women and the recession

May 13, 2009

last week I went to a really great debate hosted by Compass and Fawcett on women and the recession. Harriet Harman may not have won many votes in her response to the expenses fiasco, but she packed a real punch at this event: funny, passionate, willing to stick her neck out and say what she believed in. After attending far too many events recently where ministers sound more like droning wonks, this was a welcome relief.

There has been quite a lot of debate about whether women are more affected by men than the recession. I don’t know how productive these debates are, but what’s clear is that we need to delve behind the stats to understand what’s really going on. Take for example the claimant count (ie the number of people registering for Jobseekers’ Allowance): on this basis, it looks like men are hit harder by what’s happening. However, if you look at levels of economic participation you get a very different story: in some parts of the country, women’s employment levels are falling two, even three, times faster than men’s. So women are losing their jobs at worrying rates (hardly surprising given they work in sectors that are far more vulnerable to the recession and in firms that are less unionised), but not then registering as unemployed.

Recent research by Mori (you can download here) shows that beyond job losses, women are shouldering a disproportionate burden in terms of stress and anxiety, too. Not only are they worrying about their own jobs, but also their partners’ jobs, their children’s future, their parents care needs, and the pressures on household budgets as the cost of fuel and food rises. What I find fascinating is that a few years ago, when asked what they were most concerned about, men would say ‘the economy’ and women would say ‘education’ or ‘health’. There’s no difference now: everyone ranks the economy first. But women worry about it in terms of family life as well as in terms of employment and money per se. As we found in doing the work for The Other Glass Ceiling, women continue to act as the family managers (even if couples say that they share roles more equally now) and so it falls to them to adapt and cope in the light of a loss or drop in wages. Managing poverty is difficult, time consuming, and often secretive work.

The event was a bit short on solutions to these issues – other than emphasising the importance of targeting information drives at women, and raising benefits – but it was a timely reminder that one of the ways in which the recession is different to previous downturns is that women’s work matters so much more now than it has done in the past. It matters to women themselves; it matters to family budgets; and it matters in every sector of the economy. We have to find ways of valuing it – which is why I applaud Harriet Harman’s success in getting the Equality Bill to where it is now, with its determination to root out pay discrimination and improve women’s representation in all walks of life.


evidence based or intelligence driven policy?

May 8, 2009

OK, so I may be the only one to care about whether we talk about evidence based or intelligence driven policy, and I’m very aware I stand to be accused of campaigning for replacing one piece of jargon with another. but I keep on wanting to return to this theme in various pieces of work at the moment.

here’s a short paper I did for Kent to accompany a workshop which the Social Innovation Lab for Kent ran with a mix of policy people from across the council. Basically I argue that human and social factors need to count for as much as data and trends when it comes to taking account of ‘evidence’ in policy work. Sounds so simple and yet the barriers to embedding this kind of approach are many. Culturally, the public sector still prefers rational analysis to emotions and experiences. Skills-wise, very few councils have the research know-how or methods at their fingertips to do this kind of work well. Organisationally, research and policy functions are rarely co-located…


more on local pounds and transition towns

March 2, 2009

thanks to T for mentioning an article in the FT this weekend on the Lewes pound that I mentioned in the blog below. And I am very, very interested in the transition towns network. Their wiki is exciting and inspiring. I especially love their 12 step plan, which includes stages like ‘the great unleashing’ and ‘honour the elders’. Wise advice indeed.


coproduction and communes

February 24, 2009

lewes-poundwhen I was out in LA I managed to fit in a catch-up lunch with John Thackara, whose book In the Bubble was a real source of inspiration for me when it was published a couple of years ago. Our conversation turned from sustainable design to communes, as we turned over the question of what tools and support people need in order to make it easier to share resources. Wannastartacommune is an inspired site, from its name to its content, on this question.This isn’t about ethereal or abstract debates about the principles of coproduction, but rather, simple legal, technological and practical issues that might enable groups of older people to pool assets in order to make them go further, for example.

And so to the bulk-buying project that has grown out of our Just Coping work in SILK. We’re currently working with the Digital Inclusion Team at CLG to business case an idea from our workshops with residents of the Parkwood Estate in Kent to make it easier for people to club together to buy stuff they need – simple, but genius, and it has the potential to make everyday life much better.

I was mentioning this project this morning when I met up with the new economics foundation. They are doing some fantastic work on coproduction and sharing resources. This pamphlet, by their new head of social policy Anna Coote, is a piece of original thinking that connects up the agenda around sharing resources for environmental and social reasons. nef are building a really interesting set of projects exploring different aspects of how to put coproduction into action. Just a few examples of this include:

Work on alternative currencies. The picture on this blog is of the ‘Lewes pound’ – an currency that John Thackara alerted me to, and designed to incentivise Lewes residents to shop locally. L from nef also told me about other areas who are developing alternative currencies, not only to support local businesses, but also to facilitate timebanking and to put a value on non-monetary resources people can contribute to their communities – for example Brixton should be getting their own pound later this year.

Work on procurement and commissioning models. There’s an essay about nef’s work with Camden on this issue in the pamphlet I’ve been editing for IDeA – will post this up once it’s launched at the end of March. Other councils such as Kirklees are also trying to find ways of embedding the principles of coproduction into the way in which they commission services – no mean feat. This is the detail where the devil resides. If we don’t get it right coproduction will remain a thinktank idea rather than a practical agenda.

Work on measuring value and impact. There are various models out there for measuring impact at an individual level – not least the stuff on ‘my metrics’ that J and I wrote about in Journey to the Interface – but the real prize will be in helping local councils and other public service organisations measure value from coproduction models in new ways. There’s a real tension between trying to monetise or turn everything into numbers to make measurement easier, and asserting that some value just can’t be converted in this way. Again, nef’s work on the social return on investment is pretty advanced here, but there’s lots more to be done.

Work on the core values of coproduction. One of the things we discussed this morning is the fact that it’s too easy for the underlying value system of coproduction (about mutuality, respect, recognition) to get lost in its translation to a ‘mainstream’ political agenda – see for example what has happened with self-directed support, which too often is simply seen as individual budgets. In my view, the only way we can come up with a credible and authentic account of what coproduction means is to draw on emerging practice across many sectors, from housing to social care to policing. How can we connect people together who are pioneering in this field, in order to give them even more rocket fuel to keep going?


bruno latour on design

February 20, 2009

it’s been a bit quiet on sparkthinking recently thanks to a holiday I’m nearly at the end of in Los Angeles. What a place! I’m not sure I like it very much – very taken aback (naively so, I suspect) at the reliance on cars, the extent of huge shopping malls – all lit up and air conditioned, the sheer weight of expectations to consume of the place – so despite marvellous company and a fun week, I haven’t been converted to LA life. in fact if anything it has given even more solidity to a sense I’ve had for a while that I want to simplify life and pare things right down to what’s actually important when I get home. watch this space on that front…

anyway, I’ve spent a bit of time here thinking through what’s going to go into the pamphlet I’m doing with the RSA on social design, service design and the future of design education, and as part of that I’ve been reading a fairly impenetrable piece by sociologist and anthropologist Bruno Latour. It’s a paper he gave to a design research conference last year, and for me it brings out two key themes that will feature in my own pamphlet.

First, the need for design ethics these days. As Latour says

By expanding design so that it is relevant everywhere, designers take up the mantle of morality as well

This is certainly a theme that has come up in my interviews with design tutors and some of the students: if designers are serious about applying their skills to social challenges then they have to accept that there are ethical and moral dimensions to this work, and that their own activity has impacts that they should think through carefully in advance. Yet design courses have little to say about ethics currently – all the more striking when you compare design to other disciplines interested in achieving social change – in subjects such as psychology, or anthropology, or even political sciences, ethics features heavily and is taken very seriously.

The second theme that I thought Latour’s piece brought out well was about representations and communication of design work. Latour is interested in how design can do more to represent the complexity of real life, rather than objects in a vacuum:

Design practice has done a marvellous job of inventing practical skills for drawing objects… but what has always been missing from these marvellous drawings… are an impression of the controversies and the many contradicting stakeholders that are born within these.

Many of the students I’ve interviewed raise this question of how to represent complex social or service-based design work. We don’t yet have a language that’s developed enough in this sphere and it seems to me that it’s a prime area for further development in design research.



February 2, 2009

one of the joys of the internet now is the massive growth of recommendations functions – “people who liked this, also liked this”. It’s led to me so many new things I may never have uncovered had I not been able to tap into other people’s tastes in music, books, TV and blogs.

But I came across a lovely piece in the papers at the weekend highlighting the Unsuggester service – a library service that turns up books that are least likely to be associated with the title you type in. Super stuff.

Of course, there’s a theory behind it. The psychologist Henry Allport argued back in the 1950s that contact between different groups was key to breeding understanding, which in turn was key to reducing conflict. Sometimes it’s surely good for us to follow unexpected leads and to engage with stuff beyond our usual sphere of influence. So here’s to the Unsuggester service growing more. I could do with some new music.


taxed by taxation

February 2, 2009

if I understood half the stuff in the papers about what exactly precipitated the global financial crisis I’d be ten times cleverer than I actually am. But still, I’ve been reading some fascinating and depressing stuff about tax and wealth recently. So thanks to my city-based friend T for kindly totting up the bonuses all the major banks in the UK have paid out so far this year. His figure – which he freely admits is unlikely to be fully accurate – comes to just over £30bn. Incredible.

A more careful analysis of corporate tax avoidance and the impossible complexity of today’s tax system comes in the form of this briliant piece in the New York Review of Books, by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. The main focus of the story is on the libel case that Tesco took to the Guardian after they published an inaccurate story. But along the way Rusbridger also highlights some eye-watering facts about corporate tax avoidance, such as HMRC’s estimate that today’s ‘tax gap’ (the amount avoided by individuals and corporations) is up to £13.5bn a year. According to the TUC, it would take average income tax contributions from £2.4m households to make up this shortfall. Or, again from HMRC’s analysis, the fact that 25% of the 700 biggest firms in the UK paid absolutely no corporate tax in 2005-6.

How can we have any kind of legitimate debate about tax and redistribution if the richest businesses and individuals of the UK can effectively exempt themselves? And surely the money spent by government on reclaiming benefits overpayments (which, at £1.9bn, is dwarfed by these kinds of figures incidentally) would be better spent on closing these loopholes and ensuring that our largest corporations pay their way?

For Rusbridger, one of the major reasons these have not become issues worthy of public outrage is the sheer complexity of the system. Papers can’t afford to hire in the expertise necessary to make sense of (and expose) the tangle of ‘innovative financial products’ firms are using today. And even if they could, it’s just too complicated to explain in a way that any of us lot with busy lives and overly full heads can make sense of.

The Guardian must be brave, because despite having all that law flung at them by Tesco, and despite the nerves they must have about whether they can make this stuff accessible enough, today they launched a major new investigation into these issues, which they will be reporting on over the coming weeks. Worth keeping an eye on.