Institutions – organisations set up for a social, education or professional purposes – can get a bad press. They are often synonymous with being part of the ‘establishment’. They can be seen as table-gnawingly slow to make change and out of touch when they do. In a world of social movements, networks and fast-paced change, setting up an institution does not sound like a particularly exciting or pioneering endeavour.

But there is no doubt that institutions have a tendency to prevail as political agendas and different fashions come and go. It is, perhaps, no great surprise that the only legacy of Cameron’s Big Society policy agenda is institutional; with the National Citizen Service and Big Society Capital lasting the course in different ways.  

Over time, successful institutions give a sense of permanence that provides credibility, durability and often real, long-lasting value. The most successful institutions evolve and change direction to meet the demands of changing times. But sometimes, even very well-respected institutions can become intransigent in the face of turning tides; resolute in the belief that present fads will surely pass. Some (perhaps too few) decide their time is at an end in quite conscious and thoughtful ways. And some re-emerge, in newly invigorated forms. 

Built to last 

It is 70 years since Michael Young set up the Institute for Community Studies, which The Young Foundation relaunched in 2019. The Institute was the vehicle through which Young – the radically educated, shy author of the 1945 post-war Labour party manifesto – undertook most of his work.  

Young was, of course, also a prolific innovator of other iconic and enduring institutions. Which? magazine was created by Young to give people more factual accounts of the products they were buying, to prevent consumers being ‘hoodwinked’ by many of the audacious advertising claims made back in the 1950’s.  

The Open University, one of Europe’s largest universities, and its (still running) forerunner, the National Extension College, were both created by Michael Young to open remote access to learning for people who were not able to attend traditional colleges and universities. Both also pioneered the use of radio and television to educate outside the classroom. Indeed, I have enduring childhood memories of tuning into a solitary TV Channel to unwittingly learn about Traffic Flow Dynamics and ‘The History of the Cornflake’ from The Open University. Both more engaging that you may imagine, and facts from which I can still recall. 

Then there’s the University of The Third Age (u3a), enjoyed by nearly half a million members across the UK who share skills and learn together. Another Michael Young institution.   

And the School for Social Entrepreneurs, supporting the creation of new, socially impactful businesses up and down the country and across the world; and the Economic and Social Research Council, the UK’s largest funder of economic, social, behavioural and human data science, originally set up in 1965 by Michael Young as the Social Science Research Council. 

This is just a sample of the institutions set up by Michael Young until his death in 2002. We could add  Language Line, International Alert, Open College of the Arts, Kinship/Grandparents Plus – the list goes on and on, and the DNA is replicated as The Young Foundation continues to support innovations and enterprises seeking to make the world a slightly better, fairer and enjoyable place to live. 

The key ingredients  

The striking thing about these Young-founded institutions is not that they have persisted through the decades – although it is a testament to their resilience and adaptability that they have – but that they were all born of discontent.   

Discontent with the education system and how it was delivered. Discontent with consumers being tricked by advertisers. Discontent with the absence of social science being taken seriously in public policy. Discontent with the confines and concerns of private business. 

That discontent was channelled into new social and institutional forms of innovation. Michael Young was about showing, not telling. Of getting on and trying something; not lambasting others for their failure to do so. This kind of discontent bred positivity and produced some household-name innovations. 

Michael Young also talked openly about distrust  that his ideas would amount to anything, which served both to allow for ruthless interrogation as to their worth, and a willingness to let them stand or fall on their own merits; to be evolved, embraced or rejected by their intended audiences and beneficiaries. This enabled highly enlightened approaches to the successful scaling of innovative ideas.  

And while Young might have been the healthily distrustful founder of many new institutions, he had even less regard for those that already existed, and continually challenged in whose interests they were serving. He held a belief, perhaps, that all institutions over time tend to lean toward self-preservation and self-regard. While a strong proponent of nationalisation, for example, Young felt that the new National Coal Board quickly became as distant from its workers as the private owners of the coal industry had been. Setting up a new institution or body in opposition to what has gone before is no guarantee it will work better for people or workers. The central message from Young  is that institutions suffer when they do not support people or communities to have agency and ownership (literal or figurative) in their lives and work. 

Deeds not words 

It is the execution of an idea, not the idea itself, which determines its success. To dumb it down, and in the words of Bananarama: it ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it – and the idea of involvement and empowerment of people is riven throughout Young’s most successful and enduring innovations. A principle that might helpfully feature in any public policy agenda that we want to be successful today and tomorrow; whether that’s transitioning to a green economy, nourishing a healthier population, or driving acts of devolution. Those objectives are not likely to be realised if we simply replicate existing institutional functions and structures. 

Noel Annan once said that Young knew ‘neither what a groove was nor the meaning of orthodoxy’, and I turn again and again to this phrase because it is such a fundamentally empowering route to real institutional innovation. If we are able to act beyond the boundaries that occupy us – mentally, culturally and institutionally – we unlock opportunities for genuinely new institutions and ideas to emerge. To put to one side orthodoxy, not in an evidence-defying or reckless way, but asking the question: is this really the only way to do this? is to enter a space of genuine possibility, and the replenishment of long-lost energy. 

But still, all these years after Young’s work, at almost every turn, we hit the limitations of our own abilities to process the complexity of the environment in which we are operating, and the limitations of institutional and sector boundaries. From system change to complexity theory, we do now have the language and concepts to prompt new ways of working, and new patterns of organising and being – but we don’t yet have the practice. Or the institutions that exemplify it. 

How many times have we talked, read and written about the clear common sense in investing in prevention of homelessness, poverty, crime, poor health?  But we seem incapable of doing so. Perhaps that is where the new ‘Common Sense Tsar’ might better focus her attention.  

Creating the conditions to flourish 

There is a national dearth of spaces for praxis: the testing and application of our ideas and theories. Which, with even only perfunctory inspection, suggests not just the need for new ideas and enterprises (which we’re actually quite good at supporting, while they are small and present little risk or irritation to the status quo) but potentially radical changes to front-line roles, the responsibilities of business, and the kinds of businesses we incentivise. The role of citizens and communities. Changes to institutional governance, structures and functions. Right through to how national funding flows to support that kind of transformation.  

These are not things (in their detail) that have much traction at the ballot box, but people do want to feel hope, and they do desire change. Recent trust surveys in the UK are worth paying attention to. Edelman this year published its results that nearly three quarters of the UK population want new thinking, new ideas, and new approaches. That’s a lot of people. Edelman places the responsibility to foster that new thinking firmly at the door of Westminster and politicians, but we need to think carefully about what that really means.   

We do need a big, national signal that we expect to collectively work differently, and the job of any government is to create the conditions for that change to flourish. At the same time – to channel Young – any government also needs a very healthy amount of distrust in its own capabilities to execute. And to determine sensibly, and with vision, what new or existing institutions are necessary and desirable to embody a different, better and fairer kind of UK society and economy. 

Whether we are talking about the position and empowerment of people and workers in a world of advanced artificial intelligence and automation; or the reinvention of education and skills for a climate changed UK; or the reimagination of a National Health Service, not a National Sickness Service – there is clear discontent in the existing systems designed to do this alongside a tide of distrust in what may replace them.  

Viewed through Young’s eyes, these might be the very ingredients for our next wave of iconic institutions to last the next 70 years

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash


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