New Labour, new RSA

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the Royal Society for the Arts, wants to transform the RSA into an agent of social change.

Matthew Taylor
Matthew Taylor

When Matthew Taylor, Tony Blair's former chief political adviser, left Downing Street in November to become chief executive of the Royal Society for the Arts, it wasn't for an easier life.

Taylor says he is working "all hours" to achieve the ambitious task he has set himself of transforming the RSA into a powerful agent of civil change. "Ultimately, I want it to be the case that, if you have a sense that something needs to be done, you know that one of the places you can go to is the RSA," he says.

Taylor is quite unlike most new third sector chief executives who insist on a period of settling in before setting a new agenda. He has brought with him the ambitious, supremely self-confident attitude of Whitehall high achievers and has hit the ground running. "I think the trustees appointed me with a mandate for change," he says.

Taylor intends to turn the RSA, whose hierarchical fellowship system has earned it a fusty, elitist reputation, into an organisation focused on social activism. He wants the principal lure of fellowship not to be members' access to the elegant facilities, including a restaurant and a bar, at its headquarters off the Strand in central London, but the benefit of participating in progressive social change.

He says: "What we're trying to do is go back to our roots, which are in an enlightened organisation that believes in human progress and wants Britain to succeed in the world, but also wants that success to be about liberating human capability."

Taylor says the organisation has done careful research into the kind of social changes its members would like to promote. "The citizens of tomorrow have to be engaged in collective decision-making," he says. "They have to be the kind of people who understand the sort of trade-offs and responsibilities of modern government but also recognise that a lot of the change we want is about us."

He has little time for people who, for example, bemoan the lack of affordable housing but don't want new houses built in their own towns.

"The citizens of tomorrow also have to be more self-sufficient," he says. "With the ageing population and rising expectations fuelled by competition, the state faces a fiscal crisis in terms of people's needs unless more of us who are able to meet our own needs choose to do so."

The final piece of the RSA's vision, says Taylor, is creating a society in which citizens have greater regard for one another, whether they express that through caring for friends or relatives or through more formal volunteering. Taylor believes the RSA's unusual nature makes it perfectly placed to deliver such a bold agenda - it's part think tank, part networking organisation and also runs self-sufficiency programmes in schools (and soon with drug addicts as well).

He says: "What's interesting about the RSA is precisely its unique form. I don't think we have understood the synergies between our different parts in the past. Nor have we understood that, if you put those parts together, the RSA fits particular social challenges that we face."

Taylor admits his plans will spell a "massive shift" for the society, but it's not a task he's shy about. He's also not shy about discussing the third sector and public service delivery. He believes charities need to move away from the assumption that just because they have social objectives they'd be better at the job. He says they need to offer hard evidence of the contribution they can make.

"The argument from the third sector needs to be robust and pragmatic," he says. "I think there's too much sloppy thinking."

Taylor CV

2006: Chief executive, Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce

2003: Senior policy officer and then chief adviser on political strategy, 10 Downing Street

1997: Director of policy and then assistant general secretary, the Labour Party

1994: Appointed by the Labour Party to set up its rebuttal operation

1993: Director, Institute for Public Policy Research.

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