The Challenge Network

   back   menu   next   

Public governance in 2020.

Public governance in 2020.

Most of the industrial democracies operate against institutions that are modelled on solutions that are centuries old. Attitude surveys, foresight and analysis all tell us that such solutions may be inadequate to a changing world.

This paper offers three sets of thoughts. In the first section, there is an assessment of attitudes towards public governance, and an exploration of the social roots from which these grow. The second section assesses one specific issue, the route to policy formation, doing so in the light of what is known about the knowledge economy. The paper closes with a view of where this may take us. The complex, subsidiary world that seems implicit in the analysis will need radically different tools of co-ordination if it is to work. It is also significantly more demanding of the citizen, and issues of inclusiveness and representation are raised which will need to be resolved.

One cheer for democracy.

One cheer for democracy.

A vast industry has developed in the last fifty years, dedicated to measuring consumer attitudes to almost everything. It is striking that unprecedented gains in material welfare, in social support and in access to understanding has not much changed the content felt by the average citizen, either in the US or Europe. However, their approval of the public services in general – and of representative government in particular – has declined almost continually over this period.

Figure 1: The esteem in which democratic institutions have been held has suffered years of decline in most countries.

The proportion of US citizens who believe that their “government would always act for the best” has declined from around 80% after World War II to around 30% today. Motives are doubted, competence is questioned and the habit of deference has been lost.

The origins of this trend are chiefly to be found in social change, not in government itself. The staffing of virtually all Western governments has improved in quality, and the backdrop of understanding and information against which these individuals work has improved very greatly. The state has become more accessible, and this transparency has, for the most part, brought with it unprecedented levels of probity. Where this has not been the case – as in Japan, for example – public antipathy to the political classes is strong.

There have, of course, been many attempts to analyse the relevant elements of social change. What follows is an attempt at a synthesis, based on two underlying and largely separate considerations. The number and connectivity of the change agents has increased, leading to complexity; and the political structures which resolve these issues have reached the apparent limits to their evolutions. We take these two topics in order.

First, our societies have become extremely complex. One can suggest many sources of this complexity – such as the sheer scale of events as compared to a few decades ago, or access to information, but there are three particularly relevant issues on which it is appropriate to focus.

The driving forces which shape the first of these issues are probably self-evident. Education, information, affluence and the habits born of peace and security have made us selective, inclined to complain, aware of our options and likely to exercise these. The consequence of this has been both lessened tolerance for ineffectiveness and impatience with cloistered decision-taking.

A large majority of society expects to exercise its liberties where a small fraction of the community once exercised choice. The consequences of these many actors impinges on all of us. That the eccentric squire once played his trombone in the garden was necessarily tolerable to the village; but now we have a society of potential trombonists, and a flourishing market for ear plugs, regulation and litigation. The intrusion of the state is unavoidably increased by this, as is the scale of the task which it must handle. Managing the complexity which liberty generates – as opposed to handling directly operational issues and welfare – may now consume half of state expenditure, and thus a quarter of the average GNP.

As we have already noted, weakened social cohesion stems from two additional issues: changing values and weaker geographical communities. The twentieth century taught a hard lesson, that societies cannot be engineered structures, to be built in the manner of a bridge. Rather, they are self-assembling structures that reconstruct themselves constantly anew, doing so upon the foundations of shared tacit values, explicit rules, predictability and continuity.

The values around which our societies build their tacit transactions have, in the past two decades, become labile and shifting. We are not quite sure who “we” are any more. Technically, one could capture the attitudes of the average English person in four dimensions in 1945. If one knew a person's age, gender, social class at birth and educational attainment, one had a very tight objective grip upon their values. In the 1970s, people had become sufficiently complex that it was necessary to use over one hundred dimensions to attain the same predictive power. However, individuals remained largely true to a core set of values, although the complexity of these allowed much finer divisions to be drawn between individuals. A decade later, these fixed boundaries had been discarded. People tended no longer to hold one set of values, but rather a shifting constellation of views.

These labile values are dropped contextually into place, rather as one changes garments with the weather. The stern environmentalist becomes the rabid consumer, the tough boss and the caring parent in the space of a few minutes. We are unaware that we do this, and our cues to do it are read from the context in which we operate. This phenomenon is known as “unboxing”: we are no longer constrained to, or open to be appealed to as the denizens of a box which is defined for us by a particular set of values. Rather, we rove through a set of boxes. These may be self-invented, but are typically constructed by peer groups, by the media and by brand managers. What we believe and how we react will, within limits, depend on how the matter is presented to us. We are no longer reliable members of a ‘tribe’.

There is some coherence in the trajectories which we follow in or leaps between boxes. It is possible to define three meta-groups: the traditionalists, the consumerist-rationalist and aspirational-rationalist groups. (The last will tend to be highly represented in the readership of this text: analytical, experimental, concerned to understand and manipulate events as manifestations of systems, aware of the importance of systems and institutional structures.)

Complex value structures mean that there cannot be a universal route to closure. The state, more than any other entity, must deal with universal issues. This creates a significant problem of communication. It can be relatively hard to have a debate on what Britain, for example, wants to do with its green spaces, insofar as a chorus of prepared positions immediately fly up and drown out the nascent debate. These voices are less concerned with synthesis than with assertion, as songbirds map their territory in the hedgerow.

We noted that there were three issues associated with social complexity. The third of these is the breakdown of geography as the determinant of social cohesion. The monolithic, geographically-coherent community (such as the archetypic, if historically specious, rustic village) is being supplanted by transient, serial membership in many communities. Many people live in a place but barely interact with it. They may shop miles away, or at a variety of different but remote places. Many work far from their home. It is common for individuals even to use their office for one or two days a week, whilst operating still further afield. Other people who live in the same house – partners, offspring – may have quite distinct loops of association. Each way station on these loops will have differing characteristic norms of behaviour – boxes - and the unboxed individual is therefore confronted with an equally unboxed environment.

This is a flexible, effective way of operating for the capable, but it creates a world of relativism. There are no fixed points; awkward issues and unpleasant people or places can be circumvented. Solidarity is to be sought only when all of the parties to it will win from it. The old and the young, more embedded in place for reasons of physical mobility, retain something of the community, whilst the adults spread into diffuse anomie.

People brought up with the habit of reflection, and accustomed to such a social environment, can come to see the state as a part of the natural world, a backdrop in which roads are as natural as rainstorms, and in which state assistance flowers of its own accord. These benefits are to be harvested without comment, save when there is a flaw in delivery.

We tabled two issues at the beginning of this section. The first was the roots of social complexity. The second is concerned with the adequacy of our political systems. It is, therefore, time to turn from the nature of the society to the flaws in systems of governance. We have seen that there has been a general decline in the esteem in which the state is held. We have seen reasons why the population has become harder to communicate with, and why the state has become a peripheral thing in the eyes of most citizens, save when things go wrong. They care as little about it as the average person cares about the system by which goods are delivered to their supermarket.

The esteem in which governance is held is closely linked to trust: indeed, some might call the two identical. Trust is generally extended not to abstractions but to concrete things: to the local police, to the local health service. An overall atmosphere of trust is built from these many small successes, and vitiated disproportionately by more or less small point failures. Once again, it is media attention that can amplify faults, but ignore successes. Studies have been conducted across the OECD nations, and these confirm the view that social trust is extended to governance as a whole when there is already confidence in specific institutions, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Overall trust in governance and the trust extended to individual institutions and organisations.

Retaining the assent of the governed has much to do with the interfaces through which services are delivered. The police and the legal system, and the provision of welfare, health and education are said to be the most influential arms of the state in this regard.

This said, the relative scale of the influence of parliaments in this and other studies is surprising, given the prominence which their proceedings, personalities and scandals attain in the media. The political establishment has, at best, attracted circumscribed esteem. Assessments of why this should be so have also been undertaken.

Three common reasons have been advanced:

Let us consider the party political process. At its inception, a limited number of influential people could be divided into one or the other of two camps. It was easy to represent such people, for their views were clear. Further, the parliamentary and governmental process was relatively straightforward and non-technical. The view of one educated person was as good as that of another. Communications were slow and it was necessary to have a central place where choices were made, to which representatives were sent. The power of non-representative institutions, such monarchs, were still strong and highly centralised.

The move to universal franchise retained the party system because it offered a further grounds for polarisation, as between the rich and the aspirant. As we have seen, however, people are now too complex to be bundled into a single syndrome, and they are not representable as one of two or three major parties. However, electoral and routine decision-taking processes are typically majoritarian, and winning is all.

If a party cannot get elected on the basis of a coherent bundle of policies, then it must appeal to the electorate on the tenuous basis of brand alone. There are, however, limits to what can be done with brand. The average member of the public receives between 1,500 and 3000 advertising messages per week, of which they are said to retain two. Electorates are consummate consumers, able to read through a message into its subtext with great ease. They will discount the vacuous as the equivalent of junk mail, discarding the message and their esteem for the messenger.

Naturally, where there is a real concern – that market forces have gone to far, perhaps, or that vested interests have to be broken – then a brand-related message of reform will take a hold. It appears to be doing precisely that in Japan at the time of writing. Generally, however, the emphasis on brand brings forward a characteristic type of person who may be poorly suited or trained for office, and the party system encourages career politicians who have known no other task. Their focus is upon the machinery of winning, not the reasons to win.

Policy formation in the knowledge economy.

Policy formation in the knowledge economy.

In the order of half of all business output consists of patterns of knowledge, according to the OECD. In a further study, the growth in output in the business sector in the ten years after 1985 was typically almost entirely attributable to knowledge-related issues.

Figure 3: The growth in the knowledge economy accounts for almost all output growth in the business sector.

What is entailed in this? A century ago, an entrepreneur would have started a business virtually unassisted, and virtually without scrutiny, save from his investors. Today, she has to undertake a staggering amount of work in order to convince a wide range of stakeholders that the things needs to be done, that it is safe, that the staff are adequately provided for and the like.

In addition, however, the modern economy has become not unlike an enormous tool kit, Almost anything that needs to be done can be outsourced to an expert organisation. This stands in stark contrast with the manufacture of a century ago, when Ford needed to smelt his own steel and grow his own rubber trees. Today, therefore, there is an immense range of options open to a business which it may or may not choose to exercise. It needs to recognise what the ‘toolkit’ can do for it, and to know what it wants to do.

As a rider to this, the staff in a company - or a network of companies, or a physical cluster making up a value chain, or a network of specialists - each possess understanding that can be harnessed. For this to occur, however, an appropriate network of processes need to be running, and their products need to be collected, collated and used. People who work in effective isolation are unlikely to bring forward relevant ideas that have been integrated across a range of skills.

This situation has major consequences. Firms are far more permeable to external influence than hitherto. This is a result both of partnership and outsourcing but also in consequence of much enhanced outside scrutiny. This is also the case for government. Junior staff are being exposed to new influences in a way which is historically unprecedented. Innovative and adaptive ideas often derive through these contacts, and these need to be recognised by the decision-takers for what they are. So, too, in government. Choices and projects are often exercised in partnership, across boundaries of ownership and motivation. People need to learn to manage across risky, uncertain borders. Each group has a different perception of the relevance of these: the scientists who are involved may want a complete fusion of interests, for example, whilst the risk managers want none at all. These issues are increasingly poignant in government.

The policy issues that affect a nation will invariable raise issues for which there many relevant and informed minds. In some instances, the technical options are uncontroversial (although cryptic to non-specialists) whilst in others opinion may be cheap and real experience dear. Harnessing this insight presents major challenges, as it does to corporate governance. However, policy which is formed without the input of informed minds will be correct only by accident, and never as good as it could be. Political policy, coupled to an afterthought of multi-coloured consultation papers, does not answer well to the basic need for good thoughts, thoughtfully applied.

This need is for much more than “evidence based policy”, however fine an aspiration this limited approach may represent. When the question has been formulated, seeking relevant evidence is straightforward, if hard work. However, an increasing numbers of problems that begin with the phrase “How do we best think about…?” These are not susceptible to the immediate pursuit of dry “evidence”.

Further to this, and as we shall see in the next section, the combination of subsidiarity and the need to find novel ways to solve technical problems in fast-changing world will throw up many instances in which teams need to learn to talk together. These teams will have to find common frames of reference for their collective problems, doing so through intensive ‘discourse’. Policy must flow up, to some degree, laterally to a great degree and, far less than hitherto, downward. In general, we need processes by which to generate and to harness insight, enabled and steered by central government and by elected officials.

The shape of things to come?

The shape of things to come?

Consider the coalition of interests that is needed to retain political

coherence in the United States. The dendrogram which is shown in Figure 4 is based on objective data. The relatedness decreases linearly as connections loop to the left of the figure. That is, North Dakota is unlike its immediate group, but South Dakota fits quite closely with Minnesota and others in that group.

This chart suggests something of the complexity which is already innate in contemporary government. This complexity is tractable because the state has succeeded in ejecting much of the opinion and expertise of the region through “representative” government and a vast simplification of the issues. A similar figure, for the cities of the US, is not reproducible, due to its size and ant’s-nest complications. It is, however, actors at an even smaller scale that will be claiming a place at the table at which decisions are to be taken.

Figure 4: The innate relatedness of US states, and their potential subsidiary alliances.

It is extremely questionable whether – and for how long – the walls that have been constructed against this complexity can hold. A well-managed irrigation of the fields of government by direct opinion will result in renewal in the generation of policy options and of engagement with the public sector. Denial of the forces, or a poorly-handled re-engagement, may lead to a swamp in which action becomes laborious or altogether paralysed.

The two previous sections assert a series of points which points to the pins and springs of these changes:

It is helpful to look for candidate countries which have begun to solve these issues. Figure 5 combines data on social attitudes with administrative practice and measures of the policy balances that have been struck. As with the previous dendrogram, relatedness lessens to the left of the chart. The greatest gap is between the complex societies (top) and the industrialising sample (lower). Japan is anomalous within the industrial democracies.

Figure 5: A segmentation based on social values and actual policy.

The upper branch of mainly Scandinavian countries have developed a form of social and political coherence which is based on an inclusive rationalism. The lower group, segmented between the English-speaking world and mainly Catholic Europe, have not. The Anglophone group are heavily weighted to consumerism, the European block to a traditionalist-consumerist outlook. It is, however, clear that a wide range of combinations of approach have, in the past, worked equally well, at least as measured by economic performance. The key may well be the coherence with which a solution is worked through and managed, rather than any one social prescription.

The natural form to which this analysis points is, nonetheless, one in which hierarchies are replaced by networks, and in which prescriptions are replaced by processes. This will sound familiar, for it has been the pattern that has begun to play itself out in commerce. This said, commerce has yet to learn how to manage such systems well, and government, operating in a far more complex and typically adversarial environment will, no doubt, find this a difficult task to fulfil.

Governments are, of their nature, multilayered networks. The British parliament is, for example, in a layered structure with trans-national commitments (to Europe, to NATO, to the Commonwealth and so forth) and sub-national delegation, to a limited number of regional assemblies - perhaps eventually to become universal in their cover? - and to the several layers of local government.

However, there is a more profound form of subsidiarity in play. This is seldom much noted. It comprises delegation by function rather than by region. Virtually every nation within the developed world operates its public sector through a myriad of semi-independent agencies and regulators. These have expert oversight on very important topics, and are becoming far more “strategic”, or at least capable of producing technically fine strategy, that are their generalist masters. They exercise considerable executive power, and, as a result, most feel a growing need to justify themselves to stakeholders. Many are acquiring supervisory panels or boards, with power to at least admonish and advise.

This new force, functional subsidiarity, creates one side of a matrix. The other side is created by geographical decision-taking. However, both of these forms of segmentation are exposed to the intense forces of change that are generated as the world couples together. It is clear that such forces demand continual change form functional activities, with laggard red queens cut down by direct and indirect forces, themselves driven by the need to maintain competitiveness. It is equally inevitable that regions, towns and even clusters of activity within major towns will be forced to play to their strengths. This means adopting policy balances which fit local conditions. Both of these, taken together, imply that each cell in the matrix will undergo accelerating differentiation from the national norm. It is a seeming paradox that “globalisation” ultimately triggers local differentiation, and that this implies a need for much-intensified subsidiary government.

Subsidiary government that is undertaken without vertical harmonisation will result in muddle. The aim must be to find solutions which are nationally appropriate but locally differentiated. Ensuring that this is done will become a major activity as the process of differentiation develop. It will be necessary to create new structures – processes – to keep the resulting complexity tractable, to avoid exploitable anomalies or the oppression of local minority interests.

All of this presents a formidable task of organisation. Figure 6 suggests something of the basic flows that would be entailed.

Figure 6: Managing local differentiation through the functional – regional grid.

This figure is, of course, a parody of even the complexity which already exists. What is fails to display, in particular, is the wave of interaction that we can expect to develop through the “new” politics, of action around discrete issues, impacting on the grid rather than at the national level. It is almost certain that much more specialised pressure (and, in time, representation) will develop around the myriad of decision frames on the grid.

The circular arrows symbolise the three central requirements that have to be added to contemporary government if it is to meet the challenges of the knowledge economy. We have discussed the need to form policy around expert knowledge. Less has been said of the need to define processes and procedures, such the right people speak to each other, in the correct order, so that the network can function. Indeed, the integrity of the network, its resilience and adaptability depend entirely upon these processes. Third, the means by which the ‘local’ can be harmonised with national choice or priority has been mention, but nothing has been said as to how to achieve this. Indeed, this is probably the central issue of design.

Lines of command run down through this structure, with national government and its international commitments being the arbiters and enactors of global statute law. However, their role is properly based around enabling the rest of the system to function, rather than prescribing to it or attempting to direct it.

As we have already mentioned, practical political power may well flow down to this dispersed grid. Representation to these nodes of power will not be party-based, however, but probably coordinated around loose affiliations of interest, collaborations organised by, for example, NGOs or local concerns. The existing and new media – and in particular, interest networks that form around whatever it is that the internet will evolve to become – will be a crucial catalyst, vehicle and agora for this form of political influence.

Such structures will enable new cadres of activism, often from unlikely sources. Pressure for change can be expected to be offset or modulated by a cadre who have seen enough change and who wish to settle things into place. This group, perhaps elderly and certainly organised through IT, may well be local in expression and trans-national in interest. Indeed, the new collaborations will be sub-national and trans-national in scope.

There will be room for grand ideas and high policy. In the wealthy world, these will have to justify themselves to acutely critical audiences whose attention span is short and for whom relevance must be immediately apparent. It is in collaborations between the excluded in the industrial world and interests elsewhere – amongst the seven billion to our one, by 2020 – to which one must look to see the populist grand simplifications take root. It is worth noting that the world here described is a fine one for the articulate and the connected, but less adequate when seen from those who are les able to express themselves. Universal suffrage to a central parliament has this advantage: that it is in the interest of at least one block of politicians to be tribunis populi. Unless suitably designed, a loose association of expert bodies and local interests may create gaps that it is in the interests of no capable group to fill.

In brief, therefore: the next decades create immense complexity in the tasks of government, in the machinery of representation and option generation. People will become more complex in their expectations and in their connections. Economic integration will demand excellent, differentiated policy choices. The consequence is a vast and untidy task of co-ordination, and a considerable intensification of the drift to subsidiary government. Smaller and more inclusive nations seems further down the track than are the larger nations, or those which have relied on a combination of centralisation and market decision-taking as a solution to complexity. We shall need to create our future, or live with what evolves from contemporary muddle. Thought will need to be given as to how to engage all in society without simultaneously creating the very logjams that these institutions are developing to circumvent.

 to the top 

The Challenge Network supports the Trek Peru charity.