Getting involved

20 October 2023

My name is Jaco Marais, and I am the director of GGI’s Festival of Governance. Every year since the Festival started in 2015, I had the privilege of choosing the festival theme, but in 2019 we decided to open up theme suggestions to staff and GGI Faculty members. The winning contribution came from former GGI executive partner Mark Butler, who suggested good governance because it’s personal.

This wasn’t something I connected to at all to begin with, but I accepted the challenge by going on a journey of self-discovery, moving from London to live on my own in the Scottish Highlands. My conclusion, after a year of working remotely, living on my own, and volunteering in a community centre kitchen once a week, was that what is personal is what I choose to connect to.

“To connect with people, we should first be able to put ourselves in their shoes to understand where they are coming from and what exactly their needs and priorities are."

Lord Kamlesh Patel – GGI Annual Lecture, 2019

“Many of us develop a work persona and it takes courage to bring our whole selves to work. This means showing up authentically, leading with humility, and remembering that we’re all imperfect human beings doing the best we can.

“It’s also about having the courage to take risks, speak up for what we believe in, challenge popular thinking, connect with others in a genuine way, and allow our unique selves to be seen.”

GGI CEO Andrew Corbett-Nolan – 2019 Festival Review

This is about choosing our level of engagement with the world – opening ourselves up for the greater good. In an ideal world, every one of us would feel free and motivated to engage fully at work, to make our own unique contribution to the mission of the organisation.

Will your system be alright
When you dream of home tonight?
There is no message we're receiving
Let me know, is your heart still beating?

Are we human
Or are we dancer?
My sign is vital
My hands are cold
And I'm on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human
Or are we dancer?

by The Killers

Cult of the individual

US President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were described by an aide as ‘political soulmates’. At the heart of their philosophy in the 1980s were the ideas of minimal public spending, low taxes and, most importantly, people taking personal responsibility for their own lives. Margaret Thatcher famously said: “There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first.”

These ideas fuelled significant shifts in British society, from the demise of trade unions to a huge boost in home ownership – along with a corresponding fall in social housing provision – and significant cuts in the welfare state established by the post-war Labour government. And the 1980s saw the gap between the UK’s rich and poor grow at an unprecedented rate.

The individual was exalted over the collective in cultural life too. This was the age of iconic pop stars such as Madonna, the original material girl, and Michael Jackson. It was the era of MTV, of tales of heroic individualism such as Rambo, Top Gun and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The message shifted from loving your neighbour to loving yourself first – if you can’t love yourself, why should anyone else?

Brief but glorious revolution

In the 1990s, warehouses, underground carparks and motorway underpasses played host to a counterculture movement of ravers. Hip-hop and house music hits were made in garages and bedrooms and played by anonymous DJs in darkened booths.

In mainstream culture, boy bands and girl bands encouraged young people to think of themselves as part of a group in which each member brings something different and unique. School girls and boys banded together in the hope of forming the next Take That, Spice Girls or Destiny’s Child.

But it all proved rather short-lived. The new millennium saw a rapid return to individualism. Geri Halliwell broke up the Spice Girls by embarking on a solo career; Beyoncé outgrew Destiny’s Child; Robbie Williams left Take That. The rapidly expanding internet gave rise to social media and the ascendence of the influencer.

After the brief 90s hiatus, it was all about me again.

If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends
(Gotta get with my friends)
Make it last forever, friendship never ends
If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give
Taking is too easy, but that's the way it is

Wannabe by the Spice Girls

Cathedral culture

The rise of the internet also accelerated a rapid decline in our collective attention span. Our eyes fell from the horizon to the ground at our feet; short-termism became the overriding political imperative. We stopped collaborating on things that would outlast us – or even our politicians’ immediate term of office – and focused instead on the here and now.

It took 182 years to build Notre Dame; the Sagrada Família took 141 years. Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years painting the Mona Lisa. And today’s astronomers are continuing an infinite quest to map the skies, a project that’s as old as human consciousness.

In the wake of the government’s decision to abandon HS2, 14 years after Gordon Brown’s Labour government revealed plans to revolutionise rail travel in the UK, it’s hard to imagine any multi-generational project ever getting off the ground again. We live in an age of throwaway fashion, single-use plastics, and IKEA furniture.

Looking at my life
It's very clear to me
I lived so selfishly
I was the only one

Nothing Really Matters
by Madonna

Dystopia hits

Connection requires trust. When the pandemic hit, connection and trust between friends, neighbours and family members was severely compromised as it became the personal responsibility of each and every one of us to police the other.

It was an extremely divisive time, and a lot of repair work still needs to be done. I wonder if we’re ready to start having a conversation that isn’t binary – where one triggering word would have you labelled as a right-wing conspiracist or a communist who can’t think for themselves and would happily surrender their personal freedom to the authorities.

Our Festival of Governance is designed to bring people together for exactly this kind of conversation.

Today’s dystopia is about the ascendance of AI and the surrendering of personal freedoms. There is a role for the executive teams and boards of public and third-sector bodies to decide how to harness AI while protecting the people in their organisations from exploitation.

The recipient of our Award of Governance in 2019, Dame Fiona Caldicott, was the UK’s first statutory National Data Guardian for health and social care. Following her appointment in 2014, she helped to encourage public trust in the protection and appropriate use of personal confidential data, specifically health and care information.

Fiona Caldicott’s Report on the Review of Patient-Identifiable Information, published in December 1997 and added to in 2012 and 2016, established a set of key principles governing the management of confidential service user information.

Protecting our privacy helps us be ourselves within the boundaries of trust. To have privacy is to have power over our own narrative; it is where we have the space to be truthful to ourselves.

The quality of people’s data on official records improves when they feel confident that the information is not personally identifiable. The sort of confidence inspired by safeguards such as the Caldicott Principles enables us to forge deeper, more meaningful connections.

Perhaps every organisation needs a guardian to protect the quality and privacy of the personal data they are responsible for – and the public to whom they are ultimately accountable.

What does good look like?

The dilemma for all of us in this increasingly sophisticated, tech-enabled age is the choice between protection and connection. The more limited our choices of what to connect to, the more limited our capacity to be fully human.

Successful organisations make the effort to find out about their people’s personal values. What motivates them? What personal experiences have they had that shaped their approach to their work? Ideally, this is not only done when securing employment, but on an ongoing basis, to find ways for the organisation to work with the individual in a way that furthers both organisational and personal ambitions.

It's also important to remember that people do not function as automatons; they have personal responsibilities outside of work that might even sometimes take priority.

Finally, if GGI had a favourite film it would probably be Erin Brockovich. We couldn’t possibly conclude an article about what is personal without quoting these lines:

Ed Masry: You're emotional, you're erratic. You say anything, you make this personal, and it isn't.
Erin Brockovich: Not personal? That is my work! My sweat! My time away from my kids! If that's not personal, I don't know what is.

Erin Brockovich
– 2000

In 2019 we said good governance because it’s personal, in 2023 we say scarcity is real and we give our best when we get personally involved.

Life is a test, and I confess
I like this mess I've made so far
Grade on a curve and you'll observe
I'm right below the horizon

Yes, no, maybe, I don't know
Can you repeat the question?
You're not the boss of me now
You're not the boss of me now
You're not the boss of me now, and you're not so big

Boss of me
by They Might be Giants

Listen to the public good podcast as we explore eight societal themes depicted in past Festivals:

Meet the author: Jaco Marais

Director of Corporate Communications

Find out more

Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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