First report – and first test – of the PBA

8 09 2010

We shall soon see who is more powerful in this country, the elected government or the civil service.

The Network for the Post-Bureaucratic Age today publishes its first detailed report on one way we can get better-for-less. This has been put together by some of the UK’s best thinkers on the subject, led by Liam Maxwell, IT specialist and Councillor at the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. It presents examples of where their approach has succeeded and a clear plan – a playbook – for implementation. But will government actually be able to put this into action, or will it be blocked?

The report – ‘Better for Less: How to make Government IT deliver savings’  (iBook here)- investigates the quagmire of government IT.

The British government currently spends somewhere between £16 billion and £23 billion on IT every year. The astonishing lack of clarity over expenditure is symptomatic of appalling failures in IT strategy, procurement, and process. This cannot be allowed to continue, especially during a time of spending cuts in frontline services. The annual cost dwarfs some government departments. It is three times the amount we spend on the army, more than the Department for Transport. Worse, it has been designed badly and, unfortunately this time, the process has been built to last. The problems come from ineffective procurement – much of which is waste.

Each year about the same amount of money is spent on the procurement process (the jumping through hoops to secure contracts) as is used to run the Foreign Office. Savings just in the procurement process – without even counting the savings from better IT –  could finance the entire Sure Start programme, they could fund 50% more school building. And even when the form-filling is done only 30% of projects work. Indeed government productivity has actually declined since IT was introduced. At a time when dynamic change is required –  to reduce cost and deliver better services – one of the principle barriers to that change has become government IT.

Liam and his co-authors are dedicated to bringing government into the information age, and have looked in detail about what should be done to deliver government IT more effectively, and at a much lower cost to taxpayers. The paper spells out exactly how government can deliver a better service for less money – a very different proposition to proposing mere ‘cuts’, where less money means poorer service.

The full report is available at, directly here and as an ibook here.

We would really appreciate any comments from anybody who reads the paper: one of the central tenets of the post-bureaucratic age is that knowledge and skills exist within informal networks, not just companies and departments. We recognise this and encourage anyone to comment below, regardless of their political affiliations.

Stephan Shakespeare

Note: Stephan Shakespeare chairs an informal network of people who are interested in the development of policy towards a ‘post-bureaucratic age’, and has written about what this means  here and here


Response to Matthew Taylor’s ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’

11 07 2010

Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the RSA since 2006, has written an essay entitled ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’, which presents the thinking behind the RSA’s new strapline. It invites us to ‘return to core principles of autonomy, universalism and humanism, restoring dimensions which have been lost and seeing new ways to fulfil these ideals.’

The essay contains a (great) number of well-presented mini-summaries of current thinking. We get Matt Ridley, Tsvetan Todorov, Jonathan Israel, David Halpern, David Willetts, Mark Lilla, Antonio Damasio, Anthony Giddens, Robert Kegan, Manuel Eisner, Paul Collier, Evgeny Morozov, Marc Hauser, Scott Atran and Mary Douglas. Essayist staples Jurgen Habermas and Michel Foucault unsurprisingly also get cameos.

The Strengths

Taylor’s section on ‘self-aware autonomy’ is the strongest in the article, nicely reflecting Kant’s 1784 view of the goal of the enlightenment: ‘Know thyself!’ . He cites recent research which suggests how the eighteenth-century model of human autonomy we have inherited is deficient, or at times simply wrong. He recognises that most of our behaviour is the result of our brain responding to the world around us, and it is easier to change things by changing contexts, rather than by trying wilfully override our brain’s activities. Taylor’s ‘championing of a more self-aware, socially embedded model of autonomy” makes a convincing case.

Furthermore, the three areas Taylor outlines which need development in order to close the ‘social aspiration gap’ (between where ‘we are going’ and ‘where we want to go’) make interesting reading. This encompasses engagement – recognising your own role in changing things; self-sufficiency and resourcefulness – managing your own life and taking the initiative to change things; and being pro-social – building social capital. Some readers may see a close parallel with some of the ideas the coalition government has developed as part of its Big Society agenda.

The Weaknesses

Taylor refers to ‘the Enlightenment project’ throughout the essay, although he himself recognises that there was not really a ‘project’ in any meaningful sense. He also displays the same desire to pull diverse, even divergent, themes and issues into a single narrative: ‘there is a general consensus on the key challenges facing national and global society’. Really? We all agree poverty and disease are bad, but other than that there does not appear to be anything approaching a genuine ‘general consensus’. Perhaps Taylor means ‘among the fellows of the RSA’; but even there I suspect he might struggle.

This leads us to the main problem with the essay, and indeed, the RSA’s new strapline. ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is a lovely piece of branding; it is not a good piece of thinking. In another blogpost on the topic, Taylor calls for ‘a return to core enlightenment values’, even though (and if he has read Israel he must know this) no such ‘core values’ ever existed.

The phrase ‘Twenty-first century enlightenment’ is symptomatic of Taylor’s desire to simplify and narrate a version of history to suit his ends, which undermines  the more astute pieces of analysis in the essay. For example, we have a rose-tinted version of the pre-industrial period as enjoying ‘shorter working hours, more festivals and parties, stronger community and family bonds’; ‘many Enlightenment thinkers’ believing that religion would decline in the face of scientific rationalism – this was not the case; and a confusing model of ’empathy stock’ which seems to argue at one point that ‘the stock of human empathy’ is ‘just as important’ as worldwide  education.

Taylor also distrusts ‘competition’ as a means of galvanising meaningful social change, and relies too heaving on top-down initiatives like ‘institutions of global governance’ to effect change in a post-bureaucratic world. The notion of being critical of established norms, and constantly revisiting the questions ‘where are we going, and why’ is exactly the kind of activity the RSA should be engaging in; creating grand, but flimsy, historical narratives to tie in with neat straplines is not.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )

Why Daily Opinion Polling Matters

2 06 2010

This piece first appeared here.

The modern world feels more connected than ever before: a single message can be conveyed thousands of miles to millions of people at minuscule cost. With all this information flowing around, how can we discover what people think? Are more regular surveys the answer?

Long-term trends and short-term fluctuations. Communication, social change, technological advancement, and economic development: these all happen much more quickly than the research world is accustomed to. It can take so long to discover what people think, they may well have changed their view by the time conclusions can be drawn, or the question may no longer apply in the same way.

  1. Daily polling can keep up with the fastest trends and will never go out-of-date. It may take six polls to track a change in opinion – if this only occurs over a six-month period, the change may have been and gone by the time traditional polls could have measured it. Daily polling will measure these longer term changes precisely, as well as collecting enough data to identify shorter term changes as they happen.

You are like your group. Constant communication might give us the potential to talk to anyone, but in reality we actually just talk more often to people who are like us and tend to hold views similar to our own. We know even less of what people think outside of our own group than we did before, as more intensive interaction within our groups reinforces our views further.

  1. Daily polling is nationally representative, so reflects the views of the entire nation; it acts as a mirror to the whole of society, rather than just the part to which you belong. This gives a sense of perspective and broader understanding of people who exist outside your immediate surroundings.

Opinion belongs to the people. Politicians and the media no longer holds the monopoly on the means of distribution of news, opinion, and data. Disintermediation is an irreversible trend.

  1. Daily polling takes this trend a stage further by reflecting the public’s opinion back to itself without any editorial direction or spin from media organisations, political parties, or interested businesses. This was clearly seen after the leaders’ debates as there was not time for the party spin doctors to influence the public’s perception of the debate before the winner was declared. Daily polling is a core part of interactive democracy.

Narrative. We understand the world through stories, and the current ‘glimpses’ that conventional polling and research provide incomplete and inconsistent evidence from which to create these stories. Social media provides unrepresentative data (opinions on twitter come from a specific sub-group within the UK population), and is focussed on specific topic areas (there are lots of people talking about celebrities online, far fewer about pensions).

  1. Daily polling provides a vast body of evidence from which we can construct credible and insightful public narratives, circumscribing the role of rumour, baseless prediction, and conjecture. We provide the raw data from which anyone can build a 3D picture of life as it is lived, and as it changes. We poll on a broad range of important topics, and provide a large volume of robust data

Precedent. Governmental approval ratings are a core part of public life in the United States. They provide a profound sense that the government is always accountable to the people (rather than just once every five years).

  1. The British Government is not yet used to this kind of scrutiny, which has been a contributing factor to the sense of disconnect between parliament and the public. As Rousseau put it: “The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during election of members of parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.” Our polling data could be used to change this.

Routine. Polls at the moment are treated with a mixture of suspicion and derision. They are sporadic, difficult to place in a appropriate context, and too thinly-spread to interpret as part of a broader narrative.

  1. Daily polls will become a part – but only a part – of the public discourse. Regularity will mean that we lose some of the poll hysteria from which we currently suffer. Daily polling’s unique strength as an identifier of both short-term fluctuations and long-term trends will become a predictable source of reliable information for the public debate. They will form part of the picture of public reality, embedded within other models.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )

Will a minority government be less bureaucratic than a majority?

10 05 2010

Every new government, even one which aims to make widespread cuts in the public sector, will expand some parts of the central bureaucracy. The apparatus of state is too well-oiled to avoid this. In a majority government, unchecked by constitutional practice or public opinion, this can occur at breakneck speed – as they UK saw after Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997.  Each minister, each department, and each senior civil servant, looks to expand in influence and power. Who begins a new chapter in government without a desire to do this? The motivations may not be sinister, but the lack of any meaningful opposition or check, means that the outcome is usually inefficient, centralising, and bureaucratic government.

The minority government cynic:

Minority governments require consensus. The parties do not hold the same priorities, so the only way that any party can achieve anything is to give another party something that it wants. Government business is conducted essentially as a stitch-up; you back our bill, and we will back yours. Threats to withdraw support from both sides are frequent and loud. The central bureaucracy creeps outwards, as both parties must give more to each other in order to get more in return;  a cycle of buy-offs ensues.

The minority government optimist:

The parties do not hold the same priorities. Each party acts as a check on the other’s expansion, so extensions of the central bureaucracy are vigorously resisted, and only those which are very popular or extremely important can gain traction. Political capital is defended by preventing the other party from furthering its aims, and from protecting the most significant of one’s own positions.

Will a minority government be a more post-bureaucratic government?

A minority government will have neither the constitutional ability nor moral standing to take unilateral decisions; a process of primary consultation will have to be embedded into the ongoing workings of the state bureaucracy. This invites a shift in power back to localism, to self-regulation, and to emerging post-bureaucratic governmental structures, for all but the most fundamental national issues –defence, taxation and spending, Europe. It will be substantially more difficult for a minority government to interfere from the centre, especially in issues which are not governed exclusively on a national level.

What should be done?

It is possible that the transparency agenda will be sidelined discreetly, as neither party will be keen to advertise their backroom deals. On the other hand, keep an eye out for overt displays of collaboration between the parties, especially if the issue in question is especially important to one of them. When it seems too good to be true – it probably is.

The Big Big Society Failure?

21 04 2010

Senior Tories have come out against David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ idea, and the Tories look out-of-touch with an electorate who is expressing its frustration by turning to the Liberal Democrats in droves.

The ‘Big Society’ is a fundamentally post-bureaucratic idea: ween people off their dependence on the inefficient, autocratic state, in favour of civic activism and social responsibility. However, the Tories have been way off on delivering the message. A staunch Tory friend, who has campaigned ardently for a smaller state and greater civic activism, gave me the following response to the Conservatives’ proposals:

“The Big Society is an atrocious idea – can someone get them to stop talking about it. Imagine what the young professionals are making of it. Life is complex enough without saying as well as struggling to earn money and bring up a family you have to coach badminton to some illegal immigrants in Ilford!”

What went so wrong that someone fundamentally in favour of the Tories idea (and a longtime party supporter) can become so outraged at how it has come across?

  • The stress on civic activism placed emphasis on what people would have to do, rather than the idea that they would be ‘granted back’ their freedom.  The ‘Big Society’ appeared to be, somewhat perversely, another burden imposed by the state.
  • The ‘Big Society’ undermined the Conservatives’ commitment to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’. This let Peter Mandelson portray the well-meaning Big Society idea as the ‘agenda for abandonment‘. The Conservatives failed – totally – to demonstrate how being anti-Big Government could also be pro-Compassionate Conservative.
  • The presentation of the  ‘Big Society’ agenda agitated a nagging feeling amongst those skeptical of Cameron himself. The synthesis of Thatcher’s famous comment on ‘Society’ and the Tories’ anti ‘Big Government’ drumbeat was a little bit too PR-savvy when it came from CallMeDave’s mouth.  It sounded too-clever-by-half, as well as being too progressive: in other words, too Dave. Perhaps David Willetts could have made it stick.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin )

The Conservative Manifesto – Reaction

14 04 2010

“So we will redistribute power from the central state to individuals, families and local communities. We will give public sector workers back their professional autonomy. They will be accountable to the people they serve and the results they achieve will be made transparent. If people don’t like the service they receive they will be able to choose better alternatives. In this way, we will create opportunities for people to take power and control over their lives. Our approach is absolutely in line with the spirit of the age: the post-bureaucratic age.”

Strong stuff. While light on details, the direction that the Tories intend to shift power is clear: from the central bureaucracy outwards. Exactly what this means depends on who you hear it from:

Party of a Thousand Voices

There are some powerful ideological themes or flavours running through the Conservative Manifesto. There is Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ , Blond’s ‘Red Toryism’, IDS’s ‘Social Justice’, Gove’s ‘Progressive Conservatism’, and Steve Hilton’s ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’. These themes overlap and interrelate – the right for public sector workers to mutualise their departments could be argued to encompass all five – but there are also numerous unresolved tensions between them.

It seems harsh to criticize the Conservatives for being ‘too ambitious’ when drawing from all these agendas, when each is meaningful and genuine in its own way, but all have been presented to the voters (at various times by the media and the party) as ‘The Tories One Big Idea’. An optimistic strategist might argue that this is perfect ‘dogwhistle politics’, whereby each message is heard and understood fully only by those for whom it was intended. A more realistic observer may just describe it as ‘confusing’.

There is probably only room in the electorate’s attention span for the Tories to stress one of these themes as the election draws closer. Which they choose may prove crucial.

Thoughts from our lunch with Clay Shirky

26 03 2010

Just back from a splendid nPBA lunch with Clay Shirky, hosted at the Taxpayers’ Alliance. A few highlights below.

Clay spoke about four aspects of the web: the personal (e.g. Lolcats); the communal (e.g. Yahoo Groups for cancer sufferers); the public (wikipedia, linux); and the civic (The Pink Chaddi Campaign against the Hindu Ram Sena).

He argued that the status of the first two groups, the personal and the communal, were least under threat. In these groups, the value is contained within the groups that use them, and it rarely permeates out. Public and civic value are much harder to achieve, especially when they attempt (as civic value does) to challenge and then to change well-established cultural norms.

What conditions need to exist to create public or civic value?

1. A platform which is appropriate to the audience and activity. Clay used the example of the crowdsourcing platform that The Guardian ‘assembled overnight’ to allow readers to trawl through the mass of MPs’ expenses data. The Guardian owns lots of technology structured to produce a national newspaper, but the platform needed a quick and easy way to comment, leaderboards of participation, and easy reporting.

2. Rhetorical norms. Internet stories which create civic or public value are framed as stories of interest and amusement – rather than treated as victories for civil rights or ‘serious’ issues. Clay argued that these stories are not ‘one-offs’, but part of meaningful change in the world.

3. Cultural norms. Clay claimed that he realised as a teenager that while it was ‘stupid’ to do anything productive in your free time, it was totally acceptable to watch TV  for an average of 20-30 hours per week. Free time is an important resource, and the cultural notion that is acceptable or even preferable to passively consume television as your main activity still stands as a blockade in the way of creating civic value.

A New Angle on Transparency and Open Data

Clay offered a couple of iconoclastic caveats about transparency in government. He cited the example of the ‘Sunshine Laws’ enacted after Nixon’s resignation. One of the unintended consequences of the laws was to cause the lobbying industry to mushroom. In the days of obscurity, politicians could take lobbyists’ money from all sides, and then claim that they had voted however they liked. When their votes were made a matter of public business, the lobbyists could check their ROI in an instant.

Another problem Clay identified was that of the use of open government data. He claimed that the technical problems of opening government datasets were easily surmountable, but that understanding and ‘creating stories’ out of the data was neither easy nor guaranteed. There is also the issue of scale in collaboration. Small-scale projects need as much collaboration as possible, whereas large projects often need ways to limit collaboration. The example used was of the ‘average’ wikipedia editor who only makes one edit, and does not want to become burdened by the system.

Recognizing Temporary Power

Clay also argued that the state will struggle to harness the utility of local collaborations, until it finds a means of recognizing that power has both a geographical and a temporal locality. Groups will come together to solve an issue, then disperse. The Coalition for a Passengers’ Bill of Rights in the US is a prime example.

These groups present some new challenges to government. First, they will not accept compromise in the manner that other stakeholders will. They exist to get a result, and their temporal status means that they cannot be placated by promises of future rewards and have little incentive to compromise.

The Role of Women

Clay proposed that involving women in both the design and implementation phases of projects is an important way of facilitating successful participation, both at a local community level and in large bureaucracies.

Ali Unwin (@aliunwin)