Achieving social change: burning platform, compelling narrative, agitators, friends & solutions

Julia Unwin, CEO of the United Kingdom's Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) visited Australia in May 2014 as a guest of the Reichstein Foundation. For the trip, she released a discussion paper on Poverty inequality and a modern social contract relevant for a changing worldWe thank her for permission to publish this excerpt from the paper, titled: Achieving social change.

In tackling poverty or any other social issue, maintaining the dominant narrative is a vital tool. Think about how the public narrative about state support for people in need has moved, quite consciously and deliberately, from the warmth and reciprocity of ‘social security’ to the distant, and one way term, ‘welfare benefits’.

A powerful narrative has been developed which has allowed a major overhaul of our system of support for people without earned income – whether through ill health or unemployment unable to work. This narrative has some powerful and compelling strands.

It describes people in this position as living in an entirely different world. Motivated entirely differently, and behaving differently. It contrasts their lifestyle with that of the hard working population.

Public acceptance is the holy grail of narrative, because without that there will never be space for politicians and policy makers to move. But public acceptance is neither fixed nor ever amenable to the presentation of evidence alone. Rationality, and the accumulation of evidence has its place.

But the angry outlier, the unreasonable man or woman, the public agitator, is essential in shifting the window through which policy can change. Social change is not a rational process, and anger and emotion, the groundswell of opinion that says,‘this is unacceptable’, is an essential ingredient in change.

Social change is messy and complicated. It will always involve a range of ingredients, and the notion of a recipe for change that does not first recognise the power of anger, the advocates and the protestors fails to grasp an essential part of the recipe.

The power of hashtag politics, rapidly shaping mood, shifting debate, communicating reaction, is occasionally dismissed as mere ‘clicktivism’, contrasting the painful huge personal commitment of more traditional forms of protest, with the easy click of a ‘like’ button. But I think this misreads the way in which organisation and social movements are changing. The democratisation of social movements, the development of ‘a burning platform’, may generate anxiety and anger, and promote a real recognition of wrong, but they may not produce change.

Unless we can see a social problem as both sufficiently detrimental to demand change, and sufficiently tractable to warrant it, the probability is that it will be ignored.

Street homelessness moved from being part of the street scene of central London to being something meriting major government programme, because it was seen as sufficiently damaging – to the individuals, but also to the well-being of Londoners, and the reputation of the city - but also because it was seen as capable of resolution. There were proven things that could be done. These things were valuated and costed and they worked.

Domestic violence moved from being one of the risks of marital life, to something disgraceful, in large part because refuges were established and demonstrated that removing mothers and children from abusive households was possible, and did result in improved lives.

Nutritional labelling was introduced by the major supermarkets because it was seen as a solution to the major public health crisis identified, and there was sufficient, though hotly contested, evidence that labelling could drive behaviour and consumption.

And none of these solutions would have any impact at all if it were not for advocates, the trusted intermediaries and the surprising friends.

Movements for social change need to bring together different interests. Surprising friends can provide external validation, they can interpret and they can bridge. But the purists are right to caution. Not for nothing does the word collaboration have two meanings – to share and to betray.

Successful social change will have several parents, but like some real life parents they may all be slightly disappointed in what they have produced. Compromise, shared objectives, the construction of a shared narrative will all strengthen the likelihood of achieving change. They don’t guarantee universal satisfaction with the outcome of that change.

The recipe for social change is not one dimensional, it has multiple ingredients: a burning platform, a compelling narrative, agitators and protesters, brought powerfully together through social media, surprising friends and solutions which, if not tested and proven, at least on the best available evidence and research, seem to have a chance of working.

Julia Unwin's visit attracted significant media interest. See some of that coverage in the links below:
ABC News 24 report
Radio National Saturday Extra, with Geraldine Doogue
The Conversation Hour, with Jon Faine (ABC 774)
See also her keynote address at the 2014 VCOSS Summit

Posted by Marie McInerney