Governance, Policy and the Arts and Humanities: New Perspectives for 2015

The Consortium for the Arts and Humanities for South East England (CHASE) welcomed Matthew Taylor as a keynote speaker at the inaugural Encounters conference that marked the first cohort of Arts and Humanities Research Council Funded doctoral students, and their supervisors, from the seven universities of CHASE.

Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Taylor has a sustained interest in social change. Working initially with the Labour party as Assistant General Secretary, Director of Policy, and Chief Advisor on Strategy to the Prime Minister, he focused on the importance of public engagement with the political process as an engine for change. Between 1998 and 2003 Taylor was the Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, and in 2006 he became the Chief Executive of the RSA.

He has engaged with issues of income inequality (is there a ceiling to sensible financial remuneration?), local arts funding (shouldn’t arts organisations demonstrate their worth when bidding for funds?), and the interface between business and arts institutions (arguing that other industries have a lot to learn from arts institutions). His thinking has focused on improvements in the educational system asking, pertinently, whether the constant rhetoric of decline undermines the development of schools. At the RSA Taylor has pioneered curriculum innovations through the Opening Minds and Area Based curricula, and is a dynamic contributor to debates concerning the development of education policy in Britain. He is a strong supporter of the impact agenda that underpins REF evaluations.

At the Encounters conference Taylor encouraged delegates to think again about the role of policy in traditional legislative decision making in a talk titled ‘Beyond Policy: New Ways of Influencing Change’. He developed ideas first explored in his article for the Institute of Public Administration Australia NSW, drawing on David Colander’s and Roland Kupers’s book Complexity and the art of Public Policy that analyses how the disjunction between advancements in social and economic theory and outdated models of policy making prevents flexible and fluent policy responses.

Colander and Kuper argue that the policy models economists use still adhere to market fundamentalist or government control narratives. Shifting from a perspective of control to one of influence, Colander and Kuper draw on the utilitarian legacy of John Stewart Mill to argue for a laissez-faire approach to contemporary policy-making that harnesses individual’s social instincts. They see the role of government as one of fostering an ‘an ecostructure within which diverse forms of social entrepreneurship can emerge and blossom’. At the heart of Colander’s and Kuper’s critique is the conflict between oversimplified models and complex realities that renders governments insufficiently effective.

Taylor developed the implications of this conflict by introducing the example of design thinking which he characterizes as pragmatic, dynamic, and experimental, in brute contrast to the methods of the policy maker which, for Taylor, are inflexible, unresponsive and ultimately risk averse (for political as well as strategic reasons). Here Taylor is in synch with thinkers such as Peter Kelly of Aalto University, Denmark, who argued persuasively at the launch of a partnership between Goldsmiths and Trinity College Dublin in 2013 for models of design thinking to be incorporated into core strategies of business innovation and entrepreneurship.

Taylor’s chief concern was how far the creaking mechanisms of policy-making lag behind the pace of change. By the time a policy has been devised, the conditions that instigated the policy have changed. Policy can’t match the pace of change, but the political imperatives that govern democracy lead to conditions that mitigate against flexibility and responsiveness. ‘Big ticket schemes’ as Taylor called them, win out over ‘innovative or local solutions’, and the drive to keep election promises shackles governments to adhere to aspirational policies that have more to do with gaining power rather than wielding it.

He gave the Mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett’s ‘ThisCityisGoingonaDiet’ project as an example of local initiative based on harnessing grass-roots enthusiasm rather than implementing policy. By galvanizing local support through example, Cornett lead 40,000 participants to lose 519,000 pounds in weight and adapt a healthier lifestyle. This initiative was complemented by infrastructural change, such as the building of sidewalks, which encouraged exercise. Taylor also referenced Bruce Katz’s and Jennifer Bradley’s work on the development of cities and metropolitan areas which, at the outset of 2015, anticipates that ‘cities’ and metros’ capacity for action and innovation won’t be measured solely by the fiscal health of local governments, but rather on the financial commitments and engagement of private, nonprofit, and civic institutions and their leaders.’

Taylor’s talk was followed by a lively Q&A session during which the new cohort of AHRC funded doctoral candidates, and their supervisors, posed questions about the efficacy of Taylor’s ‘beyond policy’ position, particularly in the context of social responsibility and ethical engagement. Questions were raised as to whether approaches to social and economic change that succeed in a metropolitan setting would work on a national scale, and there was heated debate about how current models of democratic representation would operate under this new ‘beyond policy’ model. Taylor’s enthusiasm for praxis rather than policy and his argument for a new paradigm for ‘purposive social change’ was felt by some to sideline, and perhaps silence, the voices of underrepresented groups in society.

After the Q&A, as the conference spilled across the courtyard to the reception in the galleries of the Courtauld, one participant turned the conversation to moments in British political history when policy was vital in the implementation of radical and necessary social change, giving as an example the ‘Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965’, made permanent in 1969.  During the seven and a half hour debate about fully implementing the ‘Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965’ just short of the 5 year trial period, in the Commons in 1969 Tory MP for Streatham in south London, Duncan Sandys argued strenuously that public opinion strongly supported the return of the death penalty. Just under 50 year later a YouGov poll of almost 2,000 people conducted in 2013 reported that 45% were in favour of restoring the death penalty. Yet UK government policy as detailed in the 2011 policy paper ‘Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015’, published by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, sets out a strategy to ‘proactively drive forward the death penalty agenda, in order to make progress towards our ultimate goal of global abolition’ as part of promoting human rights internationally. Is this not an example of how policy can be a driver for change?

Is there a place for policy and local praxis? Are there social and economic challenges that can be differently addressed by either policy or by strategies ‘beyond policy’? What parallels can be drawn between the ‘beyond policy’ position and David Cameron’s vision of the ‘Big Society’? If civic mobilization is key to innovative change and development, how can we ensure that all sectors of society have equal access to the strategies and possibilities of mobilization? Yet, as Jocelyne Bourgon emphasizes in her A New Synthesis of Public Administration, given the increasingly networked societies in which we live, and the interdependence and complexity of their economies, new strategies for governance are urgently needed.

Colander and Kuper look to the arts and humanities for a new perspective on the frames within which policies are developed. They recognize the importance of the ‘language majors, history scholars, humanists, postmodernist, or artists’ in developing the ‘complexity frame’ necessary to understand the dynamic and interconnected systems of our society. We look to this generation of CHASE doctoral students to respond innovatively and courageously to the challenges ahead.


Dr Derval Tubridy

Goldsmiths, University of London

9 January 2015