A few months ago – piqued by an article in the Guardian – I wrote, in a blog, some advice for the Prime Minister on how to tackle welfare reform, where I advocated a more incremental, experimental, collaborative, long-term (and so on) approach, than I think was contemplated. Mr Cameron has yet to comment; and, if I am honest, I have pretty much given up hope that he will. Busy bloke I guess. But, a long-time (and wise) friend of mine – Glyn Hughes – recently added a response, putting these words in to Mr Cameron’s mouth…
“But now imagine PM’s Questions if I admit that I don’t know what to do about welfare reform, and instead I am going to experiment and learn, and experiment again. In a finely balanced democracy we can’t afford to take such a rational approach, and I feel we have to take higher risks in order to demonstrate firm leadership and hopefully deliver visible change before the next election. How can you modify your approach to account for the realities of 21st century politics.”
For context behind what Glyn wrote you might want to read the original posting but here’s my response…
Ah! Mr Cameron. Here’s the important part. It’s not really you, or the Government, who needs to do the learning. Or least not the heavy lifting part. This is a job for society. Your job is to create the environment to let this happen. In your Big Society speech last July you said…
“We’ve got to get rid of the centralised bureaucracy that wastes money and undermines morale. And in its place we’ve got give professionals much more freedom, and open up public services to new providers like charities, social enterprises and private companies so we get more innovation, diversity and responsiveness to public need.”
Bureaucracy-busting is where I think you need to take the ‘higher risks’ you mention. You should move quickly to put in place open infrastructure, standards and services – which I like to call Open Platforms – to enable others in society to work on the big problems. Example – roads are open platforms. Government works out where they should go and gets them built: society creates, owns and drives the vehicles that use them. Works well. We need to take the same approach with infomation management, which is where I sense we can get a good lever on these problems. Do listen to Tim O’Reilly (he of O’Reilly Media) talking about ‘Government as a Platform‘ and the need to move away from, what he calls Vending-machine government.
Head-on, top-down solutions to complex societal problems, by and large, just don’t work. I really like the alternative approaches articulated in concepts of Wicked Problems. Wikipedia defines these problems as, “…difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.” These kind of problems need a more incremental, experimental, collaborative, long-term (and so on) approach.
There’s good news that there are plenty of sharp folks advocating this tack. Example: see the Institute for Government report on Government IT – System Error – which talks about Government providing IT platforms to enable agile change. Done right, this approach will bring down the cost of changing things; maybe even some before the next election.
As you said in August, “… unlike previous governments, will govern for the long term. That’s why we are prepared to take the difficult decisions necessary to equip Britain for long-term success.” But incremental approaches are not ‘jam tomorrow’, they should deliver benefit quickly and continuously; and this should give confidence that things are on the right track early. It doesn’t mean that things won’t be tough – witness the resistance to your Big Society ideas – but carry on.
Perhaps we are entering an era of Wicked Politicians who both genuinely understand how to tackle Wicked Problems and have the political skills (and perhaps luck) simultaneously to keep the electorate onside. Hope so.
Are more-incremental approaches politically difficult or just different? Is putting so much in the hands of society too risky? Do leave a comment.