By Matt.Ross

29 Jan 2009

Social entrepreneur Andrew Mawson has spent 25 years developing community projects, several of which have been adopted by government. But the public sector often kills the golden goose, he tells Matt Ross; to understand why, the civil service must recognise that “the way into the macro is through the micro”.


Mawson's work involves "pulling civil servants out of silos"

There aren’t enough hours in the day for Lord Mawson of Bromley-by-Bow. In conversation, he locks eyes with his interlocutor and the words come tumbling out, painting a big picture illuminated with ideas, warnings and anecdotes. As we sit in the gilt and grandeur of Westminster Palace’s resplendent Royal Gallery, he gallops through his experiences in a very different part of London: the East End’s downtrodden Lea Valley. There’s a fair bit to get through; once a 16-year-old Yorkshire Post office trainee, Mawson has since become one of the country’s most successful social entrepreneurs.When, in 1984, Andrew Mawson became a Baptist minister in Bromley-by-Bow, he “was greeted by a derelict church, with 12 old people sitting where they’d always sat and 400 quid in the bank”. A quarter of a century on, the church sits at the heart of a thriving network of social enterprises that employ 140 and receive 2,000 visitors a week: there’s a health centre, nursery and community facilities plus landscaping and housing companies, a major regeneration initiative, and an adult education college.

Mawson deserves much of the credit for this transformation – and, having been made a lord in 2007, he is now working to help the government benefit from the energy, enterprise and talent that, he argues, lies within every community.

His authority is derived, in part, from the fact that several Bromley-by-Bow Centre (BBBC) initiatives have impressed ministers and been enshrined in government policy. Under the last Conservative government, health secretary Brian Mawhinney overrode his officials and funded what became the country’s first Healthy Living Centre; on Tony Blair’s election, £300m of Lottery cash was spent rolling the initiative out nationally (see p1). Later, BBBC housed the first integrated children’s centre – the home of Sure Start – and its Leaside Regeneration project was launched well before the Olympics came to the Lea Valley. But the lessons that Mawson has learned will not make comfortable reading for the government or civil service.

Lord Mawson begins by praising the abilities and talents among civil servants and council officials. “These are very good people; very sharp,” he says; most civil servants “are clever enough to work out what to do”. But he argues that their efforts are undermined by a shortage of on-the-ground experience and by “outdated systems” that create a focus on process over outcome, mitigate against inter-departmental coordination, and foster inflexibility and short-termism in government initiatives.

Unless there’s a cultural change among politicians and civil servants, Mawson believes, the government will be unable to tackle the factors that have kept areas such as the East End poor for generations. And there’s a democratic issue here: “The Blair administration was voted in by a vast majority, but Tony had massive frustrations with the civil service – and then at a local level people say: ‘We elected him to do this. Why didn’t he do it?’ The civil service’s inability to learn and to deliver is undermining the democracy that they serve.”

The biggest problem, Mawson maintains, is that central departments rarely get close enough to service delivery to understand the complexities and challenges that assail government policies on the ground. Even when they do, he complains, the civil service’s tendency to keep shuffling its deck stunts the development of institutional knowledge: some civil servants have been seconded to BBBC, and “after a couple of years they really understand the issues” – but they have then been sent to work in completely unrelated fields. Civil service managers, Mawson says, argue that “They don’t want people going native – but that way you’ll never get any staff who really understand the detail. To use people’s skills and talent, you need to put them in the right place.”

Many politicians, says Mawson, also lack practical experience: the current crop is “dominated by people who’ve written policy papers, but never actually done anything”. If politicians and civil servants are to develop well-founded policies, he argues, “We need to create a culture of learning by doing.”

Civil servants and politicians should scrutinise successful projects and the operation of policy, closely and over a long period – “really focusing on the micro, on the devil in the detail” – and then, Mawson believes, they’d understand the importance of consistent, sustained effort. They would also, he believes, realise that getting services right doesn’t require massive organisational reform or even a hike in spending: success is about creating the relationships and flexibilities to enable public officials to spend their budgets more intelligently.

Having developed his ideas at the BBBC, Mawson is now putting them into practice in St Paul’s Way: a deprived neighbourhood in the shadow of Canary Wharf, where the former chief executive of Tower Hamlets council – Christine Gilbert, now the chief inspector at education watchdog Ofsted – asked him to align a slew of uncoordinated regeneration projects.

“There’s a potential £34m investment in a new school, a potential new health centre, the potential for 500 new homes – but nobody’s talking to each other,” the lord explains. “The conversations and relationships aren’t in place, so it’s not being joined together, it’s not connecting.”

If each scheme develops alone, Mawson warns, much of the investment’s potential will be wasted; he is working to develop an over-arching strategy that capitalises on the potential synergies between projects and, crucially, looks to the long term. New initiatives are constantly being launched, he warns, but “change takes a generation, not a three-year policy initiative. It takes years to put an initiative in place, and by the time you’re getting somewhere another scheme comes along. If you follow all of that you just add to the chaos; you need to pick it off as it comes past your door, but not follow any of it.”

So far, Mawson has linked the emerging schemes with the local Anglican and Catholic churches, agreed Transport for London funding to rebuild the street itself, secured planning permission for new homes, and persuaded the housing company to pay for a feasibility study into the rebuilding of a primary school. It hasn’t all been plain sailing, though: “The Building Schools for the Future [BSF] system operates completely in a silo, and it’s absolutely resisting the joining-up process,” he complains. Following Mawson’s intervention, education minister Lord Adonis has taken the school’s redevelopment out of the private finance initiative, giving managers the freedom to integrate it with the other initiatives – but the problem demonstrates the kind of systemic inflexibility that restricts interdepartmental collaboration.

“BSF needs to be flexible enough so that if an opportunity comes to create an interface between the school and the road that saves money for the new health centre, we can encourage that joint working,” says an exasperated Mawson. “You can’t say: ‘The BSF plan can’t incorporate an inch beyond the school grounds.’ The school and the road are connected!”

Things are coalescing now in St Paul’s Way, says Mawson, because he’s got the key local figures engaged. “Success is all about people,” he maintains, “and yet so many government systems resist personal responsibility; they’re about processes and strategies and committees. So we’ve brought together the council’s head of children’s services, the housing company, the regeneration company.” There are, he concedes, “forces pulling these leaders back into their silos, and I’ve got to be constantly pulling them back out again. But you’ve just got to be purposeful – and entrepreneurs are purposeful. That’s why they’re so damn awkward.”

Surely, I suggest, cooperation across the public sector is better in these days of local strategic partnerships, shared public service agreements and interdepartmental teams. But Lord Mawson is not convinced. “When you’ve been somewhere for 25 years, you can see that very little has changed; it’s the same old discussion,” he says. “We’ve had years of rhetoric about joined-up behaviour, but if you look at the heart of the civil service it isn’t joined up.”

Indeed, Mawson is deeply sceptical about the value of many partnerships – particularly those designed to involve local people in regeneration projects: “Partnership is when people come together to do things, not to appoint representatives and produce minutes and talk,” he says. “These committees are trying to turn residents into mini-local authorities, mini-civil servants. But we want residents creating small businesses, getting an education, running things.”

In short, Mawson believes that elected local authorities should curtail consultation and get on with providing “clear leadership and clear direction”. The residents, meanwhile, should be “learning by doing”: developing social enterprises, service providers and charities that capitalise on and channel the power of community engagement.

“The government spends millions of pounds consulting people, and it’s a complete waste of time,” he complains. “If you ask an East-ender who’s always used a mangle what they want, they’ll say they want a super-mangle. What a social entrepreneur says is: ‘Rita, ever heard of a spin dryer?’ And immediately Rita says: ‘Of course, we want a spin dryer!’ The very mechanisms of consultation, the underlying philosophy and thinking, will never deliver innovation and change, because their weaknesses haven’t been understood.”

If the government is to make its policies work on the ground, says Lord Mawson, it must concentrate on “understanding the micro” – and that understanding must reach to the top. “In the Blair years, they started saying that before you become a permanent secretary, you have to do practical work – but they didn’t follow it through,” he says. “So don’t be surprised if you get the same old guard running the civil service. If you were to follow that through, you might get some real change.”

Civil servants and politicians must also develop a stomach for long-term commitment, forgoing distracting short-term initiatives, says Mawson; and processes and systems must be made flexible enough to cater to local differences and interlock with complementary schemes. Above all, though, the government must learn to trust and build on the networks and organisations that exist within communities, rather than attempting to replicate them.

Since BBBC set up Leaside Regeneration with the leaders of Newham and Tower Hamlets councils, says Mawson, the project has built a railway station, a bridge and floating docks, and fostered collaboration between schemes worth £100m. So when the government wanted to push forward its Olympics and Thames Gateway regeneration schemes in that area, he says, “They could have spent some time with us, and we might have been able to share some thoughts about how to make that work.”

“Instead, they created an urban development corporation; one of over 40 public bodies dancing around each other in the lower Lea Valley,” Mawson continues. “They made a little world down in Canary Wharf, totally unengaged with local people. All the staff had arrived from Mars and didn’t understand the area. They spent millions rewriting strategy documents that we’d already written. Five years on, they’re already talking about their exit strategy, and what have they delivered? Documents!”

The irritation and scorn in Mawson’s voice is plain to hear; the peer is not a fan of documents. For him, what matters is how things pan out on the ground – and the way he sees it, the civil service’s emphasis on producing documents distracts it from understanding the complex dynamics that can lift or wreck a community.

“As one very senior peer said to me: ‘The government understands the shape of the forest, but it doesn’t understand what’s going on underneath the trees’,” Lord Mawson concludes. “Yet it’s what’s going on underneath the trees that really matters; that’s where the clues are to what needs to be done. We’ve got to refresh the civil service and how government works; if we don’t, people will become more and more disillusioned with democracy and we’ll waste more and more money. And to do that – to navigate the modern world, in all its complexity – you have to be underneath the trees.”

Read the most recent articles written by Matt.Ross - Kerslake sets out ‘unfinished business’ in civil service reform

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