VocTech Podcast: Why adult education is broken and how we fix it

"As the 21st century progresses, the paucity of our approach to adult skills risks creating an economic and social emergency" - James Plunkett

In this episode of The VocTech Podcast, Sophie Bailey chats with James Plunkett, author of 'End State: 9 Ways Society is Broken and How We Will Fix It'. James is also Executive Director, Design, Data and Technology at Citizens Advice and has held various roles across the Resolution Foundation, Young Foundation and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

They chat about: 

  • The challenges of upskilling in an atomised gig economy
  • Bold approaches to adult education 
  • Why sustaining change management puts you in a long line of social reformers. Keep going! 

This episode is part of VocTech Podcast series produced in collaboration with The EdTech Podcast

"The way we think about education is not ready for digital jobs and the skills the labour market needs" - James Plunkett, End State: 9 Ways Society is Broken and How We Fix It

This episode features:

James Plunkett, Author of End State: 9 Ways Society is Broken and How We Will Fix It. | Twitter: @jamestplunkett

James is also Executive Director, Design, Data and Technology at Citizens Advice and has held various roles across the Resolution Foundation, Young Foundation and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.

James has worked for over a decade at the heart of public policy, exploring how to solve society’s thorniest problems. IN the late 2000s, he was working at 10 downing street when the full scale of the digital revolution started to make itself felt. He has since spent ten years grappling with the social ramifications of economic changes from leading influential studies into the gig economy and prosperity, to overseeing policy and technology teams in the charity sector. Optimistic and curios about the future, he shows how, even in difficult times, we can make society richer, fairer and happier. He can also be found on twitter @jamestplunkett

Sophie Bailey is the Founder and Presenter of The Edtech Podcast | Twitter: @podcastedtech

Sophie is the founder of the iTunes new and noteworthy, The Edtech Podcast. The mission of The Edtech Podcast is to improve the dialogue between ‘ed’ and ‘tech’ for better innovation, through storytelling. The podcast is downloaded from over 145 countries with the UK, US & Aus in the top 3. Sophie has spoken and moderated at a variety of events including SXSW EDU, Yidan Education Prize, ASU GSV Summit, and the Next Billion Edtech Summit. She is an industry mentor and advisor, a Reimagine Education, GESA Awards, Bett Awards and XPrize Adult Literacy judge, and previous Edtech50 and Edtech Digest winner.

Sophie is passionate about lifelong and everyday learning. If she’s not interviewing a University Vice-Chancellor, Edtech Investor, School Leader, or StartUp about education innovation, she’s engrossed in Teach Your Monster to Read or wrestling her lockdown baby. A keen cyclist, she has recently relocated to West Devon which she considers the English version of the Pyrenees. She is very lucky to work with a distributed team on The Edtech Podcast.

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Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (00:11):

Okay. So I am very excited and very happy because we have, uh, James Plunkett, who is the author of End State, nine ways society is broken and how we will fix it, on this week’s episode. So welcome James. Welcome. Yeah, I think this, this episode has been in, the making for a number of months. The backdrop to reaching out was that my, husband actually had your book. I think he’d been recommended it. And he was sort of saying, oh, you know, there are loads of chapters in here about lifelong learning and, you should definitely get him on your podcast. So then I spent, part of Christmas binge reading the whole book and absolutely loved it. So, um, I am really excited about getting into the details as well.

James Plunkett, End State  (01:00):

Yeah. Great to hear, look forward to talking about it. <laugh>

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (01:03):

So, for our listeners, a little bit of background as we begin, um, James is also the executive director for design data and technology at Citizen’s Advice. And he has also held various roles across the Resolution Foundation, the Young Foundation and the Center for data and ethics and innovation. Um, a quick bio James has worked for over a decade at the heart of public policy, exploring how to solve society’s thorniest problems. In the late 2000s , he was working at 10 Downing street when the full scale of the digital revolution started to make itself felt. He has since spent 10 years grappling with the social ramifications of economic changes from leading influential studies into the gig economy and prosperity to overseeing policy and technology teams in the charity optimistic and curious about the future. He shows how even in difficult times, we can make society richer, farer, and happier, and he can also be found on Twitter @JamesTPlunkett. So James, to kick off one thing that really struck me with the book is, uh, a scene in the beginning where you are at a meeting, um, rather surreally, with Gordon Brown and Tim Berners Lee. So, um, I wondered if you could describe the significance of this meeting and what it represented at a sort of symbolic level and the implications for whether our existing systems, uh, are fit for purpose.

James Plunkett, End State  (02:38):

Yeah, sure. I mean, it was, one of those slightly surreal moments, as you say. So because working in number 10, often you get these odd moments where you find yourself sort of sitting with, sitting with people you might not have expected. And this one was, a meeting with, with, as you say, Gordon Brown and Tim Berners Lee , who’s sort of the man, I guess, credited with having invented the internet, if that can, if that, if that can be a thing. Um, and it was one of those last minute things where I kind of got called into the meeting. Someone sent around an email saying kind of “who can join this”? And so we sat, um, oddly we sat in the number 10 garden cause it was a nice day. So we sat on these kind of wicker chairs in the garden and um, yeah, and it was a meeting to discuss of how the government, um, approaches technology policy and data policy.

James Plunkett, End State  (03:23):

Um, and the kind of, I guess the substance of the meeting sort of faded from memory quite quickly. But the, um, the thing that stuck with me and I guess sort of lodged the, the sort of seed that, that then grew into the book, um, was the kind of contrast between between the two of them. Um, and I really remember this conversation between, between, between Brown and, and Berners Lee, where, so Gordon Brown was talking in the language, I guess, of, of, of the Government, of the 20th century state, you know, the, kind of the big clunking fist of the state, um, asking sort of questions about, you know, what, what levers can we pull as the government? Um, what can we do with tax? And, at one point he said, how can we beat the Americans on this agenda? Um, and Tim Berners Lee, for anyone who kind of has seen him speak, speaks in this kind of completely different language.

James Plunkett, End State  (04:09):

So he kind of he buzzes around all over the place. Um, but the words he uses and the kind of logic with which he speaks is all about networks. It’s about platforms, it’s about standards. Um, and it’s, it is sort of the logic of the internet, essentially, it’s the logic of the internet economy. Um, and yeah, I was left with, so I, I say this in the book kind of feeling of unease at that contrast of, you know, the, the Government just felt like it worked to a different logic to this new me, that it was emerging and it, and it felt like that would, I sort of didn’t realize at the time how problematic that would be, but over the subsequent 10 years, I guess I’ve started to think that that’s kind of quite a good metaphor if you like for the problem that we face

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (04:54):

Yeah, absolutely. It, it made me think of a couple of things. So one was that I used to work in technology events that were, would intersect with different, industry sectors. So things like at the time it was sort of mobile healthcare or mobile banking, and it was exactly as you just described. So you had the sort of fast pace and agile methodology of, of, um, the internet and, and developers and then the sort of cautious or more, um, committee based, systems thinking of sort of traditional industry sectors essentially. So, um, uh, you know, it was never as exciting as Gordon Brown and Tim Berners Lee in the same room, but, um, I, I definitely, um, could connect with that idea of sort of cultures clashing and it, and it also made me think of that sort of famous, uh, meeting or interrogation of Mark Zuckerberg by some of the senators and perhaps their, you know, their lack of the language necessary to sort of interrogate some of the, the more questionable facets of big technology. So, um, yeah, I was, I was thinking about what that would mean as well, when we think about, for this podcast , adult education and, making sure that we are equipping our citizens with tools, they need to be successful and happy in the economy that we find ourselves in now and in, and in the world that we find ourselves in now as well.

James Plunkett, End State  (06:24):

Yeah. I, I just think this, that sort of mismatch comes up again and again, and as you, as you say, it’s partly just, um, a basic question of skills. So, I mean, certainly if you look at, um, politicians today, um, there’s not an understanding of technology and there’s almost that, that sense of speaking a different language, um, when they kind of come up against these, these tech giants. Um, but as you say, it’s also just the, the kind of the systems and the policy in education. I look at in the book, the welfare system and the way the welfare system doesn’t work with kind of big economy jobs, for example, the fact that just the way we think about education is not ready for, for digital jobs for the way that the kind of the skills the labour market needs these days.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (07:09):

Yeah. I mean, we should definitely talk about that. Because there are so many ideas in there that we want to get into, but I suppose, yeah, one of the big things that jumped out at me was this idea that, you know, we talk quite often about automation and the effect this has on jobs. And quite often that’s pitched as, uh, you know, robots are gonna take your jobs. Whereas the reality is, is, is slightly more subtle in that it’s more a slicing and dicing of parts of your jobs. And so I think you describe it as like a crumbling staircase or automation nibbling away at jobs. And so, you know, perhaps where you were doing sort of an end to end piece, you end up just doing, you know, one out of 10 of those different skill sets. So something that that made me think about was, you know, how you retain your kind of self worth and also value as an employee, as a, a sort of learner within the workplace.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (08:01):

So, um, you know, something that was quite dispiriting was the idea that, um, in the sort of lower paid end of the market, there are three main areas. So, um, I think you described them as caring roles, last mile work and wealth workers and wealth workers being this huge, huge part of the economy, which just is just about servicing, um, you know, uh, the sort of wealthy end of the market. So for example, a delivery driver, that’s rocking up at someone’s desk and delivering them a single crepe because that’s what they’ve sort of demanded. And that that’s what they’re able to order and whether that’s the best use of our kind of technology and, and our collective human intelligence. So yeah, some really interesting challenges, I think.

James Plunkett, End State  (08:48):

I think as you say, the, the public debate about this kind of the robots question, it always gets induced down to the sort of unemployment fear, as you say, kind of will there be mass unemployment, which I basically think is, is a sort of nonsense. It’s such a recurring fear throughout history, kind of here here comes mass unemployment because of automation. Um, and as you say, what happens is instead of that, either the robots don’t take the jobs, they change them. Um, and one of the lines they in the book and, um, there’s an example of, um, a translator that I talk about in, in the book who doesn’t actually lose her job, but, um, she ends up having to check translations that are done by algorithms. So rather than doing sort of high, highly skilled work gets kind of downgraded and devalued, I guess, to some degree gets paid less, is expected to do more translation in the same amount of time.

James Plunkett, End State  (09:38):

Mm-hmm <affirmative>. Um, and as you say, I mean, the, the big fear, I guess, that labour market economists have is you get what they call polarisation, where you get therefore sort of lots of jobs at the top for people who are writing those algorithms and the software engineers and designers. But then, and as you say, you get these jobs at the bottom, which are kind of caring jobs, wealth jobs sort of serving the rich, um, and the other category I kind of find quite dystopian is what they call these last, last mile jobs, which are, almost kind of picking up after the machines. So it’s kind of warehouse operatives that need to pick up parcels that machines can’t pick up or, um, chat room moderators, uh, for when the chat bot can’t work out what someone’s saying. <laugh>, um, and it’s kind of just got slightly sort of depressing, you know. The risk that we end up with is very polarized labour market. And then I guess, a very polarized society as a result of that.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (10:34):

Yeah. And I think one of the things that I also loved about your book though, is that you, don’t kind of just collapse into a sort of despair and that, you know, through your approach, which is very much looking back at historical examples to inform why our approach should be optimistic and bold. You underline the importance of retaining hope because actually instead of us being at the equivalent of the fall of the Roman empire, you think that we’re actually in this sort of transition phase and there’s, there’s a great emphasis on hope. You say, “hope isn’t just nice. It’s a vital ingredient if we’re going to pull off the transition to a digital economy”. So yeah. What kind of gives you that hope and optimism?

James Plunkett, End State  (11 Istarting:21):

Yeah, I am very optimistic and then, well, and I actually didn’t expect that, starting out writing the book, kinda anticipating, obviously I was gonna write about these big problems and I had a hunch kind of what might be behind them. Um, but the thing that made me optimistic really was of the long term history, um, because, you know, we’ve been through something very similar before, um, in the industrial revolution. Um, and I was so struck when I started reading about that history, how similar the kind of vibe was, um, and this kind of sense of, um, the intro kind of mounting up with problems that we hadn’t worked out how to solve, obviously at the time, the problems were quite sort of, um, tangible. So kind of, you know, sewage mounting up on the bank of the river terms, um, terrible illnesses like cholera and diphtheria, um, uh, child labour and the kind of terrible situation where kids in factories were being maimed by machines.

James Plunkett, End State  (12:19):

And, um, and at the time it, there was this kind of obviously very hot politics that came out of all of that and, and revolution and, um, uprisings. And, um, uh, in the end, we, we got through it in the sense that in all of those cases, we found ways to solve those problems really. I mean, we, you know, for example, we established modern sewage systems and water treatment plants. Um, we passed labour laws to stop child labour. Um, and so as difficult as it seemed, we kind of, we got through that technological revolution and we kept sort of came out the, the other end with a, a very different government that was able to, um, to sort of manage that new economy. And it strikes me that that’s, that’s very similar to where, where we’re at now. And I, I guess, it’s not the end, it’s an ending. So we’re sort of, we’re coming to the end of one era. Um, and the question is what does government look like as we move into the next era?

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (13:13):

And I love like this quote here as well. I’ve got from, um, from Keynes in, in 1925, it says, um, when we’re discussing the ideal future state of society. So the quote is “this has to be tackled in the first instance from the ethical side, rather than, than from the standpoint of technical economic efficiency”. So, um, you know, I, I think even the pandemic and the amount of money that was raised to problem solve and the amount of, um, agility in some of our larger institutions that were, um, you know, kicked into action shows that, you know, we can sort of push beyond the bare minimum as well. So I think this has interesting, uh, ramifications when we’re thinking about, you know, optimism and actually sort of shaping what we want from our sort of educational systems as well. Yeah.

James Plunkett, End State  (14:01):

Yeah. And I think we’ve got into this slightly, um, incrementalist technocratic way of thinking about politics. Um, and I talk about sort of like the war of the charts where kind of, you know, every policy is analysed on the basis of its distributional impacts and the kind of endless chart wars of kind of, you know, who will this help, who will, who will lose out, um, as a result of this incremental tweak to benefits or taxes. Um, and I guess one thing I say in the book is we didn’t, we didn’t ban child labor on the basis of a cost benefit analysis. Um, you know, we kind of, we led with the morals and we said, this, this, this is wrong. This must not happen. And this must be banned and let’s work through the right way. So we sort, we led with the ethics and then we came in with kind of what’s the policy that makes that possible.

James Plunkett, End State  (14:49):

Um, and I think there are interesting analogies with a policy like the living wage, which is very much in that space. It starts with, you know, ethical premise of saying, people should earn enough if someone’s working full time, they should earn enough to live a decent life. Um, and then it works through how do you make that happen? Um, so I sort of think we’re missing, we’ve become a bit obsessed with economic efficiency, um, and the sort of the, the chart wars, uh, and we need to bring back, bring back ethics from having some of these debates. Absolutely.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (15:21):

And then moving into sort of adult education. Um, one thing that I found quite interesting is when you are looking back at recent history and actually crisis points being a, a real opportunity in terms of thinking about what education or what skills development or, um, package of policy and funding and, um, training, or, or, or sort of education is needed to sort of support the, the new version of society going forward. So I was really interested to read about the UK Ministry of Reconstruction’s Landmark 1919 report on adult education, um, which argued that adult education is a permanent national necessity and aspect of citizenship. And, uh, you know, we had innovations around, um, later on around the University of the Air and the Open University and that kind of thing. Um, but it seems like adult education has always been shadowed by the sense that education is, you know, the school age group and that after that there’s a lot of rhetoric, but perhaps it isn’t always backed up by by funding. Um, so I’d love to share with our listeners what you think about adult education to make it sort of fit for purpose in this sort of digital economy as well. Yeah.

James Plunkett, End State  (16:38):

Um, I think it’s, yeah, there’s a, there’s a huge gap between the rhetoric over the years. And so many governments have said, you know, adult education must be a priority, but as you say, really, when you dig into it, all our metaphors of education are all about sort of, um, preparing kids for life. And it’s all about sort of settling the foundations, preparing children for life. And it’s this very strongly implicit is that education is something you do when you’re young to kind of get you ready for life. And then you, then you’re kind of off on your way. And it’s, and it’s really striking. I spoke to a lot of experts in adult skills and they were all a bit depressed and kind of all the charts moving in the wrong direction. Um, so many things tried, um, over the years, employers, we basically rely on employers to do sort of much of the adult training and they under invest.

James Plunkett, End State  (17:27):

And also they tend to invest in people that already have the best skills mm-hmm <affirmative>, cause that’s sort of where they get the best return. Um, so it’s sort of on, in one sense, a bit of a depressing story, but then I came across, um, this story about the GI Bill. Um, I’m sure some listeners will, will know about, of kind of in America, um, in response to the second world war, then there was this kind of absolute fear of what would happen when the soldiers, when the veterans returned home from the war after being, uh, decommissioned, um, and a real fear about kind of public disorder and, you know, where would all these returning soldiers go, would there be jobs for them? Um, and there was this kind of in hindsight, incredibly generous offer made to basically give a free education to any, any of these returning soldiers.

James Plunkett, End State  (18:13):

Um, and I talk about this in the book and it’s quite quite moving actually to read about, um, this massive uptake. So there was this just massively higher than expected uptake of this offer of free education. Um, and all these returning soldiers in, in America in 1940, um, uh, went to university for free and places like Harvard and like some of the real elite universities doubled their enrollment figures, packed out with soldiers, changing the culture of these places overnight. Um, and, and people think it had this massive impact on the American economy because it equipped this huge tranche of, of young people, mostly young men, to be honest, um, with the skills that America needed for that, for that next generation. And I think there’s just a, kind of, there was a boldness in that and a simplicity in that offer of a free education for adults, um, that is just missing from this kind of, you know, incrementalist kind of tweak that we, that we tend to use talking about our education today.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (19:14):

Yeah, absolutely. I’ve got the page open because, there’s this fantastic sentence here. It’s “the GI bill funded the education of 22,000 dentists, 67,000 doctors, 91,000 scientists, 238,000 teachers, 240,000 accountants and 450,000 engineers, as well as three Supreme court judges, three presidents, amazing, a dozen senators, 14 Nobel prize winners, and two dozen, um, Pulitzer prize winners, which is like quite astonishing. Isn’t it?

James Plunkett, End State  (19:46):

<laugh>, it’s just amazing. And I just, I just think there’s something about, um, it’s just also, it’s, you know, one of the problems with adult education I think is no one understands it, you know, even when you speak to the experts, um, they describe it as the kind of, um, the elaborate, you, you don’t quite know what you’re entitled to mm-hmm <affirmative>, um, complex to claim entitlements. And so governments cut it, frankly, cuz no one notices. Um, so they get away with cutting it, um, much like they get away with cutting the complicated welfare system. Um, and so, you know, that’s such a contrast with the GI bill, which was this really clear emphatic offer of we will fund a free education for any returning soldier. And I just think there’s a, there’s such an interesting opportunity post COVID to say, you know, we’re gonna do something big and bold when it comes to, to free digital skills, um, for people after this, after the pandemic.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (20:42):

Yeah. I remember that point very much about, uh, in all of your chapters that, you know, if, if you make the thing too, too personalized, too complex, difficult to navigate it falls by the wayside. There’s a beauty in just a simple offer, which people sort of, um, intuitively understand as well.

James Plunkett, End State  (21:01):

Yeah, completely agree. And I, I, I think, um, you know, when you think about the NHS as, as, as complex as it is under the, under the skin, um, you know, it is free healthcare. You, you, you know, that very simple point that your healthcare will be free and likewise, something like the minimum wage just says, you will be paid more than this amount. Um, and they’re popular those policies and they last and they have that kind of appeal. Um, and if you compare them with adult skills or welfare is another obvious example, they become labyrinth, complex, stigmatising targeted. Um, and those, those are the policies that tend to get cut and sort of erode over time.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (21:42):

And you kind of contrast the GI bill success with this example of, um, Nathaniel I think his name was who sort of went from construction and then the pandemic hit. And then he ended up in a low paid cashier job to sort of pay the bills, but ultimately wants to retrain, but doesn’t have that bold policy to kind of grab onto. So all of this was making me think about, you know, what are the options, if you, you are part of that growing gig economy, um, you know, or, or your Nathaniel sat at the, the cashier job thinking, well, you know, how, what is my pathway out of this? Did you have any in your research, any kind of reasons for optimism, for innovations to help those people that are outside of the training that always goes to the same people?

James Plunkett, End State  (22:30):

Yeah, I think it is to some degree it’s harder than it used to be because, and this is the point about, um, polarisation. They sometimes call it hollowing out, um, where you get, you know, the kind of simple way of thinking about it, I guess, is in the past, you, you might have a company where you could progress up through the, through the, through the levels from being, um, in an admin role to being a manager and you might work in the same office as your boss and, and now you have a company like Uber, where you’ve got some software engineers out in California or wherever Uber space. Um, and then you’ve got Uber drivers and what’s your path from being an Uber driver to being an Uber coder? Um, and you get these kind of missing rungs on the ladder. Um, mm-hmm <affirmative>, I mean, I think, I, I really remember speaking to speaking to Nathaniel, cuz he, he was just kind of so smart and dedicated and he’d already started doing some training around, around this, but he just couldn’t take the risk of, um, of kind of quitting his job.

James Plunkett, End State  (23:28):

I think we know from the evidence, he probably should take that risk because the returns are pretty good. Actually, if you, if you do take the risk, but completely understandable that people don’t. Um, and so I think there’s, um, there’s kind of promising stuff around some of the new providers in this space. There’s obviously a lot of innovation around kind of quick, quick courses to retrain as an engineer or as a yep. Software as, as a designer, um, really impressive wage returns and some of those courses. Um, but I, I do think you have to have the Government come in behind to give that kind of security and confidence to people who understandably are trying to put food on the table for their kids. And aren’t up for taking a big risk. Um, you know, and, and it’s good for the economy. As I said, with the GI Bill, it, it gives the government a return as well as the individual.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (24:17):

And I think there’s that example thing, you know, you are seeing more sort of learning wallets. So putting the, putting the, um, the agency into the individual learner’s hand, so things like the a thousand dollars for adult training in Singapore, and I know that other countries are kind of exploring that as well.

James Plunkett, End State  (24:36):

Yeah, absolutely. I think, I think that point about letting the person choose because the other, I guess, policy approach that hasn’t really worked in the past, and this was kind of the approach when the, I was in government was, um, sort of, uh, forecasting what skills we might need and trying to set these very sort of top down targets. Um, whereas the GI bill was interesting. They didn’t, they just let choose what course they, they, they went with and actually people made pretty good choices, um, about their futures. So I think there’s a kind of combination of kind of keeping it simple and, and clear and bold and ambitious, but with giving people some freedom about, about what they wanna do with their lives.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (25:14):

Absolutely. You talk about the sort of quite famous behavioural economics department. So that like what is often referred to as the nudge department and, you know, um, sort of senior members within, within that department, which were all, you know, culturally speaking was already slightly, um, uh, separate from perhaps the, the mainstay of politics that we talked about in the beginning. Um, but effectively trying to educate internally around the gov platform. So, um, you know, building a user led digital platform, which is, uh, good for citizens takes away the complexity that we talked about earlier, but actually disrupts loads of internal systems and channels and instead asks for, you know, cross departmental working and things like that. And this will be, um, something that anyone listening will absolutely relate to, but that, that kind of banging of heads against the wall sometimes. And what I loved about your story here was that in any of these areas that you are talking about, um, sometimes we feel like we’re not getting anywhere, but quite often the ingredients for change are already visible are already there.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (26:35):

So if we talk about things like the universal basic income, which has sort of gained traction, and then actually during the pandemic, we see something that’s not that dissimilar to it. And you know, you would never have predicted that, but anyway, these kind of ingredients are on the table, but that it may take 10 years, 20 years and, and actually that’s okay. And there is value in just keeping going, if, if you, if you can stay sane through that process, whether that’s transformation or just more generally speaking change management, but I’d love you to, to share, um, the ideas in that chapter. Because I just thought that was great. And I think anyone should go out and buy the book and, and read it if they operate in a department where they’re trying to be that person to push, push the change to happen as well.

James Plunkett, End State  (27:24):

Yeah, I dedicated the book at the end to people who spend every day running into the wind and this <laugh>. Yeah, I remember that was a phrase that came out of, um, it’s funny, I was reading a, a report on civil service reform from the 1950s, I think it was and um, yeah, this kind of person. So there’s impressive work being done, but if only people could kind of just pause the work for a minute and step back and look at the big picture. Um, and uh, also kind of, there was a nice history of, of Victorian reformers in this kind of amazing generation of civil servants in the, um, in the kind of late 18 hundreds, who were trying to change government in response to the industrial revolution. Um, and they were, they were said to be running into the wind every day and kind of desperately trying to reform the civil service so that it could work for a new world.

James Plunkett, End State  (28:17):

And it just felt so familiar to people working in digital teams and government today where sort of every day can feel or like running into the wind, um, where you are kind of arguing – it’s back to the Tim Berners Lee, Gordon Brown sort of contrast that you, you get, um, conversation after conversation where you’re basically having a kind of clash of paradigms and, um, a clash of world views and people are trying to sort of, um, to work out how does government need to function in this new, in this new world that we are now living in, um, and the kind of existing processes and behaviors and structures, um, just don’t really work. So, you know, I mentioned things like the WhiteHall department, which is a kind of, you know, a very hierarchical sort of top down bureaucratic institution, very siloed. Um, that’s kind of the opposite of, of what you need in a digital world.

James Plunkett, End State  (29:13):

Um, and it’s gonna be completely the opposite of how maybe a tech startup might work, which will be, you know, much more agile, much more, much flatter, um, much more autonomy for individual teams. Um, and if you are kind of, I, if you are one of the people that’s sort of arguing for that kind of change and that new way of working, um, it feels like a slog. I, I use the, um, metaphor of kind of, it’s a bit like digging up, um, digging up a tree and you don’t quite realize how deep the roots are gonna go. And every time you dig a bit deeper, you realize the kind of it’s even more embedded than you thought it was. And you have to dig again and dig again in this sense of kind of not making much progress, but I guess the kind of to finish on the, the point of optimism, it’s it is when you zoom out and you look over 10 years or 20 years, 50 years, you see this really quite extraordinary, extraordinary change and kind of government looking unrecognizably different, you know, in, in 1900 compared to how it looked in 1850.

James Plunkett, End State  (30:12):

Um, and no doubt government will look unrecognisable in 2050 compared to how it looked in 2000, but kind of only if we keep only if we keep running into the wind, I guess is the, is the point.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (30:24):

That’s brilliant. And, and since you wrote the book, have you, I, I can’t remember that French expression of when you are on the staircase and you think of something good to say in, in retaliation to someone, but it’s a sort of a similar idea since you’ve published. Are there any other points that you think, oh, I would’ve loved to include that, you know, do have the kernels of perhaps the second book in there at all?

James Plunkett, End State  (30:47):

Yeah, <laugh> um, I think, um, I dunno, I’m, I’m very interested in this question of, um, what will the government need to look like? And I use, I can say that the gov, not just the central state, but what, what will kind of, what kind of institutions do we need, um, by say 2050. Um, and I’m just fascinated by that question because they will be, as I say, they will be unrecognized, it’ll be different. So, you know, the welfare system will need to be unrecognized. It’ll be different. Um, education will need to be different. Um, healthcare and public health will need to be different to what we’re used to. And, um, so that question of kind of what will come next, um, uh, is, is just fascinating, I think, and I, I sort of, I talk about that a bit throughout the book, but I’m quite interested in exploring that question, a bit more. I think the main thing is I’m, it’s been nice that in some way, some of the optimism though, things feel a bit bleak <laugh> sometimes I think, but, um, you know, there’s real momentums behind some of these debates.

James Plunkett, End State  (31:54):

So an example is the four day week that I talk about in one factor of the work as kind of a solution to burnout and the sort of digital burnout that we all feel, um, and, you know, just, I think it was yesterday, Panasonic announced they’re gonna do a four day week in Japan.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (32:09):

They just, wow. Which in Japan is quite a big deal, isn’t it? Yeah.

James Plunkett, End State  (32:12):

And they said specifically it’s to tackle, you know, long hours and burnout culture and to, to try produce productivity. One of the big themes in the book is how do ideas go from seeming impossible to seeming inevitable, um, which happened repeatedly throughout history. Um, and I just think we’re starting to see that happen with ideas like the four day week. Um, so I’m, I, if anything, I feel a bit more optimistic <laugh>

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (32:41):

Which is a, a worthy outcome of, of writing at the very minimum, isn’t it? And hopefully you’ll make other people feel more optimistic as well.

James Plunkett, End State  (32:49):

I think we need it. I think I say, um, that if you’ve just got the kind of anger and the frustration, then it becomes a sort of fatalism. Yeah. Um, and I think you see that with climate change, for example, that yeah. Kind of anger plus hope is what kind of gets you there. And I think, um, we sort of, we’ve had enough of, we’ve had a lot, a lot of anger, but we’re sort of missing, we’re missing the hope, I guess.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (33:11):

Yeah. The new, well, the, the, the, uh, ongoing ideas, but getting them entrenched, getting their roots down. Yeah.

James Plunkett, End State  (33:18):

Like things can be better, but there are ideas out there and think, and we can do this. I think that’s just so important.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (33:25):

And then one of the bits that I loved is the scene of, um, you know, you’re going on, your, you know, you’re getting away from it. Like you, you just sort of spoke about and having that break. Um, and I think, I can’t remember it somewhere in Scotland, maybe going somewhere remote in and, and taking a bunch of books with you. And some of those being historical in sort of feeding the appetite for looking backwards and, uh, remembering how far we’ve come and what big bold ideas were made possible. And some of them being more the kind of shiny contemporary books, um, that, that many people sort of recommend on this podcast as well. So, um, for our listeners, I wondered if you could share a few of each of those that, that you think are, are useful in terms of keeping ideas, uh, fresh and helping to shape our thinking as well.

James Plunkett, End State  (34:13):

Yeah, sure. Um, yeah, I got, we got into this habit of going on our holidays, just find the smallest island you can find with no internet accent us. Um, and we went one time to an island which is one of the Northern most islands, which is, that’s

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (34:28):

Just wonderful place. How many boats do you have to take to get

James Plunkett, End State  (34:31):

There three boats or something? I dunno. I mean, it takes, it must take, I dunno, 18 hours something, um, and it’s definitely worth it. Um, and I got into this habit of bringing books about now and about kind of digital capitalism and books about the industrial revolution. Um, and I guess one of the former that I, that I loved is, um, book called uncanny valley. Um, a woman called Anna Wiener. I think her name is pronounced, um, and it’s a kind of memoir of her time working in Silicon valley. Wow. Um, and it’s a brilliant take on kind of this weird sort of vibe and the kind of weird optimizing kind of culture that is emerging in Silicon valley and from all the sort of tech bros. Um, yeah.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (35:16):

It’s which I think on a, on a micro level and talking about vocational learning technology and edtech, I think even in the last five years I’ve been doing this podcast when I started, it was all about optimization personalization through the lens of education. Like how can we make people learn things more quickly? Uh, it literally like the Gradgrind thing of like pouring more things in the jug, into the vessel as quickly as you can. Whereas I think it has become more sophisticated about learner motivation and, you know, keeping that engagement and the, the aspect of social learning. So I think generally across technology, that side has grown up a bit. And it’s not just about the technocratic solution that you talked about in the beginning, and it’s more about the behavioral side and going further for longer. So that’s really, that does sound really interesting,

James Plunkett, End State  (36:08):

Just becoming a bit more human and it, and, and like not, not coincidentally more diverse and inclusive as well, and this the same feat, the same are people making. So that’s kind of key. And, but that, that’s, that’s a lovely book. Um, yeah, on the historical side, there’s this a brilliant book called the Unbound Prometheus, um, an, an economic historian called David Landes who, um, yeah. Is kind of, um, quite well known for this book. And it’s, um, it’s kind of quite a long read, but it’s, it’s one of the best books I’ve seen for, um, capturing that moment of kind of, of ignition when the industrial revolution kicked off. And it kind of gives you this, um, amazing sense of what it must have been like to be there at the time and to kind of have this kind of new version of capitalism emerge, um, and the, sort of the sheer disruption that, that played out at the time. Um, so that’s also, that’s a great book and kind of just really interesting to think about all the parallels with the kind of change that we’re seeing play out now.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (37:07):

Wonderful. Thank you. Um, so if, if anyone wants to read End State that is available in all bookshops, I’m guessing.

James Plunkett, End State  (37:15):

Yeah. All good bookshops. Yeah. Available now, um, both

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (37:19):

Digital and in physical capacity. And, um, yeah, I think, I think the message is a great one. You know, I think that among our listeners that are either working within, um, you know, the workplace as the head of L and D or indeed within university’s colleges, schools, um, but also on the entrepreneurial side and the investor side, you know, you’ve either got that experience of the day to day struggles of digital transformation and change management, or, um, and, and often these go hand in hand that, that, that kind of necessary horizon gazing and optimism. And I really like that idea of informed optimism and, uh, I think that’s a great message to, to leave our listeners with. So thank you very much, James. And, um, what, what other work, uh, in your, with your other hats on, should we be aware of anything else you want to throw in the ring?

James Plunkett, End State  (38:14):

Yeah, I think, um, I’ve just started a new weekly blog, calling it End State, which is about how do we govern the future. So, um, if you look on, um, medium or on sub stack, um, maybe we can put the links, um, share the links with folk, but, um, that’s just kind of weekly blog exploring this kind of question of what comes next.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (38:38):

Fantastic. We’ll certainly, um, share that in our show notes as well. So thank you so much. When’s your next, uh, trip to north Scotland?

James Plunkett, End State  (38:47):

Yeah, I need to book one. I’ve kind of I’ve failed throughout, um, throughout COVID I’ve just emerged from a long lockdown, so I, I need to book one for the summer, I reckon.

Sophie Bailey, The Edtech Podcast (38:56):

Brilliant. All right. Well, thank you so much for sharing the ideas in your book and, uh, yeah. Look forward to following your blog.

James Plunkett, End State  (39:02):

Thanks so much. Great to speak.