I was at the ACEVO CEO Summit this morning. One of those rare occasions when the presentations are so good you don’t want to leave. The first was by Richard Reeves, the Director of DEMOS who will shortly become Special Adviser to the Deputy PM, Nick Clegg. The second by writer and broadcaster, Simon Fanshawe.
Both gave an absorbing take on what they felt the ‘Big Society’ agenda means for charities and public services in an age of austerity. But it became very clear in the course of the morning that this duckling of an idea – derided as so ugly by commentators during the General Election – is beginning to spread its wings widely and rapidly over Whitehall and Westminster.
But it still doesn’t mean anything for science and research right?
The fact that it is the driving, binding philosophy for the Government means we have to take notice of it. Like it or not. Ill-defined it may be; troublesome for officials to translate into policy it certainly must be. But this in itself an opportunity. For we can help define the concept. And given that science helps define the society we live in, it should arguably be in the driving seat in many ways.
The crude translation of the ‘Big Society’ idea that it is all about cutting the state down to size. That’s as wrong as it is easy to say. Some likely outcomes fit neatly into this box – cutting quangos and reducing regulation. No doubt most of the research world will welcome this. Yet something more far-reaching is going on in Government as it seeks to change the relationship between individuals, institutions and the state. It is this that could be challenging and liberating in equal measure whether one is talking about a university, public body or charity.
Accountability, shared decision-making and relationships seem to be the emerging watchwords. Let’s look at just one statement from Andrew Lansley’s speech last week:
‘So our vision must be of an information revolution across the NHS. Shared decision-making between patients and professionals at every stage. With rapid progress in identifying the evidence base for quality standards, which will be the basis of comparative information on quality and performance, enabling patients to be confident both of the service they should receive and the quality of the hospital or other healthcare provider they are actually receiving.’
Interesting isn’t it if you think it through. Does this, for instance, include a clearer framework for using patient data for medical research purposes to benefit you, me and future generations? It sounds as though it could and should be. We should ask the question at the very least, and then challenge strongly if it is not.
It’s also clear that the necessarily long-term nature of the plan to reduce the UK’s deficit seems to be encouraging an equally long-sighted view of the economy within the Treasury. If true, it will be a welcome first. For while cuts will continue to make the headlines it might provide opportunities for those parts of the economy that are seen as likely to lead to long-term gain. If so, this would echo what the science community has been saying for the last year if not longer.
But even within these sectors or areas it is the real drivers of growth that Government will be looking for. This morning Richard Reeves said that a little-remarked aspect of the Big Society idea was its emphasis on defining innovation, growth etc in terms of its social value – that’s a much more expansive definition of value than we have been used to from Government. I noticed that David Willetts made exactly this point in his speech at Birmingham University a few weeks ago.
In the past Ministers and officials have been stolid about focusing on economic rates of return as the prime impact measures. So, if Government thinking is really changing it presents an opportunity for medical and health research, those who fund it and those who advance it, where the social value can be demonstrated in many ways.
Simon Fanshawe followed up by commenting that ‘impact was where it was at’ and, talking from his experience as Chair of the Governors of Sussex University, urging us to ‘look outside,’ think, analyse, measure appropriately and make appropriate claims.
And you thought the impact agenda was dead.