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The other week I heard a former cabinet minister describe the civil service’s culture as one of ‘institutional dementia’.

Confusion, short-term memory loss, not recognising your nearest and dearest - they’re familiar challenges to anyone who has had to deal with government.

But the ex-minister was probably being unfair to civil servants. The problem is wider than that, and affects most institutions. The difficulty is that we collectively place a much higher value on doing than on understanding.

The result is that new actions, initiatives and programmes carry more weight than sustaining what works. Innovation is seen as the bellwether of success, rather than how much we have learned.

This has damaging and avoidable effects. Mistakes are repeated, but with different packaging. We leave good and workable projects to flounder, while telling ourselves we’re encouraging them to become sustainable. We devalue skilled, experienced and knowledgeable individuals, and cast them adrift whenever the agenda moves on.

Every week throws up new examples of the same malaise. So, after more than two years of debate, negotiation and promises about the legacy for communities in east London of the 2012 Olympics, we have the London Assembly warning that we’re about to create another Docklands. Despite everyone’s best efforts, we’re struggling to deliver the community benefits that were promised.

As another example, consider the fate of Sheffield’s Regen School. Only a year ago it received a special commendation in the deputy prime minister’s awards for sustainable communities; the judging panel said it ‘was greatly impressed by the work of Regen School in delivering practice-based, practitioner-led training in skills for sustainable communities.’

You’d have thought that would be a signal that this work was worthwhile and should continue. Instead it now sounds more like a football club chairman’s vote of confidence, as Regen School fights to salvage something from the wreckage of its achievements.

In a nation that has set up an Academy for Sustainable Communities and regional centres of excellence to promote best practice, we’re still guilty of a chronic failure to learn and to support those who make a difference. Institutional dementia is putting it mildly.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine


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