A vital lesson Scotland should learn from this US President – Karyn McCluskey

Barack Obama once said, “What’s troubling is the gap between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics… our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem”. He said that, when someone came up with a big idea to tackle some of these issues, the interest groups and partisans would kick it around like a football until we lost the solution.

Barack Obama warned against the lack of big ideas that make a big difference to people's lives (Picture: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Barack Obama warned against the lack of big ideas that make a big difference to people's lives (Picture: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

I’m sure many of you, especially those working in the public service or the third sector, have seen this happen to so many potential solutions and it’s enough to make you weep. There are so many big challenges at the moment – the loss of lives through drugs, prison population, poverty, health inequalities – and every missed opportunity or ineffective compromise can add to a fatalism that real, seismic change just isn’t possible. Politicians must feel it most of all.

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Often public opinion will be the excuse used to dilute bold proposals and, when you have to keep one eye on forthcoming elections, it’s understandable that there might be reservations about something that rocks the boat too much. But is public opinion really so conservative? When we polled the Scottish public about justice, there was huge support for offenders to rebuild their lives and rehabilitation, and “prevention” was identified as the primary objective of the justice system. The conversations going on now in Scotland in light of the drug death figures show people are open to considering a huge range of interventions to turn around this grim toll of preventable death. There’s disagreement on the solutions, sure, but everyone is determined that this should change – and I haven’t heard anyone say we should jail people for longer. This doesn’t square with the assumption that the public are only punitive and interested solely in pursuing retribution. Sometimes it’s easy to confuse how the Press responds to an issue with the what the public think. The message from our polling was that people want less crime and for everyone to have better lives – and what they need is information, ideas and evidence about what will achieve that.

So what should we – campaigners, politicians and public servants – do to help change the status quo? I’m not a seer but if we are to transform our future we need to worry less about who we might upset. Of course we should consider the impact on all parts of our community but it’s more important to ask, “What else could this look like?” and “Does this make things better and not worse?” Being too concerned with how people might react can cow us – and if we lose our bravery, we’ll never be able propose those big, hard solutions, never mind put them into practice.

However, we do need to talk to and listen to everyone. Seek out those voices that are the least heard, those who are the most affected, those who are the closest and the furthest away from the issue. Expertise comes in all shapes and when the goal is a fundamental shift in how we address long-standing and pernicious social problems, it needs to be about and with all of us. It’s about what’s right – not who’s right.

But most importantly people must be at the heart of it. Every decision, proposal, spreadsheet, budget line and project plan – if the people who you serve are at the centre of it, you can’t go far wrong. The destination might be a speck on the horizon, but if we get the direction of travel right we could be on our way to a happier, healthier and fairer Scotland.

Karyn McCluskey is chief executive of Community Justice Scotland