Ralph Lewis, Chair of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant-Leadership UK, argues that the Big Society must be based on key human needs: relationships
Let's start with the basics. All society is based on relationships – and at the core of those relationships are key human needs which can be classified in many different ways. One powerful analysis is that of Will Schutz. He argues for our need to be seen as significant (status, making a difference) via belonging to different groups; being competent and in control, and being loved and trusted (affection). We all have these needs but in varying degrees. The trouble is we don't understand how they drive us - and we also confuse the needs with each other. The formation of the “Nudge Unit”
in the Cabinet Office certainly is beginning to address issues of personal motivation and behaviour but I would suggest that the MINDSPACE approach developed by David Halpern and colleagues needs to focus more on these more personal aspects of the human experience.
Take Nick Clegg for example. His problem is that the students' anger is directed at a personal level, that of trust re: the breaking of his promise on tuition fees. If, instead of explaining the tuition fees decision from a control/task dimension, he acknowledged first of all the personal issue of trust students might be able to move on to the rational. In other words we all need to acknowledge issues on the dimension that is most affected in order to make progress and again not confuse one area with another.
On a broader arena, different societies organise themselves in such a way as to enhance the meeting of these needs for different individuals. Each society will place a premium on one of the dimensions more than the others - the Japanese for example focus most of all on belonging to the wider group. There is more emphasis on affection in societies such as Brazil or Southern Italy. Western Anglo-Saxon societies and especially their economic organisations have a major focus on control and competence. This has major implications when negotiating across different societies – something that is obvious but is ignored. Values such as honesty mean different things in different societies. There is some superb research looking at these differences which makes it clear that behavioural economics for example needs to be modified by culture. (See this Freakonomics blog
for an excellent summary of and links to the ongoing debate around this).
It is therefore legitimate to accept that on a personal level the values of one society may just not be acceptable to others from different societies. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging these differences and also not wishing to be involved with that group as long as there is no implication of superiority by one group. But again confusion between dimensions causes problems. Instead of accepting differences and being secure in their own set of beliefs, people - as individuals and groups - often try to increase their own significance by controlling others and forcing them into the same way of thinking. The mere existence of a different way of organising society can pose a threat to those with differing belief systems. Look at Cuba and the USA – the issues there could have been solved years ago by inclusive and open communication on both sides, but instead has been defined by a seemingly endless power struggle, possibly only limited by the mortality of the main protagonists.
The Big Society needs to recognise and work with these multliple dimensions and, in particular, the importance of recognising (rather than playing lip service to) the fact that people need to feel significant and that their voices are not disregarded. Politicians have too often ignored that basic significance need. In The World of Goods
, Mary Douglas and Baron Isherwood look at why we buy material goods and suggest that the vital reason for purchasing goods is to feel included and to gain a sense of belonging to a recognisable group (often but not always gaining status). Fashion - whether for clothes or phones - exists only because of the fact that people are paying to be part of a readily defined group. The authors go on to say that the most important factor in poverty is the breakdown of lines of communication and belonging. This has been reinforced by a recent study by Cristobal Young Waiting for the Weekend – Free Time and Network Constraints amongst the Unemployed
which shows that the lack of networks leads to lack of relationships and hence lack of opportunity.
So if the Big Society is to succeed then generating a feeling of significance and belonging is of utmost importance. That means building a common sense of community (not always easily achievable in atomised and/or transient neighbourhoods) and sharing and communicating information and therefore responsibility. Alongside that, politicians must learn to relinquish control – a very difficult personal step, in that it requires the confidence to hand over control responsibility which for many years has itself been equated in the political realm with personal significance. By contrast, business leaders (well some of them!) increasingly understand this and are focusing more on establishing new places for themselves as custodians of networks – connections between customers, suppliers and companies - rather than top-down command and control. (See The Cluetrain Manifesto
or Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World
by Margaret J. Wheatley).
If the Big Society starts with acknowledgement of everyone's significance and building relationships through belonging and inclusion then it stands a chance. The work of the new type of leaders we need - both national and local - will be to set guidelines (and sometimes nudges) to enable this to happen, but not to succumb to the temptation to take control (and therefore reduce the significance of those who are controlled). This is not an easy task. The tensions between local freedom and the pressure for national command and control will always be there, particularly as we - both government and communities - get to grips with the new political and social contract. For example, it may in time seem ludicrous for Ministers to make statements about strengthening the freedoms of local government whilst at the same time limiting their ability to independently manage local revenue, even if it is acceptable now. Different groups will always jostle for status and power and control but if the needs we have been discussing are understood and applied, the Big Society stands a much greater chance of becoming a reality.
Ralph Lewis is the Chair of the Greenleaf Centre for Servant-Leadership (UK)