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Posts Tagged ‘democracy’

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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Power to the people?

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 30, 2008

See if you can find anything wrong with this idea.

Careful, now...

Careful now: no premature evaluation please.

I have, for some time, felt that the machinery of government in the UK isn’t in the best possible shape.  It isn’t ‘fit for purpose’, to use a phrase currently favoured by politicians.

Here’s my proposed and, I think you’ll agree, flawless solution.

First of all we, reader, start a new political party.  Let’s call it the Systems Party until we can think of something better.  We only make one promise in our manifesto: if we are elected we will abolish the current system of representative democracy and replace it with what I suggest we call the ‘It Could be You!’ system.  We’ll need to provide a short explanation of what we mean, obviously.  Something like this, perhaps:

“When you elect us, we will pass a law that does away with elections and replaces them with a means of selecting MPs that is much like the jury system that has served us so well for hundreds of years.  The MPs who have been elected by conventional means will – by law – have to stand down and new MPs will be selected randomly from the population.  They will be asked to serve for a year or two (we’ll fill in the fine details during our first – and last – debate as conventionally elected MPs).  Each MP selected under the new system will be paid, let’s say, £100,000 a year and will receive the same whopping expenses and pensions that our current MPs have so selflessly awarded themselves.  Just think: that new kitchen or plasma screen TV you’ve been wishing for could at last be a reality! And there’d be no problem if you wanted to employ your relatives as assistants!

Your job, if you have one, will be held open by law and the state will provide home-helps and child care for those who need them.  Plus you get a car, but you won’t really need it because most of the business of government (debates, voting, committees etc.) will be done online so that you can work from wherever you like.  During Parliamentary recesses you will, like existing MPs, have extensive opportunities for foreign travel on what we will call ‘study tours’ and ‘fact finding missions’ but which are, in fact, nice holidays. Vote SP! It Could Be You!”

I have discussed this idea in numerous pubs and haven’t found a single objection which can’t be rebutted very easily.  The most common difficulty people have is along the lines that ‘most people are pretty stupid and you wouldn’t want to put them in charge with anything”.  I profoundly disagree with that sentiment,  As I’ve mentioned a number of times here, we all have 100 billion neuron brains, give or take, and if some people have been convinced that they are stupid, a little CBT should fix that (“I am stupid” really is a toxic thought and needs to be replaced with “I am just as capable as anyone else if I put my mind to it”.)  Some of the cleverest people I’ve met have done very mundane jobs.  I think it’s because they get a lot of time to think and don’t have their minds cluttered with things like staff appraisals, going to meetings, attending management workshops or reading and receiving emails.  There’s also firm evidence that we can all be really good if we want.

My single biggest problem with the existing system, to be mildly serious for a moment, is that it’s destructive.  The whole basis of adversarial debate is premature evaluation.  Whatever the other party says is, by definition, worthless and its people are incompetent good-for-nothings who you wouldn’t trust to make a decent cup of tea.  If businesses were run like this they’d fall apart immediately.  Much of government should be about creating:  developing new ideas, working out how to solve problems, getting people excited about possibilities and persuading them to work together to achieve them.  The rest should be about enabling what’s in place tpp work as well as possible, rather than tinkering the whole time as politicians, partly due to my Law of Infinite Complexity, are inclined to do.

All political parties (see this, this and this) say that they are in favour of involving ordinary people in the business of government: giving them more say in and influence over the things that affect their wellbeing.  But our highly centralised system, which is still dominated by the Treasury, doesn’t allow real power (i.e. power over resource allocation) to be devolved away from the centre.

Of course there are countries which are run on lines which are not entirely dissimilar to this.  Sweden and Switzerland are examples, of course, in spite of the fact that they appear to have political parties.

During the course of the aforementioned in-pub discussions I’ve developed numerous glosses on the idea of the Systems Party: ways in which the system would be organised and structured to ensure that problems and policies were properly discussed and thought about.  And, once again, technology could really help here; see this, for example.

At the very least, people would vote for the SP because they’d think it would be worth a try: surely (in spite of Winston Churchill’s sentiments to the contrary) it couldn’t be any worse.  Plus they’d get a chance to win an excellent remuneration package and, as a free bonus, there would be no more interviews with politicians in the media.

I’m only thinking of introducing this in England, of course.  People in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would have to decide whether they wanted their own Systems Parties.  But, like most English people I know, I think that full independence has to be a good thing, particularly once we’ve worked out how to collaborate on issues like defence and transport.

I’m actually a bit busy right now, reader, so if you would like to have a go at setting this up I will give you my full backing.  I suggest the first step should be for you to hire a really popular and charismatic actor to be the party’s figurehead: an approach which has been shown to work well in the USA.  They’d only have to do the job until the new system is voted through, so it shouldn’t be too expensive.  I don’t  think we could go with Clint, fun though that might be, but Dawn French and/or David Tennant, perhaps? Or maybe Patrick Stuart reprising his Jean-Luc Picard..  Now, there was a real leader.

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