Redesigning government: Does the terminology of government hold it back?

I had an interesting discussion last week with a colleague about the terminology of government.

We talk about politicians as moving the ‘levers of power’ and departmental restructures as ‘machinery of government’ (MOG) changes (sometimes used as a verb “we got mogged!”)

Lack of progress in bureaucracy is called ‘spinning wheels’ (which often appears to be what’s going on while officers are ‘fine-tuning’ policy), while government communications is often referred to simply as ‘spin’.

So why are these machine-like industrial era metaphors still used to apply to government?

Yes, that’s right – industrial era. The term ‘machinery of government’ is thought to originate from 1861 with John Stuart Mill in Considerations on Representative Government – who argues against the tendency to consider government as a controllable, predictable machine.

I’ve previously written of the difficulties inherent for a government, structured under 19th Century principles, attempting to use 20th Century technologies to govern in a 21st Century world.

in this respect, if governments are seeking to move forward, surely they need to consider the terminology they use as well.

Let’s use the example of another industry, medicine. From the 16th Century doctors began to think of humans and animals as complex machines, first clockwork and then, from the 19th Century, as a powered machine, the heart as a pump, stomach as a factory (with food the fuel), nerves as wires and joints as pistons.

Through the 20th Century this view became more sophisticated as we built a better understanding of how the body operated. New post-industrial technology paradigms were used to help conceptualise and communicate this understanding. The brain was considered as a computer, the nerves as a network and with our face and limbs the ‘peripherals’ that allowed us to interface with the outside world.

Each paradigm helped the doctors of the time to build a conceptual framework on which to view and understand the body and address its ills. Each was a partial model of what was really occurring, but was sufficient (based on the knowledge at the time) to provide a foundation for decision-making and treatment.

Government is still using industrial era terms and concepts, 150 years after Mill’s book.

Our understanding of government and society has changed. our technology has changed. The outcomes that government is expected to deliver has changed.

Does industrial-era terminology still provide the right models for government? Are politicians still ‘pulling the levers of power’, or negotiating equitable solutions in partnership with other organisations and communities?

Should departmental changes be considered ‘machinery’ – moving parts from one department to another, like moving parts from one machine to another, or considered within a context of matrix governance, where departments do not exist and public officials work across silos and functional in ad hoc teams to meet specific objectives and goals?

Can we conceptualise a 21st Century model of government using 19th Century terminology, or do the words, and the shape they lead our thoughts into, limit government to outdated modes?

To use a final industrial-era phrase, how do we ‘break the mould’ for government, unleashing new forms of governance that suit modern society?

What modern day terminology should and could we use to reshape our own models of government and describe a new collaborative, open, governance web suited to modern day society?

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spot on! thanks for articulating this. language is huge, and we’re not using it like we could, especially in Government. We do need to invent new words, and we need to invent and incorporate them faster than we currently do.

Amanda Rhea

I don’t always like applying private business terms to government either, but off the top of my head: reorganizing could be repositioning ourselves to meet customer needs better.

Steve Richardson

You’re onto something bigger than just terminology, Craig. For at least a century, economists have ignored the semi-autonomous behavior of human beings in organizations by modeling them with mathematical tools developed for understanding physical phenomena. I wrote a book, The Political Economy of Bureaucracy, on why we should model government as a complex adaptive system. Most people like to think they are in control but even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the typical reaction is to impose even more rules instead of asking whether the approach might contain fundamental flaws.