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Stephen  Bevan

The Work Foundation - Ten Years On

Authors: Stephen Bevan Professor Stephen Bevan

11 April 2012

Ten years ago today The Work Foundation was launched at an event in London’s Docklands. It was a bold and, some thought, foolhardy venture. Picking up the baton from its trusted predecessor, The Industrial Society , was always going to be a daunting task. But I’d argue that the vision for the new organisation set out by Will Hutton and his colleagues at the time remains compelling and relevant today.

 They have been an eventful and turbulent ten years reflecting, in a peculiar way, the wider fortunes of the UK economy and its labour market. Now, as the only member of the 2002 staff present at the launch to have survived the decade, it falls to me to note down a few reflections on what we have achieved and what might yet deliver.

Our founding document – ‘Working Capital’ – was an attempt set out some of the principles and aspirations of The Work Foundation. Thumbing through its glossy pages recently I was struck both by the scale of our ambition and the enduring nature of some of the causes we set out to champion. Four, in particular, stand out.

The first is that we were certain that high-octane business performance or economic growth could not be delivered in the medium-term without a parallel focus on the quality of working life. This was, perhaps, a somewhat paternalistic belief in 1918 when the original Boys Welfare Society was formed. By 2002, however, there was a compelling economic and social science evidence base for this assertion, and one which could be seen being acted upon by many large and small employers in the UK. In the last decade we have become synonymous with the concept of ‘Good Work ’ and the central part it has to play in the way organisations manage their people and the way governments think about work as a driver of wellbeing and as a bulwark against social exclusion. We fully intend to continue making the case for ‘Good Work’ as we are convinced that the case for it is as compelling as it ever was.

The second is that we have always been prepared to critically explore new ideas and new thinking. For example, ten years ago the notion of the ‘Knowledge Economy ’ as a credible idea which might help frame economic and labour market policy was not widely accepted beyond the breathy journalistic commentary of a small elite of futurologists. Our work on this topic has made a major contribution to the evidence-base and the language which governments and opinion-leaders use to describe the ways which modern developed economies must evolve. Despite the doubts of some onlookers, and to the credit of the corporate sponsors who supported our work, we backed our instincts and produced a credible, high-class programme of applied research to which the Big Innovation Centre today is a natural heir.

The third is that we have always tried to focus on future challenges. This, in part, has been because we feel an obligation to our partner organisations to challenge and provoke their thinking, and also that CEOs and policy-makers in government appreciate being exposed to informed commentary about future trends. This is something which will remain a strong feature of our work in the next decade, especially as our understanding of the operation of labour markets, Cities, innovation systems, local economies, workforce behaviour and corporate performance develops and our evidence-base deepens.

The fourth is that we have always tried to have a demonstrable impact on decisions which affect the working lives of real people or the policies which affect the way the labour market, or the welfare system or industrial strategy operate. We can point to many examples of our impact on both policy and practice, and this will be a very big priority for us in the next few years. We have always believed very strongly that it is our evidence-base, not a political ideology, which lends weight and credibility to our influence and authority and it is this position which will guide us in the future.

Looking ahead, The Work Foundation – since becoming part of Lancaster University – can be confident and optimistic about the impact and influence we can expect to have over what we called, back in 2002, the ‘public conversation about work in the UK’. We have a great team of people, great support from our new colleagues at Lancaster and a growing number of people, businesses, policy-makers and other institutions – both in the UK and internationally – who are keen to work with us and to help us make a difference. This was a bold ambition in 2002. As we embark on our second decade we are already making this ambition a reality.

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