The Bazaar World of Fearless Advice 2.0

It’s no surprise that our role as civil servants is changing. One can hardly browse a civil service centric publication from the developed world that doesn’t start by framing drivers of change: big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and technologically driven disruptive innovation in well-established regulatory markets (e.g. AirBNB, Uber, etc) to name but a few.

But is there consensus on what the future looks like?

Seemingly. From the reading I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had or been privy to, civil servants seem to be grappling with the notion that the civil service no longer hold a monopoly on policy advice; that their role is shifting from that of a monopoly provider to something more akin to a sensor, sense-maker, connector and validator, that government is increasingly being disintermediated from its traditional roles in the face of greater complexity.

It’s a Bazaar world out there

The commonly used metaphor to describe this shift in is as moving from the policy cathedral to the policy bazaar – a metaphor borrowed from a seminal essay entitled The Cathedral and the Bazaar – which uses a case study to do a deep dive on the difference between closed software development models (the cathedral) versus open source development models (the bazaar). Michael Gurstein wrote on this exact idea back in 1999, here’s an excerpt:

“I think that it is inevitable that these artificial and scarcity (of the means of communication) derived barriers between the governors and the governed (the Cathedral based clergy and the laity) will break down and very likely sooner rather than later. The modern world and the broad environmental context for policy making is too complex to be “managed” by those responsible without having access to the most encompassing range of expertise and experience available to it. The alternative, which is the reliance on hired expertise through consultants and researchers and paid informants (lobbyists) is too restrictive and assumes as all Cathedral dwellers must, that within the Cathedral resides the full sum of useful knowledge.”

The shift in modalities that Gurstein is describing (pictured left) is precisely what civil services around the world are grappling with. The best example of this is likely the UK’s civil service reform agenda which deliberately sets open policy making next to constestable policy making as viable options for policy makers in an effort to better harness the untapped potential in public policy Bazaar. Just yesterday the UK announced some broad changes to their civil service that came out of the latter and are being heralded as near revolutionary.

What does that mean for you?

The shift from cathedral to bazaar started long ago and will likely continue to play out over the foreseeable future; meaning that the tension between those modalities is likely to continue define the frame within which we operate.

If this is indeed the case than my advice in the short term is to familiarize yourself with the new marketplace of ideas, actors, evidence and instruments because they represent assets that are going to increase in value over time. In other words, get more comfortable with the complexity, embrace your authenticity (See: Embracing Authenticity Means Embracing Complexity), and step into the Bazaar world of fearless advice 2.0.


I may be wrong but here, my instincts are telling me that we – the royal Canadian we – are likely moving towards similar models to those being implemented or now under use in the UK. Often, we tend to look to the United States when considering comparators due to geographic proximity, but we ought to be paying close attention to the UK given that make up of our democratic institutions are more proximate. If this is a field you are interested in you’d be well served by watching the civil service reform agenda unfold in the UK.

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Mark Hammer

I’m not so sure the UK move outlined in the Guardian article is a wise one. In fact, the more I thnk abut it, the surer I am that it isn’t.

First, within the Westminister system, there is no assurance that any party in power will have the “bench strength” in all possible areas and portfolios. Not to underestimate the capability of those in cabinet, but they are not necessarily experts in the domains they have within their respective portfolio. They are simply a best fit from who got elected, and is available (this contrasts with the American system, in which Secretaries are presidential appointees, and can be recognized experts, recommended and selected for that expertise). So, how do we know those they appoint in such a “support” role will have the requisite perspective and political impartiality? And how would THEY know? Moreover, there is a big iceberg of trust required here, to assume that such a move does NOT result in greater partisan control over more of what constitutes the bureaucracy.

In an era of permanent campaign, the Twitterverse, and the 24hr news cycle, the comms people have ascended, and play a much greater role now than in past, as the challenge of maintaining control over “the message”, and conveying consistent policy perspectives from the (big G) Government gets bigger. Will such appointees be erudite policy advsors, or merely more communications strategists?

In a paper from Thomas Axworthy and Julie Burch that I’m fond of citing ( ), they note that political staffers seem to have fuzzy notions of where the boundaries of their authority lie, crossing those boundaries regularly, and have strongly recommended development of codes of values and ethics for political appointees as a safeguard measure. Seeing the rather youthful exuberance of political staffers on all sides of the political spectrum, I am not surprised by their frequent inability to recognize that they have overstepped their bounds, so I am not hopeful that having more such persons in advisory capacities will provide more of the fearless advice that public servants are supposed to provide.

Lastly, within the context of my own job, I see that hiring managers often have a very hard time identifying and specifying what they need in an employee filling a particular role/position. They often make mistakes they regret. And these are managers who may have been attached to the same unit and projects for years. How do we trust the judgment of ministers to assemble a suitable team on the basis of real merit, when they may have only been in their particular portfolio for a few months?

In a perfect world, this proposed expanded role for British cabinet ministers seems benign and helpful enough. But then, so is stopping to pick up hitchhikers on the highway. It might work out, it might not.

Dave Hebert

First of all, Nick, how dare you suggest the U.S. gov’t isn’t the unwavering model of democratic rule … *wink*

I was just having a conversation about this in a leadership forum the other day — it struck me that shifting societal norms on the concept of privacy might have to be taken into greater account in legislation about privacy (do we need such stringency if no one cares?), which led to the bigger question of balance between societal norms and laws that govern society.

I sure as heck don’t know what to do with it, but it’s a pretty important question.

Mark, as usual, is way smarter than me, but I do glean from his comment the concern that I’ll crudely summarize as crowdsourcing vs. expertise. You can put a lot of people in a room together and tell them to figure out nuclear fusion, but even that big lot of people might not get you anywhere.