence of our immediate interests and a suspicion of change are natural responses. To return to the example of the London NHS, greater integration would almost certainly strengthen the case for a rationalisation of services. We have seen with the treatment of strokes that centralising specialisms can have major benefits.

However previous attempts at rationalisation, including the closure of hospitals or accident and emergency departments, have provoked angry and successful protest campaigns. In many areas of policy and practice there is an opportunity after the crisis to make the case afresh for change, even when it involves difficult trade-offs. But in the collaborative, trusting, spirit of the crisis we need to make decisions with people and not simply try to impose change upon them.

Effective, authentic engagement and deliberation are critical to a third domain; politics and policy. From the abolition of punitive conditionality regimes in the welfare system, to the early release of some non-violent criminals, in the crisis ministers have assented to measures for which many progressives have long been arguing.

The evidence suggests that distrusting and punishing claimants is both harmful and ineffective, and the Department for Work and Pensions was already in the process of making its approach less judgemental and more supportive. Similarly, the costs of incarceration, the shameful state of our prisons and the failure of short sentences to rehabilitate or reduce reoffending, makes the case for reducing the numbers in prison even stronger.

But any minister arguing for crisis adaptations to become permanent policy will be only too aware of the risks of backlash. It only takes a few headlines about scroungers or released prisoners reoffending for politicians to start cracking down. In areas ranging from the funding of social care, to the need for a fairer tax and entitlement system for the self-employed, the momentum for change provided by the crisis could meet the resistance of media hostility, public suspicion and powerful, vested interests.

As the Resolution Foundation has argued, the massive fiscal challenge the government will face after the crisis should be met primarily through progressive tax increases. Yet middle-class people who have lost income and face greater insecurity after the crisis will no doubt argue against paying more. If local authorities respond to the desire for cleaner air after the crisis through exploring measures like congestion charging or pedestrianisation they may face hostility from local employers arguing that more disruption or regulation are the last thing they need as they try to rebuild their businesses.

It is the post crisis context — where there is a need to act quickly and to take advantage of the public’s appetite for change — that has led the RSA to emphasise the role that forms of democratic deliberation could play in guiding policy.

From constitutional reform in Ireland to energy policy in Texas, all around the world deliberative methodologies have shown the capacity of what are sometimes called ‘mini-publics’ to engage with complex issues and generate thoughtful and practical solutions. While detailed policy development and implementation takes time, particularly if legislation is involved, the principles to guide such policy could be established and legitimised more swiftly through deliberation. Indeed, we will soon see the outcome of the largest deliberative process ever undertaken in the UK when the Citizens Assembly on Climate Change, established by six Parliamentary select committees, reports its findings.

Whether it is action in local communities or the national tax and spend framework, Covid-19 could force us to face up to the inadequacy of certain norms, structures and policies. But the biggest challenges we had going into the crisis were even more fundamental. The OECD’s ‘three Ps’ of social polarisation, the rise of populism and a deepening pessimism about the future are cause and effect of a profound malaise within liberal democracy. The pain, fear and dislocation of Covid-19 could all too easily play into and magnify this malaise, particularly if our feelings are exploited by those who thrive on division and suspicion.

Since a pioneering study of the ‘Blitz spirit’ in the 1950s by American scientist, Charles Fritz, research into natural disasters has shown that crisis most often brings out the best of us, perhaps tapping into a collective resourcefulness and solidarity which evolved when our prehistoric ancestors were routinely at the mercy of the elements. Could the crisis be a turning point, rekindling our belief in progress? It has reminded us that it is not hope that leads to action as much as action that leads to hope. It has underlined our common humanity while encouraging us to empathise with our less protected and advantaged fellow citizens. It has, I sense, made us intolerant of the unreason and cynicism that underlies so much populist rhetoric.

The failings of our political class and frailty of our democratic institutions have been the most vivid expression of how liberal democracy has lost its way. In the face of complexity and major challenges, of which climate change is of course the greatest, we need a different politics; directed not so much at taking power as creating it by treating people as grown-ups, trusting them and inspiring citizens to be change makers.

The crisis is forcing us to think differently and to act differently. Perhaps the most profound shift would be if we were ready for a different kind of leadership.

Listen: Matthew Taylor on good work and the coronavirus

Matthew Taylor is Chief Executive of the RSA.

Covid-19: Building Bridges to the Future

How could, and how should, the world change after the pandemic?