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Simon Jenkins on Sir Humphrey

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 22, 2009

sir humphreyHere is Simon Jenkins suggesting in today’s Guardian that one explanation for the  UK government’s current impersonation of a mammoth sinking into a tar pit is that ministers no longer take advice, at least on matters political, from permanent secretaries.  Instead political advisers rule the roost leaving senior civil servants to manage and administrate.

‘Blair, like Thatcher over the poll tax, replaced Whitehall’s “scepticism first, loyalty afterwards” with loyalty first and then chaos. Brown as chancellor, who rarely consulted even his Treasury officials, endured one fiasco after another, as on tax credits and rail privatisation. At No 10 he conveys the image of a prime minister alone in his office, attended by a small and devoted cabal, unable to handle contradictory advice or exercise judgment based on it. A lost victim of circumstance, he seems to have no traction on the machinery of government.’

Jenkins predicts that Sir Humphrey will return.  I’m not so sure: the Oxbridge classicists who once dominated the ranks of  the senior civil service (Sir Humphrey was undoubtedly one himself) are no longer so sniffy about ‘commerce’ and are happy to head off to the private sector.  Once a tradition has been broken, it’s broken.

I mentioned my encounter with a real Sir Humphrey here, incidentally.

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Power to the people – part 3

Posted by Andrew Cooper on May 17, 2009

John Locke

John Locke

As John Locke pointed out, democracy relies on electors allowing a small group of individuals to have power over the rest of us.  We give them our consent to let them govern us.  Here in the UK the general mood of the public suggests that we have – mentally at least – withdrawn it.

The expenses scandal which is currently, to put it mildly, fuelling much debate here and has led to this state of affairs is pretty small beer compared with the kind of outright corruption I’ve come across in many of the countries I’ve visited (e.g. Ireland).  However it has seriously undermined the public’s trust in those we have put in positions of power.

Writing in today’s Observer newspaper, Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, suggests a range of ideas aimed at restoring that trust.   He argues for proportional representation (something that the Libdems have wanted for many years) and the development of a “short constitution setting out what rights people enjoy and making clear the subservience of Parliament to the people” which would be drawn up by “A constitutional convention, overseen by 100 randomly selected voters”.

I’ve blogged before about the idea of involving randomly selected members of the public in governing the country.  I have never previously thought that the idea would fly – apart from it’s general wackiness, there are far too many vested interests in and around Westminster to allow it to happen.   The 21st century’s version of the establishment – big business – depends on its ability to lobby and exert pressure via networks (all those senior ex-ministers and permanent secretaries who end up on the boards of banks, for example) and they just wouldn’t allow it to happen.

It’s a nice thought, though.  When I’ve mentioned the idea of the self-immolating ‘Systems Party’ (as soon as it it gains power, it introduces legislation replacing voting as a means of selecting members of parliament with random selection) to others, one of the principle objections is that they wouldn’t want most of the people who one sees wandering up and down our local high street to be given power over anything.   I disagree with that view: I think most people, when given actual responsibility, treated like adults and shown the arguments for and against a particular idea or policy are perfectly capable of thinking things through and making good decisions. The fact that the popular press, for example, treats most of the public as if they were idiots doesn’t mean that they actually are.

Clegg says in the Observer item that we need a system of government that’s fit for the 21st Century.  I think that there’s a strong link here to another recurrent theme in this blog – Clay Shirky’s idea of ‘cognitive surplus’.  As you’ll recall (see link to my review of his book in the right hand side bar) Shirky argues that we only needed pyramid shaped, hyerarchical organisations in the past because there was no other way of organising.  However, the ‘social media’ alongside a carefully constituted jury-like system, so that as many people as possible could play an active part in politics, might just work.

Not on this planet, though.

Posted in cognitive surplus, government, innovation, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

The worst possible system of government, apart from all the others that have been tried.

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 10, 2009

Earlier this morning I commented on the blog post here  which is about a subject that interests me.

Over the past three or four years there has been a lot of talk about re-engaging people in politics, much of it prompted by the idea that technology can help this happen.  But terms like ‘engagement’ and ‘involvement’ are often used without serious consideration of what they would actually mean in practice.  Our systems of government are deeply engrained, based in long established institutions, legal frameworks and, perhaps most importantly, customs and practice.  Just because current information technology enables broader involvement doesn’t mean that it will happen.  

As I suggested in an comment on the same blog, portable  networked computers been around for many years – I sent my first email from a laptop device over 20 years ago.  For most of those two decades pundits predicted that teleworking would revolutionise our working habits and travel patterns.  It still hasn’t happened – those of us who telework are at the margins, most people still travel to their place of work and the airlines still rely on business travel for much of their income.  The reasons we don’t telework (or tele-educate, for that matter) have nothing to do with technology and everything to do with how we best interact with one another in groups.

Posted in cognitive surplus, democracy, government | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Cognitive surplus and government policy

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 29, 2009

In my review of Here Comes Everybody I pointed out that I was surprised that Clay Shirky didn’t have more to say about the connection between cognitive organisation and the business of government.  The premise of the book is that the social media enable us to ‘organise without having organisations’.   Government is, of course, all about organisation: agreeing rules, deciding how to implement and fund them, allocating responsibilities, raising funding and so on.

Yesterday I posted a comment on the article here, at Emma Mulqueeny’s blog, on this topic. She’s one of a number of people working in/with government organisations in the UK to help them make better use of social media: blogs, wikis, discussion forums, Twitter and so on.  To cut a not very long story shorter, I think that the main reason the exploitation of these technologies – and of the internet/web in general – hasn’t been quite as exciting as it might has little to do with the technology itself and everything to do with our system of government here in the UK.  Although we like to think of ourselves as having one of the world’s oldest democracies the influence and involvement of the general public, as opposed to pressure groups, business and other vested interests – has always been rather low.

It needn’t be like that.  The nature of the engagement isn’t about technology, though.  Here’s a good example of engagement.   Here’s a bad example which includes the nice phrase ‘fake listening’ which neatly sums up the very worst kind of engagement. To use one of my least favourite words, this is all about ’empowerment’ and on the whole politicians aren’t in the business of  empowering.  All that carefully collected political capital buys them – and the interest groups closest to them – power.  They aren’t about to hand it back to us any time soon.  They need to remember that fake listening is by far the worst kind of listening: most people would rather not be listened to at all.

Posted in cognitive surplus, government, social media, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

How frightened are you?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on January 13, 2009

 

The BBC's 'the end is nigh' logo

The BBC's 'The End is Nigh' logo

Since early this morning the lead story at the BBC News website has been this report on a survey of business confidence in the UK.  Clearly the ‘business leaders’ (the British Chamber of Commerce) who conducted the survey reported in the item are running out of adjectives to describe the awfulness of the current economic situation.  So ‘frightening’ is what they went for.  Dramatic stuff.  

Having lived through three recessions (1973-5, 1979-82 and 1989-92) I can’t remember any of them being described as ‘frightening’.   

The BBC, meanwhile, continues to pile on the agony with it’s ‘hell and damnation’ logo featuring on all TV news broadcasts and web pages related to what it is still calling a ‘downturn’.  Downturn is much too mild a word, don’t you think?  If they really want to scare the bejaysus out of us I would have thought ‘Meltdown’ at the very least or perhaps ‘The (economic) End Is Nigh’.    I wonder if they’ll replace the logo with an upwards pointing arrow if and when the downturn ever becomes an upturn.

Language is so important when discussing these things, isn’t it?  I don’t want to underplay the seriousness of our current situation – inasmuch as anyone actually understands it –  but I can’t help feeling that the use of such hyperbolic language by the media, politicians and ‘business  leaders’ is helping to ensure that a vicious cycle is deepening by the minute.

It’s at times like that this that real leadership is needed.  People who really can change the way that people think and act.  On this side of the Atlantic at least, real leaders seem to be in very short supply just now.

Posted in economic meltdown, government, politics, psychology | Leave a Comment »

Bailing out – generally to be avoided

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 16, 2008

 

Gratuitous glider photo

Gratuitous glider photo

It’s been many years since I was cured of the gliding bug – having young children and spending most summer weekends attempting to aviate wasn’t really very compatible, and the children took up much more of our time as they got older.  However, it’s still a good source of analogies.  

Take bailing out, for example.  Glider pilots, unlike most light aircraft pilots wear parachutes.  Like life jackets, you sincerely hope that you never have to use the things in anger.  We were advised not to make practice jumps as far more people would be injured practising: if the worst happened and you had to bail out, you were told to do the obvious things: jump, pull rip cord, roll over on landing etc.  There were only two reasons why you’d need to bail out at all: a serious malfunction of your machine (eg the controls stop working – this happened to someone I knew) or a collision with another aircraft, usually a gilder.  Below about 2,000 feet a ‘chute wasn’t of much use in any case.  Bailing out was a Very Bad Thing and to be avoided if at all possible.

I can’t help feeling that bailing out the US or UK car industries would also be a Very Bad Thing.  In last Sunday’s Observer Andrew Rawnsley suggested that, if job preservation is the issue, the money could be used in better ways.    Surely he’s right – paying vast sums to keep these companies going only makes sense if you think the recession will be short and that afterwards people will start buying again.  Somehow, I can’t see that happening but then, as I’ve pointed out in a number of posts, I’m not an economist.

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Cognitive surplus, The Vision Thing, Kurt Lewin and Newton

Posted by Andrew Cooper on November 15, 2008

 

Newton

Newton

George H Bush allegedly said that he didn’t do ‘the vision thing’ (although, following two minutes extensive research via Google I can’t actually find a source for that so perhaps he didn’t).

Either way, his son’s successor is very big on Vision.  And following on from his extraordinarily successful use of the web to help back up his job application for the Leader of the Free World post he’s about to take on, he’s using the web to collect visions.  

Anyone interested in change management and psychology is bound to have been thinking about the central message of Obama’s campaign.  If you spend $30.00 on an Obama victory T-shirt (I’d want a victory sweat shirt at that price, particulalry given the current dollar/pound exchange rate, but I suppose that’s not the point) you will be able to wander around broadcasting the message – ‘Change can happen’ – to anyone who happens to read you.

This is a pretty safe promise, of course.  Change can happen. We’re all agreed on that. There’s an implicit suggestion that the change in question, if it does happen, will be beneficial, but the slogan provides a safety net just in case it isn’t.  

thankyou_bannerThere’s a lot that could be said about managing change and it’s a fair bet that the large management consultancies are queuing up to say it to Obama’s transitition team in the hope of landing massive contracts of the kind that our own government, here in the UK, has handed out to them over the last eleven years (see various previous posts in which I’ve suggested that this isn’t necessarily a brilliant idea.)

I’ll limit myself to just one thought. Kurt Lewin, who died in 1947, is one of the best known theorists on change management. He is also, as the wikipedia article points out, known as the ‘father of social psychology’.  His ‘force field analysis’ approach is one of those lessons from pscyhology which I would put in the ‘obvious when you think about it but nevertheless useful’, category of ideas.  

Force field analysis is like a restatement of Newton’s First Law of Motion which, as you will recall, states that ‘”A body continues to maintain its state of rest or of uniform motion unless acted upon by an external unbalanced force”.  Lewin said that social situations are like this.  They remain static because a set of balancing driving and restraining forces keep them that way.  So, if you want them to change, you must reduce the restraining forces and/or increase the drivers.  

As the wikipedia article also explains, Lewin talked in terms of ‘unfreezing’ a situation, making the change happen and then ‘freezing’ it again. 

All this is massively difficult to do and although I’m a SLLL (sceptical lilly-livered liberal) I can understand why the right in America is aghast at the idea of an interventionist President attempting to change things using the Federal government machine.  (So aghast, in fact, that Representative Paul Broun has already played the ‘Hitler’ card by comparing the President elect with, yes, Adolf Hitler.  This is, of course, a sure sign that he has lost the argument.)

(The video is, incidentally from the excellent Daily Show website: fellow card-holding LLLs will appreciate why it’s been my main source of intelligence regarding recent goings on in the USA – the show’s website is excellent.)

Anyway, Obama certainly has one thing in his favour at present.  If you want to engineer large scale change you need a large shock to unfreeze the existing status quo.  In this respect, at least, Obama and Hitler have something in common: large scale economic shocks.  Hitler had the depression and its consequences for Germany.  Obama has the credit crunch induced world economic crisis.

It’s going to be an interesting few years, one way or another.  

My vision for America, incidentally, is that all American citizens are provided with one of my very-nearly-ready-to-sell Mindworks approach starter kits so that they can think things through properly instead of rushing out and changing everthing willy nilly.

The starter kit has been slowly fermenting away over the past couple of months, and has recently been renamed ‘Mindworks BrainGear’ after someone rightly pointed out that ‘Mindworks Approach’ didn’t exactly grab his attention.   The second part of the process around which the kit is based, incidentally, exploits force field analysis.  I talk about bridges and barriers rather than driving and restraining forces, but the idea is exactly the same.  Just thought you’d like to know, Senator Obama.

Posted in Change, cognitive surplus, consultancy, government, innovation, psychology | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Cometh the hour

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 29, 2008

An imaginary President

An imaginary President

I’ve just been watching Obama addressing a crowd live in the US following the House of Representatives’ rejection of Bush’s Wall Street bail-out plan. 

He was doing a good job, but he could have done better. He persists in using long words like ‘philosophy’ which, to my mind, is a bad idea when you’re addressing people in the Flyover States whose votes you need. He must have said it five times.

Jed Bartlet would never make that mistake. If only Jed, Josh, Toby, CJ and the rest were actually in the White House. Bartlet was a Nobel laureate in economics, no less.  He would have known exactly what to do. And he also had the common touch. He knew that when the President addressed the nation he needed to imagine that he was sitting in a bar with Homer Simpson and his chums, explaining how to put the world to rights.

A typical American voter

A typical American voter

Obama also needs to tell some stories and to use analogies that people will understand. My infants/teacher/delicious sweets story, for example (see below) to illustrate how the current US administration left Wall Street to regulate itself.  

So, stories and simple words.  Verbs optional.  Varied sentence length.  And, usually, one idea per sentence.  Plus idioms: words they use, not words you use.  ‘Big Idea’ not ‘philosophy’: ‘Bush’s big idea was to let Wall Street run itself.  That was it. That was his big idea.’

Words are powerful, but the gaps in between and pacing are just as important.  Long gaps, sometimes.  Listen to Churchill who not only used pauses to great effect but also used some very long sentences, almost stories in themselves, broken up by dramatic pauses.  The gaps are needed to let it sink in and, vitally, to let them complete your thoughts for you.  It’s in their heads that this is lost or won, not yours.  Everything Is Psychology.

He knows all this really, but in the heat of the moment he forgets it.  So if Senator Obama would like to hire me to join his team I’m available at very reasonable rates. Certainly less than the $2,000,000 that McCain’s top advisor was paid to ‘help financial giants avoid regulations‘. Contact details are in the left side bar when you’re ready, Senator.

Posted in Bush, government, obama, politics, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Councillors, MPs, thinking time and cognitive surplus

Posted by Andrew Cooper on September 13, 2008

Without going into the gory details, a Facebook group set up to save the building you can see here has helped to persuade our local council to turn down a planning application to demolish it and redevelop the site.  This has left a £5m hole in the budget for the brand new £40m school we’re supposed to be getting.  Regular readers will know our son is in his penultimate year at the school in question.

It’s a bit difficult to understand why the council, who are in the lead on the replacement project, turned down the application.  Clearly the Facebook group and a local petition had a massive influence on councillors when they voted, but I’d be surprised if the 700 or so people who objected represented the majority view.  The words ‘foot’ and ‘shoot’ spring to mind.

When I mentioned this to Sam – who has spent much of the last five years being taught in the building in question – he said ‘Why do they want to keep it?  It’s awful.’  I said I thought that nostalgia was probably a big factor as most of the objectors are former, rather than current, students.  Also, of course, there’s the fact that people do like objecting to things: it’s much easier than having to come up with creative solutions.

Over the past few years I’ve worked a lot with local councillors and have been very impressed by them as individuals.  The are passionate, committed to their lcommunities, willing to spend hours and hours in meetings (my idea of purgatory, if not hell, I must say) and generally spend masses of their own time attempting to make life better for local people.

They have much more difficult and demanding job than MPs – backbenchers, at least, don’t have any real responsibility at all, they get a very good salary (and an even better pension and allowances package) and work in the Palace of Westminster with with its wonderful library, restaurants and bars.  I’ve seen MPs up close too and, for those who want it to be, there’s is a cushy life.

The main problem that councillors face is, quite simply, overload.  They just don’t have time to think properly.  Much of what they do is very detailed – dealing with complaints, planning applications, the latest of (many) reports churned out by their officials (or consultants hired by them) on instructions from Whitehall, and so on.  Because they don’t have time to think, they occasionally (and in this case, very expensively: it’s costing £30K a week to keep the new school project on hold while a solution is found to the funding problem) end up in foot-shooting scenarios as a result.

So, how do we fix this?  Yep, it’s the good old cognitive surplus once again.  There’s lots of thinking power sitting around in the community, but at present it often gets used in rather destructive ways like, in my view, the Save Luker campaign.  People have a right to try to stop things they don’t like, but let’s try to make sure that they don’t like them for really good reasons, rather than simply because they don’t like them.

As Prof Shirky has pointed out, social media and modern technology generally can be used in much more productive ways than simply organising petitions.  We can use it to engage people’s brains in thinking creatively.  I’m doing some work locally which is aimed at achieving just that.  More on that story later, but first I have to finish building a website or two.

Posted in cognitive surplus, consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, thinking | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Yet another idea for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 13, 2008

Based on the responses I’ve been getting via email, I think it’s fair to say that few people think that the government should be spending more than it does already on management consultants.

So, what’s to be done?  Well, how about a dose of wikinomics?  It’s certainly taken off in a big way in the private sector so I think it’s time to try it in the public sector.

How would a wikinomics model of management consultancy work?  I think it would be very straightforward. Government departments would set up wikis describing problems they wanted solved, new systems they’d like set up, Olympic games from which they’d like lessons learned,  and so on.

Anyone – members of the public, experts, academics, freelance consultants, civil servants and so on – could pitch in with ideas for dealing with whatever is published on the wiki.

Some responses might solve the problem then and there (‘I’ve seen that problem before, and this is how it was fixed’ or ‘Here’s one way you could build that new agency that ministers have dreamed up…’ or ‘You’re describing the symptoms and not the problem’) and so on.  In my experience, it’s the thinking that goes on before management consultants are hired that’s often the problem: organisations dig theselves in before they really know exactly what they want to do.  In other cass, it would be necessary to bring in outside help but only after things had been thought through properly.

Worth a try, isn’t it?  Could save millions.  Open source consultancy might be another name for it.  Tapping into that cognitive surplus once again and exploiting the fact that social media reduce transaction costs to virtually nothing.  Think of all that spare thinking capacity that’s currently wasted which could be brought into play.

A barrier to all this is that it might leave ministers with very little to do.  Politicians pretty much agree on what I call the ‘whats’ – we should all be healthier, wealthier, wiser and safer.  So they have to differentiate themselves from one another by coming up with headline grabbing ‘hows’.  In other words, they have to specify what they are going to change before they’ve even thought it through properly. ‘Let’s reduce terrorist attacks by forcing everyone to buy ID cards’ for example ‘the terrorists will never be able to think of a way around that!’.  (I think the ‘what’ for ID cards may have changed since the almost-certainly-disatrous system was proposed.)  If the Daily Mail thinks a particular how is a good thing that’s what we’re going to get.

It’s not politicians fault that they have to tinker randomly with headline grabbing and often ill thought through hows. That’s how the system works: it incentivises tinkering.  If the public were really involved in working out the hows for themselves – via open source consultancy – how on earth would politiicans distinguish themselves from one another?  It’d probably all come down to having good hair.

Incidentally, a poll currently online here asking the question ‘Do you believe there is sufficient IT expertise within government …. to deliver egovernmentand trans-government (sic.) ambitions?’.  The overwhelming response is ‘not bloody likely’, or stats to that effect.  Let’s hope that whoever is responsible for fixing the problem has read the NAO and PAC reports which point out that a good way of bridging the defecit would be not to hire yet more consultants.  It just ups the internal cognitive deficit, as we’ve already agreed.

Posted in cognitive surplus, consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, Network of minds, thinking | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Some thoughts for the Whitehall Innovation Hub

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 5, 2008

Thanks to a post on Simon’s blog (Simon, as you’ll recall from earlier posts, is WordPress’s representative on planet Earth and, like me, a former civil servant though not quite so former as I am) I now know that something called the Whitehall Innovation Hub has been created at the National School of Government (or the Ecole Nationale D’Administration, as I think they’d like to be thought of, having apparently downgraded themselves from a college to a school via various name changes)

Simon’s post was the fifth hit on Google when I searched for this just now – see this – the ranking may have changed since I searched, but the top four hits were from egovmonitor.com, publictechnology.net and Simon.  So Simon, a freelance web consultant who lives just down the road from me, is in the top three organisations to break the news at the place most people will go to find out what’s going on – Google.  That says something.

Anyway, as this blog is entirely about people and their ability to innovate, I feel a public duty to throw my half-pence worth into the debate.  I often ask people what they would do if they were running their organisation (the results are always interesting, particularly if you ask them privately and promise not to tell anyone) so this is what I’d do if I was running the Hub.

  1. Stop doing all the things which stop people innovating. Large organisations are virtually designed to stop people innovating and as the civil service (aka Whitehall) is a very large organisation, it’s full of things that stop people innovating.  There’s a good reason for this: if everyone innovated all the time life would be chaotic: everything would continuously be changing  and no one would know what the heck was going on.  So ignore that first sentence.  But I really would look hard at barriers to innovation and find ways of unblocking them.  It’s not rocket science.
  2. I’d also look hard at Whitehall’s tendency to hire other people to do its thinking.  I’ve banged on enough about the £3bn public sector bill for consultants in one year – £1.8bn of which was in Whitehall – which raised the PAC’s collective eyebrows somewhat.  But it’s simply a fact that if you hire other people to think for you, you aren’t  doing the thinking.  And that stops you from learning.  Innovation is largely about learning, so this is a Bad Thing.  We need civil servants to be innovating themselves, and given the tsunami of money that’s been thrown at consultants, I doubt whether they’ve had much practice recently.  They don’t even get to firefight, and firefighting provides massive potential for learning.  I linked to this management consultant’s blog over the weekend.  She argues that civil servants can’t firefight  so someone has to pay her £1000 a day to do it for them.  Big missed opportunity.
  3. Next (or, more likely, at the same time) I’d talk to some innovators.  I wouldn’t sit in Sunningdale, lovely place though it is, thinking great thoughts about innovation, consulting leading academics, chewing the cud with NESTA, IDeA, the Design Council and the rest (although I’d certainly have a chat with them and ask them to write their advice on one side of A4).  I’d be out and about, finding innovators at all levels in the government machine and videoing them with my Flip camera (did I mention I have a Flip camera?) to find out how they were able to do it.  Then I’d post the interviews to Youtube so that everyone else could find out.  That would be both simple and fun.
  4. The Hub is going to look at incentives, so I’d have to think about that.  I’ve touched on this before.  Really good innovators should have the incentive of earning a lot of money.  That usually works as an incentive.  They could even, as I suggested in an earlier post, earn more than their bosses.  Happens all the time elsewhere.  So I’d look at that idea too. And I do mean innovators and not inventors – see below.
  5. I’d think hard about creating a career civil service again.  This sounds dreadfully old fashioned, but I’d re-read Arie de Geus’s The Living Company to remind myself that it isn’t.  De Gues (a senior manager at Shell for many years, not a guru, consultant or member of a think tank) uses the analogy of companies as organisms to analyse why some companies (unlike most) have particularly long lives.  He even refers to Richard Dawkins (who was excellent on Channel 4 last night, I thought, not least because he pretty much kept away from the whole God thing).  Many of the best companies grow and nurture their own talent, rather than hiring it in.  The logic for doing so, both in terms of cost effectiveness and building the internal capability to manage/innovate is, to my mind, irrefutable.  I think the Public Accounts Committee agrees with me.
  6. I’d get on and do some innovating in my own team. Act as a role model.  I’d run the whole thing online and not have an office.  As I’ve already established on this blog, 99.8% of people don’t have good ideas in offices and the other .2% only say they do to impress their bosses.  I don’t have an office already (unless you count the converted end of my garage, from which I write, and it’s much too pleasant and useful to be called an office) so I’ve got a head start.  I once met a brilliant local government direct services manager who didn’t have an office either.  He spent all his time out and about with customers, suppliers and his people.  On the few occasions he went into HQ he used a spare desk or an empty meeting room. He also had some really good ways of managing: for example, he asked all the people who worked for him in managerial jobs to improve at least one thing they or their teams were doing every month.  That’s innovation and that’s the sort of person I’d want to video with my Flip.  Simple.
  7. I’m going to stop at 1000 words (post posting note: this turned out to be wrong), and WordPress is telling me that that was 902 so I’ll have to be quick.  Above all I’d find ways of tapping into what Clay Shirky calls the ‘cognitive surplus’.  Watch the youtube at this post to find out what he means.  And I don’t just mean the cognitive surplus of civil servants, although they must have some surplus, what with all those consultants doing all the thinking and that. I mean the cognitive surplus of the public – us – the people that civil servants are serving.  Customers can innovate too.  A very good way of tapping into cognitive surplus is to use the same technology that I’m using to communicate these blindingly obvious thoughts, as Mr Shirky also – rather brilliantly, in my view – points out.
  8. Lastly I’d work hard to stop ministers – and Prime Ministers – from meddling and try to persuade them to lead instead.  For reasons I’ll have to mention in another post, this could be problematic.  But imagine if Gordon Brown had made the speech shown here?  If our PM had been President during the Apollo programme he would, every morning at 6.00am, have phoned Von Braun to ask how it was going and to offer his own thoughts on booster separation technology and the design of the LEM.  Enough said.

I’m sure  that all this will have occurred to the seconded academics and Design Council, NESTA and IDeA people etc. who make up the Hub, but at least I’ve got it off my chest.

PS – have just emailed a link to this to Clay Shirky.  If the hubbers get him to talk to them – as I think they should – I think I deserve a cut of his fee, don’t you? :0

Posted in consultancy, creativity, government, innovation, Network of minds, thinking | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Power to the People – follow-up

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 4, 2008

Here’s my latest missive to the relative of mine with whom I’ve been discussing the ‘Power to the People’ post via email.  I’m working on a couple of projects which are to do with involving the public directly in policy formulation, so I’m not just banging on about this for the sake of it.   More on the projects in question very soon, I hope.

‘Dear L,

I think that’s probably a straw man argument.  Now that I’m nearly 53 I think I realise – as I may not have done when I was 18 – that there’s no such thing as absolute truth.  Even in science, the knowledge we have is always provisional and is likely to be proven wrong at any moment.  Al Gore called his film “An inconvenient truth”.  I suppose that was more snappy than “An inconvenient set of hypotheses about the likely causes and consequences of climate change which most climate scientists more or less agree on but are very difficult to prove in any substantive way due to the poorly understood and extremely difficult to model systems which are involved”, although that would be a more accurate title!

I once came across a paper written by an academic called Lindblom titled “The science of muddling through”.  It’s about policy formulation and planning, particularly in relation to government policies.  Lindblom argues against the ‘classical’ model of planning – decide what you want to achieve in the future, set some goals, develop policies, allocate resources etc. because, he says, it can never work.  You can never be sure what the future will bring, you can’t (particularly when you’re dealing with complex issues like public policy on, say, crime and health) be sure exactly how your policy interventions will play out and so on.  He says that a much more incremental approach is required, certainly with a goal in mind but with something much more akin to experimentation where possible.  For example, instead of implementing a policy on a national basis if you don’t know whether it will work, do some experiments first and see what happens.   In other words, you ‘muddle through’ rather than assume that you can control everything – he saw ‘muddling’ as a good thing. (There’s a good piece from yesterday’s Guardian on this – see the “Ready, fire, aim” approach to planning that’s mentioned here.)

Linblom also argued that the one thing that you should do when things are uncertain and difficult to plan is to make the whole process as open as possible, making lots of information available to people, explaining how decisions will be made, essentially being honest with those involved and treating them like grown ups.

I don’t claim that policy analysis conducted in public – using something like wikipedia, so that lots of people could get involved – is ‘the answer’ but it’s at least interesting to think about what a system like that might be like.  As I’ve noted on my blog, all political parties are saying that more power should be handed to ordinary people and that they should be more involved in the governance of the country.  They are doing this because they know that many people are very cynical about politicians and politics and they think that getting people involved again might change this.

I don’t know whether you heard Lisa Jardine’s ‘Point of View’ talk on Friday but it touched on the dangers of adversarial debate particularly when it’s exaggerated out of all proportion by the media.  There’s a transcript of it here.  I agree with her, and I also think there’s a better way, although I’m not so naive that I think that a ‘better way’ ever be adopted.  I just think that some things – like humanity’s response to climate change – are much too important to leave to short-termist, self-centred politicians.

Andrew’

That last statement is unfair: I’ve met a fair number of politicians, at all levels, and indivdually their committment to public service often shines through.   However, the system forces them to think short term: if you’re going to stay in the job, you have to win votes.   Also, my generally positive view of MPs has been somewhat downgraded following the revelations about their expenses claims earlier in the year.  There was a nasty whiff of corruption in the air and one or two should certainly have been prosecuted, in my view.

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Stress testing

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 2, 2008

A destruction test

A destruction test

I notice from their website that one of the large consultancy firms offers ‘stress testing’ of policies as one of their services to government.  This is a more circumspect version of the ‘destruction testing’ phrase I often use when talking about the rigorous evaluation of ideas.  (You couldn’t actually say to a client who you’re hoping will give you some of the £3bn spent annually on public sector consultants “We’re going to destruction test your daft ideas”, obviously. although given the not-entirely-joined-up nature of some current policies – e.g. budget support – I wish government departments would do more of this.)

I’ve been engaged in an email discussion with a close relative of mine of my Systems Party idea (see “Power to the People”) in an attempt at some stress testing.  He’s 83 and, without doubt, a WOB (Wise Old Bird).  Here are a couple of responses I’ve sent to his emails.

Dear L,

I  take your points, and this is just a thought experiment, of course, but I don’t think that the debates under my proposed system need to be anything like discussions in pubs, or trials for that matter.

I’m suggesting that one of the main problems with the existing system – at least so far as debates in the House of Commons and in the media are concerned  – is that they are adversarial.  Also, there’s a ridiculous, in my view, obsession with ratings and how popular individuals are with the public.  There’s no obvious correlation between popularity and ability to take part in governing the country.  A politician who handed out £20 notes on street corners would be very popular – in fact Mobutu, when he was President of Zaire – used to do just this.  My friend Tom in Dar es Salaam once worked in what was Zaire and he tells me that Mobutu used to drive around in his limousine throwing bank notes out of the windows.  He was very popular but not entirely effective.

I think it would be possible to arrange debates in such a way that most people could understand what was being presented to them, what kinds of decisions could be taken and what the likely outcomes of these decisions might be.   If the focus was trying to understand problems, and then to get civil servants and others to proposed well reasoned solutions, debate could be constructive rather than destructive.  Of course, Parliamentary Committees already work like this to some extent, although they still seem to revel in tearing apart those who appear before them rather than engaging in intelligent discussion.

All a bit academic, obviously, as the current system doesn’t have built into it the means of achieving any significant change.

Andrew

Dear L,

I think the ‘who’ that gives the presentation is ‘people who know what they are talking about’ and the way they do it is via the internet.

I’ve followed the Wikipedia project for some years, and have contributed some material to it.  For a while it was very patchy, but many of the articles – in fact, all the articles I use – are excellent.  If you want to know what there is to know about democracy for example, there’s a (to my mind) very good article here, complete with a management summary.  Here are articles on fascism and communism.

I use web feeds – which provide a way of checking changes to a web page without having to visit it – to track a few articles that particularly interest me, and to which I refer other people, just to keep an eye on what changes are being made.  I monitor this article, and this one, for example, both of which I know a fair amount about and are certainly very good.  The whole encyclopedia is produced by people around the world with an interest in the various topic areas and ‘policed’ by moderators (often students) who can control edits.  Very occasionally, these days, I’ll edit something and I often get an email within 5 minutes or so to tell me that someone has edited my edit!

To my mind there’s no reason why something similar shouldn’t  be used to present material to my randomly selected MPs for consideration before they are presented with policy options (there would generally be three, I think: do nothing, do something radical, do something incremental).  Each wikipedia page is, incidentally, accompanied by a ‘discussion’ page (see the tabs at the top) on which contributors can discuss the information presented in the relevant article.  Here’s the one for the Wright brothers, for example.

Before voting, the MPs would have to take a test to work out whether they’d understood the analysis.  Anyone who failed would be given help to understand why and then asked to try again before voting.  I think there would probably have to be a rule which said that those who repeatedly failed the test would be fired, but hopefully the massive salary and expenses package would provide some motivation for them to try to do well!

So, I think I’ve answered that question.  Any more?!

Andrew

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