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Posts Tagged ‘cognitive surplus’

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.

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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.

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Back and blogging again

Posted by Andrew Cooper on August 25, 2008

Well, Dorset was very pleasant indeed as you can see from the photo.  But I’m now back, recharged and blogging again.

View from the farmhouse in which we stayed in deepest Dorset.

View from the farmhouse in which we stayed in deepest Dorset.

While I was away I wrote (as in ‘with a pen, in a notebook’) a short review of Here Comes Everybody (see numerous previous posts) for Newbury Library’s newsletter, Bookworm.  Mrs Mindworks, who works at Newbury Library, suggested this.

I’ve set up another WordPress blog so that I can introduce readers of the newsletter to some of the social media that Shirky mentions, together with some of his reference sources.  You can find the blog via www.cognitivesurplus.net, if you’re interested in finding out more about the book.  I’ll be adding more material and links over the next couple of days.  Incidentally, the review won’t be published in the newsletter until at least next month.

More news re. developments on a number of projects I’m working on, including my retail experiment, will follow later this week.

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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.

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