News and Comment

Changing Times with Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA

Friday 19 April 2013


We’re delighted to be launching Changing Times today – a weekly series of interviews on the OPM blog published every Friday, in which we’ll be asking some of society’s sharpest minds for their informed appraisal of how public services should respond to the radical changes and challenges of today’s world.

And what better way to start than with Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA and former head of the Number 10 Policy Unit under Tony Blair’s Labour government.

If you compare today’s society and the society into which you were born: what’s most strikingly different, and what’s most surprisingly similar?

There’s been striking differences in the makeup and norms of society at large, and also huge changes in the role of technology.

Today’s society is much older than the society I was born into in 1960. It is also a society with much more diversity, both in relation to ethnicity, but also in terms of values, family form, etc. In 1960 homosexuality was not only still socially taboo, it was also illegal – so socially speaking there have been some major, major shifts.

Technology has also massively developed. In 1960 the only computers around were those in very large government departments or very large commercial organisations, and even those, which would have filled a whole room, had less computing power than any of us have on our phones now.

But I think interestingly if you had been asleep since 1960 and you looked at a school, or a hospital, or a police station now, it would take you very little time to recognise them. I don’t think you would think that the basic processes had changed that much, which probably shows a lack of innovation.

Given difficult choices have to be made, what one public service or source of support do you think we should prioritise most highly, and why?

There are lots of other problems which we would all like to solve – such as reducing reoffending, or closing the education attainment gap – but we’re not quite sure how to do it, or whether we even can. But I think overcoming the health social care divide is probably the single biggest urgent and solvable problem faced by public services

If you could choose one person to be the Prime Minister’s adviser, who would that person be, and why?

I don’t really believe in the great man view of history, or that one person changes everything on their own, but I think I would be quite tempted by Victor Adebowale.

Victor has a lot of experience in that he is always willing to ask hard questions and yet, despite the fact that he’s a big thinker and asks hard questions, he also recognises the importance of delivery on the ground.

I also think the Prime Minister would know that unless they showed Victor they were willing to think and do things differently, he wouldn’t stay around.

The other person I do think is a class act, although not a popular brand if you get what I mean – is John Burt, who I think is still a brilliant strategic thinker.

John and Victor are very different types of thinkers. If you had Victor and John on your side, John would make sure you were absolutely clear on what your strategy was and what you were doing was aligned with your strategy, and Victor would make sure that you’re strategy was actually connecting to the people it was intending to serve.

I’ve no idea whether the two of them would get on though!

Public services rely on voluntary support more than ever: is this to be welcomed?

I think it’s still the case that we don’t take volunteering and community and contribution nearly seriously enough. I still think there is a major gulf between the professional, publically-funded public-sector, and the kind of community, voluntary, philanthropic effort that takes place through the third sector.

Don’t get me wrong there’s a lot going on. But as The King’s Fund recent Volunteering in health and care report showed, it is overwhelmingly not something which most organisations are dealing with strategically. The report also stated that there was no real consideration of how the health service reforms might impact upon voluntary contributions, which I think is an interesting point in the context of the Big Society.

In the best case scenario, what will public services be like by 2023? What about the worst case scenario?

The best case scenario is that public services feel like they are the institutional expression of collective commitment, and that there is a blurring of the boundaries between public services and civic effort.

In this scenario we would come to see publically-funded services as not only a reflection of our collective commitment to each other – but also a platform on which we could each add to meet our own needs as well as the needs of the wider community.

In the worst case scenario public services would be creaking, outdated institutions, which provide services only for those who have no other choice.

Overall though I am optimistic, because I’m determined to do my best and to lead the RSA to do its best to make the good scenario a reality.