Systems and symptoms

I am a menshevik. Steph Gray is a bolshevik. It may not end well.

Steph wants a revolution, and he wants it by next summer. He does not believe in the false consciousness of the bourgeois revolution and is wary of alliances with objective supporters of the current regime. Despite the immaturity of the proletariat, they and only they can be the vanguard of the revolution.

October glory

1917 was a good year for the bolsheviks, of course. Little was heard of the mensheviks after that, though little groups survived in exile for a surprisingly long time. But while the bolsheviks successfully introduced the language and the superficial structures of communism,1 they made rather less progress on changing the substance. When the façade cracked, what lay behind seemed remarkably unchanged.

This is not 1917. Steph is not Felix Dzerzhinsky and shows no signs of wishing to lead the Cheka. But in calling for revolution rather than evolution, Steph is asking us to make a similar choice.

The question he raises is a good one. GDS has made very visible strides on the delivery of online information, in part through ruthless intolerance of counter-revolutionary saboteurs. But that has not been matched in the embedding of digital engagement and open policy making across government more widely, where the white armies still control much of the hinterland and where there is still too much tokenistic playing with technology, and not enough real change. He calls for an end to ‘pat on the head’ digital engagement – and that in itself has recruited Stephen Hale to join him on the barricades.

Catherine Howe, meanwhile, is perhaps the Bukharin of our story: the pragmatic but committed theorist trying to make sense of the landscape and to create policies to match.2 Having started with the question ‘are comms the blockers?’ she, and the group whose discussion she is recording, very quickly show the range of people and concerns which can make the adoption of social media slow. Solving that is not about fixing comms, it is about fixing the bigger system:

As the use of social media becomes more entrenched then I would speculate that this will become increasingly a question of organisational leadership rather than any specific practitioner groups and that it will be important to start discussing where that leadership should come from.

By coincidence I was at the Institute for Government on Friday, where Marco Steinberg was talking about the work of the Finnish Innovation Fund and the Helsinki Design Lab. One of his strong messages was the need to identify and address the architecture of problems: it is easy to see particular aspects of an issue, particularly since organisational structures and job roles tend to reinforce a narrow view; it is harder – but essential if we want to achieve innovation – to understand how the pieces fit together and to design solutions in the context of that understanding. Policy makers need strategic designers to rethink systems fundamentally. Open policy making and engagement are central to doing that effectively – though I suspect Steinberg would be sceptical about defining the problem in terms of digital engagement, rather than engagement more generally. There is a a social dimension to engagement which online approaches can complement, but cannot be a substitute for.

In the discussion which followed, Matthew Mezey mentioned Jake Chapman’s Demos pamphlet System Failure and made the point that though it was greeted with huge acclaim when it was published ten years ago, it has had almost no long term impact. Lots of people were inspired by the approach; few if any found it possible to make the changes necessary for it to work. That resonated with me because I was one of them: I read System Failure when it first came out in 2002 and saw Chapman talk about his work – but until prompted today, I had almost completely forgotten. As ever, the real question is not about the methodology or the technology, but the organisational culture which inhibits innovation.

From that perspective, concentrating on the need to get policy teams blogging, rather than on understanding why digitally enabled policy making is still the exception itself risks being a form of head patting.

Open policy making is one of those new things which is actually not new at all. The idea that better policy making would result from wider engagement and greater participation in the policy making process – or simply from talking to more people who had direct experience and understanding – long predates digital anything. Almost twenty years ago, I remember being present at (and thanking my lucky stars that I was not on the receiving end of) a stern lecture from a cabinet minister to a group of hapless policy officials about the general uselessness of their proposals resulting from their failure to engage properly with the world beyond Whitehall. As Jo Maybin has recently observed:

This concern that civil servants are not using enough knowledge, or the right kinds of knowledge, when making policy is as old as the civil service itself. While the terminology may have changed, laments about the gap between models of evidence-informed policy-making and policy-making in practice, date back to the Haldane report of 1918 and beyond.

The fact that this a problem with a history does not, of course, make it any less of a problem. It is depressingly easy to imagine similar lectures being given today and Whitehall is still not famous for openness and transparency. And I also agree with Steph and others that digital engagement tools create possibilities which were scarcely imaginable twenty years ago and that there is real value in their wider adoption. But before jumping to prescriptions, it’s worth understanding the problem a bit better to see what might help and how.

Politics is making choices about things people disagree about. If there disagreement without a choice, it’s just an argument. If there is choice without a disagreement, you are talking about – or better still doing – implementation. Policy making as a bureaucratic process (the thing which – some – civil servants do) is a way in to making political choices, but it isn’t the only way in and certainly doesn’t solely determine the choices made.

Policy making is not always a wholly rational process, in part because politics (at the level of professional politicians) is in large part tribal:

And herein lies one of the biggest problems in politics. Because choosing between political parties should be a straightforward matter of selecting the policy platform that most closely aligns with your own. But it isn’t; it’s about group identity. And to a certain extent it has to be; because this is a representative democracy not a direct democracy, and we are picking people we trust to make decisions down the line.

So the first temptation for rationalist bureaucrats to put aside is the belief that there is some right policy waiting to be found, and that policy making is about gathering and sifting the sands of data and opinion until the nugget of truth is found. There are areas where something like that happens, but crudely speaking, the more the issue is politically salient to begin with, the less policy making will look like the rational ideal.3 So the first question is whether we are dealing with a political issue or what, for want of a better word, I will call a technical issue.

There is also a critical question about what aspects of policy making we are talking about in the first place. There can be discussions about the process (in a broad sense), identifying data, gathering opinions and perhaps identifying options. There can also be discussions about the substance of the policy in question, not just identifying options, but evaluating them and arguing for a preferred outcome. Civil servants do the first of those, and could undoubtedly do it better. But they don’t do the second in public, and the question of whether they should gets tangled up very quickly with some meaty constitutional issues. So the second question is whether the intention is to be open about the process of a particular piece of policy making or about its substance.

All that suggests that there are two important variables here, which together produce that dreaded, but occasionally useful, thing, a two by two matrix.

Two by two matix with technical v political on one axis and process v substance on the other

In the sense I am using here, a lot of policy isn’t particularly political. To take one prominent example, the rightly applauded openness of the Government Digital Service is firmly concentrated below the line. That gives them a lot of latitude because politically there is almost no controversy (there aren’t many areas of government activity where milestones are retweeted by leading opposition politicians).

GOV.UK made it's 1,000 code release in 6 months today. That's 7 releases every working day since coming out of beta last Oct. :-)// Retweeted by tom_watson

But even then, most of what they are and have been open about is in the lower left quadrant, rather than even the lower right. There have been interesting experiments in other departments, most recently at the Ministry of Justice and perhaps most bravely at BIS. The areas MoJ has announced that it is working on – booking prison visits, making civil claims, paying tribunal fees and applying for lasting powers of attorney – are firmly at the technical end of the spectrum, and the coverage of their excellent blog is, unsurprisingly, concentrated on process. Overall, they are where you might expect them to be – in the lower left quadrant.4

There is plenty of room for more of this. Four years ago, I rhetorically demanded

Where are the blogs of the policy makers, the operational managers, the chief executives, the tax inspectors, the social researchers, the whole army of people who make up public services?

The answer, now as then, is that even departments attempting systematic coverage are barely scratching the surface – some individual enthusiasts shine out, but even in the best departments there is little sense of systematic openness, still less of this being a tool for open policy making. And as I answered myself four years ago:

One obvious reason why there aren’t very many bloggers is that there aren’t very many blog readers. The blogosphere is so very large that it’s easy to overlook how very small it is. I don’t think most of the people I work with read blogs, so it’s not surprising that they don’t write them. That’s partly because I inhabit a working environment which is about as inconducive as it could be to a modern online existence but it’s partly because people have other ways of spending their lives, odd though that might seem to the people likely to be reading this.

All of which means that, while I would love to be wrong, I am pretty sure that an exhortation for all policy teams to blog, and for all ghost writing to be banned is not going to have quite the immediate transformational impact Steph (and I) would like. The absence of a multitude of blogs is not the problem, it is a symptom of much deeper organisational and cultural characteristics.

But all that still leaves the question of the top right quadrant.

Policy matrix - the radical quadrant

Of course we shouldn’t assume that the roles of civil servants are locked into the structures of past ages and are beyond improvement. It would take somebody considerably braver than I to argue that were true. But as I find myself saying a lot at the moment – and echoing Marco Steinberg – if you want to change the system, you have to change the system – you can’t just take one small part of it and assume that you can change it while everything in the wider system is unaffected.

Steph pretty clearly does want to change the system, and suggests:

An independent commission to rewrite the Civil Service Code, to rethink the roles of Ministers, senior officials, and more junior officials in terms of engaging in policy discussion and taking responsibility for decisions. Alongside it, a frank Parliamentary discussion about the responsibilities of backbenchers and Opposition in holding government to account without stifling open policymaking.

I tend to be sceptical about ideas which depend on taking politics out of politics (not least because I tend to the slightly unfashionable view that politics is a good thing, not a bad thing).5 The idea that any opposition would – or should – avoid challenging and discussing ideas put forward from within government is not just unrealistic but wrong.6 There is in any case no prospect of such a commission, and even if there were, answers would be a long way off, so this won’t help meet Steph’s challenge to make a radical difference by summer 2014.

Even if we were to take away the question of political alignment there is still a much more universal question of organisational alignment. Organisations which allow and encourage their employees to think aloud about their employer’s business and its strategic direction are rare oases of self-confidence. Other than a few licensed mavericks (who tend to be smart enough not to bite the hand which is feeding them), that is just not how organisations work. Ending the political neutrality of civil servants wouldn’t stop the secretary of state being the boss.

So my pragmatic view is that starting towards the bottom and the left of the matrix makes good sense. Let’s encourage people to build up confidence, experience and good practice there, moving up and to the right over time. For the reasons I have outlined, the top right corner is much more difficult territory. But if we stop to solve those problems now, we risk getting completely bogged down.

Let’s also stop framing the question as being about the use of digital tools. It is an encouraging sign of maturity when we can stop qualifying things with ‘electronic’ or ‘digital’. Digital engagement is not a digital problem, it is an engagement problem. More digital activity will be a symptom of better engagement. Better engagement won’t, on the whole, be a symptom of more digital.

The mensheviks need to be more radical about the actions they are willing to take and not just rest on theory and ideology. But the bolsheviks need to read System Failure and decide what revolution they really want to bring about.

Proletarians of the world, unite!

Picture by Joseph Morris licensed under Creative Commons

  1. Technically socialism rather than communism, but you either already know that or really shouldn’t care.
  2. If anybody is going to write the ABC of Communism of this little world, it is she. But this is probably the point where the analogy should be taken out and shot.
  3. And that’s not a problem. Elected representatives have democratic legitimacy, not rational legitimacy – even though I for one like them to earn the former in part through the latter.
  4. That’s not a criticism – what I choose to write about in this blog fits exactly the same pattern. There have been times when what I have written about had some fairly immediate (if not necessarily spelled out) connections with what I was doing at work, but the more my work takes me up and to the right, the less likely it is that the blog will stay closely aligned with it.
  5. Which is why I see the proposal by Gus O’Donnell for retired Treasury officials to vet policy proposals before they are submitted to Parliament as further symptom of the problem rather even the beginning of a solution.
  6. It would also create opportunities for gaming – the temptation to get an idea floated by an official and declare it off limits to challenge might be irresistible.

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