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Stephen  Bevan

Old problems, new thinking

Authors: Stephen Bevan Stephen Bevan

20 September 2011

It would be heartening to think that the gloomy news about the economy and the labour market would stimulate some novel thinking and even some constructive collaboration among politicians. Yet, as the political party season swings into action it is more likely there will be attempts to grab headlines with eye-catching but mostly inconsequential policy announcements and carefully positioned press releases, autobiographies and even personal sideswipes by former or current political allies. In addition, the coalition parties are sure to use parts of their conferences to emphasise how they are sticking to their own principles and are fighting their corner robustly in coalition debates.

This is all part of the familiar ‘ritual dance’ of political life, of course. But there are influential voices on both sides of the Atlantic who are arguing that it is this ritualisation of debate, and even thinking, which makes it hard for even the most economically competent or visionary politician to ‘sell’ imaginative ideas about growth, recovery, economic policy, social cohesion and national renewal. 

In the USA, Princeton Professor and Nobel Prize winner for Economics, Paul Krugman in his blog for the New York Times, The Death of the Confidence Fairy, has argued strongly that the Republican Party has successfully steered the debate away from ‘Keynesian’ approaches to stimulating demand in the economy. President Obama can successfully be tarred with the brush of ‘socialism’ for daring to propose policies which many Republicans were themselves advocating only a few months ago. Our own Will Hutton, in his article for The Observer last week, has argued in a similar vein with respect to the UK situation, where debate has become damagingly polarised. 

One of the consequences of this political ‘lockjaw’ is that too many very bright politicians take up absolutist short-term positions on issues where nuance, realism and a long-term solutions are most likely to work. Another is that ‘group think’ dominates and it is left to ‘think tanks’, former ministers or academics to say the unsayable, generate new ideas and – heaven forbid – deploy evidence about which strategies to drive recovery might actually work.

But all is not well in the land of think tanks and universities. As George Monbiot pointed out last week in The Guardian, too many think tanks are nervous about revealing the sources of their funding, thereby inviting questions about the independence of their advice. At the same time, Universities are struggling to attract public funding for research which might illuminate public discourse and policy debate about how to build and sustain a recovery which delivers the social and economic outcomes we all want.

The launch of the Big Innovation Centre this month – a joint initiative of The Work Foundation and Lancaster University – is a rare glimmer of optimism in an otherwise gloomy tableau of public policy research. The Centre has set itself ambitious goals and aims to support the development of the UK as a global innovation ‘hub’ by 2025. It is the kind of initiative that the South Korean or Taiwanese governments might have funded in their own countries but which, in the UK, has been initiated by The Work Foundation, with the majority of the funding from the private sector and no financial support from central government (we did ask!) In addition, last week, no fewer than four work Foundation and Lancaster University colleagues were voted by their peers into the Top 25 HR Thinkers of the year.

So even the business of ‘thinking’ is getting harder to support, despite the fact that it is something the UK excels at – as evidenced by our own research on the strength and resilience of the Knowledge Economy in the UK. Thinking need not be a self-indulgent, ruminative and ultimately pointless activity. It can be enlightening, challenging and –where it emphasises evidence-based policy or practice – can have high impact. The lesson of the last few years is that we need more, rather than less of it.