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Posts Tagged ‘government’

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 »

Krugman on the meltdown

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 7, 2009

I’ve been very unfair to economists here, once or twice suggesting the fact that very few of them appeared to notice the looming Global Economic Meltdown reflected badly on their profession.

This, however, is an economist who is worth listening to.  I’ve felt for some time that adversarial party politics simply can’t cope with the depth of our current economic crisis.  Krugman feels the same way, I think.  For example:

‘Somehow, Washington has lost any sense of what’s at stake — of the reality that we may well be falling into an economic abyss, and that if we do, it will be very hard to get out again.

It’s hard to exaggerate how much economic trouble we’re in. The crisis began with housing, but the implosion of the Bush-era housing bubble has set economic dominoes falling not just in the United States, but around the world.’

Posted in economic meltdown, economists | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

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 »

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.

Posted in economists, gliding, government | 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 »

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.

Posted in democracy, government, Network of minds, politics | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »