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.