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I’m  thinking a lot about how to involve the public in government policy at the moment, so was struck by a story which came up in a recent talk at the RSA  about creativity.  Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA  tells the story better than I could hope to so here it is in his words:

The Mayor of Oklahoma stands in front of the elephant cage in Oklahoma Zoo and says I’ve tried to lose weight and I’ve failed and the reason I’ve failed is because we’re a fat city so I’m asking you, the people of Oklahoma to help me to lose weight  … The people of Oklahoma thought this was great, they loved their mayor, they loved the fact he was trying to lose weight and they all joined in.  He challenged them to lose a million pounds  in weight – he later admitted he had no idea what a million pounds in weight was – but they lost it.  And only then did he do the things that you’d expect.  He had a sales tax because he said that people are saying to me they’re trying to lose weight and they’ve got no bicycle lanes  they’ve got no green spaces.  And you know how much Americans love tax, but  90% of people voted for that sales tax.  And then he raised another $200m from the corporate sector to green the city.

A perfect example of engaging the public in tackling a widespread social  problem and bringing about behaviour change.  And also a lesson in not acting before a policy objective – the notion of changing the city to help people lose weight –  has been understood.

He told another story in the same session,  asking why a widely admired government policy – Labour’s pledge to abolish child poverty –failed.

What happened to Labour’s pledge? Well what should have happened  is this … [Tony Blair] should have said I have a vision that we could abolish child poverty, it would be the bravest  and most amazing thing we’ve ever done.  I’m going to spend a year going around  the country talking to everyone and finding out  whether this is real and in a year’s time I’ll come back to you and tell you three things – 1. Is Britain up for it? 2. The pledges I’ve received from business, unions and churches and most importantly from poor people themselves, the stuff that they want to do.  And then I’ll tell you the things that we as government will do to help  you  because this is something that you’re doing and there’s a few things we could do to help.

That – obviously – is not how things happen in government.  Instead pretty much every government initiative starts off as a twinkle in a policy-maker’s eye and then goes  through the Whitehall ‘delivery’ machine.  Making policy at the centre and then implementing it is slow and cumbersome; leaving policy to smart people in Whitehall can mean that policy is shaped by the opinions (and prejudices) of a group of people drawn from a fairly narrow section of the population who often have no  practical experience of the problems they are trying to solve and limited understanding of the people they are trying to help.

To quote Matthew Taylor again:

I’m not saying you don’t need policy,  but … you START with public engagement, public mobilisation, you start with those emergent elements and you may or may not need policy … The problem at the moment with the political class is they start with policy and then think about mobilisation… We don’t need a form of leadership which says ‘sit back and leave it to the experts – it’ll all be OK’.  Because however good that sounds it means that people are entirely disengaged… When it comes to social policy, politicians and managers  need to replace the blunt tools of policy making with those of design in which continuous experimentation, learning by failing, co-producing with consumers and users is the norm

And Amen to that say I.

The full lecture is well worth a listen – it’s the start of an RSA campaign to bring creativity to the fore in many areas of public life.  The video of the event is  here and the audio – which includes the Q&A in which the Oklahoma elephant house appears – is here.