Could blogging bosses '08 become social artists '09?

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the RSA,  is writing about new progressivism in a series of blog posts this week. I particularly like the suggestion that he makes for greater focus on political ends instead of means, and a shift in the nature of debate. I believe that the 27,000-strong membership of the RSA could be an excellent testbed for the social artistry needed to achieve this.

More on that later … first, here’s Matthew’s broader proposition:

Second, politics should much less be an ‘us and them’ debate between decision makers and the mass of disengaged and sceptical citizens. Instead it should be an ‘us and us’ debate, in which citizens engage with each others’ views and in which we understand and accept that social progress requires us all to show some consistency, responsibility and altruism.

Demands for reform of existing institutions have been made for many years, which doesn’t mean they are any less cogent, but we also need innovation. Vast resources have been spent on improving consultation between decision makers and members of the public, but because this is fundamentally about improving ’us and them’ communication it can only go so far. We need to be much more inventive in developing new opportunities and incentives for citizen to citizen dialogue, problem solving and collective action. Devolving power to the most local level helps to blur the boundary between vertical and horizontal discourse, but it will take time, creativity and long term commitment to create the kind of vibrant egalitarian democratic spaces we need. The internet promises much (as thinkers including Clay Shirky to Stephen Coleman have argued at the RSA in 2008) but has so far delivered little.

The potential of the internet was something Matthew talked about a couple of years ago at an e-democracy conference, when leaving his role as policy advisor in Downing Street. If the Internet merely helped citizens participate in the “shrill discourse of demands” that dominated modern politics it would contribute to the crisis in the relationship between politicans and voters, he said.

The internet has immense potential but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands.

If you look at the way in which citizens are using technology and the way that is growing up, there are worrying signs that that is the case.

What is the big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years? It’s basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are.

The internet is being used as a tool of mobilisation, which is fantastic, but it only adds to the growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government.

Matthew challenged the online community to provide more opportunities for “people to try to understand the real trade-offs that politicians face and the real dilemmas that citizens face”.

Since then Matthew has not only started blogging himself, but led the way inside the RSA in promoting development of an online community for 27,000 members (known as Fellows). Over the past year the focus has been on piloting development of civic innovation projects, with some success, and lots of learning, as I reported here. There’s now a new system in place with plans to extend the scope to the more general interests of the Fellows.

The RSA Fellowship network could provide an excellent testing ground for the sort of citizen-to-citizen engagement and discourse Matthew wishes to promote, particularly if the structure and facilitiation takes account of cultural theory – another of Matthew’s current interests. This is the idea that in all organisations there are certain fundamental ways of viewing the world which will be at play. These are:

  • Hierarchical – in which change is seen to come from the top through authority, expertise and traditional rules.
  • Individualistic – change is seen to flow from the pursuit by each person of their own self-interest.
  • Egalitarian – in which change is seen to develop bottom-up through group membership, shared values and solidarity.
  • Fatalistic – in which change is seen to be illusory or random.

One of the challenges for the RSA in introducing online networking is that in the past the organisation has been somewhat hierarchical … and one of the motivations behind the online networks has been to promote a more egalitarian approach. It has been a rather turbulent process, and I certainly felt a bit fatalisic in the middle of the year, but the future looks very promising. A group of us are planning a joint staff-Fellows event within the next month or so to develop some new projects … which prompts thoughts on how Matthew’s philosophy might be one place to start. It could be a good model for other membership organisations.

Just as I was pondering the practicalities, an email popped in from Catherine Shovlin, inviting me to join the “Thinking Tank: New Year, New Politics?” event that she is organising online for RSA Fellows and friends on the evening of January 7. More details here. Catherine hosts discussion using a Synthetron system, which I wrote about here and here in relation to previous RSA online events. It allows for discussions plus voting, followed by synthesis from the facilitator.

There are, of course, lots of other ways to develop online disussions, with different tools appropriate for different purposes. A group of RSA Fellows in the North East are promoting the idea of a Virtual Coffee House, in line with RSA’s beginnings in a Covent Garden coffee house. What’s common to all of them, in my experience, is the need for a host, facilitator, or what Etienne Wenger calls a social artist. He said at a recent conference:

I do a lot of consultancy work for training community leaders, but in my heart of hearts I know the real secret of those social artists is not something I can teach. The real secret of those people is knowing how to use who you are as a vehicle for opening spaces for learning.  I don’t really have the words – but I just know when I see it. It is a way of tapping into who you are and of making that a gift to the world … it’s about being able to use who I am to take my community to a new level of learning and performance.

I see that as an inspiration for social reporting – and also for the new-style “Leadership 2.0” that Jemima Gibbons suggests organisations will need in future.

Last year the challenge for chief executives of nonprofit organisations was to become a blogging boss. Matthew can definitely claim the title of blogging boss of 2008 for his frequent and consistently thoughtful series of posts … but here’s a cheeky suggestion for 2009. Might he now join other bloggers in blending their individual voices, to promote and develop the egalitarian skills of social artistry inside and outside RSA? That would be a really inspiring example of putting cultural theory into practice.

Hmm, how about politicians as social artists? That’s another post.

One comment

  • January 2, 2009 - 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Despite his early concerns about blogging in general and its potentially negative impact on existing social processes, Matthew Taylor is a wonderful blogger as you suggest David, and my own thoughts are that blogging (as a boss) is an extension of existing well developed web.2 leadership qualities (as I see them), in Matthew’s case a well informed intellectual capacity, with confidence levels that enable the expression of thoughts and ideas.

    I would suggest that leadership needs to change substantially in response to a web.2 world, with blogging at the end rather than the beginning of this process. Some other thoughts on leadership themes from today’s post, which include ideas around Positive Deviance:

  • Comments are closed.