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Sideways Looks #1: Making Change, also Bears

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

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Welcome to the first Sideways Looks newsletter.

This week you get some thoughts about having time to think; some recommended pieces about how ideas make change (or not); and a fun fact about bears.

Please do send this on to friends, and get in touch if you have any thoughts. Next week I’m planning to write about how it feels to suddenly have no colleagues, a near-empty diary, and no-one asking me for things. But if you want to ask me to write about something else, suggestions very welcome.

Thanks for subscribing and I hope you are well.


P.S. The name 'Sideways Looks' follows from my first (now historic) blog Sideways Look at Science, back from my science communication days.

Thought for the Week: Time for change

The Knives, a novel by Richard T Kelly, is part of that surprisingly popular genre ‘adventures of fictionalised home secretaries’. The protanganist is beset by crisis after crisis. Each of his decisions draws on deep moral and social questions. Not that he gets time to really think about any of that. He's too busy making decisions.

I’ve recently gone freelance after time in academia/think-tank land and then the Civil Service (more details here). In all those settings I’ve been surrounded by smart, dedicated people, keen to use good ideas to make change. But there was a massive imbalance between having space to think vs. the power to make change.

When I was an academic, I would have been delighted at the chance to address an urgent request from some senior government figure, or respond to a breaking news story. As a civil servant, such requests were… less delightful. More ‘permanent distraction’.

Prior to government life I imagined there's a big ecosystem. The thinkers spent time developing good ideas so that politicians and officials didn’t have to. But I hadn’t anticipated just how little space government work allowed to even just keep up with ideas.

It’s said that a new book about Shakespeare is written every week. I suspect most policy areas feel similar. To give just one small slice, over April the Institute for Government alone produced 3 separate reports on civil service reform (alongside multiple other reports, each with a raft of recommendations).

In such an environment it’s just easier to go for ideas that fit neatly into a familiar ‘menu’ of options - rather than touring the world to build the very finest menu possible.

Of course, good ideas do make big changes. But often that involves ideas hanging around for ages; then a rare event (often a crisis) happens which opens up their time to shine. The old question - would the NHS have happened without WW2? Or alternatively, a very small handful of experts are good at getting attention. Neither of those feel, to me, like the best way of using the breadth of great ideas out in the world.

Maybe all that is too cynical or simplistic. I’m hardly super qualified to speak on this, with only 4 years in academia and 4 years in government. But here’s my hope for freelance consulting: I might be able to balance time to think & engage with good ideas, and a chance to bring those ideas to a whole range of different projects and organisations. So keep your fingers crossed and eyes peeled for updates on that.

As a final point – I haven’t actually read The Knives. I know of it from the Talking Politics podcast, which I was probably listening to while fitting in something else I needed to do. The book's on my to-read list, but so are lots of other things. And I’ll probably end up trying to keep up with whatever’s happening on Twitter instead. Or making the most of pubs reopening.

Maybe 21st century life is just too busy in general.

Fun Fact about: Bears

If you were told that Ursos Arktos is the scientific name for a kind of bear, you’d probably guess the polar bear. It’s actually the brown bear. The two words are, respectively, Latin and ancient Greek for ‘bear’ – i.e. the brown bear is Bear Bear, the bear-est of all the bears.

This also means the Arctic Circle and Antarctic Circle are actually very practical names: they are ‘the circle with bears’ and ‘the circle without any bears’. Relatedly, it’s also quite a good way to remember which one has the penguins.


Normally I'd do recommendations from the past week. But given this is the first ep., I'll just pull out some interesting things on the topic of ideas & change. And then finish with a recommendation for a nice day out.

There’s a pair of books – Why We Get The Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman and Radical Help by Hilary Cottam – which I read one after the other and coincidentally presented two sides of a similar coin. The first presents insights into how our existing political systems chews up dedicated people and good ideas. The second presents some exciting experiments in addressing political problems outside existing systems. Both are also very lively, vivid, emotional reads as well.

Amongst their voluminous output, the Institute for Government did two webinars on civil service skills and scaling up successful public services. The first webinar also has an accompanying report which is worth a read; the second mentioned a report by Social Finance on making good ideas scale up, which I haven’t read yet but sounds great. A classic example of reading producing more reading…

For those who are interested in more historical perspectives. Adam Tooze has a piece about economist Paul Krugman. It’s fascinating on how different schools of thought in economics have influenced US government activity at different times in the last few decades. Also the aforementioned Talking Politics have recently done an episode on German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. Similarly to Tooze’s piece, the story of this one thinker is also a story of how ideological differences had huge real-world consequences.

Unrelated to ideas-making-change – last weekend I did an art walk along Greenwich. It was very lovely (both the art and Greenwich) and I’d thoroughly recommend

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